“Sometimes,” observed the great jazz musician Miles Davis, “you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”
Sometimes? I think he was graciously understating it. For most of us, learning to shoot like ourselves is not only a long journey but a necessarily winding one.
When we first begin to make photographs and take our first steps towards learning to shoot like ourselves, most of us do a lot of emulation. As best as I can tell, all artists in all disciplines do this as a necessary part of their growth. We see what others have done to good effect; something in their work resonates with us (it must or we’d never notice it, much less try to imitate it), and we try it on for size.
Over the years, it’s possible you’ve tried on a lot of techniques, looking for a fit, searching for your style. Some have fit nicely and you’ve adopted them into what is becoming more and more your voice. Others, well, not so much. The white vignette and over-the-top HDR phase usually doesn’t last long, and for this, we can thank Ernst Haas and all his saints.
Style, or what I prefer to call voice, is not easy to come to.
In part, I think that’s because we’re looking for it when it’s not as much a thing that is found as something we create—something we choose. It begins with emulation. If it can be tidily carved into stages, that is stage one, and it probably shouldn’t be rushed. In fact, most beginners would do well to spend some quality time here and go deeper with emulation (without being self-conscious or ashamed of copying) before moving on too quickly.
When it comes to both learning your craft and finding your voice within it, the more influences you have, the better.
And the more you play with those influences and the more combinations you can experiment with, the better you’ll be able to make choices about what is and is not “you.”
Imagine you walk into a store to buy a new outfit. From top to bottom, you’d need a shirt, jeans, a belt, socks, and shoes. You’ll try a lot of things on. Some will fit, some won’t. Some combinations will be fantastic; others won’t work together at all. Some would look great on someone else, but not on you. And some, well, some combinations fit great but they do more than just fit—they also just feel right. They feel like you.
Fit is not everything. When you emulate the work of others and try on every new technique you come across, you’re looking for fit, but also more than fit. You’re looking for resonance. You’re looking for you in the combinations. As a photographer, style is not found in one choice but in many. It’s created by a mash-up of many influences and techniques.
But while having a unique style is a valuable goal, I think we can do better. In acknowledging the long road to “playing like yourself,” Miles Davis isn’t encouraging us to find our style; he’s encouraging us to find ourselves. Or rather, he’s making a case for finding our voice.
What’s the difference? Style is expression. It’s all external. It’s what we see. Voice goes further. Voice is not only how we express something, but what we express. Voice includes what we say.
Style can be somewhat accidental; sometimes we just settle on a set of techniques and preferences and we camp out there. Sometimes we’re just lazy and never move on from what is comfortable, even easy. No matter what we photograph, we employ the same techniques with the camera and the same treatments in post-production. If it’s distinct enough, someone might say they like your “style.” But it is possible to have style and never say anything specific with your photographs. It’s possible to have a style and for all the pieces to fit, but for that style to lack harmony with who you really are.
Voice is a better metaphor. Voice includes what we say. Style is only one part of voice.
So why does this matter? Why split hairs about this? Well, I suspect if you sat down with Miles Davis, he’d tell you playing for a long time does not automatically result in playing like yourself. I suspect he’d tell you there was a lot of conscious decision-making involved and that discovering how Miles Davis made music was about much more than how he played the trumpet.
Miles Davis didn’t find himself only in the playing; he found himself in all the decisions he made about what he played (and what he didn’t play), who he played with, why he played in the first place, and—yes—also how he played. See what I mean?
Look to the photographers who have had distinct voices. They’re all recognizable without seeing so much as a photo credit. But it’s more than that: they’re all saying something. They all have a unique point of view and a unique way of expressing it. It’s hard to mistake a Sally Mann photograph for someone else’s. Steve McCurry photographs specific subjects in a very specific way that is identifiably “Steve McCurry.” Sam Abell. Vivian Maier. Saul Leiter. Diane Arbus. Diane Arbus is a great example of a photographer with a distinct voice that comes through in what she photographs and how.
When you speak about a photographer with a distinct voice (assuming you have some familiarity with their work), you find yourself saying, “Oh, that’s the photographer who…” and you can complete the sentence with what they photograph and how. That’s much more than style. It’s deeper. Style is the surface expression of a deeper substance. It’s a choice, or series of choices, that can only meaningfully come after first making decisions about what you want to say.
At some point, your next step as a photographer is to move past emulation and the trying on of every technique and trend in the hopes of finding what fits and discovering and making intentional choices about what is truly you. That’s in how you express yourself photographically, but it’s also in what you express. We can only point our cameras at so many things and explore so many ideas if we hope for any depth in our work—anything more than passing familiarity with our subjects or any of the insights that only come with time. The more depth, familiarity, and insight you hope for, the fewer subjects you will photograph.
Over the coming weeks, I’m going to begin a conversation about voice. I want to make a case for greater depth in your work. For more intentional decisions about not only what your photographs look like (the style) but what they’re about (the substance), and for the value in finding not only what fits but what is truly you.
Sometimes you have to shoot a long time to be able to shoot like yourself, but there are choices you can make as you do so that give you a better chance than merely hoping to stumble across yourself along the way.
The first—and necessary—stage of our photographic lives is often spent making images that are more and more like what others have done. We spend the rest of that journey (with the occasional detour back to emulations to learn and explore) doing the opposite as we try to make work that is more and more like us and less and less like any one of the influences we initially learned from.
Are you open to an exercise?
Look at the best of the work you’ve made in the last two or three years. Don’t look much more than four or five years because you want to get a sense of the photographer you are now, not the one you once were. We all grow and change, and the point of this is to get a better sense of who you are now.
Now look at that work and ask yourself where the commonalities are in the very best of that work (by which I mean the work you are proudest of; the work you most resonate with as your own). What does that work have in common in terms of themes, ideas, or subjects? What’s it about? And what choices do you most often make in terms of the look of the images? What clues can you find about yourself and your preferences in that work? Maybe you prefer certain optics, or perhaps it’s certain points of view, or maybe you lean heavily toward specific kinds of compositions or colour palettes. What do you think I would find there if I looked over your shoulder?
If you choose to spend the time on that exercise, I’d love to hear from you. What did you discover about your tastes and preferences? What threads have you uncovered about who you are as a photographer? I know some of you will say you discovered you’re all over the map, but try to go deeper.
None of us are equally interested in all things; none of us are without preferences for certain colours or the tools of our craft that make images that look and feel a certain way. The first step might be being more sensitive to those and owning them unapologetically.
Your voice will be found in what makes you different from others, not in what makes you the same.
For the Love of the Photograph,
David, what I discovered were a few things. I tend to maintain true-to-life colours in post; am drawn to shadows a LOT (though soft shadows); am most intrigued by the very low perspective photos; and my focus these days is more on nature (not wildlife) whether in the backyard, on the beach, or in the forest than most anything else.
I used to photograph people a lot but it’s rare these days even though somehow I thought I still photographed people.
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I always have a good time reading your words! Most of te time I think about and do what you suggest but rarely leave a comment. This time your words came at the very right time. I am thinking about a new project. This exercise helped me with this proces. (Is this the beginning of a new on-line cours of you? I hope so )
I found out that what I like te most in my work is:
Animals in there environment (nature or city)
Funny situaties (pictures that make me smile)
I ment eye level of the animal how big or small
Hi Tea! It’s so good to hear from you again. Feels like it’s been a while. I hope you’re well!
And yes, you might be right about a new course. If you WERE right about it, it might be coming very soon. As early as September 25. Maybe. 😉
As always a thought provoking read David. I had occasion to look back to the very beginning of my photographic journey, 2007 and a shiny new Pentax K-10. After finding the image I was looking for I began random browsing and through the many images I occasionally, just occasionally found one which was so “me now” I had to check the date. There it was, the beginning of a theme which was to be woven into my work in a very subtle way right up to today. It has been honed, not in any deliberate way but simply by what suited my eye, what gave me that sharp intake of breath. Oh what a joy photography is!
Isn’t it?! 😁 I’m so glad you’re still finding such joy in it, Ann. Thanks for chiming in!
Very much looking forward to this conversation on voice! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I have that feeling like when you try to think of a word and it’s almost there but you just can’t quite grab it. Hoping the conservation here and the exercises you suggest will help.
As always, so good to read what you have to say. And you know what? I find myself reading it in YOUR voice, not mine. Isn’t that strange? When I read a book, it’s always my voice that reads back to me.
Looking back through my work over the last 4-5 years, I’ve found two selves of the photographer I am. One, the landscape and travel photographer who can’t wait for the next trip to the Himalaya or Rajasthan or wherever, and tries to capture a sense of how he felt about the place. How he felt when he was there. The visceral experience, not just a snapshot of a pretty sunset. And the other self is the street photographer, the photographer seemingly biding his time between landscape photography trips because he’d rather be out shooting in the streets than sitting at home watching Netflix. Biding his time? Ha! Thanks to COVID, travel restrictions and the general mess of the times we live in, I’ve done a LOT more street photography than landscape and travel photography, and the best part of it is that what I thought was an engaging filler has become something that’s more of an identity. I’m really enjoying street photography, and I do believe I’m getting better at it. Having started this journey in India, I was never shy about approaching people in the street, connecting with them and taking their picture, and I think it made for a better photograph, but it also gave me the time I needed to make that photograph. The instinct of a good street photographer – anticipation – was not really a part of my repertoire. I’ve found that this is something I’ve begun to develop. Identifying an opportunity, be it as a hunter or a fisherman, and being ready for it when the moment presents itself. And I can see that I’m shooting with more intent. I do intentionally try not to make the same picture as the next guy on Instagram. The same view of an iconic monument, the same picture of a man crossing the street (bonus points if he has an umbrella). I still have several misses for every hit, but I am getting better. I don’t know if that’s the same as finding my voice, but I’m certainly getting better at saying something. And that’s saying something.
I’m glad you’re travelling again..
My best, always,
I always appreciate your prompts for more in depth on my (our) work!
Looking back I struggled to find strong themes (not surprising since I would probably bemoan a lack of voice if someone had asked me before hand) but pulled out some vague threads. Living things (people/landscapes/animals/macro flowers), movement, drama and contrast. I found that my favorite images tended towards sharp color or tonal contrasts, implied or showed some sort of movement and often felt a little dramatic (I’m not sure if it’s the right word, thesaurus suggests showy? hotdog? peackocky?)
Is that voice or just what everyone hopes for in a good photo? I don’t know but it was a fun exercise 🙂
You are insightful, as always! When I read this article, I was initially at a loss in trying to think what commonalities are there in the images that I am most proud of, other than the fact that they are all about people. Going back through the last year with this question in mind was quite an interesting exercise. My favorite images are all people, but that’s what I photograph, mostly musicians and artists, with a few portraits here and there. There’s an occasional portrait in which I think I really got the lighting the way I wanted, and that’s satisfying, but the images that really stood out are the ones where my subject is clearly lost in the moment. For the musicians, it’s when they are totally absorbed in the music (and with a lot of the punk rock bands, that means screaming with abandon!). For the visual artists, it tends to be when they are concentrating intensely on their work, and if the image can convey that concentration and sense of being in the moment, then that becomes an image that really appeals to me. Now that I’ve gone through this seemingly simple exercise, it seems so obvious, even though I couldn’t quite articulate it before. Thank you!
David, thank you for another wonderful post and project! I reviewed my best work today. I am enchanted with wildlife and my best images are all MOMENTS – a cygnet asleep on the water, a deer passed by a flying cardinal, an osprey dad delivering a fish to his juvenile. The focus on the eyes is always sharp yet most of the images have a soft ‘read’.
I’ve been frustrated that my long lens and extender combination doesn’t work well enough in lower, beautiful golden hour light, but in the best I selected, that isn’t an issue. (At least not enough of an issue to step up to a $12K lens!)
You always inspire the right side of my brain to work in concert with the left side – thank you so much.
P.S. I have been methodically working through episodes of A Beautiful Anarchy on my daily long walks and I hope you will continue podcasting.
For me the most important sentence right now:
“Miles Davis isn’t encouraging us to find our style; he’s encouraging us to find ourselves.”
Another thought-provoking article! I burst out loud laughing when I read your comments about the vignette and HDR phases as I just looked back several years and cringed at the garish HDR pictures!
I’m off for a month of travel in Italy and the low countries in conjunction with a visit to my son, who is studying in Amsterdam. I’ve been rewatching the travel course and going on as many weekend photograph outings as possible to get ready, which I’m enjoying too.
Off to gather and hunt 🙂
We all have phases, don’t we, Michael? But if we’re paying attention those detours get us to new, and more useful places, and at one I’ve found out new things about who I am (and in the case of HDR) who I am not as a photographer. Have a FANTASTIC trip!
Hi, David ~ that was a good prompt. Here’s what I found out about my tastes and preferences:
My subject matter is streetscapes/travel photography. But that’s really because we’re in Europe to travel. Before we moved here, I was obsessed with a local state park (do you remember Dam. Water.Fowl.?).
In terms of the look of my images (the formal attributes), I’m really enjoying making high-contrast, color photos. I love the shapes that the deep shadow of a streetscape can make and I love the color contrast between the sky, the colors of the buildings and the cool, dark shadows.
I also think I need to learn to get closer.
Anyway, good prompt. Cheers!
Hey Scott – Always good to hear from you. Yes, I do remember your damn water fowl pictures! LOL. Glad the exercise was helpful. I do thing that our subjects can change, as you know my own subjects have shifted over the years, but even in that I think there can be recognizable (even to our ourselves if audience is not a concern) choices that contribute to our having a voice. Speaking of travel, I sure can’t wait to get out there again. Hopefully our paths will cross again.
Miles Davis is an interesting example, as he has always been an innovator in jazz and has often been at the forefront in creating new styles (Cool Jazz, Modal Jazz and Jazzrock). Especially in his transition to Jazzrock he lost a big part of his former audience – e.g. his1972 album “On the Corner” received bad critics as it was too far ahead of its time. He didn’t care and just did his thing. But regardless of the style which he played, you could always recognize Miles Davis playing. So, as you said, it’s not style, it’s personality!
There is one point of yours about which I would disagree, though. Being open to as many influences as possible requires a very strong and mature personality – I believe expecially beginners are quickly led astray by too many influences. I consider myself lucky because I took up photography long before the internet – my only influences were the few photo books in the public library …
Thomas – I think perhaps the point on which you and I disagree is not as contentious as you might imagine. I agree – too many influences can present a problem, but I think that problem arises more from HOW we digest those influences and what we do with the many voices we surround ourselves with. And, of course, at what stage we’re at in our growth as a photographer. Beginners are, or can be, led astray by too many influences, but they can also learn so much. I too learned from fewer initial influences, limited to books and magazines, but even those exposed to only a few other photographers have their own dangers if they don’t find the balance between all the possibilities seen in the work of others and finding in their hints of what might become their own voice.
Thank you thank you thank you… .I have been photographing for over 25 years, first film then with much struggle to digital. I am at the stage where when i photograph, i create a story, i see the vision in my head before i capture the moment. Might not turn out to be what i envisioned, but the attempt was there. I spent a great deal of time during shelter in place.. with the help of a few mentors, combing through my old work, to find the patterns, the voice i was seeking. This process turned a corner for me. To read your article on finding our voice gave me such delight. The negative of digital and even cell phones is that everyone is a photographer these days, but there are only a few who seek to share their voice. The words you wrote, will act as a reminder to me, to keep seeking my voice. Allow my photographs to speak my inner most feelings. Last year one of my mentors created a new website for me. My words, my work, what i was seeking. Once i saw the sight, i cried. I tell people that if they ever want to know who i am, take a look at my website . Rather then being “Business as usual” website, my mentor took my work, my words, my photographs and created a vision of how i see my subjects. It is truly my voice. So whenever I am at a lose as to what to photograph, how to do it, what story i wish to tell, i go back to my website.. and just look, as a reminder of where my voice is heard… Grateful to you for diving deep for all of us, and showing us the way to that inner creative voice and the third eye, as i call it
Thank you, Ellen. What a gift to finally see who are and be comfortable and even confident with that in our photographs.
Loved this article resonates with me . Thank you for taking the time to write it. . Actually read it during my work break . Most unusual for me. I’m always running out of time however up for the challenge over the coming weeks. I need the focus . Still finding my way and what I really think I want to do with my photography I’m not there yet . David thank you again
Christina ( Melbourne Australia)
My pleasure, Christina. Thank you for reading (and spending some with me on your work break!) 🙂
A long time ago, I read my weekly magazines & took film photographs – maybe a film per week. Over about 10 years I became quite good & my safari & other exotic holiday images were sometimes impressive. Then I started again +20 years later when I bought my digital camera. At that point, I just strived to be me again.
Five years later, I’ve bought & sold a Macro lens – it was great fun, but not enough to capture me. And, likewise with a Wide lens – just sold it. Now, I have 4 very good lenses – 2 zooms for travel & walks plus 2 primes for walks & portraits.
I’m not really into birds or insects although I like wild flowers (long fast primes are good here), Mainly, I like shooting where I visit – most recently from Corfu to Venice & back. Venice was a photographer’s playground but I only had a few hours there. I’m gaining confidence with asking people if I can take their photograph – most are happy to let me if I ask and I often prefer these in B&W.
I believe we mostly have 2 different audiences for our photographs – family, friends & the general public like to see where we’ve been & who was there. Whereas, other photographers expect to see something more creative or artsy – they don’t care to see my wife & her sister laughing in a gondola.
Occasionally, I get an image that both audiences like – my very best work.
You nailed it on the head with this one, Steve: ” Occasionally, I get an image that both audiences like – my very best work.” Audience isn’t important to everyone, some are content with an audience of one – ourselves. But even then (maybe especially then) it’s a delight to find ourselves in that work as clearly as possible.
BTW I’m finding your Compelling Frame & Photographer’s Process very useful. I’ve been through the videos & notes & re-examined some of my own images as you suggest. Now, I need to spend time studying the suggested Masters, most of whom I had no knowledge of until you introduced them. Do you think they would have loved our modern tools to do the ‘impossible’ & for example, select our film after the fact or easily remove a stray arm as in Martin Munkácsi (Lesson #4)?
When I played the saxophone, I developed a style and yes, I learned from the tricks and tips of pros and soon my style uniquely became my voice that could make you cry. Is it the same with making pictures? I don’t know. Seems a lot more difficult than one sound. I wonder what Miles would say. We can’t hear pictures. We see them. You can close your eyes and cry to my sax’s voice. When you open your eyes the world around you becomes way more complex. I guess it’s a brain thing. I’m not a neurologist but I suspect it means the visual cortex is way more powerful than wherever sound goes. Anyway, after learning to make pictures of various subjects, I really am starting to feel that your voice depends upon your subject. Are you in the street? That would be the French guy. Are you shooting birds? That would be Jan Wegener. You get the drift. Each zone of photography has its own sound I think. Surely would like to know your thoughts, David.
Like any analogy, “voice” is not perfect, John. Another sense related one, “vision” has its problems too. Yes, voice depends on subject. But not only subject. Voice is in what we say, and how we say it. Much like vision is in what and how we see. It’s a combination that’s hard to put the finger on. But to play with this metaphor a little, perhaps if “each zone of photography has its own sound” that’s not unlike genre in music. Sure, there’s jazz and rock and world music, but even within that we’d find (to go back to Jazz) that Keith Jarrett is very different from Miles Davis. U2 sounds different from the Rolling Stones. Not a perfect example, but perhaps helpful…
That is one of the finest articles about personal photography I have ever read. I could not have said it better. Thank you.
Very kind of you to say, Steve. Thank you. 🙏
I look at me Instagram account and try to hear the voices in it. It is difficult to see yourself. Without holding a mirror up to your work. It is difficult to hear yourself without a recording device.
I think learning to see or hear ourselves might be one of the great challenges in life, with or without a camera. But what an exploration. 🙂 Thanks for that, Patricia.
Parsing words leads me to change the heading to “Shoot your self”. In other words, shoot from inside yourself, from inside out, not outside in. By outside in, I mean trying to be technically correct and socially acceptable before sharing any photos. To me, inside out means to just “be there,” and try to express that moment with the camera as my tool. This is a work in progress, but your words are encouragement to continue the journey. Thanks once again, David, for your insightful articles.
Wally! The inside out vs. outside in idea is wonderful. That’ll give me something to chew on. I’m always up for a little word play. Nicely done. 🙂
Danke für Deine wertvollen Gedanken. Da sprichst Du etwas an, das Ich Selbst Sein, was durch den Alltag eines Jeden durch die täglichen Aufgaben, das Miteinander mit anderen Menschen und den beruflichen und privaten Verpflichtungen unterdrückt oder verdrängt wird oder sogar durch die gefühlte oder vielleicht auch tatsächliche Einengung von Außen oder auch von einem Selbst zerstört wird im schlimmsten Fall.
Es ist ein großes Geschenk sich selbst zu finden und leben zu können– im Alltag– und dann auch in der Fotografie. Ohne eine gesunde Basis wird kein Baum, auch kein Foto- Baum wachsen .
Danke, dass Du das ansprichst und Menschen- egal in welcher Situation sie sind- aufforderst, sie selbst zu sein und dadurch ihren Weg- auch ihren fotografischen Weg zu gehen.
Deine Artikel und Bücher lese ich seit langer Zeit, – ich danke Dir dafür
Herzliche Grüße aus Deutschland
For those who don’t speak German (like me!):
Thank you for your valuable thoughts. You are addressing something, being myself, which is suppressed or repressed through everyday life of everyone through daily tasks, togetherness with other people and professional and private obligations or even through the felt or maybe actual constriction from outside or is also destroyed by a self in the worst case.
It is a great gift to find yourself and to be able to live – in everyday life – and then also in photography. No tree, including a photo tree, will grow without a healthy base.
Thank you for addressing this and asking people – no matter what situation they are in – to be themselves and thus go their own way – including their photographic way.
I have been reading your articles and books for a long time – thank you for that
Greetings from Germany
Thank you, Monika!
A very interested email. Miles Davis resonate very well. He was not only a very good musician and painter. He could also communicate his thoughts.
After I got to know most of my images was uninterested snap shots in 2018, I have made progress. This year iI have published my first book and had 3 exchanges.
I have only a few examples of the book left.
You are a part of my step forward. Thank You very much!
Best regards from Sweden,
Congratulations on your first book, Kenneth, and on the steps forward that represents. Well done!
What I love is to make photos of an event and to send them to the people of this event, in order to give them some pleasure.
Thank you for chiming in, Rene!