In these days of social media overload, it’s easy for photographers to become discouraged or to think that we can’t possibly create something as good as the imagery in our feeds. As artists, we may begin to feel as though our work isn’t good enough, or that we aren’t as talented as other photographers. Worse yet, some of us might even feel like we need to change how we shoot or edit in order to mirror peers who have a photography style we like or a social media following we envy.
I feel you, friend. I’ve been there. And, I’ve had this very discussion with several friends — all talented, accomplished photographers — and they’ve all been there too. Rest assured, you are not alone if you feel this way. But, let’s get one thing straight right now: There is a space for you in the photography community and your talent is worth sharing.
Whether you are further down the path of your photography journey, or only scratching the surface of your unique style as a photographer, there is more inside you just waiting to be discovered, created and shared with the world. I’m going to share my own photography journey and the process I went through to search for and find my artistic voice in the hope that you’ll begin or continue on your own path to finding your photography style.
In the beginning, photography brought me pure joy.
Photography has been a part of my life since I was a young girl. I asked for a film camera for my seventh birthday (a hot pink one to be exact) and I’ll never forget the smell of opening my first roll of film. My father helped me load it into my camera and then handed it to me to capture whatever my heart wanted with no restrictions. It was one of the most freeing memories I have from my childhood.
Back then, I didn’t have anyone telling me what was on trend or how I should shoot. I didn’t have other photographers to compare my work to. And, my goodness, was that ever empowering! No presets. No Instagram. Just me and my camera. I loved what I created, and it brought me pure joy. That was enough.
The 5 steps to finding my photography style and voice:
A few years ago, I decided I wanted to feel free and empowered in my photography, like I did as a kid. I set out to take control over my photography style and find myself in my craft again. Here’s how:
1. I examined what I found most beautiful in photos.
One of the first things I did in finding my artistic style was to step back and evaluate what makes a photograph beautiful to me. I went through my own personal portfolio, as well as several client galleries, and pulled out all the images that truly spoke to me. I didn’t require myself to identify a specific reason for loving the photograph. If it moved me and held my attention, I pulled it.
I created a folder for these images on my hard drive with the hope that once I saw all the images side-by-side, I would be able to narrow down what spoke to my artistic heart. Here’s what I discovered about myself:
- I’m an environmental photographer at my core. The scene is just as important as the subject in my images.
- I am drawn to a feeling of connection to my subject, between two subjects in my frame, or between my subject and nature.
- Light is very important to me and adds a level of emotion to every image I truly love.
- I’m drawn to movement, such as wind-blown hair, flowing dresses, or kids running and exploring.
- I need to feel emotion in my images. Whether it’s the expression on my little girl’s face, the richness and contrast of tones, or direct eye contact with my subject, all of my favorite images have an emotional element.
These five bullets became my focus as I worked toward creating a portfolio that was consistent and reflective of my own unique style. Instead of trying to mimic photography styles that I loved or photographers that I admired — and instead of feeding into what I thought people wanted from me — I turned the tables and began answering to my own heart. This was a critical first step in understanding my own unique photography style.
Exercise 1: Discovering what you find beautiful.
I invite you to dig deeper and find what’s most beautiful to you in this world. Create a folder and drop in your most prized images. Please note, this is not your Instagram gallery! Do not pull images just because they were popular on social media. Don’t withhold an image because it isn’t compositionally perfect or because it doesn’t follow every photography rule. Do not concern yourself with which images your clients chose to print. I want you to go deeper than all that. I want you to pull the images that speak to YOUR artistic heart. Your folder may end up with 100 images or there may be only one or two. It doesn’t matter. However many there are, study them. Breathe them in. Analyze them. What story do they tell? Do you see any similarities? Write it all down.
Through this exercise, you’ll peel away a layer of your artistic voice and photography style that will help you shoot with more intention.
2. I focused on the types of photography I love most.
Once I figured out what speaks to my heart in photographs, I needed to narrow my focus. I was accepting an unreasonable number of client sessions, of all types, and was so burned out that I could barely hold myself together. I was experiencing regular panic attacks and rarely found time to shoot for myself and document my own family. I was brewing coffee at 9 p.m., after the kids were tucked in, so that I could edit client sessions, because that was the only quiet time I had to focus. To be honest, I was miserable. I had dug myself into a hole and was no longer enjoying the one creative outlet that had always brought me so much happiness.
I realized two things: First, I needed to shoot more intentionally. Second, I needed to shoot what spoke to my heart.
I knew that these changes would allow me to not only enjoy client photography again, but that putting my energy into work I was passionate about would make me a stronger artist. So, I set to work, rebranding my business to offer exclusively what I loved to photograph most: newborns. I also used this rebranding as an opportunity to shoot and edit in the same style as I had been shooting and editing my personal work, which is the style that made me truly happy.
Turning down work was scary at first, but as it turned out, these changes brought me a new clientele who loved my style — my true style — and were willing to pay me MORE. This was a critical moment in my photography journey: I realized that doing what I loved was more valued than doing what I thought everyone wanted. It also allowed me to curate larger galleries for each of my client sessions because when I photographed with my heart, I created more work that I loved, that felt more authentic, and that I was proud to give to my clients.
This process, though scary and a bit risky, allowed me to align my client work with my personal work. It gave me a newfound freedom in my client work and was the single most impactful decision I’ve ever made for my professional business. Now, every time I leave my family to meet a newborn, I feel confident that I will enjoy the work, that my time and craft are truly valued, and that the experience will be a rewarding one. And just like that, I love my job again.
Reflect on your personal passions.
On a personal level, I took time to reflect on what things I’m most passionate about. I’ve found that my favorite things to photograph are my family, travel locations, and my plants. I bring my camera along on all of my family’s adventures and capture us in our element, exploring and connecting. Capturing the ever-growing bonds between my children brings me more happiness that I can ever put into words. I take time to photograph my plants, practice freelensing and capture moments of me and my daughter planting. I even accepted a special year-long project with my town’s local flower shop, which has been an amazing opportunity to combine two of my passions into one amazing gig. These projects have allowed me to grow and learn more about myself and my style and have given me a newfound consistency in my portfolio, thus peeling away yet another layer of my unique artistic voice.
Exercise 2: What kind of photography brings you joy?
Take a moment to honestly evaluate your client or personal work (or both). Is there a certain category of work that you don’t enjoy? Are there jobs you take on that don’t make your heart sing? If so, it may be time to remove those items from your portfolio and to stop accepting those types of jobs so you can focus your time and energy on creating art that speaks to you.
You should also examine whether there is there a category of work that you enjoy most and would like to do more of. It may be time to take the leap and make that your focus. The right subject will help you further define your style and keep you from burning out. If you love what you’re shooting, you’ll give your artistic voice a platform on which to sing. This unveils yet another layer of your artistic voice.
3. I learned to shoot with purpose.
I used to be obsessed with capturing every moment. I’d shoot rapid fire with my camera in front of my face from the moment I arrived at any given location until the moment I left. I’d forgotten to be in the moment. Though I was present physically, I wasn’tt a part of the memories made in the way I wanted to be, and I was not telling the story I wanted to tell.
While that phase of photography was an integral part of the growing and learning process for me, I’ve realized that it’s more important to slow down and shoot with purpose. Now, I stop and evaluate my environment when I arrive at a new location. I breathe the scene in for a bit so I can familiarize myself with the compositional elements around me. I think about my images and compose them in my head before reaching for my camera, and I have a clear focus on creating the aspects of photography that I discovered in my initial “what is beautiful” exercise above. I shoot in an intentional and meaningful way. This focus on quality over quantity helps me to pick up my camera only when I feel truly moved to do so.
Exercise 3: Shoot with intention.
As photographers, we often see the world around us in frames. I invite you to try shooting more intentionally the next time you are photographing your family or a client session. Envision the scene, position yourself for light and composition, and then wait for a moment to inspire you before you click.
Following those frames you see when you look around at your environment will allow you to capture what is truly most meaningful to you. This, in turn, will allow you to produce your most genuine, authentic work and home in on your photography style.
4. I stopped allowing my photography style to be directed by other people.
The single most critical turning point for me in my photography journey was the moment I stopped creating for others and began creating for me. It was a freeing revelation, and something that took a great deal of courage.
I will never forget the day a boutique brand reached out to me and said, “I love your work and want to send you some of our dresses, but can you edit your images with a light and airy feel? I’m not really into the dark moody look.” Reading that sentence, I realized that how I choose to edit my work was also very much part of my unique style and it was not negotiable.
I started to take a deeper look into my editing style. At the time, I was using trendy action sets and presets that I had bought online. And, while I liked them, they didn’t quite express my own personal photography style. My clients loved my photos and they did well enough on Instagram, but something was missing. So, I sat down one day and created my own preset. I crafted the tones, hues, colors, and skin tones that spoke to me and that complemented the scenes I love and the colors I choose when developing my children’s wardrobes.
I began sharing my work in this new editing style — my editing style — and was overwhelmed by the positive feedback I received. For the first time, my work stood out from the crowd because it was unique to me, and it blended perfectly with my shooting style, favorite colors and location choices. This was another layer of my artistic voice that I was able to unfold.
A heart-to-heart about social media.
Social media has influenced photographers in many ways, both positively and negatively. It has given us a space for our photography portfolio to live and grow, and it comes with an incredible community where we can share our work, be supported, and be supportive. But it has also made us second guess our work, compare ourselves to others, and nitpick our own work in a way we would never dream of doing to others.
It’s so easy to fall into this rut and lose sight of your own creative identity. Like many of my friends, I’ve walked those paths and still find myself traveling down them from time to time. When this happens, I search for the light. I push past the algorithms and dismal engagement stats by reminding myself why I ever picked up a camera to begin with: I’m a creative and photography is my favorite creative outlet. Because I want to document the world and share what it looks like through my eyes. Because I enjoy documenting my family and want to leave behind a legacy in photographs. A story. Their story. My story. And I refuse to let social media determine my worth.
5. I found my people.
If you’re reading this article, you have an incredible community of like-minded photographers at your fingertips just waiting to welcome you in. Clickin Moms and Click Pro are overflowing with creatives you can learn from, lean on, share information with and bounce ideas off of. So jump in with us! Share your work on the boards. Enter the contests. Join the collaborations and loops. These are wonderful opportunities to learn and grow and, in turn, find your own unique photography style and artistic voice.
It’s easy to get lost in the sea of social media and to become trapped in the comparison loop. Finding your photography style and focusing on what matters most to you helps block out the noise and provides a sense of freedom. I hope you’ve found some tools in my words to help you dig deeper and hone your craft. Once you begin to put your energy into the aspects of your work that truly speak to you, your unique artistic voice and photography style will surface, as it did for me. Remember why you picked up a camera in the first place.
Photos by Jess Buttermore