Part 3 of theonlinephotographer’s Little Game threw me for a bit of a loop. “You should not only concentrate on your Top Five categories, but also actively avoid the other twenty.” What?

Really, this makes complete sense to me, and my first impulse was to go back and re-order my categories. After all, there are things in the list that I want to do more of, as I expect they’ll lead me somewhere. And some of the things in my top five (family snaps, for example) while wildly important, aren’t something I want to make a project out of: I just want to document my family. For five things to focus on near-exclusively, I wouldn’t put family snaps in there, especially since my darling, adorable wife now tires of being photographed, and my family isn’t really together all that often. Does this make me a heel? I don’t know. Probably.

So I went back and started looking.

Almost immediately, I recognized some patterns… Let me back up for a minute.

Some years ago, I wrote down a list of inspirations and ways of shooting. It sits on my desk and I look at it from time to time.

  • Hiromix: self-portraits, quick/snapshoty, not always in focus, good color, but often near-monochrome & a bit underexposed
  • Eggleston: color, subject sensibility
  • Gruyaert: composition
  • Graham: story/sequencing
  • Foote: color, composition, blur
  • Shore: American Surfaces-type openness
  • Fox Solomon: text, dramatic/comedic wit
  • Hido: nostalgia, aesthetic focus, images in relation to one another
  • Soth: flow
  • Some banality: landscape-type wide shots with details, need to walk around more, move around more, spend more time, GET OUT OF THE CAR.
  • Some flash, gratuitous: try to get the single-use camera flash aesthetic in somewhere

Looking at that list now, I recognize some/many of the categories I came up with in step 1 and ordered in step 2. Almost every category falls into an easy grouping: Places I Remember (even if I don’t), Streetscapes in Older Towns, The Back of Things, all deal with nostalgia; Out the Window/Through Dirty Windows, Foreground Blur/Framing, Through Grids, Reflections, Transparency all deal with layers, obscuring/defining the subject; Rain/Mist/Fog, Driving, Clouds/Skyscapes, Landscapes, all deal with the environment.

So instead of defining the top 5 categories and focusing on those, I’ve defined 3 super-categories:

  • Being – Hana/Friends/Family, Strangers doing Things, Selfies, Domesticated Animals
  • Environment – Rain/Mist/Fog, Driving, Clouds/Skyscapes, Landscapes, Sunlit Interiors
  • Nostalgia – Places I Remember (even if I don’t), Streetscapes in Older Towns, Empty/Quiet Spaces, the Back of Things

These are the things I tend to shoot, really. The rest of my initial categories are more techniques for capturing these things: Foreground Blur/Framing; Out the Window/Dirty Windows; Through Grids; Reflections; Transparency; Close-Ups; Low Contrast (color); High Contrast (black & white); Defocused & Abstraction; processing Errors & including Negative sprocket holes, tears; and etc.

If I look at my one (still unfinished) project, it’s about nostalgia and the built environment, memory and loss. I shot it with the Holga lens (for the blur) and on Superia X-Tra 400 (for the color). And if I look at the rest of my archive, virtually everything falls into one of these three “Super-Categories.”

To be honest, though, these are still far too broad (both subject and technique-wise), but with some further looking, thinking, and refining, I expect a few things to pop into focus, and this has (and continues to be) a fun little game.

If you didn’t make it into the game in its initial round, go ahead and try it: look at your archive, define your top 25 categories, rank those categories in order of importance, and then focus all your effort on the top 5 exclusively. It may be hard, and you may cheat some (as I have), but I think it’s worth the effort. It’s helped me see that my random-seeming, opportunistic shooting is much more unified than I initially thought, and with some focusing in on certain techniques and subjects, I expect to improve some in the coming years.

Thanks, Mike!

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