Discovering and developing your own style and unique photographic look is tough. It takes years to figure it out, especially since we are so overwhelmed by an overload of photographs online. I often get asked by people to show them how to edit, or to show them how I shoot and even though that would help it does defeat the purpose as the best way to learn is by figuring things out yourself. So I thought that I would put a post together with some tips that I have found very helpful to help you along the way of discovering and developing your own photography and editing style.
We see all these incredible photo’s every single day, and somehow we forget that nobody picks up a camera and shoots like a pro from day one, though we’d like to have people believe it. Here’s what you don’t see, the tens of thousands of photo’s on my hard drives that are just off, where the shot was a second too late or just didn’t work at all, or the thousands of photo’s of reflections that just didn’t work or days where I simply just got nothing decent at all. Nor do you see the terrible edits from when I just started out either. We forget that there’s this big grey section of learning that sits between picking up the camera for the first time and finally seeing some good results.
We often see this grey area as something that we wish we could just skip over like a YouTube advert. But it’s during the murky times that you discover how to capture images in a way that both works for you and is more unique to your own vision. It’s in this murky time that you figure out how to use software, and often stumble upon ‘happy accidents’ and learn more than you bargained for or ever would if somebody just showed you. We shouldn’t seek to skip this learning curve for instant results, rather embrace this as an exciting period where you have all the freedom in the world to figure it out. So don’t forget that. It’s okay to have days where things don’t work, and the struggle is a huge part of getting better.
So here are some tips that helped me a lot (and still helps me) to improve:
Go to a book store.
Yup. Put your phone down, close instagram and get yourself to a book store. Stop looking at what everyone else is doing online and what is trending and start discovering what you actually like. Look at the work of some of the prolific photographers in the field which you’re interested in. Page through their collections, study their work from how they frame their photo’s to the colours of their photographs. Get lost amongst the sea of books in the photography section. It’s honestly one of the best ways to really begin to discover what you love. I spend hours just paging through books and making notes of photographers to Google when I get home. This great both from a research point of view, but also for inspiration when I feel unmotivated.
One of my current favourite books is Todd Webbs ‘I See a City’ .Richard Standler’s ‘The Eyes of the City’ is also up there for me at the moment. But to be honest there’s too many to even begin to list them all.
Be critical of your own work. Print.
This was one of the best things I have ever started doing. Select your photos and have them printed, postcard size or smaller is perfect – it doesn’t even need to be on special paper, just standard little prints at your local printer or on your home printer that you haven’t used since who knows when – colour here isn’t important, it’s more about framing, spotting patterns in the way you shoot or the shots you tend to prefer than anything else. Scatter them all over the floor and look at them, and I mean really look at them. Be critical and put the shots together that you love the most, and the ones that you think could be better.
Getting distance from your shots and seeing them in print makes a huge difference as you can see collections all together. Separating yourself from a screen gives a much needed perspective and it’s a great way to learn.
Learn from others. Inspiration doesn’t mean copy-paste.
This is a fine line for sure, and it’s one of the things that I always get frustrated with, I’v been seeing so many snarky comments by people who keep accusing others of copying them. I hate to break it to everyone – but none of us are the ‘first’ to photograph in a certain way. We need to get over this and move on. A couple of years ago I met up with a photographer who I’ve always looked up to. She took time to go on photo missions with me, she pointed out scenes to me and helped me see things differently, and wasn’t precious about street photography to the point where she was afraid that I may copy her. She knew that her style was cemented, and she was confident enough in her own work to teach others to see differently, and passionate enough about photography to share her love of it with others. It was incredible. Since then I have shot with so many other street photographers and I’ve had equally amazing experiences – always learning something from someone. Over the last couple of years I’ve worked hard at forming my own style. It took time and it’s always slowly adapting.
There’s more than enough street to go around for everyone, but that being said it is important to learn and to develop your own style vs taking a shortcut – trying to take the exact same photo and then emulate somebody’s editing style isn’t really the way to go as you’re missing out on a massive and incredibly valuable learning curve. Both on a technical level and also for your own style discovery. Rather see if there’s another way to capture the same or a similar subject – small tweaks makes big differences. I’ve seen this so many times on photowalks and it kills me – someone see’s a shot and 2min later 15 people have swarmed the subject and now everyone has the identical photo. Rather acknowledge the shot that someone has seen, respect their vision and their keen eye, make a mental note to look out for something similar and try to catch the next one. Learn from the way others see and work at self improving your own eye vs blindly following. Garry Winogrand said it best;
“You have a lifetime to learn technique. But I can teach you what is more important than technique, how to see; learn that and all you have to do afterwards is press the shutter.”Garry Winogrand
There’s no way around it – Teach yourself.
Watch tutorials on how to edit the basics in Lightroom or any other software that you prefer to use or have access to. I can not stress this enough, the tools that are available are extremely powerful with a million different options and intimidating interfaces which can be very overwhelming. There are tons of really great free tutorials out there that will show you the basics, put in the hours and teach them to yourself. Like with learning any skill it does take time, but the reward is massive. The same goes if you’re trying to get into film photography – in fact research here is even more imperative.
A massive part of photography and editing is understanding light, and understanding what is possible. I’ve always tended to shoot slightly under and on RAW. This way I maintain a lot of detail in the shadows which I can always bring forward if need be. When you shoot over that data is mostly lost and you can often end up with an image that’s very blown-out and usually not all that salvageable. See what works with the photo’s that you have taken or what could work for the photo that you have in mind, consider the way that you like to shoot the next time and go from there.
Editing is a skill that takes time to master so keep at it. Editing also depends heavily on your shot settings (how well exposed a shot was when taken, the colours in the photo, the range). The reality is that there is no single preset that will magically work on every single photo, and there’s no preset that will make an average photo great. It just doesn’t work like that. There are just too many forever changing variables.
You need to teach yourself how to account for these variables and adjust accordingly so that you end up with a collection or a style / grade that remains consistent no matter what you’re photographing or in which conditions (if continuity is something that you are after). To be able to do that you need to have a basic understanding of editing. (Keep your eyes out because I’m going to be posting a in-depth post about editing soon)
But, and I can not stress this enough, it’s NOT all about the edit. We get fixated on this, but photography is so much more. Focus on capturing emotive moments, on capturing photo’s that make you feel on refining your eye and vision.
Editing comes after.
Learn, evolve, change.
Humans are cyclical beings. We are constant in a state of change. What I captured a month or two ago might no longer make me tick in quite the same way, or perhaps for whatever reason no longer seems that fulfilling anymore. It’s natural that our style would also adapt over time and that’s okay.
I included this point because I feel like we’ve become so extremely fixated on what our followers want to see, or what we think they want to see based on large accounts that we end up (to a degree) shooting for our audience and not for ourselves. I’ve fallen into this trap myself, as an example – I’ve come to realise that I’ve started shooting more portrait format because it’s better received. I’ve stopped posting some more abstract shots that I loved but I knew that they likely wouldn’t have the same traction as some other shots.
Don’t fall into this trap. It’s okay to suddenly post landscapes, or change up your style to be brighter, darker, more journalistic, or more fashion or different in whichever way. It’s YOUR photo’s, its YOUR expression. We should all (myself included) strive to not be boxed in by our social accounts and the notion of expectation.
If we’re creating solely or mostly for other people we are no longer creating for the right reasons. If we’re shooting to emulate other’s because we know it will be well received we are no longer creating for the correct reasons. And if you’re creating for likes, followers, fame and self gratification you most definitely are not creating for the right reasons. I picked up a camera and started shooting street because I wanted to capture what I saw, because it helped me in so many ways to deal with the nuances of this often extremely hard world and it became my therapy. Even though I know I still create for these reasons I have no problem in admitting that it’s difficult to remain true to them as we all get caught up in the hype at times.
Don’t give up
It’s tough sometimes, you go on a mission, or you plan a shoot and you’re feeling really positive about the day. You spend hours out there only to come home and import your photo’s from the day to discover that you didn’t get nearly as many shots as you had thought, and that one shot you were so damn excited about is totally out of focus. IT’S OKAY. It happens to me all the time. Or perhaps you have an idea in mind of how you want to edit a photo, but then when you start you just can’t quite get it to look the way you want it to look. Don’t let that shit get you down. Diane Arbus said this and I couldn’t agree more:
“It’s important to take bad pictures. It’s the bad ones that have to do with what you’ve never done before. They can make you recognize something you hadn’t seen in a way that will make you recognize it when you see it again.”
If I’ve missed something, or if you’d like to discuss a topic / or add anything drop a line in the comments!