My Photographic Story (so far): Finding My Voice

MyStory2Out of college, I worked as a naturalist and began selling some of my nature photography. But it was difficult to make enough money. So I went to work for the Minnesota DOT as an information officer/photojournalist. My photography became about people, highways, trains, planes, and bridges, and I got to do photography around the state for the state map. This was definitely a time I was developing my craft as a photographer while exploring ideas of style and voice. I enjoyed finding unique ways of portraying DOT work.

MyStory6I realized that long-term government work was not for me, and that I needed broader experience in order to pursue more types of photographic work. So I worked for a publications house in Minneapolis, then a video and photography production group also in Minneapolis (all corporate work). There is no question that this work stretched my use of craft, but both style and voice began to take a back seat. Any style or voice I might have had would always be secondary to the client's needs and wants.

(An aside: I don't think this is necessarily a requirement for client work, but it usually is when you are working for a company that does client work. If you are working as an individual, you can more easily show off a style, and even voice, if you are willing to work hard at finding the right clients. That is not so easy to do working for a company.)

I did some work that was important to me related to nature, but a lot of that had to take a back seat to the “day job” and family. Some people have been “successful” in our field because they either had no family or didn’t spend much time with family. I have recognized that there is a lot I “could have done” if I had spent less time with my wife and kids as they grew up, but I loved that time (and I still love the time I spend with my wife now that the kids are on their own). If I could do it again, I would not change that, though I know some things today that I didn't know then that might have affected some of my decisions (but then, isn't that life). 

MyStory8During my time in Minnesota, I worked very hard becoming the best photographer I could be for the DOT and I enjoyed traveling the state and even spending time with the governor and other officials. But that was largely not my voice — I was doing someone else’s message in a way that was effective for them. At the production house, I became very good at producing videos for corporations and I had executives asking specifically for me because I was very good at creating their messages in their voice. My voice was nowhere to be seen, and I was not supporting it much outside of that work.

MyStory9Then we moved to California looking for more variety in my work. I was fortunate to find a job at Outdoor Photographer. I was privileged to meet a lot of terrific photographers and see a whole range of work beyond what most people see, but once again, it was not my voice. I started doing my own articles (and books), but they were mostly how-to in an “objective” way with not so much of my voice in them either.

So when I started working on my own, I struggled a bit because for so very long, I had been mostly working with someone else’s voice or in a “non-voice” manner. I am proud of and pleased with the work I did, but I did miss this important part of a creative person’s life.

May apple, PennsylvaniaIt has taken me many years to find my voice again, and still, I sometimes stumble and miss it. This is not simply about the work I did. It also has to do with the “science” education I had in college (BS and MS in plant and soil science with minor in ecology). As a scientist, you weren’t supposed to have a “voice”, but only to “present the facts” (Randy Olson deals with this pretty well in his excellent book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist – which could have been written for me, and his blog, thebenshi.com). I have really had to fight my education, my upbringing in Minnesota (if you have ever heard Garrison Keillor, you will understand that. Minnesotans don’t promote themselves and think poorly of those who do), and my work over the years to get to where I am today.

I feel my last few books finally do reflect me and my voice, especially my Macro Photography from Snapshot to Great Shot book, which is very personal. But it has taken a long time to get there. 

Female regal jumping spider on barbed wire fence, Central FloridaI think everyone who wants to be a strong photographer and communicator needs to find their voice. I believe we are all individuals with distinct voices and with the potential to show something in our photography worth spreading. I encourage you to keep honing your voice and keep it out there. Being able to do that effectively, and to be able to use any style you like, means learning the craft of photography. You can always express yourself and explore what it means to bring your voice to your images, but the more you know about the craft of photography, the more you control and ability you have to do that.

My Story bat 2

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The Photographic Voice

Voice 3Voice has become so important to me because for a long time, I was not able to use my voice as a photographer (more about that in the next post). Voice is what comes from the heart. It is about the choices you make to communicate about what you care about in photography. It is when your heart connects with your images. 

It is important to me to make the distinction between style and voice. Style is about a look applied to photographs, a look that might be unique to you, but the look itself is more important than the subject. Whenever I say things like this, I know some people what to say, ‘Wait a minute! As a nature photographer, of course the subject is important.’ Absolutely. I am not saying that the subject is not important, only that style is not concerned about the subject as much as it is the look. Voice is very much about the subject and how you treat it in images.

Both style and voice can be very personal. Style is, I believe, easier to apply to your photography because you can learn a way of creating a look then use the choices involved in that look immediately. For example, if you wanted to use a style of very shallow depth of field on flowers, you simply use a telephoto and a wide f-stop.

Voice requires a different level of thought that asks you to delve more deeply into who you are. Todd Henry, author of the excellent book, Louder Than Words, says, "Developing your voice requires (a) a willingness to embrace curious exploration of your life and work, and (b) the grit to persistently do hard things that have no immediate payoff, trusting that the benefits will come over time."

I love to take low-to-the-ground, wide-angle close-ups of nearly everything. That is a style because it is not concerned about the subject matter. When I add in a special connection I might feel with a certain subject, say a flower or insect, a connection that comes from the heart and that "curious exploration of your life and work", then this becomes voice (as I mentioned in an earlier post, it is often difficult to totally separate style, voice and craft from any discussion of an image).

Voice 2This is not simply about the subject you choose to portray, though it starts there. I believe voice is something deeper. I thought that Kathy Eyster’s comment on the first blog post of this series was great and gave some additional insight on style, voice and craft. She said that voice is what you choose to say. That absolutely applies to voice as a photographer.

What you choose to say definitely starts with subject, but if you stop there, your voice is not necessarily going to be very strong or even heard. Tons of people photograph nature and this extends to nearly any subject that you or I might choose to photograph. Voice should differentiate you from the crowd because you have something unique to say, so simply choosing a subject is not enough.

Voice 1What do you choose to say about the subject? That is key. What is it about the subject that is truly important to you? Why do you care? Why should anyone else care? Your voice expresses answers to those questions and more.

Say I photograph a bumblebee. If I simply put on a macro lens, get the bee sharp and take the picture, I haven’t said very much other than here is a bumblebee. On the other hand, if I feel strongly that bees need to be seen in their environment and work to clearly show both bee and environment together, that starts to reflect my voice. Or maybe I feel strongly that bumblebees need to be seen more clearly for their beauty. Then I might get as close as I could to fill up my frame with bumblebee so that only its beauty could be seen in the image (that might even include some cropping in the computer). Simply shooting a bumblebee on a flower is a snapshot that has no real voice.

I can tell you from personal experience that voice is not always easy, and that expressing something unique about your subject can be scary. As soon as you try something different, unique to you about how you experience your subject, you are vulnerable. You are opening yourself up to criticism. There will be plenty of people who will tell you that you did it wrong, you have the wrong idea, your photography is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. That is no fun, but that doesn’t happen all the time. Still, it happens enough if your voice is strong that you have to be prepared for it. If you are not feeling a little vulnerable about some of your images at times, then you probably are not strongly using your voice.

Teddy Roosevelt has a famous quote that expresses this:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Finding your true, authentic voice as a photographer takes some thought and some work. I know this is true because it has been an ongoing part of who I am as a photographer for many, many years. Yet, that authentic voice is yours and yours alone. For me, it is worth the effort.

Voice 4

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Photographic Style

Style 2A lot of what you see in photo books and magazines is more about style than anything else. You are seeing how good photographers make unique choices in order to create interesting and even impactful images.

Style is always about the image and how it is made by the photographer. A certain style can be applied to any subject, even if the photographer does not care about the subject itself (though he/she might care about their style). This is especially true for advertising photography.

Michael Flaherty made me realize that this sounds like you can simply apply an effect and call it a style. That is not what style is about. Style is about the consistent visual choices that a photographer makes that affects his or her body of work. Style is not about simply applying an effect. It is about a visual look that a photographer (or any artist) uses consistently that then gives their work a consistent look.

For example, I want you to think outside the box of a nature photographer because the illustration might be clearer. Think of a photographer in a studio. She has an assignment to photograph a certain food dish for a publication. A traditional (and effective) way of photographing food is with a large softbox of light directly over the food. But she decides she wants something different. She decides (style choice) to use that softbox, but move it more to the backside of the food, giving a soft backlight. She likes that look and has used it many times on different subjects.

She then decides (style choice) to shoot with really limited depth of field, because that is also a look she is partial to. She grabs a telephoto with a wide maximum lens opening and shoots wide open. She moves around and changes the focus point until the look seems just right to her, maybe even squeezing the shutter as she goes. She checks the images on her LCD and likes what she got. That is all about style.

Style choices are really important, not in some arbitrary sense, but about you and your approach to photography.

Photographers often lose their way with style when they start trying too hard to photograph like someone else or to please someone else other than themselves. This is not just about amateurs and camera club photo contests (though this definitely happens there). I have seen it in pros, including me, who start trying so hard to please a client that they lose track of who they are as photographers. That weakens our images and they often fail to fully satisfy either the photographer or the client.

One exception to this is when we are exploring something new to see how it fits into our style. You might read about a certain way a photographer photographs and has a very unique style, so you want to try it out, too. So you try to match what that photographer did in terms of technique to see how it might work for your subject matter.

Style 3I have often done this when I have seen work from photographers from totally different disciplines, such as wedding photographers, and I see something really unique and interesting. I wonder what that technique would look like applied to nature photography, so I give it a try and explore a new set of choices. This is why, for me, all photography has the potential to influence my work and make me a better photographer, not just nature photography. Sometimes I feel that a lot nature photography is self-referential and simply mimics other work in the field rather than exploring new possibilities.

After some exploring with a new style choice, I then look at it seriously and decide if it works for me or not. If it does, then I start incorporating it into my work, but now from my unique perspective so that it becomes part of my style and not simply duplicating someone else’s.

Experimenting, trying new choices just to see what happens is also an important way to help you refine your own style. That is one thing I love about digital photography. If you start wondering, “What if …”, then you can just do it! You instantly see what happens, you can review it on the LCD, and even then, start to decide if it works or not. Then you can see it again when you bring the images into the computer.

Style 1Style is important today because it helps give a unique look to anyone’s images. There are a lot of people who see certain aspects of my work and immediately recognize it as mine even if they don’t see a credit right away. That is about having a personal style. But it has to come from who you are as a person and a photographer. If you simply try to copy someone else’s style or some of their style choices as a superficial glaze on your images, the images will never have the impact and effectiveness they could have. Being a copy of “someone else” is always about being a copy and never as good as or as authentic as the original photographer or as yourself.

The photos here are all from Cape Cod.

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Style, Voice and Craft in Photography – An Introduction

StyleVoiceInto 3I have been doing a lot of thinking about these things lately because they deeply affect me. I also think they are very important for anyone who wants to take their photography to a new level. They will take anyone beyond the phase of finding the next "10 top tips for better photography." (I want to be clear that looking at “top tips” is not a bad thing – that can stimulate anyone to try new things – it becomes a problem when that becomes the focus of one's photography.)

So I am going to do a series of posts about these things. This post will be an introduction to what these things can mean to a photographer. Next I want to look at each one individually in separate posts. Then I will share some of my personal journey on coming to terms with these parts of photography. Last I will offer some additional resources that you might find of interest. I will try to pick images that illustrate these concepts, because that is useful information. But this is also hard, since for me, style, voice and craft go together.

A few years back, there was a big push in photography about style. A lot of folks talked about photographic style and what that might mean. "How to find your style as a photographer" even became titles and topics for articles and books. It is still important and often discussed by photographers.

Style is about the unique visual choices any photographer makes in order to create an image. For example, if you always shot f/16 for everything, regardless of the subject, that would be a unique visual choice and a style. Style is not about everyday choices a photographer makes just to get the shot. It is about the choices a particular photographer uniquely makes to create a particular look in the image.

StyleVoiceInto 1Any visual choice, from composition to shutter speed to focal length, can be a style decision. Most of the choices we make as photographers are problem-solving to create a particular shot and they are not about style. However, if we consistently make the same choices in ways that are unique to us, then that becomes style.

Voice is a term that is often used for writers and refers to the special way that any individual communicates about things that are important to them. It also fits photography. When we photograph things that are important to us, show them boldly as important in our images, and treat them with respect, that is about our “voice.”

StyleVoiceInto 2Voice is about communicating from the heart, about showing who you are. Style is more about communicating from the head, about making a photograph interesting. Both are important to developing the full potential of any photographer. Both can be found alone in photographs as well. A lot of advertising photography, for example, is all style and little that is really important to the photographer (that said, some photographers even find a voice here by finding a style that connects to some deep part of who they are).

Voice can be a part of an image without style, too. A lot of beginning photographers are very excited to photograph things that are important to them. The images often don’t communicate that voice very well because these photographers need another tool, craft.

Craft is about how you use the camera, your knowledge of photography, and all of the parts of taking a picture in order to better control how you communicate with a camera. Style is impossible without a strong degree of craft because you have to know your craft in order to make unique decisions about how you use it. Voice is very difficult without craft because then the images often don’t communicate well or effectively.

StyleVoiceInto 3I believe that as photographers who care about photography and our subjects in nature, growing in all three of these areas is important. They can help the beginner, but they also help the long-time expert photographer. This is a continuing part of our education as photographers as we learn new parts of our craft in order to more effectively communicate what is important to us as our voice and to better use style to make unique, strong and interesting images.

The photos here are all from Maine.

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Joy in Photography

Joy 1Photography is fun, right? Then why do so many photographers take it sooooo seriously? I know this happens. They start worrying if they have the "right" camera, the "right" lens, the "right" gear, the "right" subject, the "right" technique. And suddenly photography starts becoming very, very serious.

I am reading a most interesting book by Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. In it, the author talks about looking at the stuff in our lives and asking if they bring joy or not. I think that's not a bad question to use for both our gear and our photography.

I love Kondo's approach of looking at something that we felt worked well for us in the past but isn't today – she suggests thanking the object for its service then letting it go. I really like that idea and am already applying it to some of my "stuff", even including how I work.

Joy 2This can really help all of us simplify our photographic lives and even find new joy in taking pictures. I run into photographers all the time who are tired of carrying around their gear, for example, and are happier shooting with their iPhone. But they don't want to get rid of the old gear and get new because of their "investment." What kind of investment is that? Gear that doesn't get used and brings less joy into the photographer's life? That doesn't sound like a very good investment to me.

Or we can get trapped into taking pictures "for others" rather than for ourselves. We start paying attention to others' "shoulds", whether that is from the camera club or the latest photo magazine, and start paying less attention to what is truly satisfying to us. For example, I really am becoming less and less interested in the big, dramatic landscape that everyone photographs. There is so much to nature beyond that, and I want to discover and share that, even if I don't get any "likes" on Facebook. That is bringing me joy.

Joy 3So what brings you joy in your photography? Are you honoring that? And what keeps you from really finding that joy? Are you paying attention to that as well?

The photos here were all taken when I was in Maine and Massachusetts at the end of July and the beginning of August.

If you get a chance, check out my combination package of a print book plus video short course that will give you instruction, insight and intelligent information that will help you improve your photographic craft, 6 Steps to Better Nature Photography.

Posted in Landscape photography, Nature photography | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Storytelling Photography II: The Old Slideshow Renewed

IntoTheNight 2Slideshows used to be an important part of a photographer's world. If you are old enough to remember the Kodak Carousel projector, you will remember sitting through slide shows, good and bad, long and short (and of course, deadly long!). You might also remember upside down slides, backward images, faded slides and problems syncing music to the slides.

But one thing about slideshows is that you always gained an understanding of something the photographer had shot that simply was not possible with single images. Or if you were the photographer, you got a chance to share an entire experience, not just a few photos.

Many people are doing slideshows of some sort today, but it seems that mostly photographers are using them to express something about photography, especially teaching or showing a body of work. Nothing wrong at all with that, but I think we have more possibilities than that, especially for nature photographers.

IntoTheNight 1When I was shooting the images of catching and recording information about bats that I showed in the storytelling post I did last week, I was planning on putting them together as a slideshow. I had thought of doing some video, but the night conditions made that difficult, so I stuck with stills.

People today are so used to seeing short video on the web that it is hard to do a long slideshow and keep people's attention. I put together the images from capturing and collecting data on bats into a relatively short slide show with music. I used a simple storytelling format that told a story of setting up mist nets, catching bats, collecting data on them and releasing them. This is not purely chronological, but uses a form that more clearly tells the story by grouping processes (like setting up nets, catching bats, measuring and so forth) so that the viewer would have a clearer idea of what was going on. It still basically follows a story with beginning, middle and end.

The show is a little longer than what many people recommend for the Web, but I think the story is strong enough, plus the topic unique enough, that the time is okay.

Bats SNFC 2015 from Rob Sheppard on Vimeo.

The music is from SmartSound, a royalty-free music that you pay for once and use as needed. I used two pieces of music to fit the setting up and the catching of bats separately. If you are going to do this and will never use the video for anything except personal use, you can use any music you want. If you are going to show any slideshow like this to any group (live or Internet) that will be paying for anything (even just to get into an event or advertising on a website), you can get into big trouble if you use popular music (or any copyrighted music) without permission (and yes, the music industry has gone after even individuals). There is a lot of royalty-free music available on the Internet that you can find quite cheaply, too, if you search for it.

I put this together in Adobe Premiere because that is what I use and I am familiar with it. However, a simple slide show like this can be done with a lot of different software, as long as you can attach music to it, including Adobe Lightroom, iMovie, Adobe Premiere Elements, ProShow and more.

I did this very simple show for the folks who were in my bat ecology and conservation class this summer. I may put together something with a little more information using subtitles to explain what is happening.

So consider how you might put together a slideshow of your images. This can be a great way of showing off your work and your subject in a way that cannot be duplicated in any other way. It is also a great way of saying something more about nature than just using single images. It doesn't have to be fancy to be effective.

And a fun way of using your images!

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