When I was starting out in photography, the advice I heard most often went something like this: “Pick a specialty, stick with it, and make a name for yourself in that particular area of photography. You can’t stand out in a sea of photographers unless you’re highly specialized.” I tried hard to pigeonhole myself early in my career and be the best photographer in my field. Whenever I’d see an interesting workshop or breakout that had nothing to do with family/newborn/motherhood photography, I’d tell myself attending wouldn’t be the best use of my time, money and energy — right?
Hyper-focusing on one area of photography is perhaps good advice for running a business, but it’s not necessarily the best way to achieve personal growth. It’s only when I allow myself to explore diverse types of photography that I experience the most personal growth, and it’s made me a stronger portrait photographer.
Through studying the three additional genres of landscape, macro and underwater, I’m able to refine my personal style and figure out what I am drawn to, and, in turn, what kind of clients will be drawn to me.
Next to portraiture, landscape is probably my favorite type of photography, so I took a workshop and learned new techniques I could apply to my portrait work.
I started out shooting solely with a 50mm lens, a gift from my parents. My first upgrade was to an 85mm lens, as I’d heard it’s among the most flattering for portraits. I wanted that creamy bokeh and beautiful background compression, and I envisioned styled portraits with gorgeous backlighting. In time, though, I found my images didn’t make my heart sing. In the landscape workshop, we discussed lenses at length; to try my hand at those sweeping landscapes, I rented a wide-angle lens, and fell in love. Now my Tamron 15-30mm is on my camera at least half the time, and I frequently photograph my kids at 15mm. I discovered that my favorite kind of portrait is something of a candid environmental portrait, or what I like to call “landscapes with people in them.” I love to capture how small my kids are in the big world, and their wonder of discovering all that’s around them.
I’d considered myself fairly proficient in composition, but learning about landscapes taught me to think about more than where my main subject is in the frame and to consider all the players. For example, where is the horizon line, and not only in relation to my subject? Is it in the top or bottom third, or straight across the middle? Am I using the secondary players to help support my subject rather than compete with it; am I using vegetation for framing, pathways and structural elements to lead into the frame? Am I thinking about how the colors affect the mood and impact of the image?
So you don’t have to shoot every portrait at the lowest possible aperture — who knew! I say that in jest, but seriously, my go-to settings had revolved around getting beautiful bokeh in my background. Now I always make a conscious choice of what I want to say with my image before choosing the aperture. More often than not, I choose a higher aperture to include elements surrounding my subject in the fore-, mid- and background, and let them play together to create a story. Sometimes, to get a beautiful sunburst, I’ll shoot as high as f/22.
Landscapes require lots of moving parts to come together to make a story. Macro is almost the opposite. Learning about macro photography has helped me appreciate simplicity in a frame and really nail the few factors that are present.
Without good lighting, a macro image falls totally flat. Lighting is important in all photography, but with macro, it’s everything. Macro allowed me to experiment with types of lighting that would have been difficult to master with moving subjects. I learned that I’m drawn to using single source, directional lighting (usually side lighting) for dramatic images. Now I almost always use this kind of lighting with people if the conditions allow.
Looking for beauty in the smallest details caused me to really think about the things around me that I love. For instance, I adore my youngest son’s sweet hands and the way he holds things in his chubby fingers. I love my middle son’s long eyelashes and how expressive his eyes are. In many of my images now, I try to clear everything else out of the frame and zoom in on those small elements. I want to make images that help me remember those beloved parts of my babies.
“Lighting is important in all photography but with macro, it’s everything.”
Underwater photography is one of my newest loves. What a great way to engage my kids so that they enjoy being in front of the camera. The first time out with an underwater camera, I was horrified with the images I came back with. There’s a steep learning curve to getting pictures to look like I envisioned, so I’ve been on a research mission the last few months. I’ve already learned so much in such a short time that I can now apply to my land photography.
When I started out in photography, editing in general stressed me out. I didn’t really want to spend 45 minutes perfecting an image, did I? Now I love learning about new editing techniques, ways that I can tweak a picture just so to make it more polished. For instance, who knew about the Auto Tone feature in Photoshop? I’ve also learned to love playing with hue/saturation and color balance layers to alter the skin tones and other colors in my underwater pictures and make them really pop. And this leads into my next point:
Because the majority of the frame underwater is blue or aqua or green, the other colors become really important. I take this into account now in dressing my subject and editing my images; I might change the color of a swimsuit to make it contrast more with the water. There’s nothing that pops like a red swimsuit against a blue background! Since I’ve learned the best ways to make color changes, I now reach for those tools in my other work.
Which other photography genres do you love?
Tell us in the comments! We want to hear how you stretch your creative muscles beyond portraits. Do you have a new love of landscape photography? Macro? Flat lay? How does your “other” work influence your people photos?
All photos by Megan Arndt
This article first appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Click Magazine.