To improve as a photographer, sometimes, it pays to stop worrying about what others are doing, and, instead, focus on what you do best.
Having written for this outlet for several years now, I’ve come to know a few things to be true. One, people love talking about gear. Two, I hate talking about gear. Not because I hate gear. But because the underlying implication of most discussions of gear seems to suggest that the gear itself is the driving force behind someone’s artistic success. Not just that having a shorter flash duration will help you better freeze action, for example. But rather an ill-held belief that, if you don’t have that particular feature, that you cannot possibly compete as an artist.
If you’ve ever spent more than five minutes in my presence, I will have no doubt gone off on some unsolicited tangent about cinema. I am that guy. The guy who lives his life at 24 frames a second and works Citizen Kane into every discussion, whether relevant or not. In particular, I love classic films. To me, this usually means film from the late 1930s, 40s, and 50s. I don’t bring that up to start a debate on the relative quality of filmmaking between then and now. But the thing that constantly amazes me about classic film is how relevant a movie can still feel almost 100 years after it was made. Good is good. And quality isn’t determined by date of production.
Nor is quality determined by the tools used during the production. Technology in the 1930s was hardly what it is today. Every citizen didn’t have an extremely powerful 4K device in their pockets at all times. No one even knew what autofocus was. And, if you said the word bluetooth, the listener would likely be imaging a fairly serious dental condition. Yet great art was made. Art that is still great in 2022. So, clearly, it wasn’t the technology that made the films great. It was the storytelling.
The further you advance in your career, the harder you will find it to differentiate yourself. When you are first learning, photography is about the craft. You are learning your alphabet, so to speak. You are learning the techniques to take your art above just a snapshot to something approaching a professional level. And for certain segments of the market, this is more than adequate to meet client expectations. Many photographers never progress past this level and still go on to have sustainable careers.
But if your ambition is to raise up the ranks to get bigger and bigger jobs and notoriety, simply knowing the basic Xs and Os of the exposure triangle will only get you so far. At a certain point, you need to discover the art along with the craft. You need to dig deep to figure out what it is that sets your work apart from anyone else with enough money to buy a camera and enough time to master the basics.
This phase of your career is far more difficult to navigate. Unlike basic exposure techniques, which have been well established since the craft of photography was discovered, finding your own personal voice is something that has to come from you. Sure, you can get other people’s opinions. You can listen to others talk about why they find their own work important. But only you can determine what gives your own voice its unique tenor. And while that may sound simple. After all, you take the pictures. You would think you would also always know the thinking and feeling behind each of them. It’s not always as easy as it seems.
Sure, you like a certain kind of photography, but why do you like it? Yes, you are drawn to lighting subjects that way, but why? What are you trying to say with your work? And why is what you have to say more valuable to potential clients than what anyone else is saying with their own work? No matter who you are, it’s a pretty safe bet that there are a million and one other photographers in the world that can match your grasp of technique. It’s even a fair bet that they can also access the same gear you have at your disposal. But what they can’t match is your life experience. They can mimic you. But they can’t be you. So, the first thing you have to do when developing your artistic style is to ask a basic question. Who am I?
Where Do I Even Start?
The best way to start defining your artistic voice is to take the art out of the equation altogether. As a human being, what interests you? Not just what do you want to photograph. But on a cellular level, what type of things, people, and activities draw your attention? My own particular niche in the activewear fashion market wasn’t based solely on a love for that type of photography. Rather, it was because, separate from my art, I’m a fitness fanatic. I simply love to workout (even as my aging knees might feel otherwise). Fitness is the world I would be a part of regardless of whether or not I was a photographer. So, being able to do my actual work as a photographer and director in a segment of life that I enjoy being a part of anyway means that I’m more often than not finding myself in a world that I want to be in. As they say, doing what you love for a living means you’ll never have to work a day in your life. Figuring out what interests you beyond art, then looking for ways to combine those two disparate elements can help you find meaning in your work beyond simply whether or not you’ve produced a pretty picture.
Delving Into the Numbers
Our minds can play tricks on us. As smart as we might think ourselves to be, our minds can always find a way to be smarter. We think we have things figured out. But, in the background, our minds might simply have convinced us of one path in order to protect us from following another, riskier path that might ultimately be more beneficial. Part of our brain’s job is to protect us. Even from ourselves. But protecting ourselves isn’t always the right course of action when developing as an artist. We have to trust our instinct. But sometimes it helps to, as one former politician said when discussing an adversary, “trust, but verify.”
Luckily, if you have been shooting for any amount of time, you should have more than enough data to go by. Sure you think you like shooting a certain way, or using certain lenses or settings. But is that actually true? What might you find if you had a hard look at the actual evidence?
I make a habit of going over my portfolio to see if I can spot any trends. In the moment, it’s easy to get swept up in whether I like a specific image that I’ve just taken. But, after the honeymoon period wears off, I often find that the new image, while good on its own, doesn’t quite fit into the overall narrative of my portfolio. Over years and years of portfolio edits, it has become clearer and clearer what type of images I’m drawn to. Which images stick in my portfolio for years and never want to come out. Which images that I’ve shot turn out to be those images that I love, but no one else seems to. The lack of response might suggest that the image isn’t as good as I think it is. But my gut insistence that it be included might suggest that there is something about that image that says something about who I want to be as an artist.
A few years ago, I sat down with an art producer to show her my work. She asked me which of all the 30 or so images in my book did I feel was most reflective of what I wanted to shoot. At the time, I had one particular series of images I’d created for a personal project that featured at the end of my portfolio. I absolutely loved one of the images, despite the fact that it never seemed to be the image that reviewers would want to talk about. There was no question that this particular image was my true answer to the reviewer’s question. But, since neither she nor most reviewers seemed equally drawn to it, I instead opted to identify another safer image to continue our discussion. After some time, I took that series of images out of the portfolio. It wasn’t getting the response I wanted. So, hard as it was, I stopped showing it.
Fast-forward to about five years later, and my artistic voice and style had continued to develop. I’d improved my craft. But, I’d also made leaps and bounds worth of improvement in honing in on my artistic voice. I’d gotten much more specific about what I found to be good photography and was less afraid of sticking to those artistic principles. As a result, I found my overall portfolio improving and improving (at least in my own opinion). I also found more and more of the clients I’d always wanted to finally be reaching out to me to bid on jobs.
But another funny thing happened as well. That series of images which I loved, but had taken out of my portfolio years earlier, was suddenly back in. The images themselves were still the same. But, what I had discovered was that the type of image I was creating and the look and feel I’d accomplished with that series years earlier was actually a better reflection of me as an artist then than other shots in my book at the time. They didn’t play well with my portfolio five years ago because I hadn’t yet understood the bigger picture of what I was trying to create with my work. Once the rest of my work caught up in terms of style and approach, that series suddenly was no longer a stylistic outlier. Now, that series is perfectly at home with the other images in my book. In other words, I knew what I wanted all along. I just didn’t yet have the courage to listen to myself and go even deeper into that style. Five years later, as I’ve developed as an artist, that earlier series is just as true a reflection of my artistic voice as work I created last week. The artistic voice was there all along. I just hadn’t been listening to it.
When you think back on your own work, what are the constant themes that keep creeping back up on you? I was listening to a speaker the other day, and she made a great point. She said that trying to ignore what you really want in life, usually out of fear that you won’t be able to get it, is a fool’s errand. Those things that really light our fire are fundamental to who we are. And trying to ignore those gut desires will only lead to unhappiness and failure because, at your core, you will always be fighting against the urge to realize that deeper ambition. You might opt for another artistic choice which you view as more practical. But there will always be a voice, perhaps in your subconscious, that will block ultimate happiness because it knows what it is that you really want. Even if you’re too afraid to say it out loud.
Finding your unique artistic voice is a continual process of finding those things that speak to you. It’s finding why the art of photography or filmmaking matters to you. And finding a way to put that unique perspective into your work. Finding your voice has nothing to do with what kind of camera you are using or whatever photography trend might currently be popular on social media. Finding your unique artistic voice is nothing short of finding yourself. Like most things in life worth having, it won’t be an easy task. But getting to know yourself is one of the most valuable journeys on which you will ever embark.