How to Find Your Unique Voice as a Photographer – Part II

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I recently wrote an article called ‘How to Find Your Unique Voice as a Photographer.’  The response that I received was incredible.  The day that it went out, I received a flood of emails from strangers, thanking me for writing it.

Everyone kept saying the same things – that they felt the same way; that they spent more time trying to be perfect than they did just enjoying themselves; that they frequently felt down about their work.  One email in particular stood out to me:

“You have liberated me! I read instruction manuals and photography books every night and recently have felt depressed that I wasn’t meeting my creative expectations. I have so many thoughts buzzing around my head of projects I would like to do but I never actually make a start on any of them. I now realize this is partly due to seeing other peoples work in books and on the net; you become disheartened because you think that you will never match the quality of those examples.”

-Brian Hopps

Reading this made me think, “Yes!  I’ve done that, too!”  And I realized, I think we all have.  Looking back on my original article, I began thinking about all of the other things that I wanted to say on the subject of perfectionism.  This is something that plagues most photographers and is yet it gets very little screen time.  We spend all of our time trying to get the technological edge and yet the most important things that every truly great photographer does lays forgotten in the back of a closet with last year’s lens.

This article is here to help take you further along that path to finding your unique voice, and will hopefully inspire you along the way.

On Criticism

I know exactly how it feels to look at others work and become dejected – even after all this time, I still (frequently) see others work that just wows me and after I get past the beauty of if I start comparing it to my own work and instantly feel smaller.  I think, “I could never be that good!” or, “I like their style better than mine!”  And on really bad days I’ll think things like, “Why even bother trying?  If they’re already doing it, then what’s the point of me trying to do it, too?  The world doesn’t need another photographer.”  And then I look at my work and remember that’s exactly the reason why I should.

Because I’m not doing it for anyone else – I’m doing it for me.  I’m doing it because it brings me joy, and for no other reason.  There are tons of people out there that don’t like my work!  And that’s totally okay.  Because for every person that doesn’t there’s another that does.  That’s the greatest gift of art: it is completely personal.  Haven’t you ever gone to someone’s house and you think, “what is that hideous thing on their wall?” Then they proceed to say, “Don’t you just love this!?  It’s by my favorite artist!”  You may be gagging, but they smile every time they look at it.

Your work will not be loved by everyone.  But it will be loved by some, and that’s what matters.  You have captured just a little more beauty and you’ve done it through your own hazel contact-covered lenses and you’ve helped make someone else’s world more beautiful because of it.

What I create is completely my own and no one else can do what I do – and the same goes for you, too.  Each of us has our own unique voice and we only need to give ourselves permission to create freely and with wild abandon in order to find it.

Every great artist, writer, photographer, and creative person has to start at the beginning.  How quickly we advance all depends on how much time we spend doing what we love – and how much time we spend loving what we do.

Imagine if Ansel Adams had taken a few rolls of film on his very first camera, and when he developed them, he said “Well these aren’t very good.  I must not be cut out to be a photographer,” and then he quit!  Can you imagine the world without his stunning landscapes?  I can’t either.  But you know what?  He had to start where we all started: trial and error.  Imagine if they made a book out of all his bad photographs.  Doesn’t happen, does it?  But people don’t realize that even he took bad photos all the time, too.  They just don’t get any publicity.

It’s easy to see a portfolio full of gorgeous photos and think that they just have a gift and they’ve always been good at photography.  Well, here’s a reality check: taking bad pictures is just a fact of being a photographer.  If I showed you a portfolio of all the images that usually end up in my trash bin, you’d probably be like, “Wow, she took those?  Those are terrible!  I can’t believe they were even taken by the same person.”  Well, they were.

This is what a typical photo shoot for me looks like:

Every time I go out and take pictures I will probably shoot on average 1000 photos, sometimes more.  When I come home and take a look at them I usually throw out about 700 of them.  Out of what’s left maybe 50-75 make them to my blog, and 2-5 actually end up on my website in my all-time bests.  My point is, the vast majority of the photos I take, well… suck.  lol.  And even the ones I like usually have “problems,” be it light, composition, etc.  But I keep taking pictures, and that’s how I get those killer shots that people react to.  See?  I’m not really all that good… it’s just a numbers game.  (Shhhh!! Now you know my secret.  Don’t ruin my reputation.)

Being good at anything creative is just a head game.

I swear.  It really is!  If you want to improve quickly as a photographer, try changing the way you think and you will be floored by your results.

Here are some things that you can do that will dramatically improve your abilities.  Do these things for just one month straight and you will amaze yourself.

1.  Stop reading books, tutorials, and how-to’s on photography – just for now.

I believe wholeheartedly in learning from others and trying the things that have worked for them.  Books are quite possibly one of my favorite things on the planet, and I don’t think you should ever stop reading.  However, there is a lot to be gained from taking the occasional break.  Why?

It is so easy to get caught up in trying to absorb as much information as we can in order to get better that we forget that we are not human sponges.  We are human beings.  Therefore, we must be a photographer in order to produce good photos.  Take a break from all the other voices out there who are telling you all their tips and tricks and spend some time listening to the inspiration that compels you to do certain things.

That inspiration is the beginning of your unique voice.  Right now it’s whispering in your ear, barely audible.  If you want to hear it, you need to turn down the volume on everyone else.  As you listen to your own voice, it will slowly get louder, and guide you on your own path.  But you won’t know where to go if you don’t listen first.

2.  Spend at least 15-20 minutes a day taking photos.

More, if you can – but it’s the consistency that counts.

Try this: grab your camera, open your front door and step outside.  Now go for a walk and take multiple pictures of every single thing that catches your eye.  Don’t discriminate!  Even if you know the photo is going to be bad, take it anyway.  Fill up your memory card.  Fill up two if you can.  Just take a TON of photos.

Now go home and load them into your computer.  Here’s the key: don’t be discouraged if you don’t like what you see!  Remember, most of these aren’t going to turn out.  That’s ok!  It’s just an experiment.  Keep the ones you like, and throw the rest of them away.  There’s something very liberating about trashing bad photos.  You suddenly feel lighter.  And then when you look a the good ones next to each other you already begin to feel better about your skills.

The next day, do the same exact walk.  You might be surprised by the fact that a whole bunch of new things catch your eye!  All of your photos from this walk will be completely different, even if you retraced your steps exactly.  Isn’t that cool?

The point is, just get out there taking photos.  The practice is the most important thing you can do to improve.  You will learn from your own “mistakes” and you will automatically get a better eye for composition without even having to try.  Practice doesn’t make perfect – but it does make pretty freaking awesome!

3.  Change the way you talk to yourself about your abilities.

This one takes a little effort if you’re used to looking at your work and feeling your heart sink and frequently think thoughts like, “see, Tien?  You suck!  Everyone else out there is so much better than you.  You’re just not improving fast enough.”  But changing the way you think is the second most important thing, after practice.

–  Give yourself permission to take endless bad photos.

–  Remind yourself that anything you don’t like can go in the trash and you will never have to look at it again.

–  When you are feeling frustrated, remind yourself that even creative geniuses create things that they don’t like; in fact, they are often their own worst critics.

–  You might not be seeing your photos as they actually are, but through your own “not good enough” filters.  They might be better than you think.

–  Look at those photos you took that you do like all the time.

–  Recognize that you are good, that you have created wonderful things and you continue to do so.

–  Remember that you are only going to get better.

–  If you can, try listening to music that makes you feel good when you take photos.  Your emotions will translate naturally into the picture.

–  Try to take photos when you are in a really good mood.  This doesn’t mean make excuses to not go out if you’re in a bad mood, it just means that if you’re feeling great and you have time, go take some extra pictures.  When you are feeling good, you will automatically take better photos.  (Seriously!  I’m not kidding about this one!)

4.  Keep your compliments and re-read them.

Write down the compliments that you get on your work, and keep them all in one place.  If people compliment you on the internet, copy/paste them into a word document.  If you are feeling resistance to this idea, that is probably a pretty good sign that you should do it.  Sometimes we might have a hard time accepting praise from people.  We might think that they’re just saying that to be nice, or even that they don’t know what they’re talking about.  But if you can’t let in the praise from other people, you will never be able to accept praise from yourself.

It is very important to let those compliments sink in and read them again from time to time.  When you feel good about yourself and your abilities, you are allowing yourself to experience and savor the greatness that is already inside of you.  You are giving yourself permission to truly feel like the talented, wildly successful photographer that you ultimately want to be.

5.  Shift your entire perception.

Here’s a fun exercise for the next time you go out and take photos.  Rather than focusing on the technical aspects of photo taking, try letting go and not thinking about it at all.  Don’t think about angles, composition, lighting, or any of that.  Instead, simply look around you.  Drink in whatever beauty you see.  Notice what the light touches, and illuminates.  What does your eye go to first?  What is the most colorful?  What has the most interesting shapes?

Say you see a flower that is incredibly striking.  It’s the only purple one in a field of yellow, and the sun is peeking through the clouds and casting this gorgeous halo across its soft petals.  Stand there for a moment and absorb and appreciate its beauty.  Maybe you’ve never truly looked at a flower before.  Don’t try to take a good photo; just take the time to appreciate and see it in all its glory.  After all, in a few days that flower will probably be gone.  This is a truly spectacular moment.

And then don’t think about it.  Take three, five, twenty photos of that subject in different ways, from different angles, but don’t try to make it good.  Just make it an exercise in seeing the flower in as many new ways as you can through your lens.  Adjust settings, but allow it to be an intuitive process, rather than a logical one.  Do this a few times with different subject and see what happens.

Making Ugly is Good

One of the smartest people I know (aka Mom) is a professional artist and a teacher.  There have been countless times I have gone to her after drawing a particularly ugly picture or trying to take a photo that doesn’t turn out, completely frustrated because “I just want it to BE GOOD! Gah!”  She always reminds me, “When you’re making a lot of ugly, it’s a sure sign that you’re about to have a breakthrough.”

A lot of people quit when they’re not doing as good as they think they should be doing, because they take it as a sign that they must be bad.  But the truth is, that’s just how the learning curve works.  Every time I create something new and brilliant and wonderful, I always take a look at what I created right before (if I haven’t thrown it away already) – and it’s usually especially terrible!

But isn’t that good to know?  Next time you don’t like what you’re creating, don’t get mad at yourself.  Instead, remember this and take it as a sign that good things are in the works.  “Making ugly” is like the creative brain’s way of rearranging and reordering itself to make room for new pathways and new ways of doing things.  Work through it, and watch what you create in the next day or so.  You might just be pleasantly surprised.

Oh Where, Oh Where Can Your Unique Voice Be?

There is no cut and dry pathway to finding your unique voice.  I can’t give you a formula, because there isn’t one.  Every great photographer will do things differently.  Discovering your style is a journey of letting go and listening to the voices within you; of noticing what inspires you the most and implementing that into everything that you create.

A person’s style is constantly in a state of flux – it will evolve and change over time.  It is not an end result to strive for, but rather a way of being.  A way of allowing your voice to speak through you and to others.

I can tell you this: nourish your creative process.  Love everything you create – the good and the bad.  Enjoy the process and do it because you love it.

And when you do, you will slowly discover the voice that has always been within you.  And when you speak, the world will listen and watch with awe.

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