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Don’t Shoot for the Stars

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More recently I’ve been going through a big change in my photography.  I’ve been through the whole gamut, from snapper to serious amateur to professional, not necessarily in that order, but I’ve definitely been through all the stages in-between, including a brief stop-off in the HDR Hole!  All that has lead me here and I wanted to share the experience with you.  Perhaps in the hope of inspiring you.  Not necessarily to follow, but look to your future and evaluate your own path.  I don’t want this article to come across as though I’m preaching, I’m simply going through my own experiences and passing along my thoughts on what I’ve learnt along the way.  Some things might seem a bit random, but they all form part of my journey and come together in the end!

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I’ve always spent a lot of time reading about photography researching, and looking at images on Flickr, 500px etc.  I’ve seen some amazing images, and some equally awful ones!  I do feel that it is very important to view the work of other photographers, to understand what makes a good image good, and perhaps just as importantly, what doesn’t.  I’ve always had this awareness in the back of my head that it is all to easy to copy the images and styles that I like simply to cater to what others like too.  I don’t necessarily mean that I deliberately go out and exactly replicate an image I’ve seen, but that rather than make a conscious effort to think about a photograph I’m about to take that I use what I’ve seen online and copy the essence of that image, it’s easy because it works!

I also believe that training and workshops are one of the best uses of your money in advancing your photographic skills, far more than any piece of kit that you can buy, but again it is very easy to copy what you’ve learnt rather than progress from it and use that as a base to build upon.  It is a very fine line between finding yourself inspired by others and just copying their work.  It’s a line that isn’t always easy to fall onto the right side of for the progressing photographer.

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Something you notice after looking at a lot of images is that the majority of (not all though) successful photographers have developed a style that is instantly recognisable as them.  Look at the automotive work of Tim Wallace, landscapes from Ansel Adams (I’m not a big fan I have to admit! shock, horror, stop reading here if you like!), the fashion work of Bailey, the rather odd (but to me appealing) images from Man Ray and you can instantly tell that a photograph was taken by that photographer, or if it wasn’t then it was probably inspired by them.  That’s not a bad thing, but it can be a distraction for a developing photographer.  It is tempting to think that you must have a personal style.

Everyone seems to talk about finding their style.  I’ve spent far too long trying to define my ‘style’ and it isn’t an easy task.  I’ve come to realise that I’ve actually been trying far too hard to define a style rather than just getting out and shooting what I like to shoot!  Sometimes I’d follow a particular look that I’ve seen elsewhere, but then find all I’m doing is attempting to take photos in that style rather than simply enjoying the process of shooting.  I have a few words of advice for you – don’t worry about it!  If you shoot what you like and do it often enough, you will naturally find that you favour a certain way of working, or way of shooting and your style will come through in that and be refined as an organic process rather than a forced one.  Because success often comes from something a bit out of the blue, it’s really easy to think that the people who have made a success of photography have done so overnight, particularly in this instant gratification online world.  I can pretty much guarantee that there isn’t a successful photographer out there that didn’t spend a lot of time doing a great deal of damn hard work behind the scenes before you and I knew anything about them.

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Within the Fujifilm community we have something run by Fujifilm Japan called the “X-Photographers”.  These are photographers picked out by Fujifilm to showcase work by photographers who take images with the X-Series cameras.  I am one of the lucky few to have been chosen to represent them in the UK and feel privileged to do so.  There is some amazing work from other photographers on there, but the work of two of these stood out for me were of fellow UK X-Photographers Alex Lambrechts and Kevin Mullins.  Their style of images immediately captured my imagination as being very different from others around in their representative fields.

The reason they stood out were for two reasons.  Firstly, both have a very honest natural way of shooting, often to the point of almost ignoring the technical.  Not worrying about if an image is super sharp, grainy, blurred etc. and much more about the moment they are capturing.  It reminded me of the sort of thing I would enjoy shooting, especially family moments.  Sadly I all to easily discarded this type of image in the past because it wasn’t ‘perfect’.  My back catalog of photographs is full of these great moments that I’d left behind because something wasn’t quite right technically.  It is a natural way of shooting that I enjoyed, but hid away because I was perhaps ashamed to show the images off because they weren’t very good technically.

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On the Internet there are far too many people worrying about the ‘perfect’ image, and I freely admit that I was like that too for far too long.  That super sharp technically perfect image has come to define a lot of what we perceive as a good image.   What does it look like at 100%? is a question we see all too often.  I’m not saying that technically perfect images cannot be fantastic, they can, but there are many technically perfect images that have absolutely no soul, no feeling, no emotional content and as such for me they rarely speak to me any more, not on a visual level.  I can and do admire the skill, but not the creativity.  I took up photography because I wanted to draw or paint and couldn’t!  It was my creative outlet, and the fact that the gear fulfilled my technical geeky side was a bonus!  I would probably have to define myself as more of a technical photographer than a creative one and have struggled to move over to that creative side of things that I was so keen to force upon myself by trying to define my own style that I talked about earlier.

I spoke to Zack Arias about this a while ago asking for his help in becoming a more creative photographer.  He told me to put all the wrong settings into my camera and just go out and shoot.  Forget the fact that it maybe over/under exposed, blurred and all the rest of it and just look for something to shoot instead of worrying about the dials.  A few days later I shot one of my favourite images in a long while.  Nothing was really in focus, it wasn’t really exposed ‘correctly’, but it somehow worked for me and gave me that creative fizz that I’d come into photography for.

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People like Alex have really inspired me to follow the way of shooting that I like and not worry about whether other people like it or not.  I’ve come to realise that shooting for myself is by far the best way to achieve that ‘style’ I’ve been all too desperate to develop.  I already had it in me, I just needed to have the confidence in a way I rather enjoyed shooting all along.

So all that brings me round to the title of this article.  What do I mean when I say don’t shoot for the stars?   Well, one thing I’ve learnt from looking at a lot of images online is that most people online are not best placed to judge your images.  I’ve seen some amazing images getting almost no attention, and some terrible ones getting hundreds of likes, or comments saying “amazing” etc.  As a photographer I think the majority of us look for recognition in one way or another.

If we are totally honest with ourselves, when you post up an image it isn’t primarily an altruistic desire to share the love, it is because we want other people to appreciate our work.  There isn’t anything wrong with that, I think it is only natural, but it means we often therefore post images that we think other people will like.  That in turn makes it far to easy to shoot what we think other people will like and not necessarily what we may naturally choose to shoot in the first place.  So, when I say don’t shoot for the stars I mean don’t shoot looking for someone to star, favourite, like, +1 your photograph, shoot for yourself.

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Now I only relatively recently started sharing the style of images I enjoy shooting.  I can’t say that I got more likes because of it, but what I found was that when someone did like what I’d done it somehow meant so much more.  Someone else actually was appreciating my own personal vision and not what I felt in the past was perhaps an imitation of someone else’s work.

Something else happened too.  My wife shared a gallery of images I’d taken of our daughter on Facebook in this very casual style.  I suddenly had requests from friends who were parents to shoot their children in the same way!  That came totally out of the blue for me and wasn’t why I was shooting those images at all, but I’m now getting bookings based on what was 100% personal work not really meant for anyone else as they were initially shared privately amongst friends.

The feedback was that they were totally uninterested in a photo of their child in the traditional studio style, posed in front of a random background.  They wanted something the felt real, a true moment in time and that is what they had seen in my images.  The fact that they were a bit blurred, weren’t always exactly in focus and could even look a bit rough didn’t seem to matter.  I’d like to think that they were finding the honesty in the images that I’d been drawn to in the images of contemporary photographers such as Kevin Mullins, Alex Lambrechts and the masters of the past that changed the way we thought of photography, David Bailey and Brian Duffy in the 60’s.  Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t consider myself to be anywhere near those guys, and don’t suppose I ever will be!  I feel very much at the beginning of my journey now even though I’ve been shooting for years.

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Having said all that, I’m going to completely confuse you now and say that I still actually enjoy shooting in a technical way!  Using lighting to create a specific look, using my technical skill to create a technical image balancing ambient and artificial lighting to produce an idea I had gives me an intellectual challenge.  I do get a buzz out of that when it all comes together, it tickles the geeky part of my brain!  Next step on my journey is to try to figure out how to combine these two facets of my photography.  One thing I’ve learnt though is that I’m not going to push it, I’m just going to shoot as much and as often as I can and let it develop naturally rather than trying to force it to happen, maybe they will blend at some point maybe they won’t.  Can I have two styles of shooting?  Why not!

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Now my way of shooting might not be for you, it certainly isn’t for everyone, but that’s fine!  Would I like you to appreciate and like my images, yes of course I would!  Does it really matter to me any more if you don’t? No!  Shoot what you want to shoot and you will find your own way then develop much more as a photographer when you start to do this.  If someone else doesn’t like it then who cares!  Someone else somewhere will though and you never know, whether you’re a pro or not you might just find it taking your photography in a direction you didn’t expect.  I can assure you of one thing though, you will be far more satisfied with your own work.

 

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