Deciding What to Photograph: Keeping an Idea List

Pretty essential question, right? Nothing you do with lighting, shutter speed, lens choice, etc., will nave nearly so much impact on your photos as deciding what to shoot.

Right out of college I landed in the excellent Patuxent Publishing Co. photo department, which was run by a guy named Tenney Mason. One of his many mandates was to ensure each of us maintained an idea list, which was a 50,000-foot view of what we wanted to explore with our camera.

Nearly 25 years later, I am still doing it. Here is my current list as a window into how I develop subjects. I hope it encourages you to start and develop your own.

My idea list is all in the context of working within my community. In this case my community being the rural/suburban Howard County, MD. It sits between Washington and Baltimore (the suburban parts) and reaches west (the agricultural/rural parts.)

This is the exact same area I was dropped into right out of college, and I love that continuity. I once did an enterprise story finding and photographing all of the 100(+) year-olds in the county, which was written by a reporter who I would later marry. That's continuity.

There is a deep satisfaction and efficiency to knowing what it is that you want to photograph, and why. Here's my current iteration of The List.


I am strongly attracted to people who are truly dedicated to what they do, regardless of the area in which that dedication is expressed. This has long been my most effective filter for subject matter, and I love that my camera allows me an excuse to meet so many cool people who are dedicated to their work/craft/art. This is a macro filter that has led me into many specific subject matters and niches.


I love food. I eat it every single day. Howard County has exploded with a much more diverse food scene within the last few years, mostly as a result of the broad spectrum of ethic groups and immigrants who have chosen to live here.

Local blogs such as HowChow have popped up to report on food in HoCo. I am always looking to add a visual voice to that scene. Food is probably the most immediate and tangible benefit of a culturally diverse population. In HoCo we encourage and nurture that diversity, so food is a logical and visual inroad for me to take as a photographer to contribute to that. I have an ongoing project to photograph great international food and the people who bring it to Howard County.

Cultural Diversity

Taking a step up from food, what are the other ways in which the international population in HoCo is expressing itself? For me, studying this with my camera is an immediate and low-cost substitute for one of my true loves, international travel.

Some of these subjects require a little detective work to ferret out, and that's fine. But you should also be looking to find gathering points and bottlenecks for your subjects. As I start to explore this area in HoCo more, I hope soon to work with FIRN, our county's focal point for all things international. If you get off of the boat and land in HoCo from a foreign shore, this is likely your first stop. As such, they have probably every single contact I could need.

Idea: What would it take to do a series of close-up portraits of immigrants to HoCo from as many different countries as I could find, and to couple that with a short brief on who each individual is and what they are contributing to the county?

These people range from landscape workers to highly technical people—quite literally, rocket scientists. A portrait series could distill them out, with the text vignettes showing the range of the contribution.

Maybe this is an idea for an exhibition. Maybe this could be coupled with an exhibition on international food in the county, further leveraging each to the other.

Also, and getting back to the suburban/rural dichotomy of the county, there are always going to be intersections and frictions between those to groups of people. And interesting subjects as well.

This kind of free association and cross pollination is what best points me to projects that exist at the crossroads of multiple interests.

Specific Cultural Groups

So we moved hierarchically up from food to diversity. Let's move back down into a cultural subset. Working with FIRN could point me into specific local communities. One that I find very interesting is that of Dar Al-Taqwa. It is a large mosque in HoCo—the first purposely built mosque in the county.

My visits to the UAE for Gulf Photo Plus has shown me the vast gulf between the reality of the Islamic community and the way in which they are frequently portrayed in the US mass media. What better way to approach that gap than at a community level?

Also, photos from Dar Al-Taqwa could make a great starting point for other series from different religious communities in the county. We have Christians of all flavors (even interfaith centers) a wide spectrum of Judaism, Quakers, culturally specific churches (African American; Korean churches, etc.).

Seems like a good idea for an exhibit, with the aim being to cross-expose different cultural communities within the county. This kind of serendipity is why I try to keep multiple projects in my head at a time.


See also, dedication, above. My most gratifying project over the last few years has been the ongoing partnership with the Howard County Arts Council, for whom I have been shooting portraits of the Rising Stars finalists. I enjoy working with artists and creatives, but on a macro level it is more about the dedication of the people I shoot. Arts is just the particular vehicle.

There is something about photographing dedicated people that is both attracting and contagious to me. I have already re-upped with HCAC for 2013.

Tech and Business

I love reading WIRED and Fast Company. I love visiting Silicon Valley and San Francisco. Similarly, I am always looking to photograph people and interesting things in the tech/biz sphere locally. In the same way that FIRN is a gateway for the international community in HoCo, there are gateways to the tech/biz communities as well.

The local Business Monthly newspaper has precious little budget for photos, but still I work with them to shoot their Maryland Entrepreneur Quarterly covers. They are a gateway into the types of people and technology I want to photograph.

Similarly, I have just begun a project with the local Economic Development Authority as they embark on a website redesign. They are to biz/tech as FIRN is to the international community. And I look forward to seeing where that goes.

Sense of Place

What are the most interesting landscapes, places, architecture, etc. in HoCo? Can they be photographed in different and more interesting ways than already exists? What is the best time of year to shoot them? Time of day? Weather?

I keep a list of places I want to shoot, and re-shoot. I try to keep a camera with me when I walk. These subjects are static and need patience, (or luck) proper light / time of day / weather to do well.

As for access, one of the things I do is to work with local government (example) to build contacts for access to places that otherwise might be difficult.

Is it gaming the system? Maybe. But mostly, it is win/win.

So there's mine. It's the current iteration of a list that goes back nearly 25 years, and it is always changing.

What is on the list is not what important. It's having the list—your roadmap as a photographer—that is important.

I hope seeing mine prompts you to begin one of your own.


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OpenID lechphoto said...

This is one of your most insightful posts. I can't agree more that ideas are fleeting. Grab them quickly when that moment happens and put them in a place where they can develop. A good idea often takes time to marinate and develop. I often find myself writing little notes here and there, and most recently I've been emailing them to myself (yep, geeky) so they don't get lost. I'd love to think of how to create a cool idea database/bank with keywords so one can fish out ideas relating to "x" or "y".

Thanks for all the volunteer/community photography you do. You're the bomb.

July 12, 2012 10:35 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Thanks, man. And if it makes you feel any better, I probably email myself five ideas a day from my iPhone while out walking. It's my most productive time, and the email/idea thing means I never lose the ideas...

July 12, 2012 10:43 AM  
Blogger Justin Morgan said...

Thanks for the great idea! I can't believe how many of your ideas match the things that I'm interested in... I promise though, I'm not out to copy your list, not all of it. I don't live in Howard County!

July 12, 2012 11:25 AM  
Blogger David Teran said...

Have you considered Evernote? My favorite system to record almost anything.

July 12, 2012 11:32 AM  
Blogger David Teran said...

Have you considered using Evernote? My favorite app/program to record almost anything.

July 12, 2012 11:32 AM  
Blogger Mike Holtby said...

Hey thanks for the app suggestion of Evernote. I wouldn't have known about it otherwise, and I like what its capable of. It has the potential to enhance David's (and my own) brainstorming ideas.

July 12, 2012 1:35 PM  
Blogger MikeStogPhotography.Com said...

I use Evernote to list ideas and examples. Works really well.

July 12, 2012 1:53 PM  
Blogger Richard Mallory Allnutt said...

Thanks very much David! This post has helped me greatly. I have been struggling for some time trying to decide what sort of photographer I am. I have so many diverse interests in the field, and I'm finding that it's diluting my efforts. I will start writing my list down this very afternoon, as I feel it will help me hone down to what's important for both my art, and my work. Cheers! Richard

July 12, 2012 2:26 PM  
Blogger Richard Mallory Allnutt said...

Thanks very much David! This post has helped me greatly. I have been struggling for some time trying to decide what sort of photographer I am. I have so many diverse interests in the field, and I'm finding that it's diluting my efforts. I will start writing my list down this very afternoon, as I feel it will help me hone down to what's important for both my art, and my work. Cheers! Richard

July 12, 2012 2:27 PM  
Blogger noblog said...

I love that continuity [...] That's continuity [...]

[some stuff that could end up being on a decent picture]

it is always changing.

What is on the list is not what important.

So I should always think of something to photograph?
Hey, guess what I bought that camera for?

I'm disappointed by this blog post as it boils down to:
"hey guys, take this black box thingy you got; with the round window, point it at something interesting and hit the big button!"
or even just:
also the above quoted text does not make too much sense; it's actually contradictory.

I think it overcomplicates photography.

July 12, 2012 5:21 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Actually, it boils down to putting in the time to think before you press the button. Which for me works much, much better than spray and pray.

July 12, 2012 5:45 PM  
Blogger Mike Holtby said...

I agree with David in that following a theme that you've established first in your mind may create the best collection of photos, i.e. a photo essay. My latest creative endeavor has been pairing studio shots of my tchotkes & souvenirs from travels with a photo from the experience:

You can't do a project like this with a "spray and pray" approach.

July 12, 2012 6:13 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Noblog misses the point, I think. For me, somewhere between "taking pictures" and "creating images" is where ongoing inspiration is needed. Some of us can manage just shooting what presents itself as we come across it. That's valid. It can even be rewarding.

But for many, if not most of us, the creative process demands more -- more thought, more perspiration, more love of the journey.

For me it means keeping some formal lists of ideas, of shots to do, of processes to perfect, and a sketchbook. I'm pretty visual, but lean more toward pencil and paper over Photoshop for roughing out ideas -- it's faster and more direct, and somehow more mentally permanent and stimulating. It may take years before the sketch comes to fruition, if ever; it's just part of the cycle of seeking inspiration-keeping, like emailing notes and links to myself.

And now I've added another set of clues to growth -- finding resonances in my community to record and support. Thank you.

July 12, 2012 6:48 PM  
Blogger Dave Cearley said...

I wish I could settle on one system.
I email myself every tip I find, then sort them into folders.
I post the most compelling information in One Note. I keep an artist notebook as a scrapbook of magazine ideas, and I have a Moleskine hardcover notebook with a set of colored pencils to flesh out specific shot plans grouped by themes. I have evernote, but it's somuch easier to just email myself. Facebook and Twitter show up under the share button on my android, can I add evernote as a message destination option?

July 12, 2012 8:20 PM  
Blogger Dave Cearley said...

Loaded evernote to my HTC android, and evernote shows up as an option when I click to share a web page. Maybe it's better than emailing myself. At least all my saves are in a separate file instead of in my email. Thanks for the tip.

July 12, 2012 8:38 PM  
Blogger Wayne Miller said...

David, thanks for this. I have read every update to your blog since discovering a year ago, and am constantly recommending it to other amateurs (and a few) professionals I come across since working in HoCo.

This post was a perfect example to me of the emotional side to pursuing personal projects. I already have the notebook, but just could not seem to get out of my rut - this helps.


July 12, 2012 10:45 PM  
Blogger Valerie Close Evans said...

This is something that I think gets overlooked, and it can be hard, both when you're starting out and if you're established, to know where to focus. I tried to shoot commercially for a few years, doing events, portraits, weddings etc, but I'm not really interested in shooting people, and ultimately it showed. I closed up, went to work in a science environment that I find endlessly interesting, and now shoot with a science and environment theme which I am passionate about and which gives me pleasure. I don't make a living from it just now, but I have access to things, people and places that enable me to build a library of unique images which will form the basis of a stock collection in the future. Having a list is very important, and it can help define direction and give you a long term plan.

July 13, 2012 4:51 AM  
Blogger Eric Duminil said...

Hello David.

Once again : very insightful post, blahblah, standard strobist awesome quality!

What kind of camera do you bring with you while walking?
Canon G, DSLR, iPhone?

July 13, 2012 4:55 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Thanks for the kind words, blahblah. I usually carry a Fuji X100, which is a real chip in a wonderfully small and (for me) intuitive body.

July 13, 2012 10:49 AM  
Blogger Stephen Voss said...

While I love these broad ideas, your post immediately thought of this Chris Buck interview, and his specific and wonderful list of photo ideas that starts: "Moby: with a fat whore, broken glass, bubbles, pulling an actual prank, in the trunk of a car, hotel lobby with his pants down, not exciting."

July 13, 2012 3:02 PM  
Blogger J. Michael Thurman said...

I'll add another voice in favor of Evernote or Springpad. I like that I can tag my notes, making them searchable.

With respect to the topic at hand, developing self-assignments that matter has been my biggest challenge. Thanks for your perspective on it, and for everything else on this blog.

I've only lived in my current town for three years, but it's already easy to overlook the stories that are right under my nose.


July 16, 2012 12:41 AM  
Blogger Kathryn Nelson said...

Thanks for the tip about making a list of subjects to photograph. I am not that organized really but in photography, ideas don't magically come to me too. I figured I would have a more productive time with my camera if I already know what subjects I would like to capture.

I am excited about trying this photography technique. I'm quite confident that it would work for me as it has worked for many other photographers.

July 16, 2012 5:35 AM  
Blogger benbates said...

This was such a help for me. I am new to photography, so I easily get wrapped up in the logistics of it all: what gear to buy, how to light, how to shoot something, etc. Which are all important, but this really tackles the biggest issue I've been facing and that's what to shoot. I was leaning towards automobile photography b/c I think there's an open market for that in my area, but I'm finding that I really don't love cars. To really depict the beauty of a subject in a photograph I think you must first find that thing beautiful in real life. Making this list is first on my to do list now. Thanks and great post again.

July 17, 2012 10:26 AM  
Blogger Ryan said...

"I hope seeing mine prompts you to begin one of your own."

Done! Thanks for the inspiration, and as always, the kick in the butt to get out and shoot.

July 17, 2012 2:57 PM  
Blogger WalidSaladin said...

Well done, David! I find this post truly inspirational as I've been thinking a lot lately about where I'd like to take my art. I'm still young in the world of photography and will definitely be making my list and checking it twice. ;)

July 18, 2012 5:21 PM  
Blogger WalidSaladin said...

Thank you, David, for this post. I'm relatively new to photography and have been thinking lately of where to go with the art. This post has inspired me. Thank you.

July 18, 2012 5:25 PM  
Blogger brian bankton said...

making a list is a great thing! executing it is even greater! takes dedication for sure...

July 20, 2012 9:34 AM  
Blogger Bill Booz said...

David, great post! Thanks. I retired a little over a year ago and did decide to continue teaching photo classes in my local community (Lynchburg, VA) (added a flash class,in fact, because of your Lighting 102 series!), but I have been struggling with establishing a "schedule" for myself, tough after 44 years of a fairly consistent routine. It is slowly evolving and your post resonated with me, especially, because I was headd this way - i.e., doing something with my photography skills to help the community - and your "Idea List" suggestion gave me some concrete ness to hang onto and to work with. Thanks again, David!

July 20, 2012 9:54 PM  
Blogger Joel Locaylocay said...

Thank you for writing and sharing such a comprehensive and insightful post, David. I keep a little notebook with me as much I can to record these ideas as I go through the day. However, the more I shoot, the more I realize that it's simply not possible to shoot everything that is of interest to me. I have since learned to pass all my ideas through the fine sieve of the question --- Am I truly passionate about this subject? After reading this post, I have come to realize as well that I should give that passion a direction, so I can sustain it in the years to come. Thank you once again.

July 28, 2012 7:20 PM  
Blogger gleeenn said...

So insightful and a good reminder that a lot can, and must, happen before even clicking the shutter button.

Thanks for the post, David.

July 30, 2012 10:59 PM  
Blogger Mizz Maze said...

Great post, David. I am coming back to it today because I am just starting a new project. Did you ever post about planning the look and feel of a project? Given location X, who/what/how to photograph it so that it presents as a cohesive series? Would love to read what you have to say about that.

October 07, 2012 10:51 AM  

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