Eight things Chris Steele-Perkins can teach you about shooting long-term projects

A family originally from South Africa in their London kitchen. Photo by Chris Steele-Perkins.
A family originally from South Africa, photographed by Chris Steele-Perkins for The New Londoners, his project exploring life for families from all over the world who now live in London. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 30mm, 1/6 sec, f/10 and ISO1000. © Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos

Shooting a long-term personal project is one of the most rewarding things a photographer can do. Exploring a topic that you're passionate about, going through the process of shooting and selecting images and finally launching the completed body of work is both motivating and satisfying. The history of photography is full of great examples, from Joel Meyerowitz's Cape Light to Robert Frank's The Americans.

One photographer with a track record of creating long-term projects is Chris Steele-Perkins, a senior member of the Magnum Photos agency. His professional career as a photojournalist began in 1971, and he has covered news stories on wars and natural disasters. However, a significant proportion of his career has been focused on long-term projects, starting with his landmark study of the Teddy Boy subculture in the UK, published as The Teds in 1979.

He has now published 12 books on individual projects, including Fading Light: Portraits of Centenarians (2013); A Place in the Country (2015), which documented life on the 23,000-acre Holkham Estate on England's north Norfolk coast; and The New Londoners (2019), a series of more than 160 portraits of families from countries around the world who have made London their home.

Here Chris looks back over his experiences of creating personal projects during the last 40 years and passes on eight pieces of advice on how to tackle them, from inception to completion.

A centenarian is greeted enthusiastically in his local pub. Photo by Chris Steele-Perkins.
From Fading Light: Portraits of Centenarians. Photographed in a candid, slice-of-life style, this centenarian (far right) lives independently and still walks to his local pub. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 32mm, 1/15 sec, f/4 and ISO400. © Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos
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1. Be receptive to ideas

"Projects can start in different ways, and you've got to be open to that," Chris says. "Some ideas come out of the blue and others develop out of earlier work. For example, Fading Light was inspired by a newspaper story that included the statistic that there are over 10,000 people aged over 100 in the UK and that figure is rising. So I started photographing centenarians.

"A Place in the Country was inspired by a project I'd done on the great estates in the north east of England; I wanted to look at one particular estate in a deeper way. The New Londoners came out of a much smaller project on immigrant families from conflict zones that I did for the Victoria & Albert Museum.

"But for every idea that comes to fruition, there's a whole gang of them that seem great for a few days or weeks and then you think, 'Nah, not really.' You have to keep new ideas coming, or at least be open to them."

Three well-dressed men stride out across an immaculate lawn with neatly-trimmed topiary at each corner. Photo by Chris Steele-Perkins.
From Chris's 2015 project A Place In The Country. Out of the thousands of photos you might take over the course of a project, your final selection is likely to come down to the same criteria: the most revealing, the most striking, and the most entertaining, such as this witty composition showing visitors on the lawn during a break in an opera performance. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 35mm, 1/320 sec, f/10 and ISO320. © Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos

2. Keep an open mind

"Ideas for projects need to develop. What you start off with, in terms of an idea, really ought to be changed to something considerably different by the time you've finished, because you should be feeding back and re-examining the idea. Doing that often leaves you in a completely different place from where you started.

"So one important point is, don't be too rigid in pursuing an idea and thinking it has to go in a particular direction. I find students in particular have kind of got an idea, and an idea of how they're going to do it, which is fine, but they don't want to let go of it. Very often letting go of the original idea can give them a way forward in a project, while sticking to their guns just gets them going around in circles. You have to allow projects to grow and change as they go along."

3. Make sure you've got the kit you need

"You have to ensure you have the right kit for the environment in which you're shooting. For example, in my New Londoners project, shot in the families' homes, I knew from experience that I was going to be using wide-angle lenses in dark-ish spaces. Obviously I took some lighting as well.

"In terms of focal lengths, I probably didn't shoot more than 50mm. So for that project I used the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens, which gave me more than enough latitude in terms of space and volume that I needed. For most of my work, my main lens is the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM. It's sharp across the zoom range, sturdy, and has good Image Stabilization. It covers pretty much everything I want."

Three women in Queen Elizabeth II masks pose in front of a stately home. Photo by Chris Steele-Perkins.
The great estate featured in Chris's project A Place in the Country throws a party for staff and volunteers to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. This project was about digging beneath the costume-drama clichés and depicting the realities of life on a country estate over the course of an entire year. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 28mm, 1/400 sec, f/8 and ISO400. © Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos

4. Be your own toughest critic

"When other people show me their projects, I sometimes come across a picture that's a bit weaker than the rest. They say 'That's a filler picture', or 'That's a pausing picture'. And my general retort is: it's a boring picture, and calling it by any other name doesn't change that fact.

"So when you're tempted to use a picture you think is pretty boring but might just be usable, don't. Ultimately, if you're not that interested in a picture, why on earth is anyone else going to be interested in it?"

An extended family is reflected in various mirrors on the wall of their London home. Photo by Chris Steele-Perkins.
In his project The New Londoners, Chris made creative use of mirrors on a wall in this portrait of a London family originally from St Vincent and the Grenadines. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 38mm, 1/20 sec, f/9 and ISO1250. © Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos

5. Use a unifying device

"I often like to use a unifying device in a long-term project. With A Place in the Country, I used the four seasons as a guide to my thinking on what I wanted to include. Once I'd got that structure in mind, I wanted to build on it, and later went back to fill in any gaps. In another project, Tokyo Love Hello, I used photos from maybe 10 years' work but treated them as if it was one long day, moving in the sequence from night, through day and back into night.

"A unifying device like that is very useful, but it's more for yourself; I don't think you necessarily need to flag it up to the viewer. It's something you can use like a skeleton to put the thing together. In a way you don't want either yourself or the viewer to be too aware of the mechanics of it. If people react positively to it, then it's working."

A newborn infant tightly swaddled in subtly patterned cloth. Photograph by Lieve Blancquaert.

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6. Go the extra mile

"When you think a project is finished, it's not finished. There's always the extra mile to go. When I was doing A Place in the Country, I had set myself a year to do it, but at the end of that time I didn't have many pictures taken in winter that I really liked. So I spoke to the house's owner and said I still had to return a couple of times and do more, and he was happy with that. Even with a deadline, you can usually squeeze a bit more juice out of it.

"Eventually you'll get to a time when you feel you've got a substantial piece of work and you're not adding a lot by shooting new stuff. If you are aiming to publish the project in book form, that's the time to start making dummies up and getting a publisher involved."

7. Keep control of the project's presentation

"It's important when you approach a publisher that you have a clear idea of how you want it to look. I always have everything laid out in PDF form. I know which picture I want on the cover and the number of images I want to use. Otherwise publishers will impose their own ideas on the cover and content of the book. Either they go for it in the way that you want it, or you find means of making it go the way you want it. Otherwise you can lose control over the project and find you're doing something different to what you wanted to do.

"You need a publisher who likes the project and gets behind it, rather than saying they like the pictures and want to make a certain type of book out of it. Also, it's very useful to work with a good designer, as long as you're working together. Designers brought in by publishers often have very clear ideas about what they like, but it may not be what you like."

Two dogs share the cramped interior of a Land Rover with their flat-capped master. Photo by Chris Steele-Perkins.
From A Place In The Country. Chris used the widest focal length available on his lens to capture as much detail as possible in an enclosed space. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 24mm, 1/400 sec, f/6.3 and ISO400. © Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos

8. Explore the world through your project

"For me, there are two sides to a project: one is the photography and the other is the process of discovery itself. Photography's the key to the door that lets you into all sorts of places, whether that's country estates, the lives of Teddy Boys or residents of an old people's home.

"Making serious efforts to find out more about the world you live in seems a pretty good idea, and photography gives you a fantastic way of doing that. You've always got to find out more and go deeper. When I'm working on a project, I'm discovering things about the world we live in as I go along. Hopefully the person who comes to my exhibition or buys the book will go on the same journey."

Written by David Clark

Chris Steele-Perkins' kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

A picture of Chris Steele-Perkins.


Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Designed to perform in every situation, the beautifully engineered EOS 5D Mark IV is the successor to the EOS 5D Mark III Chris used most. "I use it because it keeps on going and does what I need," says Chris. "You can push the ISO a really useful distance without feeling you're sacrificing the quality."


Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

A professional-quality standard zoom that offers outstanding image quality and a fast f/2.8 aperture throughout its zoom range. "It gave me more than enough latitude in terms of space and volume that I needed," Chris says.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM

This lens is ideal for when you need to capture exceptional image quality, while travelling light. "It's sharp across the zoom range, sturdy, and has good Image Stabilization. It covers pretty much everything I want," says Chris.

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