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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