a guide for developing a cohesive body of work

by Kristin Ingalls

a guide for developing a cohesive body of work photo

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.

a guide for developing a cohesive body of work photo

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.

a guide for developing a cohesive body of work photo

a guide for developing a cohesive body of work photo

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?

a guide for developing a cohesive body of work photo

a guide for developing a cohesive body of work photo

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.

a guide for developing a cohesive body of work photo

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.

a guide for developing a cohesive body of work photo

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.

a guide for developing a cohesive body of work photo

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.

a guide for developing a cohesive body of work photo

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.

a guide for developing a cohesive body of work photo

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.

a guide for developing a cohesive body of work photo

a guide for developing a cohesive body of work photo

a guide for developing a cohesive body of work photo

a guide for developing a cohesive body of work photo

a guide for developing a cohesive body of work photoKristin Ingalls, Washington
CM Mentor
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With her Nikon D700 and assortment of prime lenses in hand, Kristin loves to take portraits and describes her style as “organic and clean/pure with just a hint of whimsy.” She has an art/design degree from college and worked for years as a designer but like so many others really got into photography once she had children. In her own words, “I started to capture our family life, and somewhere along the line I got bit by the photography bug.” Her ideal day off would consist of shooting for herself, spending time with friends, and some quiet time alone curled up with a good ebook and possible a Starbucks/Tazo Iced Green Tea and chocolate. With her husband and three daughters, Kristin currently resides in Kirkland, WA.

Read all photography tutorials by Kristin Ingalls.

13 Comments

  • Kim Peterson says:

    Love your thoughts, Kristin! I am definitely still on my journey and love reflecting on what that means as you have done here.

  • sharmilla says:

    Thank you so much for this! I like to call myself eclectic, because it sounds better than indecisive. I totally identified with what you said about mood playing a role in style. It certainly does for me, which has made me feel a bit confused as I continue this journey, about what my style really is. I’m still searching for a voice, but this post has encouraged me to realize I don’t have to pick an editing style or subject matter to find it.

  • Kristin White says:

    This is just what I needed to read today. Now I have lots to think about. Thank you!!

  • Jamie Bates says:

    Thanks for this, Kristin!

  • Sarah says:

    Loved reading this- it’s interesting, isn’t it that it takes a while before we start worrying about our “voice” or whatever else we call making our photography ours? I really liked how you tied in your personality to identify things about your work that all make your body of work feel like you. Very cool! I’m working on this right now, and will be thinking about your post for a while to come. :) Thanks for sharing, Kristen!!

  • This is a great post! I am at the point in my career where i am definitely struggling wit this.

  • I love this Kristin. I love and can relate to what you said about your style finding you. That is very eye opening.

  • Elizabeth says:

    Great article, Kristin!

  • mari says:

    Wow…Kristin! This is a great post! I always love reading your articles…they are always so full of in depth information….i love seeing your different images reflecting on your mood and feelings…i agree they all share that same organic nature in theme…very peaceful…even when you have bold bright colors….I think this is a great article i will refer back to multiple times as i get my CMpro application ready…

    These are all questions myself as well as many others i have seen asking…you have answered them here….i think there is always confusion between having a *style* and cohesive bod of work vs showing variety and artistic expression…you have shown very clearly that you still have them all and still reflect YOU in your work…

    Thank you so much for this post <3

  • Kristy says:

    Love this article- thanks Kristin!

  • Karene' says:

    Thank you Kristin, what you wrote is simply IT. I’ve been grappling with similar issues/questions. I’m lucky enough to take a year off photography business and I’m trying to find my direction. I guess what you’re also saying is not to force yourself into a box, or label yourself, because then your photos become forced and aren’t naturally “you” anymore, hey? But it does help to have a vague sense of direction. Makes sense. You have a lovely style. Natural and often the limited depth of field gives you that feeling that you’re observing an intimate, quiet moment.

  • katie says:

    This is exactly what I’m struggling with…finding cohesion in my work. Maybe I’m not quite there yet in terms of voice if I can’t figure out what my editing style is, but I know how I wnat my subjects to come across so maybe that’s a start.

    Your work is lovely and there is absolute cohesion. And like Karene said above, your work says so much by showing so little. That is true talent.

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