"I knew that was your work the second I saw it!"
It's something that all artists want to hear. We're not even concerned with the fact that the statement says nothing at all about the person's opinion of the work, only that they recognized it is ours. The reason we want to hear those words is that what people are really saying to us is that they see our unique voice and style. Even if they don't like the work, it's still a compliment!
You can learn all of the technical knowledge of photography and take fantastic images, but your voice is what separates your images from someone else's. It is an extension of you and your personality.
Finding your own voice can feel like a debilitating task. When I first started out, I grabbed every how-to, For Dummies, and photo business book I could find and scavenged the internet for any insight and answers. I emailed photographers and talked to ones that I knew and met. I wasn't only looking for knowledge on running a business and taking photos. I was also seeking advice on how to make my work unique to me. How to make it mine. How to find my voice. And guess what I found! Nothing. Nothing solid, anyway.
So, how does one go about finding their unique voice and style?
Here's the not-so-secret secret:
There is no specific set of rules or steps that anyone can give you to discover this. What I can tell you is what I learned along my own journey, and I can also give you a few tools that will hopefully help you on the path to your own voice.
Here is one of my very first creative images. It was for a friends short-film poster and before I ever thought about doing photography professionally.
A summarized philosophical answer on how to find your voice could be the quote above. It's a perplexing and beautiful paradox. I've probably associated it most with meditation, but it applies here as well.
In the case of finding your artistic voice, what it means is:
You, the artist, are seeking your unique voice, and the force within you that gives you the urge to seek is the unique voice you're seeking.
And yet another way to say almost the same thing is the old adage "Stay true to yourself."
At this point, I'm sure you're saying, "Okay, Chris. Enough with the philosophies and clichés. How do you actually go about this search?!"
Finding your voice or style is less about a specific combination of looks, edits, and procedures and more about the time and commitment put into creating something that speaks to (and therefore about) you specifically. Your voice in the world is among the most significant legacies you can create. I believe a legacy is what you leave behind that shows others how and what you saw in the world. The accuracy of that legacy is up to each one of us.
If you want to find your artistic voice, go after the images that impact you. Seek to create photos that make you feel something specific. A feeling that you can pinpoint and talk about. When you see other people's work and are struck with awe, wonder, and inspiration, ask yourself, "What am I feeling right now? What emotions am I experiencing that are a direct response to what I'm seeing?"
The only way that you won't ever find your voice and style is if you don't look for it. If you're already looking, you're on your way to discovering it. Just keep going! Here are some proactive steps you can take to inch ever closer:
Catalog your Snapshots.
This is somewhat of a tedious process, but I promise that it's worth it and very cool to see!
You know when you're just out and about, and suddenly you see something that you think is so cool, so you pull out your phone, snap a photo and then continue about your day? Those are the images you're looking for.
- Go through your entire phone image library and anywhere else that you might have snapshots, pool all of the photos together, and put them in some kind of grid. The easiest thing to do is to create a separate Lightroom catalog just for these snapshots.
If you're like me, you'll have years of these! Once they're all together, scroll through and look for patterns or similarities. What you will be looking at is a very raw version of your voice.
When we grab our phone to take a quick snap of that thing we think is so cool, there is no pressure. It's almost like we're just logging a memory. It's just for our self and our own enjoyment. With the lack of pressure, we freely allow ourself to capture something that we find exciting or inspiring. When we're taking images for a client, or even specifically for our portfolio, the pressure is on! We tell ourselves that it HAS to be a certain way and we'll go to great lengths to get the result we want. We'll even forego what we personally find intriguing.
When I did this exercise, I could immediately see things that I'd already come to know as part of my voice. I saw my proclivity for oddity, tongue-in-cheek humor, dark themes, and interesting light and lines, and I also had loads of photos of unique bathrooms. 🤷♂️
Even being already confident in my voice, doing this exercise changed a lot for me and pushed me forward. I can't encourage you enough to try it. It's worth the time!
Do Intentional Personal Projects
Take some time to explore and play with your style methodically. Take any one theme of your choice and expand on it. Keep it simple at first—even broad. If you like the color yellow, challenge yourself to photograph yellow-centric things. Maybe you want to do an exploration of a specific emotion. Shoot a series of images that make you feel that emotion. The point is to push and stretch yourself intentionally.
While searching for my own voice and style, I certainly felt a lot of confusion and bewilderment. I had taken enough images to know a few things. I preferred people in my photos, and I liked dark themes and interesting lighting. It still took a long time to find something that truly felt like me. Or rather, discover what was already there that was unique to me.
Try not to compare yourself or your work to others.
Focus on what YOU feel and what speaks to you.
And I'm still learning today.
Even when you feel confident in your voice, the search isn't over, but it becomes more of a forever-journey. Instead of searching for what your voice IS, you search for new ways of speaking, and that is VERY exciting to do!
The desire to create is the desire to express. As photographers, we speak with our images. The larger you build your vocabulary, the greater your ability will be to articulate what you're feeling.
Keep on pushing, friends!