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So you've spent time developing your camera techniques and skills. You've aimed to understand exposure settings and endeavoring to get the perfect shot each time. But sometimes, you're just not happy with the results and you don't feel like your work expresses what you want it to. How do you refine your art so you can truly express yourself as a photographer and make your shots recognizable as your work? Well, here are a few tips to help you on your way.
Reasons to Photograph
To begin, you need to establish why you're taking photographs in the first place. Many people start out with intentions of artistic freedom, but end up just falling into types of work that are in demand or pay well. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with that, we all have to make a living, but if you want to express yourself as a photographer, then you need to discover what you are passionate about photographing, rather than fitting the mould of a set type of work.
You can't force yourself to be different, but it's a case of understanding that each of us are unique human beings. We all have different ways of thinking, reacting and appreciating the world around us. It is this natural expression that will define your photographic style and set you apart from other photographers.
There's no right or wrong way to go about this, and it's not a case of trying to please anybody else through your work, it's purely a case of establishing what satisfies you as an artist. It's about freedom of expression, not fitting a mould.
Ignoring the Rules?
So with that in mind, it's time to tackle how you should practically try to establish your style. Often in photography, we are directed to meet certain guidelines for specific types of work in order to take the perfect shot: simple things like focusing on the eyes of a portrait subject or ensuring you have foreground interest in your landscape work.
Now, I'm not about to tell you to ignore all the guidelines (I prefer not to call them rules as it suggests there is a right and wrong way to take a photograph), but I would encourage you to avoid aspiring for perfection in a photograph. Your work needs to be from your viewpoint, how you approach and 'see' a subject will define how you express it.
It's this which you need to cultivate in order to develop personal style, rather than concentrating on ticking boxes of the rule book, which, if during a shoot you're trying meet, may well hinder your creativity and vision for the shoot. It's important that you enjoy the shoot and enjoy what you are producing. If you spend all your time merely adhering to all the rules, your work will just look like everyone else's! A shot can be technically perfect but aesthetically boring.
Developing your Style
So now it's up to you to think about what you want to express and how you want to express it, which isn't something that anyone else can teach you. Having a personal style doesn't mean you have to be regarded as a groundbreaking, trend setting, field-altering artist. It's a case of finding yourself in your chosen format and expressing yourself through that medium.
Remember that your style is a result of a series of choices about equipment, your personal background, how you approach the work, the subject matter and the environment in which you take your photographs. Consider which camera you are happiest working with, what your enthusiasms are, whether you want to capture work, for example, in a documentary style or a free artistic style and what you want the subject matter to be.
It's up to you to consider this combination of choices in order to give you the best chance of developing a style that represents you as a photographer.
What to photograph?
You may well have a set photographic subject matter that you always work with. This is absolutely fine, but I want you to consider whether you are taking photos of what interests you.
It is very difficult to be passionate about capturing something that you have little interest in. What do you enjoy, where are the places that you enjoy being? Once you know the answers to those questions, go out and try to capture it, capture how you feel about it, capture the experience. Use your eyes. Keep them open and exploring. Don't just think about what you'd like to photograph, respond to what you are seeing.
My other favorite means for taking photographs is to go exploring. Drive somewhere new, park the car, grab my camera and just wander and discover somewhere new. If something catches my eye, I spend time with it and capture it as I see it.
I often find that I express things in a way that other people wouldn't have thought of. Sometimes to the extent that they have to ask me what it is. In face, it's sometimes fun to challenge people and ask them what they think it is! But for me that is such an important aspect of my work, confirming to me that I'm expressing my surroundings through my eyes and in my own individual way.
Try New Things
I have always found that there is so much to be learned from trying something new, putting myself into new situations, with different topics and subject matter. It's a great way to discover how you enjoy working and what you enjoy photographing.
Trying something new and either enjoying it or succeeding at it will give you a huge confidence boost. If I try a new photographic scenario, I'm always so pleased when it feels right. If I feel inspired by it, especially if other people find the resulting photographs inspiring as well. Follow your heart, not your head and if it feels right, then carry on!
It's important to find inspiration to enhance your scope as a photographer and as an artist. There are various ways to do this, including studying the work of other photographers, and looking through photography blogs, magazines and books. All of which are readily available. It can also be beneficial to find inspiration from things other than photography. Whether that be art, literature, music or nature, it's completely up to you depending on what excites you.
There are also far more time consuming options for gaining experience and learning more about your craft through attending workshops and seminars. They are often extremely expensive, but invaluable for finding a professional photographer you might be willing to act as a mentor or simply let you work as their assistant. There is nothing that you can read or study that will replace the experience you'll be able to gain by working alongside a professional. If you have the opportunity, take it!
It's also important to understand how you learn. Some people would much rather read a book and understand all the technicalities before taking a photograph. Whereas others, such as myself, will be far more inclined to just grab a camera, head out and start taking photographs, using trial and error to improve. Try to work out how best it is that you learn and use it to your advantage, don't force yourself to sit and read for hours if you'd much rather be out taking photos!
Be your own Critic
Once you've been out on a shoot and you've got your shots, it's time to have a look through your work and be being your own critic. Have a look through a selection of shots and think about how it might be better. What aspects of the work could you improve? Have you focussed on subject matter that you would usually notice or have you expressed yourself differently than usual? Are you excited by the work you've produced?
Once you've had a chance to look through your work, you have the option of sharing it with others. I always prefer to share my personal work amongst friends and family. They'll be honest with me and often they'll see something different in the work that I hadn't noticed. It's also beneficial because showing my work to someone will confirm how I feel about it. Regardless of what they say, just putting myself on the line will demonstrate to me whether I'm happy with the work or not.
If you do get negative comments, learn from them, but don't let them define your future work. For some reason due to human nature, we are more inclined to remember negative comments rather than positive comments. Remember that artwork is subjective, it's not definite.
Learn from the Experience
Don't get disheartened if after a few trips out you feel like you can't see any evidence of progression in style within your work. It can take a long time to discover where your heart will lead you and it's important to just continue taking photographs, finding inspiration and refining your photographic outlook.
Remember, you will always take more bad photos than good photos, great photographers take bad photographs, but we only see the good ones because the bad ones don't get published! Don't rue missed opportunities. I've spent too much time in the past wishing that I'd pressed my shutter button but missed what might have been the perfect shot. It's such a distraction for the rest of the shoot. Remember, there will always be more opportunities. Don't be afraid to fail or make mistakes, we all make them and I guarantee that you'll learn from them.
I have learnt so much from putting myself into different situations and learning through trial and error. I appreciate now that I see the world around me differently because of my photography. Through attention to detail and developing my eye for points of interest, even the lighting on an empty street or a shadow cast by a line of trees may catch my eye.
There's a quote from Ansel Adams which I feel is really relevant here. "Every man's work is always a portrait of himself," he said. For me, those words sum up what I'm trying to say in this article.
You need to let your work be an expression of yourself, your passions, your excitement and whatever it is in the world that engages you. Adams is also pointing out that unavoidably, whatever work we do, will always be influenced by the experiences and the world surrounding the individual.
You may feel that in professional situations, that your work will purely be meeting the criteria set by the client. But in reality, your style and personality will always influence the work you do and the more you embrace that, the more likely you are to find your own voice as a photographer.