How to look within and actually find your photographic style

Benjamin Stevens

It’s always in the last place you look.

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… art is images you carry. You cannot carry nature with you, but you carry images of nature. When you go out to make a picture you find you are moved by something which is in agreement with an image you already held within yourself.
Frederick Sommer

This quote by Sommer is one of my favorites.

Eloquent, insightful, and answering some complex questions with a relatively simple answer.

First, let’s start with the questions.

How do you find your photographic style?

Style is a word that gets bandied about a lot in the photography world.

But I tend to think of style as something you conform to, like skinny jeans or a mullet.

I can, for example, appreciate the concept of skinny jeans. I might even enjoy wearing them. But skinny jeans are definitely not unique to me. I don’t feel fulfilled when I have them on, no matter how good they may look.

Another way of looking at style

“What do I want to say in my photography?”, is a question I often hear photographers ask.

“How do I make my images speak to others?”

“How do I make my images speak to me?”

Surely, then, voice is what the photographer is really looking for.

In the literal sense, every human voice has a unique sound.

Photographic voice is no different.

With that said, there are a few ways to rouse that voice inside of you:

  1. Passion — finding your happy places and asking yourself what you love about them.
  2. Mindfulness deepening self-awareness by observing your reactions to certain places or subjects.
  3. Intuitioneffortless expression through listening to your gut.

Passion

The vast majority of people are passionate about something. People are also knowledgeable about their passions.

Some people know so much about their passions that they might speak for 30 minutes straight with a beaming face and vigorous hand gestures.

I have written about passion as a conduit to creative photography before, but I made no mention of the link between passion and voice.

Passion gives you voice. So naturally, what you have to say is unique and in-depth.

People know their passions inside and out — that’s why they are passions. Nothing groundbreaking there, I’ll admit.

  • The person with a passion for butterflies and an entomologist father becomes a conservation photographer.
  • The person who grew up in the desert becomes a photographer with a passion for depicting the isolation and marginalization of desert living.
  • Or what about the empathic, people-centric Facebook user who becomes a portrait photographer after being a long-time fan of Humans of New York.

I am passionate about many things, but I particularly enjoy camping in the semi-arid Flinders Ranges of South Australia.

I have been going there regularly for over 20 years. I believe that I know the area reasonably well, but my passion and inquisitiveness invariably lead me down a rabbit hole of discovery.

A new species, a new gorge, a new road. New discoveries sustain and deepen my working knowledge of the area.

Passion is multi-faceted.

Part of my passion is native flora and fauna. I like to check in on particular trees like you’d check in on an old friend.

The Flinders Ranges is currently in the midst of a prolonged drought. Plants and animals are in an immense struggle for survival.

I somehow feel their struggle and, almost subconsciously, start voicing that feeling through my photography.

My investment in this landscape is such that I will rejoice when the drought finally breaks. I will drop everything and make the 6-hour drive north to check in on my friends.

I also enjoy the solitude and quiet contemplation that comes from spending time immersed in nature.

My preference for quiet contemplation leads me to wild areas without fail.

I don’t have to worry about accidentally photographing a rock concert, tomato festival, or sports match.

A smaller, but no less significant part of cultivating passion is studying the work of others.

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© Benjamin Stevens.

My love of semi-arid areas led me to visit the Colorado Plateau. This, in turn, pointed me toward photographers such as Guy Tal and Ben Horne who capture these desert areas in a quiet and graceful way that speaks to me.

Not content with merely visiting the Colorado Plateau, I began to read others’ accounts of living in arid areas.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey is one such account. There is something about surviving in desert landscapes that interests me profoundly.

Anyway, I am reticent to prattle on about my own endeavors, but I would like to make a few points.

  1. When you engage in activities that you are passionate about, you don’t question why you engage in them. There is no internal conflict in your mind
  2. You might share your passions with millions of other people, but no one has the unique take on these passions that you do.
  3. Indulging in your passions is being yourself without pretense. In dropping all pretenses, your voice feels safe enough to come out.

Leaving your voice at home

Before I visit the Flinders Ranges, I make a packing list because I am notorious for leaving things behind.

But there is one thing I never leave behind. My voice.

I trust that my voice is packed so long as I am in the car. The only other thing I need to do is put myself in my photographic happy place.

Some photographers leave their voices at home. They opt to try and discover it in a far off place that they don’t know anything about.

But we all go through this stage.

We all need to go through this stage. Crack a few eggs to make an omelet and all of that.

We must take bits of voice from here and there and use them to nurture the emergent seedling of our own voice.

What can you say about your favorite interests, hobbies, or field of expertise?

What do you feel that no-one else feels?

North American landscape photographer Bruce Barnbaum recognized his love of physics and force fields in the grooved walls of Antelope Canyon.

You could also discover your voice in a way you never thought possible.

Shoot a lot and shoot often

To be a photographer, one must photograph. No amount of book learning, no checklist of seminars attended, can substitute for the simple act of making pictures. Experience is the best teacher of all. And for that, there are no guarantees that one will become an artist. Only the journey matters …
Harry Callahan

Photographers who are starting on their journeys will find value in exploring many different avenues.

This means taking lots of photographs in lots of places and reviewing them in Lightroom to pick out recurrent themes.

Practise isn’t sexy, but there is nothing wrong with hammering that shutter button.

Roger Federer didn’t win 20 Grand Slams by turning up to training and making a solitary, thoughtful, and well-planned swing of the racquet.

No, he became a champion through practice. And like many of his swings, many of your attempts at expressing your voice will amount to naught.

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© Benjamin Stevens

Mindfulness

When we get too caught up in the busyness of the world, we lose connection with one another — and ourselves.
Jack Kornfield

If you struggle to find something in a scene that truly resonates with you, mindfulness photography can help.

Mindfulness is a way to increase self-awareness. In a mindful state, potential compositions make themselves apparent to you.

Instead of having to force interest in popular compositions, the compositions that naturally pique your interest will make themselves apparent.

As you’re in the field or reviewing your work back home, mindfully observe your reactions.

In a mindful state, I may observe the way a street light throws a shadow on the wall.

If something is attracting me, I ask myself what I find interesting about a street light casting a shadow.

Perhaps it is the low afternoon sun causing the shadow to warp and stretch along the side of the building.

Perhaps it is the utilitarian construction. The cold, brushed texture of the steel. The triangular haze of light, emanating downwards on a foggy morning.

Or it could be the lonely, human-like figure that the streetlight cuts on the street.

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© Benjamin Stevens

Of course, mindfulness is not a one-way ticket to voice. But you will be wiser for exploring the possibility, nonetheless.

Allow yourself to respond to something, and, if you feel so inclined, study it with interest.

Intuition

Our style is within us, waiting to be uncovered. Our vision or voice, or even our choice of a suitable medium, comes from the inside. It is organic. It grows out of our unique individuality and life experience. It is our own. It comes from the whole of our character, our body, our feelings, our minds, our genetic code, and every detail of our existence. We have earned it by virtue of our identity and being.
David Ulrich

Intuition is where passion and mindfulness meet. It is derived from a deep working knowledge of the subject and camera.

Intuition is listening to your gut feeling.

The painter who, having started with a blank canvas, listens to his gut to determine when the painting is complete.

Intuitive photographers use their gut to recognize and then capture decisive moments.

They may even possess the rare ability to predict optimal conditions or combine seemingly unrelated pieces of information.

They are not consumed by trivialities such as megapixel count or social approval. Free from the constraints of ego, the camera becomes an extension of themselves.

Indeed, technique is mastered to the point of becoming second nature. Freedom and creativity are favored over process and logic.

Intuition is having the confidence and fortitude to be carried by your voice to places you might not have been before.

Case study: Sean Tucker

In a previous life, street photographer Sean Tucker was a pastor.

In this role, he had to be vulnerable and help others with their problems by empathizing with them.

He enjoyed the public speaking aspect of giving sermons, delivering messages which he thought were important.

At some point, however, he started delivering sermons that weren’t aligned with the Church, so he was let go.

He then transitioned to Youtube, creating video tutorials on how to photograph large products in a studio.

But something was eating away at him.

He would watch himself on camera and feel unfulfilled. His videos, while helpful, lacked a certain something.

A certain… pizzazz.

While Sean is an accomplished portrait and street photographer, I think it is fair to say that his YouTube channel is the best expression of his voice.

His videos allow him to disseminate helpful advice on photography vulnerability and authenticity. And he’s very good at it, because of his background in public speaking and service.

With the benefit of hindsight, it might be obvious to some that Sean would take the path he did.

But he still had to connect the dots.

His passion and mindful intuition helped him find novel ways to combine his particular set of life experiences.

Conclusion

Voice is the authentic expression of your personality, the sum total of your life experiences.

As you carry your voice, so it carries you.

Your voice is what separates your photography from the next person. In theory, it should lead you to places or situations where you can make personally meaningful images.

Discovering the voice that you carry within starts with self-awareness.

The self-aware novice might be a long way from confidently expressing their voice. But they have passions, opinions, and youthful exuberance in their favor.

The more advanced photographer might benefit from mindfully viewing their 6997 Lightroom photos. Commonalities and patterns will emerge from a focused study of their work.

Regardless of experience level, voice is not something that can be rushed or manufactured — particularly if you want your voice to be your own.

Be content with enjoying your photography! Your voice will tap you on the shoulder when it is good and ready.

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Photographer and writer who is passionate about creativity, mindfulness and philosophy.

Seattle, WA
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