Finding your style and developing your own voice as a photographer is a journey.
And what an amazing journey it is! Lets explore two stages we can encounter along the way as we learn to develop our own unique voice.
Imitation can be a touchy subject. Ideally, its not the place we want to stay in forever, but from a learning standpoint I think it is a pretty critical first step. As a baby we learned to walk and talk through imitation until we became proficient on our own. I feel the same is true for any art form. Typically, we are attracted to photography because of the work of others we have admired. Their work may stir in our soul a yearning to create something similar ourselves. This is good!
Allow imitation be a guide for you as you develop skill and learn from your experiences.
Consider this stage an incubation period. Copy a variety of different photographers! Allow their work to inspire you in a similar vein. The experiences you have at the imitation phase help you know what you are attracted to and what you are not. Most of us don’t begin the journey with perfect clarity of where we want to go or have confidence yet in our own ideas. Trying a variety of different approaches is one of the best ways to narrow your focus to what you are truly attracted to.
Sometimes you never know until you try and often it is through experience that are tastes and vision are refined!
The following images represent work in my imitation phase. They’re a bit more on the fashion and serious side of life. Its not the type of work I create today, but I’m so grateful for the opportunity to dabble in different styles to help verify my true voice when I finally found it.
2. The difference between admiration and attraction
When it comes time to define our own style, we should understand: the difference between admiration and attraction.
According to the dictionary:
Admiration is “a feeling of wonder, pleasure, or approval.”
Attraction is “magnetic charm; fascination; allurement;”
Learning to discern between work that we admire and work that we are attracted to is a key ingredient for finding our own voice.
You will always have a more powerful impact in your work when you create from the heart.
After spending several years in the imitation stage (it takes a while to figure things out!), I finally chose to listen to the attraction voices in my heart. I put portrait photography aside and pursued a focus solely in lifestyle.
I was attracted to candid moments, I was attracted to storytelling scenes of real life, and my heart smiled and danced and sang for joy when I had the opportunity to create images in that style. Though I admire portrait work, I’m attracted to lifestyle. Here lies a big blinking neon sign for me to follow in that direction if I want to develop my own artistic voice.
I found that the times I heeded the call to create images that I was attracted to, I was happier. I was also more creative and I could see my own perspective of the world in my photographs. I felt more connected to my work, as if I had finally found a way to communicate on a more personal level.
We’re all attracted to different things. This is one aspect that makes art so enriching and varied. When we begin to create work we are personally attracted to, an amazing thing begins to happen: we attract the type of subject that is attracted to the same style. When both of those things align, amazing things follow!
Learning how to discern between these two is essential for finding your own voice as an artist. Some of you may already know immediately what you are attracted to, but for the rest of us who need help filtering, here are some great creative exercises to consider.
Look for themes
I offer you two creative exercises in helping to narrow the vision for what you are attracted to
1. Spend some time collecting images of others work. Only choose images that attract you (not just that you admire). Consider some of the following questions:
Does the image make you feel a certain emotion? What is that emotion? Is this the type of emotion that you hope to communicate in your work? Tag it.
I especially love this question, because it is truly helpful in judging the difference between admiration and attraction. There is so much work that I admire that communicates to me, but if I ask myself if that is the same type of message I want to communicate in my own work I usually can know immediately that it doesn’t fit my own personality and how I see the world. And thats okay! We can still admire, remember!
Does the image make you want to take action in any way? (create something, explore, try something new, etc.) Tag it.
If something moves us to action, its stirring in our souls the need to communicate. And if we are wanting to communicate something similar, we have found something our hearts resonates with. Pay attention to work that motivates you in any way!
2. Spend some time looking through your own portfolio. Pick out your favorite images with the following questions in mind:
Why is this a favorite image? What beyond the photographic qualities of light/processing/or exposure speaks to you? What does it say?
If you could boil your style down into three words, what three words would they be?
Do these three words fit your favorite images from your portfolio? Or do your three words represent more of the work that you would like to start creating?
What is style anyway?
A big focus of these questions boils down into the idea of communication. What message do you want to share with the world through your images?
Remember, that style is not merely the way a photo is edited. It is not necessarily the way your subjects are dressed. It isn’t something that can be bought, or derived through templates, actions, or textures.
Your style, is your message.
A consistent message that plays through the body of your work.
The benefit of knowing your style
When you understand your message you can be more intentional about the work that you create.
When we’re in the imitation stage of the journey to finding our style, we lack a bit of focus and intent in the work we create. We’re trying out different styles to see what fits us best. Some days we may wear one hat, and other days a new one.
When we finally find the style and message that we want to share consistently with the world, it gives a sharper clarity to the process of creating. You suddenly have goals that are associated with the intent of your work and you begin to create for your vision, not just creating under trend or the expectations of other people.
Style can change. Just like you can change.
If our style is our message then it should be no surprise that it can change along with our life. We each go through different stages of our life when what is important to us varies according to what season we’re in. We’re always learning new life lessons through all of life experiences and since we ourselves are a work in progress, our perspective of the world is constantly changing.
There was a season for me that I enjoyed shooting weddings. I was newly married myself and related to the style and message of the work that I was producing. As we started our own family, my perspective of the world changed and I found a new passion for photographing family centric work that focused on relationships and the imperfections of life–simply because that was something I was finding as a reoccurring theme of importance in my own personal life.
I’m not implying that our style or message is limited to what stage of life we are in, but I have become increasingly aware that my own life experiences influence my message. And it grows and changes along with me.
My style defined:
So, if I were to choose three words as my own personal message and representation of my style, what would they be?
Relationship. Truth. Story.
Each of these words represents something that I value in photography.
I value relationships. Not just on a pedigree level. But a unique level that is personal to each relationship I photograph. I want to find what makes that specific relationship so valuable to the subjects. And if I can show that in an image it is thrilling to me.
I value truth. I have no interest in staging a set full of props that are trendy and have no meaning to the subjects. I have no interest in creating imagery that makes people look more glammed up than they ever look in real life. I have no interest in creating imagery that is meant to convey an emotion that people are acting instead of feeling. No judgement towards photographers who do any of those things, but my message is centered on the beauty of real life and its imperfections.
I value story. I am simply fascinated with the challenge of storytelling in photography. It largely influences my work, especially in regards to relationship and truth. Sometimes this means that I take a photojournalistic approach to a session, and other times it means that we set out to re-create story moments that are authentic to the subjects.
But that is my style. What is yours?!
- Keep in mind that this is a journey that takes time. Finding your own authentic style doesn’t happen overnight and most often comes through the experience of trying on many different hats!
- Learn to judge between work that you admire and work that you are attracted to.
- Your style is akin to your message. What is it you are wanting to communicate through your work?
- The better you become at communicating your message, the more intentional your work is.
- Style can change, just like you can change! Its an evolution in progress and that is what makes it exciting! Enjoy the journey!