First of all, I’m going to answer a question many students ask me: “how can I take photographs like Henry Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa or Izis Bidermanas?” The answer is quite simple: you can’t. Let’s take Izis Bidermanas (one of my favorite photographers ever) as an example. You just can’t take photographs like him. I can’t either. Nobody can’t, because nobody lived his life, beside him. He was born in Lithuania, then left for going to France when he was 19 years old. He had the dream to become a painter. Then he was arrested and tortured by the Nazis during World War II. Then he was freed and became an underground fighter. When the war finished he became a full-time photographer and dedicated his life to portrait Paris and its inhabitants. He developed a true passion for circus and tried to document the life of this milieu.
If you want to take photographs like Izis Bidermanas, you have to be Izis Bidermanas,
you have to live his whole life since childhood, you have to see everything he saw and lived because his life gave him his own signature for photography. Long story short: impossible. And, let me tell you,: it’s also useless. There’s no benefit in living someone else’s life. And there’s no benefit in taking someone else’s photographs.
Be yourself. Live your own life. Take your photographs. Make them so personal, that even if Henry Cartier-Bresson should be alive again, he couldn’t be able to take them! Because he should be you, in order to take the same photographs you take.
Here are 10 tips I found very useful in my experience to make my life photograph more personal. I don’t presume they’re 100% success guaranteed golden rules, I don’t presume they’re The Truth Revealed, they’re only my experience. But this could give you some ideas about how to create a signature style in your life photography:
- Be consistent in the focal length you use. If you (like me) rave for wide-angle lenses, stick with a wide-angle focal length (i.e.: 28mm) and be consistent with it. If you love longer focal lengths, go with an 85mm. I shoot an APSC Mirrorless Camera, so I usually shoot with an 18mm prime lens and most of my photographs are taken with it. This gave a signature style to my photographs because the perspective was quite the same in every shot.
- Document your neighborhood. You don’t need to travel to India or to the Serengeti National Park. Better: you can travel to Serengeti National Park, but you’ll probably end up taking the same photograph everybody would expect from a Serengeti Safari: lions, zebras, a leopard (if you’re lucky) and maybe some Masai child portrait. Oh, how original. But probably nobody has ever reported your neighborhood as you could do it! Don’t fall in the “Serengeti-interesting/Neighborhood-boring” trap.
The most interesting and beautiful subjects of the world have been photographed billions of times, so most of their photographs are boring. While…the most interesting photographs in the world are taken in outwardly ordinary places, where the eye of the photographer has been able to tell an engaging, fresh and original story.
- Don’t try to make good photographs. Just enjoy your life and bring your camera always with you. Let yourself be inspired by your own life, rather than look for “the best photograph”. A good photograph without a story is like a beautiful pizza box without a pizza inside: bothersome. Life is what puts beautiful stories inside your photographs.
- Include yourself in the photographs. This is a good way to make them personal. I learned to put myself in my pictures when I looked for the first time at Vivian Maier’s photographs. Nobody can act the part of yourself, only you can do it. So guest-starring your photographs is a perfect way to get a very personal style in the photograph and gives the nice sensation you were there, close to the subject and living that moment. Far from being just an Instagram selfie, portraiting myself in my pictures has been the best way to honor the main protagonist of my life: me.
- Don’t look for super-sharp or powerful HDR images. Don’t misunderstand me. I love supersharp images and I love (some good) HDR images. But…everyone can virtually do it and everyone actually does it. Don’t look for perfection when processing your photographs. Add grain, exaggerate contrast, try strange processing, reduce dynamic range, whatever. And when you got the result you want (probably a result none of the thousand of sameness-sick photographers out there achieved) stick with it. Be consistent with it. Eric Kim often shot with a Ricoh GR II and uses a Lightroom preset that simulates the Kodak Tri X-400 pushed to ISO 1600. Believe me: you could easily recognize Eric photography in hundreds of other photographies.
- Break the rules. I’m not a big fan of rules. To tell the true story: I HATE rules. But -I don’t know why- when I started photography I was pretty much involved in studying rules. The thirds rule. The exposition rules. The “right focal length for the subject rule“. Probably I was looking for confirmation and certainties. Bullshits. Break all the rules, my friend. I am grateful to myself for having broken all the rules I learned. Breaking the rules (ok, better if you know them, but don’t be slave to the rules: they will help you when you need them, but they’re nothing more than hints) will make you different from all the teacher’s pets out there: most of them (the rules slaves) will take beautiful images (each one identical to the others). But almost none of them will ever tell anything interesting or personal in a true photograph. So get ready to take portraits with an ultra-wide-angle lens or to shot a picture of your bedroom with a tele-lens.
- Don’t look at your photographs immediately after you took them. If possible, disable the preview of the just taken photograph from your camera LCD. I’m not asking you to wait for years: just a week, give it a try. This helped me a lot. First, because it helped me in emotional detaching from the shot (so, when I edit the photographs, I almost-actually look at them and I’m not in a “what a beautiful moment I was living” mood). Second: it helped me focus on the process of taking photographs instead of being focused on choosing the right image or seeing if everything was right. Shoot. And check after a week. This will bring us directly to the next point:
- Put your heart, mind, soul, body, your whole being 100% in the process of taking the photograph you’re shooting. I’ve shot 170.000 photographs in 2 years, but I could easily say less than 10% was worth the effort. 90% of them were shot just for the sake of shooting. Without thinking. The 10% shot while thinking was the photographs that really helped me to move forward in looking for my personal style.
- Don’t define yourself as a genre photographer. For example, if you define yourself as a wildlife photographer, you’ll end up missing all the other opportunities to shot great photographs of your life, just because you don’t think they worth it. But they are, indeed. And, most of all, if you limit yourself, your wildlife photography will also become poor, because even when you’re shooting photographs to a tiger in Siberia, you can (and you should) put something of your life in the picture.
- Remember that photography is just a medium to tell something about your life. It’s not the goal.
I hope you enjoyed. These tips helped me a lot in my experience and are the temporary results of my eternal quest in life photography.
Thanks for reading. Be yourself. Tell the masterpiece of your life through photography.