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5 steps to finding your photographic signature

In the previous article, Your photographic language, part 2, I mention several recognizably famous photographers; Ansel Adams, Anne Geddes and Annie Liebovitz. In the article I use these photographers as examples of how an experienced artist uses visual language within the medium of photography. Their creations are more than the sum of the parts that create the scene, they tell a story, instill emotion and take us to a different place spiritually.

The interesting thing is that once you get to know these artists (or your own favorite artist) through their work, their photos become instantly recognizable as being theirs. You see a cute baby wearing a flower or animal costume set in this fantastical setting of flowers, you know it belongs to Anne Geddes. Likewise, if you look at a storm cloud breaking over a majestic valley of Yosemitte rendered in stunning black and white tones you instantly say, "that's an Ansel Adams photo."

These are signature looks that have been created and honed through years of hard work and dedication to a craft. It is also something many artists strive to accomplish in their own art. But there is a process and if you follow that process you will begin developing your own signature.

Step 1 - Learn the tools : This should go without saying, but the truth is that too many photographers skimp on learning how to use their camera and all the gear that goes with it. It's like trying to be a master chef but you don't know how to regulate temperature on a gas stove.

Photography has a large learning curve. There is a lot to comprehend at first and then once you do have a good handle on it the rest is fine tuning your knowledge. Truth be told, you never really stop learning but you need to be at a level where you aren't fumbling with the basics.

Step 2 - Study other photographers : Inspiration comes from many sources and one of the easiest and most obtainable is the work of other photographers. Find those who's work inspires you. Photographers that, if you had the chance, you would work with. Buy their books, read their blog and watch their videos, take their courses if you have the chance. Study how they work and try to duplicate their efforts. Soon you will begin to develop your own way of working which will lead to developing your own style. Think of it as a recipe, each element working to define your look.

Step 3 - Experiment :  Don't lock yourself too early in your learning about what you want or don't want to shoot. Experiment and try everything. There are lessons to be learned in all types of photography. As you pick up lessons from various sources they will be disjointed pieces of information gathered from where ever you can find it. You need to take these lessons and apply them in a practical way. Take the time and put the effort in to getting behind the camera to experiment and practice these lessons. One week you can practice with lighting and the next week with depth of field. Your experimentation will be all over the place and it will be reflected in your work.

After some time has gone by look at you images as a whole. You will see that your early work is all over the place. As your lessons progress and improve you will find certain techniques come easy, to the point that you really don't have to think about them. At this point is when you can start refining your technique. But it all takes practice.

Step 4 - Shoot what you love : Although I encourage you to try all aspects of photography, eventually you will come to a point where you say, "I don't like photographing _____." If shooting something doesn't inspire or motivate you, don't bother with it. Concentrate on what you enjoy doing. When you love doing something it feels less like work and you actually put more effort into it. But don't disregard step 3 above because you may overlook a part of photography that may prove to be your thing.

By shooting what you love you also begin to develop, not only a style, but a theme, a niche. It can be as broad as, "I love taking photos of scenery." to as narrow as, "I love taking photos of urban decay scenery."

Step 5 - Edit ruthlessly : The first step in editing begins with you. You are the first to see your photographs and it is your judgement that determines if a photo will even see the light of day. Here is where you need to be really critical with your work. One of the most difficult things to do is to view your own work subjectively. Photography is an art and art can be very personal. Feelings are easily bruised if you don't learn to separate yourself from it at an early stage. You also can't progress if you can't take criticism well.

Don't post a bunch of mediocre images with one good one, showcase that one good one. Use that one as your goal post to beat the next time. If an image looks blah, edit it so it looks right. If it can't be edited to look right, re-shoot it. Each discard is a reason to do better the next time. Each re-shoot is a lesson. Each lesson is a step forward. Don't permanently delete your bad stuff though. Keep them so you can judge your progress. They also serve as a reminder of what you need to work on. Constantly update your work. Replace the old with the new. Edit, edit, edit.


  1. A checklist I already was aware of, but like so many other checklists in life, one that I had pretty much forgotten about. It's always good to read reminders, and to be reminded of the things we already wanted to do before life...or too busy.


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