Are you in the creative doldrums? Are you tapped out on ideas and ways of approaching your photography and feel like you are searching for YOUR unique artistic style? It’s not easy finding, maintaining or even being flexible enough to let our photographic styles evolve. A “style” is a method, a trend, a look, an approach. Styles are what make each of us unique and not merely clones of one another. What’s the joy of being like every other artist? At the heart of every true artist is the desire to create something solitary unto oneself, distinctive to one’s individual creativity and imagination. One artist may be more deliberate in how the image is CAPTURED… the emotion caught in the subject, the angle, props or composition. Another may put more emphasis and artistry in how the image is EDITED. It is the combined components of capture AND editing that make a photographer an artist, with their own unique point of view.
But before a genuine style can emerge, I think we all start by emulating. We pick up a camera, eager to learn the technical side of how all those buttons and numbers gel to create an exposure. We look to our peers for inspiration to boost our own imaginations. We look at how they compose their images. How they light or position their subjects. How they style either the scene with props or their clients with clothing and accessories. How they edit. Then, we copy. We see what we like and we try to recreate the exact same images. And in doing so, we learn. I highly doubt that there exists a seasoned photographer who can honestly say they didn’t do the same things when they first began on their photography journey. However, the crux of becoming an authentic innovator… an original… is the transitioning from emulating to originating concepts and ideas, styling and editing. It’s crucial that we as photographers learn the basics of shooting and processing our images. It’s equally crucial that we move beyond those basics and allow our distinct creative vision that is unique to each of us as artists become the cornerstone of our craft.
So how do we do that? How do we move from duplicating to originating and embracing our styles? Here are 5 suggestions for progressing in our creative journeys and becoming the originators that we all desire to be.
1. Scout new locations.
Make it a point to seek out new shooting locations every so often. It’s very easy to get stagnant in our shooting when we are going to the same locations again and again. Sure, there’s a comfort in knowing a location. Shooting in the same locations helps you to be familiar with the light and the times of day that are best to shoot there. But using the same backdrop time and time again can really drain creativity and keep you from thinking outside the proverbial box. I suggest taking an evening to drive around or get out and hike into a new location. Take your camera and shoot some test shots. Evaluate the light and the value of the backdrop a new location can provide. Simply having a change of scenery can really help to strengthen your creative eye.
2. Rent a new lens.
I know that starting out, many new photographers only have one or two lenses. They’re not cheap, that’s certain. Factor into your budget renting a new lens every once in awhile. If you’re used to shooting with a 50mm for most of your shoots, try renting a longer lens that will provide you with excellent bokeh. Or rent a super wide angle lens like a fisheye or a 20mm. Different lenses provide different points of view and different depths of field. Breaking free from your standby lenses can help you see differently, more creatively. A few months back I rented the 135mm and found it really bolstered my desire to shoot again. It captured my subjects and the background in completely different ways than my go-to shorter lenses did and it forced me to shoot from new distances and angles. I was so giddy about the results of that lens and the way it allowed me to break free from my stock shooting style that I ended up buying it. I’m still looking forward to using it more and discovering how it will change the look and feel of my images.
3. Experiment with new editing techniques and tools.
Let’s face it, it’s easy to get into an editing rut where everything we produce has the exact same look and feel as the last session. Yes, there’s definitely something to be said for some semblance of consistency, so as to give our clients an assurance for what they can expect for their images. However, being too stale with our editing process, our images can become vapid and too predictable and our time spent editing a mundane chore. I think it’s incredibly important to set aside time to simply play and experiment with our editing process. Google about and try new techniques that you’ve never tried before. Take time to learn more of the fundamentals of Photoshop like adjustment layers, blending modes and layer masks. When you have a better grip on the basics, it’s easier to experiment with the settings to produce new effects. When I was creating the HeARTy actions, I spent a lot of time simply experimenting inside of Photoshop. From curves to selective color and gradient maps to blending modes, I found there were endless ways to combine the basic functions to take my images from one extreme to another. Having the ability to tweak those individual settings was paramount to the way I built the actions. I wanted the user to have full control to alter and fine tune the action results in a way that suited their personal needs and artistic bent. So take some time to delve deeper into Photoshop or Lightroom or whatever program you use, and find out what those settings really do. Open up your flexible actions and turn layers on and off, change opacities, and mask layers selectively where you want the effects. Please don’t succumb to the notion that actions are a play and walk away tool. To maximize your creativity and produce innovative images that are all your own, you must combine and refine actions during the editing process.
Here are a few examples of how experimenting with editing styles completely changed the look and feel of this ocean scene. Editing and the styles you choose are hugely importing in creating your personal style. What are you more attracted to? Do you lean towards the rich and dramatic, full bodied images? Or more towards the retro styles, characterized by light tones and haze? Don’t feel like you have to settle on one certain look. Being flexible and vacillating between looks is absolutely okay. It keeps things fresh and wards off those doldrums.
Original – SOOC shot
4. Shoot pressure free.
Paid photo shoots come with a lot of pressure. You are expected to deliver a fantastic end product to your client. Client expectations, time constraints and the pressure to appear professional and skilled all while being personable and rolling with the personality punches of our clients is a big undertaking. It’s easy to keep doing the same things, choosing the same poses and angles, locations and lighting for our sessions when we are under the gun to deliver to a paid client. I recommend taking a day a month (at minimum) and head out to shoot with a model. With no expectations from a model, be it a friend, neighbor or someone you randomly approached at the grocery store to model, you’ll be able to shoot stress free. On these kinds of shoots, you can experiment with that new location you scouted, new angles, new lenses, new poses. You can see what happens when you shoot laying on the ground or from high above your subject. You can test out how backlight or reflected light alters the image. You can do whatever you choose with not pressure to just do what you know and get the shot. This one is huge for me. There was nothing more liberating or that helped me develop confidence and new insights into shooting like going out in a pressure free manner and just shooting!
5. Experiment with shooting at different times of day.
Must we always shoot 1-2 hours before the sun goes down? Absolutely not! While the warmth and glow of the setting sun makes for beautiful shooting light, it’s not the only light you have to rely on. If you’re scared to shoot early morning or mid-day, go back to suggestion 4 and take out a model, pressure free, at different times of day. See what the day’s light has to offer. See how it can change your shooting style. See how it forces you to maybe shoot in new locations, directions and angles. New light is only scary if you’ve never practiced shooting in it. Light is everything to a photographer and only going out at sunset can hamper your creativity and crimp your emerging style.
Lastly, notice everything I suggested requires you to be proactive, not reactive. There was no mention of blog surfing, combing thru Flickr or Pintrest for more ideas to copy. Am I saying that you shouldn’t look at other photographer’s images? Absolutely not! But I really do think that if we could cut down on the amount of time we spend scrutinizing other photographers’ works, feeling jealous of their skills, disgruntled or less than in comparison, and spend more time getting out there, doing and playing and living it first hand, the more successful we will be at discovering and nurturing the innate creative flair we so desire. Cultivating creativity requires an investment of time, something we all seem to be lacking. But, I encourage you to make the time to try these suggestions. In doing so, you may find a new way of shooting or editing that you had never previously considered or embraced. You may experience your ah-ha moment that recharges your creative batteries and sets you on a whole new stylistic path.