6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

Meet six wildly diverse photographers whose passion projects stirred our souls – and learn how YOU can develop your own passion project. (It won’t cost you a dime!) (Header image: MARSHALL ARTS PHOTOGRAPHY)


The following six photographers aren’t “big names” or “rockstars” of the photo community. They’re real working photographers who embody wildly different styles and represent a range of genres. They’re also cut from the same motivation mold: each of them has conceived and pursued a unique passion project that we’re excited to share with you here!


What Passion Projects Are… and Aren’t

We don’t call them perfection projects or purpose projects. No – they’re passion projects, precisely because of the intense feeling that drives us to start them, develop them, and complete them.

#1: When Is A Passion Project DONE?

A passion project can have a clear beginning and end. It may also last indefinitely. You may reach the end of your long, beautiful life, still contributing to your passion project.

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#2: What Makes A Passion Project Successful?

Passion projects may attract the attention of others, or they may please only you. A successful passion project is one that meets the standards you set for yourself, achieves the goals you established, and scratches the itch you felt tickling your creative soul.

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#3: What If I Think Someone’s Passion Project Is Dumb?

Remember: the passion projects you are about to see aren’t for you. They’re for the artists who put in the time, the learning, the creativity, and the passion. You may love what you see, and feel inspired. Or you may feel nothing at all. That is not the point. What matters is that you connect with the drive these photographers tapped into to make something for themselves.

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Make Art With Your Whole Heart

Be inspired to create for the sake of creating. Allow yourself to express whatever-it-is you want to express, without concern for a client’s requests or your portfolio’s needs.

These aren’t styled shoots. They’re passion projects. And what matters most is your own desire and drive.


Passion Project #1: Painted Walls

Holly Smith, HOLLY BIRCH PHOTOGRAPHY – Chicago, Illinois

The inspiration for Holly’s passion project came from the brightly-painted walls she drove past in her central Illinois town. “These would make beautiful backdrops,” she would think as she whizzed past, only to find that the walls had been painted over or the buildings torn down months later.

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

She finally decided to stop admiring and start shooting. In early 2017, she put out a model call and selected two couples to participate in a series of photographs featuring her favorite painted walls.

“I envisioned my Instagram feed with a rainbow grid starting with purple in the bottom right and finishing up with a red wall on the top left of the 9 squares!” – HOLLY SMITH

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

ShootProof: What challenges did you encounter when creating this series?

HOLLY: First, the walls were scattered all throughout our town and facing all different directions, so I had to plan the sessions by both the most logical place on the map, and the best light. The second big challenge was in the post-processing. I had to deal with quite a bit of color-casting on the subjects. It was noticeably worse on the orange and yellow walls! I also wanted to increase the saturation and black slider for the walls themselves, but not on the subjects. To accomplish this, I used the adjustment brushes in Lightroom quite a bit.

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

ShootProof: What advice would you give someone who wants to develop a similar passion project?

HOLLY: Do a lot of scouting and planning in advance! Use Google Maps to select the quickest routes, and plan with enough time before the sun sets.

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

The Takeaway: Just Do It!

Don’t let painted walls pass you by. When inspiration strikes, act on it! Most passion projects don’t requires large sums of money or excessive amounts of time. They simply require action.


Passion Project #2: Coming Home

Shanna Sokolosky, PMR PHOTOGRAPHY – Monterey, California

In 2014, Shanna’s husband began a two-year overseas deployment with the United States Army. While serving, he missed his oldest daughter’s second birthday, the first six months of his newborn daughter’s life, a wedding anniversary, and countless milestones.

Shanna and her husband were thrilled when, after two years away, his homecoming was seamless. Their daughters adapted quickly and showered their father with love. Shanna’s only regret was that she hadn’t documented the experience. Since then, she has taken it upon herself to photograph her husband’s homecomings – large and small.

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

“We are so proud of my husband’s service, and we really miss him when he is gone, whether he’s down the road or halfway across the world. Starting at 4:45pm, we begin looking out the door for him. As soon as the girls see him, they take off down the sidewalk toward him! And every time, he stops to pick them up or play with them – despite being in his uniform or dress blues. He probably just wants to come inside and take his boots off, and instead he spends that time loving on them outside our door, or taking them across the street to the field to play.” – SHANNA SOKOLOSKY

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

ShootProof: What challenges have you encountered while creating this series?

SHANNA: Since this project is ongoing, it has been a challenge to make the series “match”. With different lighting situations, I want the images to have the same feeling on sunny days as on overcast days. I try to keep the editing as consistent as possible.

ShootProof: What have you learned from pursuing this passion project?

SHANNA: I want this series to document the natural interactions between my children and their father; I just want to be a silent observer (with a camera of course) of these sweet moments as he comes home from work. I’ve learned, however, that natural and organic does not mean unplanned. I don’t have to go all Leroy Jenkins (for all the gamers out there) into these moments, without a good game plan. Having an idea of the beginning and ending shots you want helps tell your story. Take the time to really map out what it is you’re hoping to do with the project.

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

ShootProof: What advice would you give someone who wants to develop a similar passion project?

SHANNA: Shoot until you get the shot you want, and be patient. Keep picking up your camera until you get that beginning shot that starts your story, fill in the middle, and then shoot until you get that beautiful ending you were hoping for. There were some days that the images just did not work, so I just put the camera down to try and tackle it another day. Ongoing projects also give you something to look forward to when you get in a creative rut and just need an outlet that is solely about your vision.

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

The Takeaway: If You Want It Done Right, Do It Yourself

Sometimes the best person for a job you deeply care about is YOU. Don’t look back in regret on photos you wish had been taken and moments you wish someone had captured. Pull out your camera and and be the keeper of your own story!


Passion Project #3: The Photographer & The Dancer

Kylie Bonfonte & Robb McCormick, DESIGN STUDIO CREATIVE – Columbus, Ohio

When passion and purpose merge, incredible things happen! Married couple Kylie Bonfonte and Robb McCormick discovered this when they combined their passions to introduce a new business model to their community.

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

Kylie is a classically trained ballet dancer who, after acquiring her BFA in Dance and dancing professionally throughout the world, now teaches ballet and pointe. Robb is an award-winning photographer with clients ranging from corporate contracts to private events and everything in between.

“With Robb’s lighting and photography expertise, and my skill at movement and posing coaching, we knew we could create stellar images. Together, we offer our local dance community a fresh, modern take on recital, stage, and studio photography.” – KYLIE BONFONTE

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

ShootProof: What challenges did you encounter while creating this series?

KYLIE: The biggest challenge was on my end – posing and directing the dancers. I have danced professionally and taught for 10 years, but learning what looks good in-motion and what looks good in still images proved to be a challenge. Finding poses for the dancers that flattered their faces and bodies took some trial and error. Capturing jumps or difficult balances is all about timing between me, the dancer, and Robb. We finally found a rhythm of counting everyone in, and now we get the images on the first or second try!

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

ShootProof: What have you learned from pursuing this passion project?

KYLIE: Instead of strobes with a sync speed of 1/250th” or flashes in high-speed sync mode, we learned that constant lights are the way to go. Capturing the motion of these dancers can be tricky when you’re trying to get the perfect moment and your flashes are too slow not recycling fast enough. Using constant lights, we can burst shoot using our Canon 1DX MkII at 18 frames per second and get the perfect shot every time.

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

ShootProof: What advice would you give someone who wants to develop a similar passion project?

KYLIE: If someone wants to capture any… let’s call it “athletic art”… I recommend that they become highly educated in what they are photographing, have a camera with high frames-per-second, and fast lenses. As far as being educated in something like dance, ice skating, or gymnastics, these athletes combine strength with grace, and every moment is about the lines their bodies make. It takes a trained eye to really understand why something looks good on a particular dancer and how to tweak that line or movement to flatter the next person. So knowledge of the human form, education about the art form, and the proper equipment are the key elements someone needs. Choose a passion project you know deeply!


Passion Project #4: Cemeteries of New Orleans

Donny Tidmore, DONNY TIDMORE PHOTOGRAPHY – Austin, Texas

“Before I was a wedding photographer, before I’d ever taken a single (real) portrait, I spent hours and hours wandering around cemeteries with all sorts of different cameras. I first photographed statues, then headstones, and I learned how to read light, and composition, and how to bring all of that together. The cemetery really is where I taught myself to be a photographer.” – DONNY TIDMORE

“I recently read the memoir of photojournalist Lynsey Addario, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. In the book, she discusses her start as a photographer: ‘I was too shy to turn my camera on people, so I photographed flowers, cemeteries, people-less landscapes.’

“It struck me how accurate that was to my learning as well. That so much of it was my shyness to approach strangers (or anyone really) to photograph. That I was simply avoiding people altogether. Fast forward several years, and I spend 95% of my time taking photos of people, and I love it. But every now and then I need to take the time to get away from it. To wander. To remember how it all started, and shoot for only me.” – DONNY TIDMORE

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

ShootProof: What challenges did you encounter while creating this series?

DONNY: Photographing cemeteries, in general, requires flexibility from a photography perspective. Just because you see something that you love, doesn’t mean that it’s in good light or that you can get the best perspective. In ways that is a challenge, but at the same time, I love that about shooting in cemeteries. It forces you to look at things from different perspectives and to get creative with composition.

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

ShootProof: What have you learned from pursuing this passion project?

DONNY: Now that I spend most of my time shooting for paying clients, it’s so nice to take a step back, remember where it all started, and shoot for only myself from time to time. Most of the time I never show these photos to anyone, and I’m totally fine with that. It isn’t necessarily about the final product, the way that it is with clients, but about the act of remembering how I fell in love with photography in the first place.

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

ShootProof: What advice would you give someone who wants to develop a similar passion project?

DONNY: Just do it! Take photos that are important to YOU! Take photos of people and places that you love, and don’t put strict expectations on yourself regarding the final product. Enjoy the act of creating and remember to be grateful that you’re able to do THIS with your life!

The Takeaway: It’s the Process, Not the Product

If you find yourself stressing out about what you’re creating, maybe it’s time to take a breath and remember why you’re creating. The pursuit of clients and paychecks can fool us into thinking every images we make needs to be commercially viable. But with passion projects, all that matters is what moves you.


Passion Project #5: The Rusty, The Dirty, The Forgotten

Chris Nieto, NIETO PHOTOGRAPHY – Raleigh, North Carolina

Chris Nieto regularly photographs beautiful brides with impeccable styling; so for this series he wanted to focus less on the white dress, and more on scenery and styling that would contrast sharply with bridal tradition. He enlisted the help of talented hair and makeup artists, and scouted locations full of texture and grit.

“I had done other creative bridal portraits, but they were always traditional in the sense of ‘traditional wedding hair and makeup.’ For these bridal sessions, I wanted to capture the other side of makeup artistry and hair styling.” – CHRIS NIETO

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

ShootProof: What challenges did you encounter while creating this series?

CHRIS: There were two main challenges during the shooting of this series. One was finding the unique locations for each shoot. It took a lot of phone calls, emails, and driving to find each place.

The second challenge was more on the creative side. I was allowed in some of the locations for multiple hours, but in other locations we would have only 30-45 minutes to shoot. Most of the makeup and hair would take at least than an hour to finish, and the locations were not ideal for prep work. We would do the styling at the artist’s studio, the model’s home, out on sidewalks, or in very small bathrooms. Once the artist was done, the models would have to drive anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to the shoot location, and then we would be pressed for time getting the shoot done quickly. For each set, I tried to have the portraits planned out in advance. There were several times the weather worked against us as well: cold, rain, or high winds.

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

ShootProof: What have you learned from pursuing this passion project?

CHRIS: I learned that letting the artists have fun with the designs really created the best results. Originally, I had a few inspiration images, but eventually I tried to leave it up to the artist to do with the model as they desired. One shot that came from improvising is the Rose/Eye image. We had a bouquet of dying flowers, and the makeup artist – on a whim – started placing them around the model’s eye. The final images came out flawlessly!

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

ShootProof: What advice would you give someone who wants to develop a similar passion project?

CHRIS: Have a detailed plan for your shoots. When collaborating, make sure its not a one-way street. Let the other artists show off their creativity, too!

The Takeaway: The More Passion, the Merrier!

When working on a passion project that requires collaboration, don’t be a control freak. Invite your collaborator’s passions to blossom as well! When all the creatives involved in a project are at their best, the results will be even more powerful.

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera


Passion Project #6: Body Love

Christal Marshall, MARSHALL ARTS PHOTOGRAPHY – Chesapeake, Virginia

A paying client gig resulted in BIG publicity when Christal Marshall photographed a local plus-size model-turned-empowerment-blogger! The photos were so well-received, three online publications distributed them, and another media outlet asked Christal to create a new series – this one featuring women of every shape, size, and color!

“I love seeing women blossom between the beginning of the session and the end. They begin saying, ‘Only photograph this side of me,’ or ‘Can you Photoshop my neck?’ And by the end, they’re laughing, smiling, having fun, and unconcerned with ‘perfection!’ We now have a group of 100 ladies on Facebook who encourage each other, inspire each other, and do workshops and photo shoots together!” – CHRISTAL MARSHALL

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

ShootProof: What challenges has this passion project presented to you?

CHRISTAL: The challenge I’ve encountered since offering women’s empowerment sessions is getting paid. I have a scholarship program that provides a half-hour photo session for $50, but I only offer a limited quantity of scholarships each month. You would be surprised by how many women have booked me, then cancelled their session because they don’t want to pay even $50. Many individuals and organizations want me to work for free. Women’s empowerment sessions are empowering, but I also need to pay the bills!

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

ShootProof: What have you learned from pursuing this passion project?

CHRISTAL: I’ve learned that beauty comes in every shape and size, and that being ‘skinny’ is not a true measure of health, and being ‘overweight’ is not a true measure of unhealth. I’ve also learned that ALL women – no matter how beautiful we perceive them to be – have physical attributes they are self-conscious about.

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera

ShootProof: What advice would you give someone who wants to develop a similar passion project?

For those who want to offer women’s empowerment photography – it’s a great way to connect with other amazing women who have amazing stories! However, be aware that it may not necessarily be a reliable means of income.

The Takeaway: It’s OK To Keep Your Day Job

It’s trendy to believe that the things we’re the most passionate about will also be financially lucrative. But that isn’t always the case – and that’s okay! Don’t let a lack of income deter you from investing into causes that matter to you. Draw healthy boundaries, and balance your time between the money-making work you need to do, and the soul-sustaining work you want to do.

6 Real Passion Projects That Will Make You Pick Up Your Camera


What’s YOUR passion?

Tell us or SHOW us what inspires you in the comments below!


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