Photography is a journey. There is no finish line. As long as we continue to take pictures, our body of work is going to evolve and change over time. That is to be expected and part of the beauty of this medium we all love. When we first start this journey we are often carefree, happy and oblivious about the images we are taking. Then we learn. We grow. We experiment. We find ourselves doing a bit of this and a bit of that. Over time, we often come to decide that we want to develop more of a voice. We want our work to not only be technically sound, but to represent us and to speak a bit to who we are.
Once this point is reached there is often a bit of a push back, suddenly we find ourselves saying things like I don’t want to specialize. I want to shoot a bit of everything. Wanting to shoot a bit of everything isn’t a problem. Sometimes the subject matter is a big part of your voice. More often than not though, your voice will shine through despite your subject matter.
Or maybe you might find yourself saying something like I love to edit with bright, bold colors in some of my work and soft haze in others. As for wanting tons of editing styles, that may just mean you haven’t really developed your voice full yet, or it could mean your voice is very eclectic. It can be hard, but I’ve seen people who’s processing is very different depending on the day and on the image, but somehow their voice still manages to shine though.
Maybe you’re like me and you love bright, happy images when life is good and dark, moody images when you’re feeling down. When you love a hazy backlit image one day and a dramatically lit black and white the next day, when your work reflects your mood, it can also be hard to make it cohesive. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You can use varied light and still have a cohesive body of work.
Since developing a cohesive body of work isn’t simply about choosing a subject matter, a processing style or one way of using light, what is it about? In my mind, developing a cohesive set of images is about figuring out your voice. What makes your work yours? What do you want your images to say? What themes run through your work?
I have been on a slow journey through the photography world. I had a dSLR for many years before I even considered starting a business. I worked hard on my technicals: exposure, composition, reading the light. I then tried hard to move past just the technicals. Since I wasn’t in business I didn’t have a reason to spend a lot of time thinking about what makes my work mine. Because of that, more than me actively thinking about what I wanted my voice to be, my style found me while I wasn’t looking.
People describe me as quiet, sweet, a little bit crunchy granola and I think that is reflected in my work. If I were to pick a few main themes in my work I would say my work is:
1. Organic: Not like organic food, though my crunchy side wouldn’t mind that. When I look through my favorite images, I usually see an earthy, natural quality to it. I love to highlight the beautiful Pacific Northwest surroundings in my work, but even when I’m not shooting in natural surroundings, I find my work to have a soft organic quality to it from the compositions to the subject matter I am attracted to.
2. Soft: Hopefully not soft in terms of focus, but soft in feeling. My processing, while not always 100% clean, tends to have a soft hand. I also tend to shoot telephoto lenses, pretty wide open a lot of the time. The beautiful bokeh from doing that adds to the soft feeling.
3. Driven by Mood: Whether I like it or not, my work is going to reflect my moods. In addition to that type of mood, more than that I try to capture genuine emotion in my work. Whether it is joy or sorrow, I want my subjects mood to shine through in my work. Even when their is no face so it’s hard to read my subjects mood or the subject is an inanimate object that can’t really portray an emotion, I can try to have an image of it evoke some sort of emotion in the viewer of an image.
You may find that you have many themes running through your images, or you may be able to distill your voice down to a single word, but once you’ve defined it, you now have a good way to go about building your portfolio. Once the main themes have been identified, you can look at any possible portfolio image and see how it fits these themes. As a side note, choosing images or your portfolio is different than choosing images to shoot. I may shoot an urban landscape full of hard lines and bold colors to document a vacation or a trip to the city, but I wouldn’t put that image in my portfolio because it would stand out as incongruous. Whether you want to build a portfolio of images so clients will know what to expect when they hire you, a portfolio to apply to CMPro, or for almost any reason, you will want to make sure that some if not all of the themes you identified as an important part of your voice are present throughout your portfolio.
Throughout this article you’ve seen a few images from my current portfolio. If you look at the images below, your original reaction might be that they don’t fit together. They run the gamut from pure joy to somber, and from brightly colored to black and white, but I think if you apply the main themes you will see that they all fit. They are all organic in nature, soft in style and showing or evoking emotion. Plus, they all feel like me.