As photographers, we’re constantly being commanded to “be ourselves” and do what sets us apart, but let’s just be honest: that’s an incredibly daunting task, and sometimes the weight of it can be downright suffocating. For an endeavor that’s supposed to be creative and liberating, where’s the fun in having to lock yourself into a box defined by some “voice”?
I’m typically a pretty logical, analytical kind of person. Concepts like “style” and “voice” are nebulous, touchy-feely things that often make me run in the other direction as fast as possible. However, the uncomfortable truth is that finding our voices in our work is a crucial step in our development and journey as photographers. As difficult as it was for me to accept this, I now understand that my happiness in my work is directly correlated to how much I see my own personal perspective reflected in it.
I didn’t start out in portraits at all. My relationship with my camera started with photographing for my crafts and food blog, while I also dabbled in street photography—all things that told stories, with lots of context. Motherhood pulled me, somewhat against my will, into taking people pictures. I didn’t know the first thing about portraits when I began this part of my journey, so I started out with a traditional approach: clean frames, everybody looking at the camera, filling the frame with faces and posing babies on beanbags. I was exhausted, frustrated, and generally unhappy. It wasn’t until I discovered other photographers who were telling people stories with their images that I realized an intersection between my original passion for photography and my current phase of life really could exist, at which point I truly started feeling fulfilled by my work and suddenly felt a lot more confident doing whatever I felt like doing, regardless of what everybody else was talking about.
I don’t pretend to have “made it” as a photographer, but I sure am a lot better at knowing what’s me and what’s not now—that’s my voice. A “voice” in the context of photography is the way you freeze a moment while subtly (or not so subtly, as the case may be) inserting yourself into it. As my outlook on life changes with time, my artistic voice will do the same. Our beliefs and perspectives are not static; they are constantly being re-molded by our new experiences, and so our photographic voices will necessarily evolve with them. Nothing wrong with that.
What about you? How do you find your voice? First off, recognize that it already exists; this isn’t something you have to conjure up out of thin air, you just have to do some digging around to understand it better. It’s already guiding you in other ways—the clothes you wear, the way you keep your home, the people you choose to spend time with—now you just have to lead it into your photography.
Let’s talk a little bit about what a voice ISN’T. It’s not marrying yourself to a specific processing style from now until the end of eternity. It’s not confining yourself to a single type of subject matter. And it definitely does not involve phoning it in by clicking on a preset you don’t understand, and then just calling it a day.
4 Ways to Find Your Photography Voice
Here are a few of my thoughts on how I went about finding my own voice; hopefully something here will resonate with you, too, and help you push yourself forward.
1. It’s OK to copy… at first.
Excuse me while I find a place to hide from all the tomatoes that are now hurtling my way…. Look, we all know that copying is usually not a good idea. However, when you are at the beginning of your journey and still not sure how things like curves and midtones and fill layers and aperture operate in tandem to create a final image, one of the best ways to learn is to try to recreate what’s already been done. This is not a new concept. People in art school do it all the time. It’s how you master the building blocks of creating an image. I didn’t have any formal training in photography for the majority of my time behind the camera, so I learned 99% of what I know about capturing and post-processing by reverse-engineering other images that spoke to me. It’s perfectly fine to do this as an exercise—the key is to NEVER represent that copying as your own original work, or to ever think that, once you’ve mastered what someone else is doing, you’re done. This is a stepping stone, but NOT your end game.
2. Seek inspiration outside.
Again, this goes against what many people will tell you about not looking at other people’s work, but in my opinion, the most helpful way to learn how to articulate what does and does not speak to you about an image is to study a variety of other photographers’ work, at least just for a little while. Even better, go beyond photography and look for inspiration in a variety of places—literary sources, paintings, graphic design, nature, etc. Focusing singularly on your own work, especially in the beginning, is kind of useless, because, well, you’re really biased and you’re probably not that good yet. You already have an idea of what that image should be saying in your own head, and that blurs your judgement of how it is objectively perceived by a third party. Also, it’s easy to get so caught up in what you were intending to create versus what you actually created, to the point where all you can see is the disparity instead of how to bridge it.
3. Then, shut it all out.
So you just spent all that time studying everyone else’s stuff and collecting a ton of crap in an envelope, and now I’m going to tell you to put it all away. Other people say that, when they’re in a rut, they force themselves to keep shooting through it. Personally, I would really damage my relationship with my camera if I did that. This is an outlet, it’s supposed to be fun, and I don’t ever want to feel resentful toward it. When I get in a rut, I give myself permission to not shoot for a while, and to block out what everybody else is doing online. This helps me appreciate the other sources of inspiration in my life, to really experience things as they are happening instead of constantly fretting over whether I am making good images out of them. The bad thing about living behind a camera is that you sometimes end up living your life retrospectively through it. You can be so absorbed in getting the right light and composition that you don’t appreciate the event that is actually HAPPENING in front of your face until you see it in the image on your computer later. Is that fulfilling to you? Probably not. Pack your camera away, stay off the forums, and steer clear of social media. It’s no secret that, as much as the Internet can be a valuable learning and support medium, it can be equally distracting and detrimental to our own development. Just focus on what’s actually happening to you in real life. This is crucial to reconnecting with your own individual perspective. The absence of my camera—and looking through everyone else’s–definitely makes my heart grow fonder for it, and it puts photography back into perspective for me.
4. Own it
Now it’s time to start shooting again and see what’s changed in you. Trust your instincts as much as possible, and don’t be afraid to share what you’re creating. A huge component of finding your voice is developing the confidence to use it. We often hide behind prefaces like “this might be mommy goggles, but…” or “I know my [skin tones, limb chops, etc] are off, but…”. I’m guilty of padding my picture shares with these insulators, too. The truth is, we need to stop making so many excuses for our work. If it’s truly a crappy snapshot image, then yeah, maybe you should keep it to yourself. But if it moves you or really speaks to you in some way, it has artistic value even if it’s not traditionally “perfect”. Understand that not everyone may appreciate it the way you do, but by this point you should realize that outside validation isn’t your main motivation anymore. If you chopped a limb at a joint, or worked in ghastly lighting, or placed your subject smack dab in the middle of the frame, it is not the end of the world—these things, individually, will not break your image. Rules like white balance and composition do exist for a reason, but we cannot get so caught up in them at the expense of sucking all the joy out of our images. If you’re drawn to something that goes against convention, let your own opinion supersede convention. If your heart is in your work, that’s all you need; everything else will either come in time, or it’ll turn out to be less important than you thought it was.
Good luck & happy shooting!
*I don’t mean to disparage those who do traditional posing in any way. I absolutely appreciate and see the value in it, it simply isn’t part of my own voice, much like someone whose vision centers around creating stories with props and poses may look at my work and have trouble identifying with it.
Read more about finding your photography voice and style
Parikha Metha – Guest Post
Parikha Mehta is a lifestyle/documentary photographer who adores telling stories through images. She also works as an engineer, lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia with her husband & two boys, and can never say no to a bag of peanut M&Ms.
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