We live in a day and age when everyone under the sun owns a camera. With so much imagery constantly bombarding the senses, it’s important to figure out what separates your work from that of the masses. Whether you shoot just for fun, business, or a mixture of the two, you want your images to resonate with people. Your audience should be left with an inherent understanding of who you are as a photographer. Plus when you shoot what you love, it shows. Sometimes this is easier said than done. All creative types, at some point along their journey, have to learn how to define themselves. If you end up a little lost along the way, here are a few important things to keep in mind.
Find What Inspires You
If you’re a photographer, chances are you look at other photographer’s stuff. It doesn’t matter if you’re a curious hobbyist or an established professional; we all play the comparison game. Browsing inspiration is an important part of the creative process. It helps us learn more about ourselves and what we’re drawn to. It helps us identify the kind of photographer we’d like to be. Don’t let it depress or dissuade you when you come across someone else nailing the type of photos you aspire to make. Try not to get caught up in the self-destructive “I wish I was this good” train of thought, or you’ll never know your true potential. Instead, figure out what it is about certain shots that appeal to you so much. Use these elements for yourself, but put your own spin on it. Stop trying to copy someone else’s photos verbatim. Have you ever cheated on homework, or peeked at someone else’s work during a test? You may have occasionally gotten a right answer, but odds are you learned absolutely nothing in the process.
Stop Making Excuses
Being proactive will do wonders for improving your technique. The best way to figure out what makes you you is to keep practicing until it just clicks, if you’ll pardon the pun. If photography is what you do, then get out and shoot every day. Find the discipline to always be in a photographer’s state of mind. The whole process can be a little bit like learning another language. The best way to master it is to immerse yourself, and when you don’t, you end up slowly, steadily drifting away from comprehension and speed. Shoot digital, shoot film, shoot with your phone. It doesn’t matter, so long as you make a commitment and stick with it. Starting a blog or an Instagram account is also a great way to help you stay focused. Take part in a Project 365, and watch your progress unfold.
You also have to be honest with yourself. Don’t go making excuses for a shot that wasn’t executed properly. You know it when you see it; that one shot that could have been great if it weren’t blurry, poorly composed, incorrectly exposed, or a host of other problems. It can be tempting to mangle it into something usable in Photoshop, and stubbornly chalk it up to being stylistically intentional. You have to remember that mistakes happen, as they should, and there’s no excuse for not using them as a learning experience. Look at the unsuccessful photos you take, and self-critique. Don’t press the delete key without analyzing what you like, what you don’t like, and most importantly, what you can do better next time.
Think About Aesthetics
Different visual cues appeal to different people. This is a good thing! If everyone had the same tastes, the world would be a pretty boring place. Figure out what strikes you when you look at an image. Do you like rich, vibrant colors, or are you drawn to the subtlety of black and white? Do you enjoy simple, sparse compositions, or photos bursting with dynamic movement and life? Consider qualities like pattern and repetition, tone, contrast, and grain. These elements build upon each other to create an image that is unique to your style. In the digital age, you might also want to experiment with how you go about post-processing.
Think About Emotion
Once you’ve got the artistic nuances figured out, you can start thinking about how they tie into emotional impact. What, conceptually, intrigues you? What frame of mind do you want your viewers to experience while looking at your work? Think about your subject matter, and all the different moods and feelings you can convey. Maybe you enjoy the reality and candid nature of street photography, or perhaps you’re drawn to the intimate sensuality of boudoir. Maybe you prefer to skip people altogether and instead feel drawn to the organic splendor of nature or landscape photography. A photo can be a testament to love, beauty, and happiness, or a grim portrayal of something much darker. You have the freedom to fall anywhere along that spectrum. There’s no wrong answer except what feels wrong for you. As the old expression goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Don’t ever become complacent. Falling into this trap is dangerous. It’s one of the fastest ways to suck the energy and the love you have for this art form right out of you. Just because something really works for you today doesn’t mean it will two years, or maybe even two weeks, from now. The moment you have a change of heart, follow it. There’s no shame in a taking a new course. Think back on your Art History. How many of the greatest artists of our time have work cataloged into different periods of their career? Life, knowledge, and skill will all shape you into a constantly evolving person. Go along for the ride. Photographers are a fairly diverse group, but if there’s one universal truth for us all, it’s that we pick up a camera every day because we love it. There’s no greater reward than seeing your images come to life in a way that’s true to yourself.