Do you want to grow your professional client base and social media following this year? Are you looking to polish your photography skills and techniques? Maybe you’re simply looking for something fresh to inspire you?
Personal assignments are a great way to fine-tune your skills, practice new techniques and show prospective clients your personal interests and style. Making compelling photos on your own time can help you stand out. It can also help force you out of the creative rut we all get into from time to time while working to pay the bills.
Here are five personal assignments you can challenge yourself with this year:
1. Document an event. Photograph an experience, from preparation to teardown. It can be a sporting or music event or a public festival. Of course, you want to showcase the main attraction, but also pay attention to the vignettes that take place because of the event. One example: If you like music, consider heading to Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest (SXSW) . Photograph the artists performing and the thousands of fans dancing and sweating on each other. Since the festival lasts nine days, you’ll have plenty of time to find vignettes. Who are the local food rock stars? Where are the artists living for the week? What’s the festival’s waste management? Who is the oldest fan in the crowd? The list goes on.
2. Travel to a new location. Take a break from your normal work routine and spend a few days on vacation. You don’t have to go far. Just visit a small town, a state park, or take a ride down a scenic highway (Route 66 or Highway 1) that you have never experienced before. Document the food you eat and the people you meet. Take a look at National Geographic Traveler  for inspiration. Do plenty of research on your destination before your trip. Have a game plan by making a list of what you want to see and at what time you want to see it. Once you arrive, engage with the locals and ask what are the best local places to see and activities to do (the pub’s bartender or a waitress at a small diner are both great sources for this information). Adjust your itinerary to compromise their ideas with yours. Experience and repeat.
3. Photograph a different subject matter. Sometimes, the best way to grow is to take a break. If you usually make portraits, then photograph landscapes. The concepts central to making compelling portraits and landscapes are similar, but the creativity and mental tools used are different. Whatever you decide to shoot, be sure it’s something new and have some fun with it. Want to be inspired? Take a look at world and humanitarian photographer David duChemin’s recent Antartica series .
4. A portrait series. Portraits are awesome. Shooting a series of portraits is even better. Nothing allows you to walk into a town, event or situation and meet more people than a portrait series. Keep the portraits simple, similar and honest. Take a look at Faces of Ground Zero: A Tribute to America’s Heroes  by Joe McNally and Female Bodybuilders  by Martin Schoeller for inspiration and ideas.
5. Uncover a unique story. A photo story is probably the most rewarding type of project in the profession. Nothing beats finding a great story, gaining trust and sub-sequent access with the subjects, photographing the scenario as you experience it and providing the subjects with a public voice. Whether your goal is to generate awareness of a situation, highlight a local hero or to show a unique perspective to a common scene, be sure to photograph your subjects honestly, accurately, and compassionately. The Bite That Heals  by Mattias Klum is an interesting scientific study, Heroin in Denver  by Joe Amon is breathtaking, and Crowded House  by Stan Olszewski (hey, that’s me!) is a surprising situation that can be happening in a neighborhood near you.
Which of these personal assignments sounds most appealing to you? Do you think you can photograph all five this year? I’d love to hear your ideas or talk about your questions in the comments area below.