Should a photographer focus on one type of photography and attempt to create a recognizable brand/style or should he/she continually venture into new and different areas? I have read several opinions arguing both sides of the topic. I think there are pros and cons to both arguments. In the end however, I think a photographer is best served by following their own creative vision, which may be a single style or may be several.
Some photographers are very well branded because of their style and/or subject matter; Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz just to name a couple. I probably spend more time looking at other photographers’ images than I should, but I find that I can often identify the photographer by the image itself, especially for genre specific photographers. I’m not always 100% accurate, but more so than not. For example, Michael Goh of Astrophotobear is very recognizable for both his style and subject matter. There are a lot of very good astrophotographers out there but his works stands out to me. But even then, he will occasionally posts images that have nothing to do with astrophotography – and they are just as stunning.
An example of a phenomenal portrait photographer I follow is Kelly Schneider of Captured Journeys Photography. He too has a very recognizable style for most of his images, especially his female portraits. Again, when I am quickly scrolling through my photography feeds on my phone or desktop, I can spot his images almost immediately. Only rarely have I seen one of his images without a person in it – usually some sort of wedding ceremony. Whether on purpose or just a result of his work over time, his work definitely has a recognizable style. His work is gorgeous and stunning. I only wish I could get portraits as great as his. I can only assume he loves doing this type of photography. As a result of his style, he has quite a few followers and I’m sure a good clientele base as well.
Then there are the photographers that are all over the map in terms of subject matter and style. One of my personal favorites is Bernhard Beser. He simply has some amazing images that include portraits, landscapes, nudes, abstracts, to just about anything else you can think of. Because he delves into so many different areas and ideas, I have a very difficult time recognizing his work immediately. I will simply notice an image I like only to find out he was the photographer. This has happened so many times that I follow his work specifically to see what he comes up with next. In some aspects I anticipate looking at his work more so than other photographers. I know what I will get with Kelly Schneider (amazing portraits) and Michael Goh (breathtaking astrophotography) but Bernhard Beser keeps me guessing. I must admit, I enjoy the diversity.
The benefits of creating a ‘brand look’ are obvious. You create a fan base of followers and a clientele base that will seek you out for your style. You tend to become excellent and proficient at that style - the proverbial 'master'. One of the drawbacks is that you may start to get pigeon-holed in the type of work people start to expect from you. This may not be a drawback if your particular ‘style’ is something you love to do with no intention of doing anything else, but if you get tired of the genre and want to branch out, you may receive some blowback from diehard followers. I also think repeating the same style can become less challenging. Although your skills are more finely honed each time you repeat the style, I also feel you are less challenged as you have already discovered what works and what doesn’t, more or less. Again, this could be a benefit or a curse depending on your specific personal goals as a photographer.
At this point in my photographic journey, I am not looking to brand myself. I am looking to grow my skills, techniques, and talents. I love being the jack of all trades. My photographic work shifts over time; sometimes returning to themes I’ve already explored. Sometimes I find myself more interested in portraiture or people pics. Other times I find myself drawn to macro or abstract photography. Yet other times I find myself yearning to aim my gear at a dark star-filled sky. Photography is one of the few areas in my life that I have complete control over. I can do what I want, when I want to. Since photography is not my main source of income, I feel that I am not constrained by trying to always please the customer. I engage in photography because I enjoy it, period. I share my work because I want to, not because I have to. Some people like my work and others couldn’t care less. To each their own.
If you are a photographer looking to find your ‘style’ or ‘brand’, just keep snapping away and you will probably discover it along the way. If you are a photographer stuck in a certain genre either because of your prior work or because that’s simply what you’ve always done, keep in mind you probably got into photography because it can be immensely creative and fresh. Don’t be afraid to break away from what you are used to doing and try something different – even if this means keeping a private portfolio your normal followers and clientele do not see. If you’re a photographer and you’re put off by the whole notion of limiting yourself to certain subjects or styles, that’s completely fine too. I am a firm believer that once you start to bend your creative vision to what others expect from you, the joy of photography quickly fades and it becomes work and a burden. Do what you like, and if that changes over time, go with the change. I would rather have my photography be all over the map enjoying every minute of it than being forced into a style to make a living regretting every minute of it.
A simple request changed my photographic style, permanently. A dear friend of mine, Alecia Earle, asked me to take photos at her wedding several years ago. I declined. I had never really aimed my lens at anything other than the night sky prior to her request. For months it bothered me that I was too afraid to delve into the world of ‘people pics’. It bothered me so much, I simply had to at least try. Years later, I am almost addicted to portraiture, albeit unusual portraiture. Don’t get me wrong, there is no model quite as beautiful as the moon in a star filled sky, but aiming my lens a tad lower at earthbound stars has become quite rewarding.
In all honesty, some of the fear of photographing her wedding came from the fact that she was, and still is, an accomplished photographer herself. It’s like having a world renowned chef taste your cooking. I wasn’t sure I would meet her expectations. Alecia is the photographer behind A.E. Photography. I guess I should be flattered that another photographer saw something in my images that made her confident I could create great pictures of her wedding. To this day she is still a photographer I admire and try to emulate. Her experience dates back to her high school days where she worked in a portrait studio learning the trade first hand. Her experience is clearly evident in her work. A master at ‘people pics’ and posing, I find myself attracted most to her flowers, wildlife, and landscape images. She is also one of the reasons I started to experiment with macro photography.
I met Alecia through our work. Although a great co-worker, my relationship with her changed drastically one mundane afternoon. As mentioned before, my first love and passion is astrophotography. I love all things in the night sky. Sitting at my desk one day, Alecia entered my office and handed me a hardbound book. I opened the cover and realized she had taken several of my astrophotography images I had posted online and had created a beautiful bound book of them. I can’t remember the day before that event or the day after, but I can remember that moment as if it just happened. Should I fall prey to losing my memory in old age, I am convinced that will be one of the few memories I will hold onto forever.
She also did a themed project using the alphabet. She took each letter of the alphabet and created a daily photographic series based on the day’s letter. I found myself eagerly waiting for the next letter/day. I hope she finds the time to start another creative series.
Not only is she a good friend and an excellent photographer, she has also offered herself as a model for some of my crazy ideas. There is nothing more exciting and fun than to work with someone that is equally excited about working on a project together. Yes, it is a little nerve-racking having an experienced photographer as a model, but she has been nothing but supportive. I am excited to continue to work with her on my crazy ideas as well as continuing to learn from her as a fellow photographer. She is the first person I would recommend for family, couple, or wedding photography (as long as it’s not on the same day she is modeling for me). I simply love her work and get excited every time I see her post new images on her page. Hopefully, someday, I will be as good at ‘people pics’ as A.E. Photography.
I recently had lunch with a good friend and fellow photographer Greg Worthen who, for a lack of a better term, specializes in black and white (b&w) portraiture. It was a great opportunity for me to pick his brain on how he gets such amazing images so routinely. It was also a great opportunity to get his perspective on photography in general.
One of the few followers of my work, Greg was quick to point out my blog posts discussing Photoshop and mirrorless cameras. Not only does he own and master a mirrorless camera, he also does very little editing on his images. His camera is simply amazing. It is incredibly lightweight and sharp with a fixed focal length non-interchangeable lens. In addition, it gives him the ability to view his composition in b&w before taking the shot. He also explained that if he can’t get the shot in camera, he is reluctant to crop the image in post just to try and save the image. All this being said, always take advice from anyone, myself included, with a grain of salt. He is a perfect example of how my previous opinions on Photoshop and mirrorless cameras are just that, opinions.
If you are anything like me, your b&w photography consists of desaturating an image you like to see how it looks in b&w with maybe some minor adjustments or filters. I am convinced this is the wrong way to achieve amazing b&w images. You should be composing your scenes specifically with b&w in mind before you even pick up your camera. B&w images typically have much higher levels of contrast than most color images. Getting it right, in camera, goes a long way in creating great b&w picture. It is a skill and talent that takes a fair amount of practice to perfect. My friend has been a photographer for years and that experience shows in his work.
With the ability to snap a quick picture on a cell phone and immediately share it on social media, we are inundated with random images, but there is something very powerful about a properly presented b&w portrait. It draws you in. You are forced to notice the image and truly consider it. Greg's images beg you to try and figure out the story behind the picture. This is exactly what his photography does for me. He is also an expert at making his images look very candid. It’s as if the model has no idea there is a camera in the vicinity. Aside from the great images, Greg has created a website and Facebook page devoted to his continuing work called Project Other. “Project-other is about capturing the humanity we share by exploring the subcultures where we define ourselves when we don’t otherwise fit into what society considers ‘normal.’” His images and message taken together, make his work phenomenal. A comment on one of his pictures says it best. “I love these photos...there is so much emotion… and they have a story to be told. They are awesome.” Couldn't agree more!
As a photographer, I spend a fair amount of my free time simply browsing the work of other photographers. I don’t limit my browsing to just other professional photographers, but I browse images posted by friends on Facebook, Flickr, 500px, Tumblr, etc., and even images randomly captured on my friends’ cell phones. Great images can be found just about anywhere. With the proliferation of advanced smart phones and the cameras built into them, everyone can be a photographer. But does that mean you ask your friend to swing by your wedding to take pictures with their latest and greatest smartphone? Probably not.
So then what is the difference between a good photographer and a great photographer? Short answer: the person looking at the picture. It’s that simple. You can find site after site of people telling you how the image has to evoke a feeling or emotion. You will find other sites that rate great photographers on their composition, lighting, use of leading lines, subject matter, etc. and so on and so on. I think this is a very traditional way of defining great photography and therefore great photographers and it makes sense to a point. But only to a point!
Photography is both a science and an art. Don’t believe me? Google the term “inverse-square law” for light. Since ‘photography’ literally means capturing light, the inverse-square law is fairly important to photography. Another example is having your settings manually set in your camera, taking a picture, looking at it, and realizing you need 2 more stops of light to get the picture you want. Instead of blindly changing a setting or two and taking several more pictures, a photographer that understands the science can more quickly, and more accurately, get to the desired outcome.
But there is more to it than just being scientifically proficient and accurate with lighting and camera settings. There is the art of photography and with any art, the value is defined by the viewer. A picture of something, anything, may get a certain response from one person and yet a completely different response from someone else. Neither response is right or wrong. If you are about to get married and have a very traditional ceremony in mind, you may want very soft looking pictures with loving expressions and glowing sunsets behind a kissing couple. But what if you and your significant other want a non-traditional ceremony with Harley-Davidson motorcycles as a theme and an array of tattoo images as the focus? The finished images will probably be quite different. What appeals to one may not appeal to another. What one considers art, another may consider junk, or even offensive and THAT’S OKAY! If someone, somewhere, isn’t offended by it, it’s probably not art.
All of this is a long winded way to say a ‘great’ photographer is who you think is a great photographer. As mentioned in the beginning of this blog, I follow all types of photography by all types of photographers. Some award-winning photographers with images published in several different publications don’t interest me near as much as a random photo a kid may have taken with a toy camera; even if the award-winning photographer may be proficiently flawless! A ‘great’ photographer as defined by Sports Illustrated may not be a great photographer as defined by National Geographic. If you are looking for a photographer for any occasion, look at their work! If it speaks to you in a way that makes you want to work with them, you have probably discovered a great photographer.
If you are a photographer and are wondering if your work is great, keep in mind that you may be able to please all of the people some of the time, or maybe even some of the people all of the time, but you will never please all of the people all of the time. Even as a photographer, if your work speaks to you, regardless of what others think, you are a great photographer. And stop comparing! “Comparison is the death of joy.” ~ Mark Twain.
Keep the interesting parts of life in focus.