I’m no stranger to trying daily photo projects. But I’m no stranger to quitting them either.

I suspect the reason we admire projects that take a photo a day for a year is because we know in our heart of hearts how incredibly hard it is to stick to the plan for a full year. I’ve tried — and failed — three times to start and complete a photo-a-day project. The truth is, each time I started one, it wasn’t long until I had devolved into taking iPhone photos of my morning coffee or evening dessert just to tick the to-do off my list. Not exactly the transformative creative project I was hoping to experience!

This year, I wanted to try again but to take an entirely different approach. Two things inspired me to launch another attempt: expanding my creativity in photography and strengthening my bond with my dog.

I'm a big believer that training is a great way to get a better connection with your dog and to exercise your dog's mind, which is just as important in wearing him out as exercising his body through a game of fetch or a romp in the park. So, I thought about ways I could incorporate my dog into this year-long photo project. I decided that my project would not only incorporate new ideas and techniques for photography but also work on new behaviors and improve on old tricks with my dog.

The struggle behind these year-long photo projects is maintaining enough inspiration to keep going, remembering to take the photos as scheduled, and processing and displaying the photos in some way so that they form a cohesive diary. All of that takes thought and work — extra thought and work above and beyond all the thinking and working you do every day. So what you get out of it needs to feel like more than what you put into it. When your goal is important enough, it's possible to find success. For me, pulling in the training and connection with my dog is as important as any of my goals as a photographer. It's a perfect match.

Here's the strategy I created to have a successful weekly project for myself, and how you can use the same approach to design a project for yourself that will be just as fulfilling.

dog in dresser

Getting started with this weekly photography project meant cleaning out the old strategies that didn't work and getting some new rules in order. All photos are on my website.

1. Know what you want to get out of the project before starting

Have a clear idea of why you’re doing the project in the first place. It doesn’t have to have some grand purpose, but take some time to think about what you want to get out of it. Do you want a year’s worth of visual diary entries? Do you want to stretch your photography skills? Do you want to see and photograph every sunrise in your effort to start the day in an inspiring and productive way? What’s your overarching goal of launching this project? Without having one that you can really hold on to, you’re setting yourself up for quitting by week three.

For my project, I wanted to stop taking the same images every day, and to start putting some forethought into my photography. As an animal photographer, it’s easy for me to fall into the rut of setting up my camera and letting the action unfold in front of me, passively capturing it as it happens. But that’s just taking photos, not making photos. I wanted to exercise the art of making photos. Planning an image and executing it each week would help me get into this habit. Another goal was to spend more training time with my dog every day. Training is the main way we bond and have fun together, and I wanted to carve out more time for this — so these two strategies became the legs of my big umbrella goal.

2. Give yourself guidelines that push your creative boundaries (without being too much work)

The next step is giving your project a shape. Is there a theme or two that you could follow in your work that helps you reach your goal? Something that you can keep in mind when planning out ideas? Maybe fashion photography is your bag, so something involving clothes, sewing, or textiles can be part of your theme. If you’re a nature photographer, perhaps there’s a thread of urban wildlife or backyard wildlife or wildlife spotted at the same hour of the day that you can follow.

For me, there is one constant in my daily life I can count on no matter what: my dog. He’s my ever-present BFF and usually my model anyway. So I used him as my common thing — every image for the project will revolve around him in some way. It might be that he's simply the model for a new technique or strategy I'm trying out, or it might be that the photo is all about teaching him something new to capture in a photograph.

dog with puzzle

Training new behaviors is all part of the process in this project. We spend time working together before and during the shoot, and always end on a high note with a reward of treats or a game of fetch.

3. Give yourself rules that discourage cheating (while being nice to yourself)

This is a big, big part of setting yourself up for success, and the secret is in recognizing and accepting how you usually function. Are you the type to fizzle out quickly? Maybe a photo-a-day is way too ambitious and it’s better to do a photo-a-week instead. Make sure you’re creating a project that won’t feel like a burden and instead feels like a bright spot in your day or week, something you can look forward to. Are you the type who does best with routine? Maybe set a rule that you’ll have your photo done by a certain hour of the day.

It’s also a good idea to set up rules about processing your images and displaying them so that you don’t have a pile of photographs that you’re dreading having to piece together into a collective whole. Think about how you want to show off your images and make the processing of them a step in completing your assignment. If it’s simply uploading the photo to Flickr and adding it to a gallery, great! If it’s creating a video, start putting the images in order to get them ready for creating the time-lapse. This will help you stay organized and not create a backlog of work later.

I knew this step was going to be what would give me a pass or fail at this project. Get the rules right, and I could actually pull this thing off. Knowing that I usually start a new project all excited and then burn out quickly, I decided that pacing myself would be a much smarter strategy. I also remembered that my lack of inspiration was a big reason why I failed my last attempts at a year-long photo project. So I came up with three simple rules that would keep me from sabotaging myself and also keep me pursuing my overarching goal of pursuing creative vision in my photography:

  • Take one photograph a week (a photograph, not a picture of something).
  • It has to be a preconceived idea that is executed (no random shots that get passed off for the assignment).
  • It has to be an idea or place I've never photographed before, or a technique I've never used.
I then planned out how I was going to display them and the schedule I’d follow in processing and posting the final photographs.

dog at sunrise

Thinking of new scenes is an opportunity to practice planning ahead, and rolling with whatever ends up happening during the shoot.

4. Make it a subject you’ll always have around

This is an important caveat when planning your guidelines and rules. If you travel a lot, it’s probably best not to have your theme be “daily photos looking out from my kitchen window” since your kitchen window won’t always be where you are. It can be literal access, or psychological access — if your theme is “sunrises from the hill by my house” and you aren’t really a morning person, then are you certain you’re going to have the gumption to get up before sunrise and walk up a hill every morning? Maybe that’s a reserve of willpower you won’t always be able to tap. Think about what is logically possible for your project and build around it.

In my project, my dog is mostly always around. But there are times when I’m traveling and don’t have him with me. This is one thing that made my once-a-week photo project more reasonable than a once-a-day photo project. I am rarely gone longer than a week, so I can still plan my shoots around traveling and be able to stick with my project, even if it means shooting some photos a few days apart rather than a full week apart.

dog drawing with markers

One great part of the project is having some behaviors built on as the weeks go by. My dog is learning how to draw with markers in week 10. That means in upcoming weeks, we can move on to photos that involve painting.

5. Plan ahead so you aren’t stuck without an idea when you need to shoot

Running out of inspiration is a silent and speedy killer of these kinds of photo projects. Without inspiration there is little motivation to stick with them. But the antidote is planning, whether you're doing daily or weekly photos, have a list of ideas ready that you can dip into when you need inspiration. This can be in the form of a page in a notepad or a Pinterest board dedicated to inspiring ideas or whatever else works best for you. But keep something around that you can continually jot down ideas and reference when you need some help.

When I started my 52-week project, I bought a little notebook to keep with me so I could write down lists of ideas and sketch out scenes when they came to me. On top of that, I scheduled out at least four or five weeks ahead on my calendar for what I'm planning to shoot. This way I can think about the shoot in the days leading up to it and gather whatever props I need, or work on whatever training my dog needs to be able to pull off the idea. This way, if I'm not ready for that particular idea (or I'm trying to shoot it and it isn't working) I have plenty of other ideas to fall back on. Having my shots scheduled out on my calendar where I can glance at them a week or two in advance has made all the difference. Now the day can't sneak up on me, and I can't throw together something I'm not excited about just to check that week's photo off the to-do list.

dog on log

Some weeks are all about technique rather than tricks. For week 5, I worked on a technique new to me for stitching multiple images for a unique effect.

6. Make it public

Perhaps the single best way to keep something going is to make it public. This way, people are following along and are expecting something from you. It provides a certain amount of pressure or work ethic that you might not otherwise have to keep you on target. It's so much easier to talk yourself out of keeping up with your project when you're the only one who knows about it. But when there are other people to watch the progress or to ask you, "Hey, how's that photography project going?" then there's a much bigger chance you'll stick to it. It also provides extra incentive to do your best with each photo, since you probably want to make (and keep) a good impression.

Making it public can be as simple as just emailing your daily or weekly photos to certain friends or family, creating an album on social media from Facebook to Flickr where you can add images, starting up a blog or a Tumblr that you'll update consistently, or any other form you might dream up.

When I created my weekly project, I decided to create a project page on my website. I added in an introduction, and a way for people to easily jump to the latest week's image or scroll through the images chronologically. Each week features both a couple of images as well as text outlining what went into the shot.

What I love most about the idea of making the project public is that with each photograph I think not only of what I'm getting out of the image, but what I hope other people will get out of it as well. It almost gives the project a bigger sense of purpose. Whether people follow along for the photos, for discovering photography tricks or tips as I post them, for learning training techniques for dogs, or whatever the reason, I feel like I can give a little tiny something special to folks following along each week. The project becomes something not just for me, but for all of us.

dog on blocks

Ideas build on themselves and during some shoots, I think of new ideas for upcoming shoots. Having a notepad around to jot down ideas as they hit is a great way to create a resource to draw from when you're feeling uninspired.

I’m on week 11 of my project and have already noticed a few slippery moments when my customized guidelines rescued the whole thing from sliding into the Pit of Unloved and Abandoned Half-Attempts. But because I set this project up knowing full well what does and doesn’t work for me, I have still managed to pull off each week’s photo on time (or almost on time) and have learned from it. I'm aware that some of the weeks won't pan out like I thought they would, or that some of them won't feel as creative as I’d hoped. But being aware of that — and ready for it — will go a long way in making this project a success!

Related posts on MNN:

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

Rescue dog is the star of this 52-week photo project
If you're interested in starting a photo-a-day (or a photo-a-week) project, there are a few steps to take to make it a success.