Earlier this year, at the beginning of the Covid lockdown here in the USA in March, I watched a documentary entitled “Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool” on Netflix. In one part it talked about how Miles spent a few years early on experimenting with a lot of different techniques to find his sound. That part about “finding his sound” hit me and made me think hard if I have found my true sound with my photography. After 25 years as a professional photographer, in some ways I feel like I am still trying to find it.
Obviously if you see my work, or have been following me for any length of time, you would think I have found my voice and my look but as a working pro there is a constant move to adapt new and different technologies, techniques and concepts to keep pushing the work in a new, exciting direction. Of course, over the last 25 years I have massively incorporated a variety of artificial lighting techniques in my work–and that has revolutionized both my images and my client base.
Interestingly, also during this Covid-19 pandemic, because I have been home more than at any other time in my career I have also picked up the guitar again. I used to play two to three hours a day back when I lived in Austin, Texas during and after University. It is great to pick it back up and crank up the amp and the distortion. I have always found it to be a great release. Somehow the sound of a distorted screaming amp feels like a warm blanket of consolation in these strange and scary times.
I have also spent more money than I care to admit on new guitars, amps, pedals and the like in search of new and exciting sounds to envelope myself in. I am not looking to play in a band again or in public, the music is just for me–an indulgence. Guitarists in general seem to spend enormous amounts of money just to get a certain tone that echoes their guitar heroes–or helps them express themselves. Just as musicians, and especially guitarists, are always seeking a gorgeous tone or sound, it seems a very apropos comparison to photographers finding their look–or their voice. Hence, after this long-winded intro, I thought I would discuss how to go about finding your voice in the photographic realm.
It’s Not about the Gear–Unless it is
It is very easy, both in music and in photography, to get wrapped up and obsessed with the gear. There is a well-known way of thinking that good gear equals good images. Sure, excellent gear can make technically higher resolution, wider dynamic range images. But guaranteed, crappy images can be made with any type of gear, even with a medium format camera that costs more than a very nice car.
One analogy I have always found interesting is looking at top chefs. No one says to a 3-star Michelin chef, “Wow, look at those amazing, expensive, high-end pots and pans you use. Your food must taste incredible!” I could certainly use that same cookware and make something so horrible the dog would turn up her nose. It is the same in photography, a good photographer can adapt to the limitations of whatever gear they have at their disposal. I have had assignments where I shot with prototype point-and-shoot cameras and cell phones and we captured some pretty amazing images. The sea kayaking image shown below was captured with a Nokia mobile phone way back in 2014. Sure, it would have been easier to use a modern DSLR with interchangeable lenses but the assignment was to shoot with that mobile phone camera to create marketing images for Nokia.
On the flip side of this is the fact that in some cases you have to have the right gear to even make a certain type of image. I am thinking about a lot of my lit adventure images where I was using cutting-edge advanced lighting techniques to create the image I was after (as shown below). An image like this involves a lot of forethought and a serious amount of gear to pull off. Sure, I owned the gear (since I use it all the time) but it could have been rented for a much cheaper price. Sometimes you need wicked-fast autofocus, or fast frame rates or whatever it may be to create the image you have in your mind’s eye. But that is just part of the game.
It has never been easier to rent just about any piece of gear. The internet has a million options and anything can be shipped directly to you with the click of a mouse. Gear should not the be limiting factor in your photography. As a great example, check out Russell Preston Brown’s amazing work and realize he captures all of his images these days on cell phones. On a mobile phone!!! Look at those images! Incredible. He is perhaps one of the most creative photographers I know. He also happens to be one of the co-inventors of Photoshop. Photography is his passion and his side gig.
Find your Passion
Who are you? What makes you tick? What gets you excited? Who you are will impact what you create. Who you are will show up in your images. You may not know what your aesthetic is but your images will show it. I was passionate about art, and creating images long before I got into adventure sports and climbing in particular. But when I did get into climbing, I realized very quickly that I wanted to create images of this wild and fantastic sport and share those with the world. Putting those two passions together is what started my career and keeps the fire burning.
I grew up in the rolling hills of Wisconsin and then the flat lands of west Texas. As a kid I was dying for an adventure. I had found one passion in art, another in science, and lastly a third in photography. I was a dreamer as a kid. I wanted to be a pro tennis player or an astronaut and if those didn’t work out a career as a professional photographer was alluring. But I chased the science dream, thinking that was my ticket to NASA. Studying physics taught me logic, and how to teach myself essentially anything. In the end, after graduating with a B.S. degree, while taking graduate level classes and working in a lab, I realized physics wasn’t my passion.
About that same time rock climbing and the outdoors came into my life–and changed my future radically. Climbing changed my worldview. I wanted to share that worldview with as many as possible, which is where photography came in. Photography was also my ticket to adventure–and adventurous travel. If I had to create images in a studio day in and day out I would do something else. I wouldn’t be a photographer. I realized this early on in my career and it was fundamental to understanding what drives me to create the types of images I create.
I am fascinated by nature and our place in it. I am also fascinated by the human mind and how we choose to live our lives. How does a world-class athlete overcome their fear, deal with the risk, and pull off what to outsiders seems impossible? Practice. Dedication. Commitment. Obsession. When you look at my images, you realize the athlete doesn’t only have to condition their body but also their mind to be able to do what they do. It takes years and incredible effort to get to a high level in any discipline. The reality is that once you find what you are passionate about you will work hard to create images of that passion–and it will show in your work.
The secret to great photography is Hard Work.
There are no shortcuts. This is the reality that no one wants to hear. The secret to being great at anything is hard work. You want to be an amazing musician? Get to work, learn the instrument and music theory. Get obsessed. Play it all the time. Miles Davis put the work in. John Mayer played guitar all the stinking time as a kid. He was totally obsessed. I don’t know if it the 10,000-hours rule or the 50,000-hours rule. It doesn’t matter. Get to work.
From the outside, success seems to be overnight success–all of the sudden you are aware of whomever is now at the top of their game. In almost all cases it is more likely the 20-year “overnight” success meaning that they have been toiling away for two decades in obscurity until their work matured to the point that they became well-known. Very few if any musicians, artists, athletes or scientists achieve greatness without a ton of hard work and elongated periods of dedication to that craft. While photography is not as difficult to learn as say quantum mechanics, it is still a complex craft–even more so in this digital age. To create top-end, incredible imagery requires some study of the craft and years and years of capturing images to become a master.
Do your Research
Just as playing songs from different artists requires careful study of how they crafted the song, learning how to create images that resonate with yourself and others takes years of learning and research. I could have just as easily entitled this section “Learn the Craft.” By studying the craft, and how a photograph was made, you will then be able to take those techniques and use them to create new and different images that speak to your aesthetic. By studying the craft, I also mean look at the history of photography, not just the latest Instagram images rolling by on your feed. There is a lot that can be learned by looking at the work of the masters.
Limiting yourself to just a single genre or a single look is also a one-way ticket to squelching creativity. By all means, especially when starting out play around with all kinds of different techniques and see what resonates. Likewise, photograph a wide variety of things to see what is interesting and fulfilling–and what is challenging. This is all part of learning the craft.
Going back to the guitar and music analogy, most young guitarists learn classic rock songs or whatever music inspired them at the time. Learning those songs is not just for the sake of copying the artists who created them but a way to see how the sausage was made so to speak. Similarly with photography, it isn’t as if you need to re-create an image exactly but learning to use the same techniques goes a long ways to finding your own voice.
What do you want to say and how do you want to say it?
This might be the most important aspect of finding your unique voice with photography–or any art form. This is also one of the toughest questions to answer. In the beginning, I was just learning a craft. I was interested in photography–and then became obsessed. There is an intense learning phase–perhaps the first two years–where one gains a significant portion of the basic knowledge. And then after that phase, you can start to ask these types of questions and continue to push on the learning front and on the artistic front.
Way back in October 2004, David Lyman (the former director of the Maine Media Workshops) wrote an article entitled, The 8 Keys to Success: An Essay And Thoughts on What It Takes To Reach Your True Potential. I encourage everyone reading this article to go read David’s piece. It is by far the most realistic, honest and informative article I have ever read on what it takes to make it in any endeavor. In that article, he says, “It will take at least two years to acquire 70 percent of the craft you will need to work in your medium. It will take another eight years to acquire the next 20 percent of your craft. At 90 percent, you will have mastered your craft, but there is that 10 percent that will take a lifetime to acquire.” In my experience it is after ten years that you start to ask the questions like “what do I want to say with my work?”
In many ways what you want to say with your work will change as you progress–and as opportunities come about. For example, even though my career has been mostly about documenting adventure sports, perhaps the most important images I have created were during the filming of the documentary Tribes on the Edge with Céline Cousteau (see images above). On that project we went deep into a closed off portion of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil to document recently contacted tribes. These tribes are struggling to stay alive in a world that encroaches upon their land and their way of life. Global warming, greed, and governmental power struggles are all conspiring to destroy their way of life. The documentary and the still images are a powerful way to bring recognition to their plight–and hopefully to help change the outcome.
What am I trying to convey? What do I want to say? These are the two questions I ask myself before any assignment where I want to make meaningful images. As a working pro, not every assignment is one where you expect to create images that speak to a higher calling. Sometimes it is just about getting the images the client needs to promote their product or tell their story. That is just part of being a working pro. We all have to pay the bills and support our families. But even on these “run of the mill” assignments there are opportunities to add your voice and to create something that fits within your pantheon of work. Often, as with your look or style, you may not know what you want to say but you see it afterwards, years later, when you look back at your work.
Never stop Learning
I am continually looking at great photography, gleaming from it what I can about how the images were created and how that might influence my work going forward. At the same time, technology helps to shape my current and future work as new options pop up in every new camera model and lens. Recently, I have been playing a lot with color grading and adding tints and off-kilter colors to my images. That is a radical departure from my past work where I sought to remove any color cast or artificial color grading from the image. Who knows if this will last but it is fun to play with and the birth of these new techniques came from seeing the “Classic Chrome” color simulation in my Fujifilm cameras.
Finding your voice with any craft doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years and years of work, dedication and love of the craft. Gear will come and go, your passions and interests may change slightly, but the dedication and experimentation has to continue to keep pushing and perfecting the results. I still take workshops, read vociferously, and continue to push my own images to learn new ways of doing things. There is always something to learn. That is the beauty of a craft like photography, which is innately complex by its nature.