“Find your voice. Find your style. Know your photography vision. Uncover your message. Have a clear identity in your photos. Choose a smaller niche and do it amazingly.”
These are all things you’ve likely heard before if you’ve been shooting for awhile.
There are courses about self-discovery that help you define your photos. There’s an insane amount of blog posts on this very topic offering advice on how to gain some clarity in why you shoot the way you shoot.
You may crave to know what makes you different than the sea of photographers around you. You may feel like you love shooting anything and everything so even starting to hone in on your message seems impossible. Or maybe you’re like, “Who cares? If I like my photos + clients like my photos, that’s what matters, right?”
To be honest, years ago when I started hearing thoughts on knowing your identity in your work (my work), I blew it off. I didn’t understand the importance – what does knowing if I have a theme in my work mean for me? I felt like if I started to focus on a certain theme, would that limit me from shooting outside of my “norm?” It would mean that I would laser focus in on anything and everything that fit within the bubble of my inner-message.
I was wrong and now I’m using my voice as an asset! I’m going to share with you how you can use your voice as an asset too… so you may wanna pin this one:
The Two Things I Did Wrong
Fast forward to 2015.
1. In the past, I was attempting to assess my voice/message/style in my photos a bit prematurely.
I was still deep in the learning side… even though I felt pretty established, because I could rock manual mode with confidence. Let’s face it, we never stop learning and pushing ourselves. What I mean is this: various shooting subjects felt new. I hadn’t felt like I mastered any one area of shooting. There wasn’t a single type of session I was doing that I had shot more than a couple of times. The only subject(s) I was shooting consistently were my children – which was honestly a fantastic starting point in message development. I did a 365 project for over 3 years straight! Every single image of them was 100% from my heart + soul and uninfluenced by the thought of how I should be shooting to please anyone else.
So think about that for yourself if you dive into the world of learning more about why you create the images you create.
1. Give yourself the opportunity to explore different genres and various subjects.
2. Pay close attention when you are shooting 100% for you, because you can likely recognize the reasons you hit that shutter.
2. I was also missing one key element in finding my photo identity: my own life.
Back then, when I looked at my photos, I was looking for answers on the surface. Such as (at the time) I photographed mostly children, so I must have this message and voice all about childhood elements. I looked no further than that. The truth is, there is so much more you can uncover. I thought my style was as much in the editing style as it was in the content of my images – like the deep blacks, bright whites and hint of matte were my style. Certainly the way you edit can make your images recognizable and can enhance your voice (your message). However, your underlying ‘why’ goes much deeper than the look of an edit.
This area in uncovering exactly what my voice in my photos are did not come easily. In fact, it took YEARS. It’s important that you know this can be a journey and your message within your photos can evolve over time.
Here are a few of my key ah-ha moments in voice discovery:
1. Demeanor. So at this one mentor session, my student told me she liked my editing style. She described it as calm and quiet. Those two words actually describe ME. 90% of the time, I’m super laid back (calm) and even in a very comfortable setting, I’m pretty quiet. I mean, I can talk your ear off, but I’m pretty reserved for the most part. I’m never the loud one of a group. I’ll also add to this and say that in general, I like neutral tones and muted color palettes in just about anything (paint, clothing, I’m a black or white only vehicle girl). Over the years and two homes, I’m known for making mistakes in choosing paint colors (just ask my husband). More recently, I saw this photo in a paint sample brochure of a Tuscan/Italian looking dining room. I thought, I’m going to love these walls as this deep yellow with my dark furniture. I had reasons too – the photo felt warm and cozy, two feelings I love. So, Dave painted it exactly has I had asked for. And then it happened: I hated it! It did not feel like home. So, we’re going to repaint it and I’ve been stuck with this yellow for a couple of years.
The takeaway here is in addition to my usual way of editing, even the context of my photos are calm and quiet. I may make an image of pure joy or heartache, but the moment comes across as those two key words: calm and quiet.
2. The affects of change. Another pivotal moment for me was taking a trip up to the family cabin in 2014. You may know this story if you took part in the 7 Day Storyteller’s Photo Challenge. I had the best childhood ever up at that little cabin the woods. It had been a couple of years since we had been up there, because it’s not the most baby-friendly place. That year when I took my daughter (almost 2) and son (11 months), seeing my own children in a place that was a large part of my childhood struck a chord. I wasn’t even looking to uncover my photography voice on that trip. I found myself in this divine-inspired mode. I wanted to preserve my world in this weekend EXACTLY as I saw it. I couldn’t put the camera down.
After, I was like, “ok, what was that?” Why was shooting at the cabin so different than any other shooting I’ve done?
The answer: It was a personal recognition of time, growth and, ultimately, change. Please tell me that I’m not the only one that finds it a little heartbreaking to not have the ability to return to joyous memories?!
I could honestly keep going, but I’ve leave you with one final ah-ha. This came shortly after the trip up north in 2014 as I as was culling my entire portfolio of images to choose the photos for the home + portfolio pages on my website. I had been hearing from other photographers that they love how I photograph details. Not simple objects, but human subject and interaction details. In 2014, I had already noticed this trend in doing it, but never put any thought into my motive. And then, it was like a fuzzy dream that suddenly became clear. Are you ready?
3. Loss. I absolutely attribute my driving force behind my camera… the way I compose my favorite images, the way I use light to enhance my inner, core message to the world and the moments I collect in my frame to be the focus of the image are all a part of the loss I’ve experienced in my lifetime.
This part is hard to keep short, sweet, and to the point, because of the MASS AMOUNT of special memories I’ve shared with each person here.
At 10, I lost both of my maternal grandparents within a year of one another. My Grandpa used to be the one to type on his Toshiba computer (DOS anyone?!), teach me how to draw (he was talented), and accompany me on Grandparent’s Day at school. I would spend a night at their home and that one night often turned into 3, because I loved it there. My Grandma would let me decorate shirts with puffy paint, she taught me to crochet, and one time we invited my Aunt and a neighbor over for a fancy tea party using her fine china. My Grandma had been sick my entire life (since my mom was 6 actually is when my Grandma was first diagnosed with breast cancer). My Grandpa, his death was much more sudden (aortic aneurysm).
In the first days of 2004, one of my high school besties passed away. This girl and I were inseparable in high school spending most of our weekends at one or the other’s home. This was was really tough on me. When I got the call she was in the hospital, I was in complete denial. I assumed she would come home. She didn’t. This death was out of left field. Our relationship had changed a bit since high school, even though it had only been 7 months since graduation. I was older than 10, so death felt different and it came with guilt, regret and the sudden loss factor which I’ve learned we process differently than a loss of we expecting.
In 2008, within 8 weeks of each other, my paternal grandparents passed away. My Grandpa first, then my Grandma passed when I was deep into the Grand Canyon with no cell service. I found out upon driving about 60 miles south and I had about 12 voicemails alerting like crazy.
In 2010, one of my Uncle’s passed while attempted to save a woman trapped in a flood in Tennessee – another sudden death. In 2013, another Uncle (the youngest of all of them) passed away due to illness. Both of these uncles are on my dad’s side (my dad was 1 of 5 boys) and played a big role of fun in my childhood.
Let’s be clear, this is only a handful of important people in my life that have passed away. I was extremely blessed to be a part of a large family and many elder family members have passed throughout the years as well.
In addition to death itself, the loss was even greater in the way the family dynamics have changed since both sets of grandparents passed away.
Holidays up until 10 used to be spent with my mom’s side of the family on Christmas Eve and this ended with those deaths. It’s been sad really, this whole side of the family rarely gets together and has really only have ever come together since for funerals or milestones. And even then, not everyone shows.
On my dad’s side, I remember Christmases of 30+ people in our home. One year, my parents set up long folding tables in our heated garage so everyone could sit at one big table together. As a kid, this was the best ever! More fun than I can even attempt to put into words. And now, this dynamic is inexistent.
At 21, I went through a bankruptcy and foreclosure which was hard on me in another way that I won’t get into here. I wanted to add it, because even though it wasn’t a death, the emotion of loss and grief took place as a part of the great changes in my life I was going through back then.
The experience of loss + change has increased my ability to celebrate life daily. Ask anyone that knows me – I’m a silver-lining to every cloud kind of girl.
Without a doubt, my experiences come out in my photos. It’s in those details I draw out of a larger scene that scream, “Look here you fool, there is beauty in every single damn moment in your life so SEE it and embrace it.”
But it’s more than the moments – it’s the personality details about loved ones that I LOVE to put into a photo. I’m learning I’m strongest in shooting this message when I’m inspired by the scene I’m shooting.
How Your Voice Impacts Your Business
As if this blog post isn’t long and intense enough, let’s have a little chat about why the hell you NEED to be aware of your inner photography voice (your message) in order to have this killer ability to share your message through your marketing.
Say you’re a family photographer with a documentary-style of shooting. Say a girl named Jennifer knows she wants a photographer to photograph her family. Say she uncovers 3 different photographers in her area (your area) and you are one on her radar. She compares the websites and loves all of the images on all 3.
How she is going to choose the photographer she is going to work with?
Think about your own buying process for a service – getting your hair done or hiring some kind of service for a party (tables and chairs or entertainment). Obviously, if you have a budget, this will play into the factor. But come on, be honest – do you always revert to the “cheapest?” (I hate that word btw)
No! You are going to look at the overall package – the value and the benefits AND the relationship (connection) to the company/person you will be doing business with.
Obviously, if one is FAR out of her budget and she can’t afford them, that a given she will have to move on. But what you may not understand is that some people put a number on their budget based on their assumption of the cost and the value they place on what they thing they are going to get. If they truly are broke, money is a factor. But, if they find a photographer (and this is true with anything – buying a computer or something else) and they realize they are getting more value than they were seeking, that budget can increase. Price is what we pay, value is what we get, right?
So, she’s going to first determine the one that is going to give her what she needs – the experience and fulfillment of the emotions she’s after. She may not even know what she needs beyond her want of “I want beautiful photos that capture the memories of my family as we are today and displayed in an album” (Which, let me point out as someone who’s looked at THOUSANDS of photographer websites, most sound the redundant… “I’m here to take the story of your lives and capture the moments blah blah blah.”)
She is going to choose the photographer that she feels connected with the most and the way she can determine if you are that person is by how much of your message/your voice/yourself she can FEEL. It’s a cohesive blend in your photos, your words, your marketing, and even your branding. Please do not take this as: I need to run out and get a stronger logo (don’t do that!). But take away this fact: when you land on a site – any kind of site – you likely feel a stronger connection to the brand or the person behind the company when there is a video that talks about their message – especially if you agree with their message. I’m not saying you NEED a video, but they are super powerful for sure.
I know one thing you are likely wondering about me. If I know my message (my voice), why are my photos in this blog post all over the place?
There’s a bunch of my kids, you see my husband, a homeless guy, my mom and my daughter… who is my message really for?! Here’s the thing, just like you, my inner voice and message is constantly evolving. Now I have a ton of experience under my belt. I know what subjects make me feel my strongest and why. I’ve seen first hand that after shooting the same type scenario has make me stronger and when I step out of that, I feel out of place and rusty.
I’ve only recently discovered a phase in life I find so valuable and exciting to photograph that I want to make it my niche. This will be who I speak to in my marketing and will begin to attract. But through all of the shooting I’ve done on a regular, daily basis (the thousands of hours of practice + analyzing + first hand experience with clients), I’ve come to the realization of exactly the clients I want.
So for today, simmer on all of that. Your next step is to simply BEGIN to track of things in your world that make up every bit of you.
Download the worksheet below as a place to start:
Look at your photos a little deeper.
Ask yourself what message you want to share with your clients and start building your marketing around that message. Start serving your clients in a better way – fulfilling their emotional needs. You will have this undeniable sense of satisfaction and pride in what you offer… so much so that it becomes a guilty pleasure.