These weekly photography-focused blog posts are not all about using your camera gear and post-processing software. I’m also eager to explore a piece of gear that is often forgotten: the photographer.
First off, you might have read of the importance of establishing a certain style with your photography. If you’re anything like me, upon reading this for the first time you furrowed your brow or scratched your head. Maybe you even vigorously massaged your temples while letting out a big sigh! Or was that the third time you read it? It is hard to argue with the fact that having your own unique style would be pretty neat, right? But for a while it remained a very vague, ill-defined notion for me. Style? What style? I just want to take beautiful pictures!
I also read somewhere that your style will emerge if you give it time. Okay, how much time? How will I know when it has emerged? Well, a while back I finally got the idea, and it’s one of those vague, mysterious things you hear about that turns out to be almost silly in its simplicity. Why must people throw a veil of mystery about very simple things? Just explain what it is! To be fair, perhaps it’s one of those things that each of us has to figure out in their own little way.
My “style” (which is not the word I prefer) is indeed emerging. It was really there all along. My style when photographing is really just an extension of my personality. I”m willing to bet your style is too. So let’s just call it that: your photographic personality (or PP).
To illustrate what I think PP entails, I’ll use myself as an example. Just realize that some of the criteria you use to judge your own PP might be very different from mine. I tend to gravitate toward nature, whether or not I have a camera. It is my love of natural beauty, as well as my curiosity about natural history, that determines what I tend to photograph. That curiosity does extend to people, but I’m much more interested in foreign people and their cultures. This means most of my people photography is done outside the U.S. when traveling.
But it’s not just your preferred subjects that defines your photographic personality. It is also your approach to capturing the pictures. How do you approach any project? My preferred method is to zero in and try to exclude all distractions until I finish. I even love to explore all the pieces of an argument (oops I meant discussion) before letting it go; drives people crazy! I think of things in terms of mountains. You know that summit you see is just a false summit, don’t you? You know there is very likely more to go after that, so hold off on that celebration. I know, sounds a little obsessive.
So when photographing something, I will exhaust all angles, get close, back up, get low, look for high perches. In short, I naturally do something that all good photo 101 books tell you to do; that is, work the subject. In fact, I often overwork the subject. I also tend to bore quickly of things, which sounds contradictory I realize. So on a landscape photo shoot, for example, instead of capturing every shot at wide angle with very close foreground, I will also shoot some with all background at medium or even long focal lengths.
When I worked as a field scientist, I got into the whole observation thing. I would lose myself for an entire day mapping. Ten hours would pass by without my noticing (or eating), and the radio would crackle, my partner wondering when we were going to call it a day. This was because I got to the point where I would absorb myself totally in every little detail of the land and its rock formations. Give me a camera instead of a rock pick and I fall back into the same old habits. Guess you could say I’m detail-oriented, but also believe that the “big picture” is a very important detail.
In the city, or anywhere where human-built stuff predominates, I am the opposite of observant. In fact, I’m often unfocused and rather blind to my surroundings. But having the camera in the city is enough to turn me into a head-swiveling maniac of observational intensity – at least for awhile. I can’t keep it up for long in this environment.
The last element of my photographic personality is patience (or my lack thereof). I’ll often spend well over an hour photographing some little macro subject in a meadow. Some would call that patience. Well, maybe it is a kind of patience, but this is not the kind of patience I’m talking about. I’m talking about finding a fantastic landscape composition, or a great lookout post for some wildlife subject you’re after. And then camping out until the light is just right, or the animal finally decides to favor you with his or her presence.
This takes real patience. It is waiting, and waiting…and waiting some more. This is not me. I have to move or my motivation just drains right away. I’m willing to shoot an outstanding composition with so-so, too-early light, and then move on to get a lesser composition with perfect light. So long as I can move if I want to move. That is a trade-off many many landscape and nature photographers are unwilling to make. I should say I do also plan ahead for the occasional special shot. Then I will arrive just in time for great light (or more likely get skunked). But I prefer being out well before golden hour.
A sort of side-effect of this insistence on moving until day’s end is that I am often rushing to set up, racing to get some kind of decent shot before the magical light winks from existence. It gets a little stressful. But I suppose I’m used to it, being a habitually late person by nature.
A bit more on patience, since I think it’s an important part of photographic personality. I suppose I (and most photographers) have at least a moderate amount of patience. But do not think you must have enormous patience to be a landscape photographer, or any type of photographer for that matter. The big exception? If you want to be a top-notch wildlife photographer you will need boatloads of patience, believe me.
Now I know that your “style” is supposed to show up in your pictures and be sort of a unique stamp that sets your pictures apart from others. That in my opinion is over-stating it. Yes, your images will eventually bear your stamp, be a reflection of you. But it is your photographic personality that places that stamp upon your photos. Just as in normal life, there are parts of your personality that you share in common with many other people. And so some of your photos will be similar to those of other photographers.
I’ll assume that you do not go out of your way to copy other photography. This is, of course, a big no-no if you want to progress as a photographer. The exception is when trying to reproduce a certain type of photo, a look, some lighting style, etc. as a learning exercise. That doesn’t count.
My point is that the totality of your portfolio will clearly demonstrate your “style” because it reflects all the little quirks of your photographic personality (which in turn is a reflection of your own unique personal personality – if that makes any sense). Since it takes a good while after starting out to begin to take very good pictures (or at least a bit less than 99% sucky pictures), it will take a while for your real photographic personality to be fully reflected in your portfolio as (yes) a style. So be patient (there’s that word again, grrrr!).
I’ve described the basic parts of my photographic personality. Now I am very curious about yours. If you are just starting out, perhaps you don’t know the full answer yet, but I’m willing to bet you know part of it. I am honestly still tweaking mine, and after a few years of fairly intense image-making, I finally have a decent portfolio that is beginning to show an emerging style. Wow, I”m back to using that word style with no quotations. It certainly does flow more smoothly with the word ’emerging’ than ‘photographic personality’ does!
Don’t forget to comment if you want to share some parts of your photographic personality. If you have a photo-oriented blog, you might even consider posting a more complete description in the future. Heck, I may even condense and add it to my About page.
Remember these pictures are copyrighted and not available for free download. These versions are much too small anyway. Click on any you’re interested in for options to purchase high-res. downloads or beautiful prints (framed or just matted). Thanks for your interest and cooperation.