Nearly every photographer I know has the aspiration to possess or develop their personal style – it’s a desire I hear frequently expressed on the workshops that I lead. But there are no easy answers to meeting that need. Based on my own experience and talking to other keen photographers I have identified three distinct stages in most photographers developmental journey – I’ll label them ‘infant’, ‘adolescent’ and ‘adult’.
The first (‘infant’) stage I’ll characterise as having a simple interest in the basics – what camera should we buy, how does it work, what lenses are available etc. At this stage it’s easy to be seduced by the sexy sleek looks of a black bodied beauty or how many features it’s got (never mind that we can’t understand half of them).
Thankfully most of us quickly progress from this stage to a concern with technique and the picture taking process (you know the sort of thing – walking around mumbling to yourself ‘the smaller the number, the larger the aperture’). This ‘adolescent’ phase is characterised by concerns with the mechanics of photography – getting to grips with the basics of exposure, focusing and composition.
Like the human transition from infancy through adolescence to adulthood these are necessary steps. Understanding equipment and learning how to use it to best effect are important milestones. It’s a process we have to go through if we are to mature as a photographer.
But concerns about equipment don’t help us take more compelling images. And mastering technique should be merely a stepping stone to turning our vision into a photograph that communicates something of what we saw and felt at the moment of releasing the shutter. Technique for technique sake leads to superficial photography – images lacking impact and strength.
We all have a unique perspective on the world that is in part shaped by biology but also by social and environmental factors. Put six photographers in the same place at the same time and they’ll produce six different images. That is the beauty of photography – it is a wonderful form of personal expression; a fantastic way to express our individuality.
But to do so we need to become a photographic ‘adult’ – to develop a vision and a style of photography that communicates that vision effectively. Photographic maturity is reached when equipment and technique can be melded with a good eye (to see the world photographically), an image responsive brain (to analyse and interpret what the eye sees) and a heart (to enable an emotional response).
There are a number of things that can be done to help this process of maturation.
I’d recommend starting by photographing what inspires us. Sometimes, as we’re struggling with equipment and technique, it can be a frustrating and demoralising time (as yet another photo excursion results in poorly exposed, out of focus images). To persevere requires commitment and hard work – effort that we’re more likely to make if we’re photographing subjects that interest and motivate us. Furthermore an emotional connection with and a love of what we’re photographing will shine through in our images. If we’re moved by our subjects then the likelihood of communicating this to the viewer of our work is greatly enhanced. This in turn brings its own reward and can spur us on to even greater efforts.
The problems associated with photographic adolescence are more easily overcome with constant practice. At the simplest level taking many photographs on a regular basis will build familiarity with our gear, allowing our sub-conscious to concentrate on creativity not technique or equipment. It’s important to take lots of images (fortunately in these days of digital photography cost is not a limiting factor) and analyse what works for us (and what doesn’t) and why. Not every shot we take will be a masterpiece – in fact the harder we try the more likely it is we’ll fail. But it’s important to learn from our failures – they are our best teachers. Successes only confirm that we can do what we thought we could do!
Once we start to learn from our mistakes we can embrace failure more positively and become braver in our photographic development as a result. Hopefully we will be encouraged to test our own personal boundaries and move out of our photographic comfort zone to try something different (e.g. subject matter, approach). Setting personal projects and goals gives a focus & purpose to our photography. We need to be brave and deliberately set out to break some of those ‘rules’ we’ve struggled to master!
It’s helpful to get the feedback of others as we begin to experiment and develop. Informally, showing work to friends and colleagues (photographers and non-photographers) and encouraging them to be honest in their assessment of our work will help the development process. More formally joining a local photographic group, club or association, submitting work to magazines for critique or seeking the opinion of a professional photographer in a workshop setting will all help as well.
Most importantly in this process we shouldn’t take feedback as being personal. It’s difficult I know, because we all invest so much of ourselves in our photography. But if someone doesn’t like what I’m producing, I try to listen with an open mind to their comments and attempt to understand why they feel the way they do. I hope that I might just learn something that could revolutionalise my photography.
However I feel I should add an important health warning – we shouldn’t be tempted to take photographs for other people just to win praise. When faced with negative feedback it’s all too tempting to become Chameleon like – to start producing images that are aimed to fit in with someone else’s pre-conception of what makes a good photograph. Do this and, just like the lizard, our photography will disappear into the background.
However I’m not advocating the blind pursuit of poor photography in the name of being different! By looking at the work of other photographers (by visiting websites, buying or borrowing photographic books by those whose work we admire, visiting exhibitions on a regular basis) we soon learn to distinguish a good image from a bad one. All this helps to develop our own quality standards. We also learn what turns us on visually e.g. colour or black & white, minimalist photographs or those full of detail, wide angle images with strong foregrounds or telephoto shots concentrating on the graphic use of line and shape.
My prime interest is landscape photography but I try to draw inspiration from photographers working in other areas. I frequently apply lessons learnt (e.g. about lighting and composition) from portrait photographers when I’m taking close up shots of flowers. I have also developed an interest in the work of painters in an effort to become familiar with different styles and identify what appeals to me and why. I then consider how this can influence my approach to my own work.
It’s important to remember that patience is a virtue – reaching ‘adulthood’ as a photographer is a process that cannot and should not be rushed. Enjoying the moment and taking time to develop our own vision and style. It’s something that creeps up on us unannounced and ironically we may be the last person to recognise it – it’s often easier for others to see when we have achieved it.
Finally it is an ongoing journey – one of constant learning and refinement. The day I feel my photographic style is no longer developing and being refined is the day I’ll sell all my cameras. For if we can’t constantly acknowledge the potential for future personal development as a photographic artist then what’s the point in carrying on?