This guest post is by Daniel Milnor who splits his time between the chaos of Southern California and the spiritual landscape of New Mexico. He is happiest with his notebook, Leica and trusty leather boots, sizing up whatever situation is happening in front of him.
Milnor is the author of the blog, Smogranch, which allows him to speak his mind, post his mother’s poetry and bring together like minded people around the globe. Connect with him on Twitter.
For being a “creative industry” we sure love to conform.
A trend develops, no pun intended, and suddenly the industry publications, blogs, advertising, seminars and trade shows are filled with what is hot, new and temporary.
I’ve never completely understood this.
This isn’t unique to photography. Look at television. One reality show becomes a success and suddenly three or four similar shows pop up, all slightly less relevant than the original. Within a year or two the public is saturated, bored and searching for a new thrill.
Today’s photography world is filled with more photographers than ever before as the barrier for entry into the professional world falls lower and lower.
So what gives? How do we look to the future with a positive glow in our eyes?
Well, to me it comes down to finding our individual vision and refining our style, and accomplishing this isn’t possible by following industry trends or what’s hot.
Finding your vision comes from intense soul searching, time in the field and mastering the basics of photography, things like light, timing and composition, not to mention actually having something to say, something unique and native only to you, or me, and not simply what the industry wants us to say.
Often times, words like “vision, soul, passion, style,” are thrown around with reckless abandon, but most of the time this is only for show. These things, these traits are easy to talk about but very difficult to actually acquire. The good news, you already have them and all you have to do now is find them inside yourself.
Why do you need vision? Style?
Well, in essence, your vision is the most valuable thing you have. Making unique imagery, instantly recognizable imagery, is what will create the demand around your business.
Yesterday I received an email from a potential portrait client who said, “I had another photographer booked to photograph my kids, but after I saw your work I canceled with them and knew you were the photographer I was looking for.”
If I followed the industry trends, used all the same tools that the masses of photographers were using, then how does the client differentiate between my work and the masses? What do I have to negotiate with?
If I’m using camera A, lens A, Photoshop action A, Filter A, and you are using all these same things, then where is the value in my work? Why would anyone hire me over the photographer down the street?
When photographers conform and follow the masses, what typically happens is the job comes down to price and how much the photographer is prepared to give away. What gets lost? The photographs.
This is NOT the situation you want to find yourself in.
When you produce unique imagery clients recognize they are seeing something they can’t get everywhere. This doesn’t’ mean you are going to book every job, the reality is far from this, but what becomes the focal point of the negotiation is the IMAGERY.
My point with this little story is that finding your vision isn’t easy and might require time alone and asking some serious questions.
“Who am I with a camera in my hand.”
“What am I trying to say?”
“What do I REALLY want to do?”
You might think this last question is an easy one but I can’t tell you how many photographers I’ve spoken with who have simply followed what the industry has told them to do, or what they feel “They have to do.”
How did I find my vision?
I found my vision by NOT working as a photographer. I began working as a photographer, full time, around 1993. By 1997 I knew something wasn’t right. I was working but I wasn’t particularly thrilled with what I was producing and after looking back at what I had produced over the entire year I realized I didn’t have anything to show.
So, I took a job working for Eastman Kodak and signed a non-competition letter stating I wouldn’t accept any assignments during my time working for the company. I sold all of my equipment except for one Leica M body and one lens.
Over the following four years I learned much about the industry, other photographers, but more importantly I had the time to learn about my own work.
Over the four years I worked for Kodak I shot extensively on the side, not for anyone else, strictly for myself. When I picked up a camera I had only my own vision in mind.
After four years I looked at what I had accomplished and finally recognized who I was with a camera in my hand.
I made the decision to leave Kodak and become a photographer once again only this time I had a personal vision to lead my way.
Had I NOT stopped working as a photographer I don’t think I would have ever come close to finding my vision. The industry and the controls being placed on me were just too powerful. There was little room to explore and what was expected of me was cut and dry.
My jobs today come more from me making suggestions than from a client telling me what to do. This is a very liberating feeling. When I book a portrait shoot or a wedding I book it because my work looks different and I have a clear vision of what I want to accomplish. Working this way feels like you are part of a creative collaboration as opposed to having to adopt to someone else’s idea of what images should look like.
My advice? Think about studying photography, really studying. Take classes, go to bookstores, go to galleries, museums and study what photography really has to offer. Learn who the masters were and are, and not just those in your genre. I’ve learned FAR more about how to photograph a wedding by looking at documentary work than I ever have from the wedding industry.
Also, think about taking on a long-term personal project, a project that is entirely controlled by you and preferably something outside your normal comfort zone.
And finally, approach one of your best clients and suggest a new direction.
We can make all kinds of excuses about conforming, about not taking the time to find our unique point of view, but ultimately we simply owe it to photography to continue to explore the limits of our vision.
Finding your vision can be frustrating, confusing, sure, but when you begin to see a pattern or begin to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel the positive feeling will far outweigh any struggles you had to endure.
So go forth, take chances, break some eggs and keep your eyes open for the spark that can set you free.
Milnor is a former newspaper, magazine and commercial photographer who now tries to work solely on his own projects, projects that allow him to work in the fashion he feels most likely to produce images that go beyond the temporary. Milnor is also a member of the advisory board at Blurb, a print on demand book publishing company comprised of some of the most creative and talented folks he has ever encountered.
He has taught at Art Center College of Design, The Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, The Julia Dean Workshops and is scheduled to teach in Peru, California and New Mexico in 2010. He has also found considerable success with his portrait work, which is represented by the agency Masterfile.
David Dvir says
It’s hard to appreciate the business side of things at times when people are always undercutting each other. I’ve looked at the world of photography in disgust at times when certain so called photographers sell their sole for money and actually let their clients take away shotty imagery.
I agree that the best way to keep yourself from blending in with the swarms is to offer something no one else can. It separates the wide eyed would be photographers from those that have passion and vision.
I agree with Dan 100%… Find your inner voice, develop your signature style (even if it goes against any of the “cool” trends) and the clients that identify with your work will seek you out.
Thank you, Seshu, for exposing your blog readers to such an inspirational photographer like Dan.
Parris Whittingham says
Daniel thank you for sharing this powerful story of self exploration through the craft of photography. I really appreciate you for making time to reflect how this experience benefited you and may help inspire others. Thank you Seshu for creating a forum where pioneering photographers and supporters can build.
Ashly Stohl says
This is the exact topic that I have been turning over in my head. I have started taking my photography more seriously, transitioning from travel to fine art, or something in between. I am self-taught, so I don’t have the academic background of many photographers who went to art school.
In reading and getting to know other photographers, historical and current, I have, at times, found myself over thinking the whole process. I do believe that every person has a style that comes naturally to them, and whether other people like it or not is a different issue…
The good news is, all this research has helped me see the world around me differently – through the eyes of those who came before. I can now drive around, and, thanks to Eggleston, see the beauty in the mundane, but I wonder if this research comes at a price too – if it destroys some of a person’s raw style. At some point, does all this knowledge make your work derivative or self-conscious?
Nonetheless, I will take your advice and keep learning and then try to put all of that knowledge in the back of my all that when I’m out with my camera. There must be a balance somewhere, because it has only broadened my vision to know more, but at the same time, it can’t help but influence my photography. Hopefully for the beter…
It’s been a blessing for me to still be a student (photo major of course!) and have a chance to focus on myself and my vision instead of jumping right into the business side and worrying about all that. Although admittedly I started doing that earlier this year and found myself losing my vision quickly. It reminded me to step back and remember who I was. Was also a very important lesson in how I’ll balance the two out when it is time to for me step completely into the business side.