If you are a practitioner of any of the arts, finding your voice is essential to success in your business. In many respects, your photography voice is your business. Your voice is the one thing you have to offer that cannot be found elsewhere. The million dollar questions are does your voice resonate with a large audience and can it be reproduced consistently? If you have the determination to develop an artistic voice that answers these questions affirmatively, your photography business will thrive.
What is a Photography Voice?
A photography voice is the distinct and deliberate way in which you capture light into a frame, just like a human voice is the distinct way sound emanates from a person’s lips. The question becomes can you distinguish a good photograph from a bad one? If the contrast between two photographs is substantial, almost anyone can pick the best one. However if two photographs are of similar quality it takes a skilled eye to describe what sets the images apart. For a photographer, it’s not enough to merely like one image over another, you must speak the language of photography. If you don’t speak the language of photography it will be difficult to find your voice.
When trying to conceptualize developing a voice I always think of my little girl. I remember shortly after she was born being very anxious to hear her talk and get to know her. I was not prepared for how slow the process of her speech development would be. She would make sounds all the time, mostly incoherent, but she was trying. Eventually the formation of words happened, but it seemed like an eternity before she actually put together a phrase. As she grew, eventually this little eager beaver had a unique and precious voice.
Understanding the Voice Concept
Some photographers I meet have a very difficult time grasping the idea of a voice in photography. These folks see photographs and like them, but can’t really articulate what makes one photographer’s work stand apart from others. There are two root causes for this lack of understanding.
The first and most obvious reason for confusion is lack of photography experience. Time is an essential ingredient for your mind to engage the visual challenges you will face. The more time you spend taking and editing photographs, the more you will consciously and subconsciously seek to establish visual style.
The second obstacle to conceptualizing a photography voice is what I like to call the “Hero Deficit”. If someone has been engaged in photography for a longer period of time and still doesn’t understand what a photography voice is, I guarantee you that they can’t name an influential photographer outside of Ansel Adams. If you haven’t taken the time to study those who have gone before you, you will have difficulty developing a style of your own.
What Is The Process Of Developing Your Own Photography Voice?
The first and most important way that you will develop a photography voice is by cultivating a curious and inquisitive mind, one that steadily consumes images from other great minds. A common trait found in exceptional artist is that they have an incredible level of interest in the subject matter.
I attended more than my fair share of concerts growing up and remember on many occasions seeing the band members of the opening acts in the crowd enjoying the show. This seemed a little strange at first, but when you think about it, where else are they going to be? Do you think musicians are the type to sit in a bus while there is a show going on? I don’t think so. They are avid consumers of music and that need to consume is a part of what makes them great at what they do.
If you have aspirations to be a great photographer, you must also be a part of the community of photographers and speak their language. What are you doing in your spare time? When you see a social media post about photographers getting together does that excite you? Do you like talking about photographs other than your own? Are you shooting with groups and jamming about the pictures afterward? If not, you’re photography exposure and by extension you’re ultimate potential will be limited.
Experiment or Die!
Once you dedicate yourself to a steady diet of “social photography”. the road to discovering your own amazing photography voice lies in experimentation. A good starting point for any photographer is by asking the question what interests you besides photography — in other words, where does photography intersect with your own interests? For instance, if you spend all your free time at the beach, what interesting things are going on there that could be photographed. Once you apply your photography toolbox to that subject matter ask yourself — How can I light it? How long can I expose it for? Is it color or black and white? Can I get a more interesting vantage point? Extensive inquiry like this will lead you to something that will become part of your unique voice.
How Do I Know When My Photography Voice Is Ready?
Are you ready? The answer is always both yes and no. Let me explain. If you’re waiting around to be “done” developing your voice and improving your photographs then you will lead a disappointing existence as a photographer. You will never be done growing and thus you will never really be “ready.” Also, many photographers feel that they need to wait until their craft is perfect before they venture into the business realm. This is also a mistake. Your craft will never be perfect, so there is no sense in waiting until it is.
Your work needs oxygen. Keeping your photographs confined to that dusty hard drive free from criticism is not going to advance your cause. You need to be your own advocate. Put yourself out there and have a conversation about your work with whoever will listen (talk to them about their work as well!). Listen to what peers are saying, decide what is worth changing and then get back to work.
Remember while you are honing your unique photography voice that you will likely be your own worst critic. It may seem like every photographer you know is churning out amazing work while your own photographs seem ordinary. This is a natural human tendency. You look at your work all the time, you know what’s behind the curtain and so the final product is not mythology to you — you know exactly how it came about. The work of other photographers seems more fresh and interesting because to you it is new. Know that fellow photographers may very well be thinking the same thing about you. Don’t waste too much time tearing yourself down. The internet will give you that in spades. Keep your nose to the grindstone and before you know it, your photography will take a more deliberate and beautiful voice.
photo credit: Jason Rosewell