Fearless Photography

Fearless Photography

Several years back, I wrote an article titled “What Every Aspiring Photographer Should Know.”  One of the points in that article was this:

Never apologize for your own sense of beauty.  Nobody can tell you what you should love.  Do what you do brazenly and unapologetically.  You cannot build your sense of aesthetics on a consensus.

While people tend to nod in agreement when they read that, I’m not sure many people really know what to do with it.

I am convinced the “art by consensus” problem is more rampant today than it’s ever been.  There are lots of contributing factors, but one is far and away the leader:  the Internet.  It’s a wonderful tool for learning, communication, and entertainment, and I rarely go a day without it.  The trouble is that it’s led to the homogenization of the arts.  It’s just so easy to look at what everyone else is doing and mimic it.  It’s particularly dangerous for new photographers who have not yet found their artistic voice.  Looking at site after site of portrait photography somehow drives home the point that “this is what portrait photography is, and this is how you’re supposed to do it.”  For professional photographers who rely on their work for income, it also sends the message that “this is what clients want, and therefore you must do it.”

To compound that problem, we have ubiquitous props, actions, backgrounds, all things that are universal.  Anyone who wants them can have them.  And it’s so very easy to want it when you see it on every other photographer’s site.

Unless you are an exceptionally strong-willed and self-aware artist, it’s very difficult to avoid becoming one of the herd.  But it is possible, and I would propose that as artists, it is our responsibility.

So how do we even begin?  Here are some thoughts.

Seek other influences.

Rather than looking at your peers’ sites, look at paintings, sculptures, movies, drawings, anything in the visual arts.  Look at photography if you must, but nothing in the modern portrait genre; it’s too similar and can lead to inadvertent copying.  Make your brain work.  Figure out what speaks to you and what doesn’t, then ask yourself why.  Look at a piece long enough to identify what you appreciate about it, and work with that.

I love Rocky Schenck’s work.  I had already started playing with heavy filtration and fuzzy focus when I came across his work.  It immediately spoke to me.  It is so atmospheric and conveys such intimacy, like a close, personal memory.  It’s both nostalgic and also timeless, and it makes me feel that the photographer is both a dreamy and well grounded.  He makes every scene feel special.  While I had already been playing with similar techniques, his images gave me more of an understanding of what I was trying to convey.  I took those principles and applied them to my own work in a more conscious way.  It opened my mind up and helped me push further into my own voice.

Have at least one personal project at all times.

And I don’t mean photographing your own family.  Think about what moves you as a person, something deeply important to you, and start there.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a positive or a negative thing; the subject matter, as long is it moves you, is unimportant.  If you can’t think of anything, you can start by picking an emotion (contentment, worry, longing, etc) and find as many creative ways to convey that emotion as you can.

The importance of personal projects is that they give you the opportunity to experiment without fearing failure.  Try crazy things.  I’ve shot through plastic bags, sunglasses, and my infamous sh!t filter, I’ve oil painted onto photographs, I’ve torn up prints and taped them back together, drawn on and burned negatives, and toned prints with coffee, tea, wine, whatever was on hand.  Invent new ways to “fail”.  You’ll have a lot of fun, and in the process you’ll get a much clearer picture (no pun intended) of what moves you, and how to communicate it.

Now, there are two “rules” to make this work.  First, do not google search experiments other people have done.  Come up with your own ideas.  And second, do NOT post your experimental images for critique!  Don’t do it.  It defeats the purpose.  Remember, you are on a quest to be unique and fearless as an artist; you cannot do that with one eye on the critics.

This image was a total one-off.  It’s a paper inter-negative transfer, a long darkroom process involving modifying and interpreting an image via pencil shadings on the back of the print.  This image was shot in flat light in broad daylight, and then turned into a night scene.  All of the dress detail and much of the foliage were drawn in, and the lighting was modified by hand.  Blue toner completed the mood.  No Photoshop was involved.

Talk to or read about artists who have a very distinctive style, or who were instrumental in shaping his or her art form.

It’s inspiring and encouraging reading about how other artists stuck to their own sense of beauty, when others didn’t “get” it.  Not sure where to start?  The Impressionists, whose work was laughed at by “proper” painters of the time, are great role models.  They stayed true to their vision, and it changed the art world.

Here are a few more suggestions:

  1. Zosia Zija is a Polish photographer who has a very distinct look and feel to her work.  She is a master of the imperfect, allowing all sorts of “distractions” into her scenes, and still making a strong statement.
  2. Dima Zverev (particularly his art personal galleries) is a modern Russian photographer with a knack for perfect timing.  He can photograph anything from cows to people to children playing in a fountain, and still maintain his signature style.
  3. Irving Penn, a renegade in his time for using stark grey or white backgrounds and extreme minimalism.
  4. Richard Avedon, whose early work went entirely against the standard of posed and static fashion work.  He was the first to emphasize his subjects’ personalities in his works.
  5. Sarah Moon, whose work is best found by googling “Sarah Moon photography.”  She is an excellent example of a photographer whose personal work (complete with sandpapered negatives and chemical spills) translates directly into, for example, the cover of Vogue magazine.  Her color work is particularly beautifully strange; you’d never mistake her work for anyone else’s.
  6. Jill Tracy, and her cult classic video to the song, The Fine Art of Poisoning.  Yes, it’s creepy, but talk about having a distinctive and recognizable style!
  7. The movie Amelie.  The whole movie is a feast of visual art, and is, in my opinion, a rare example of emotive cinematography.

Learn to apply all of this to your client work.

Erase the line between your “art” and your “work”.  Do it as slowly as you need as long as you’re always pushing toward that goal.  Do not be afraid of standing out.  If you’re wondering why I chose to list mostly photographers above, it’s because each and every one of those photographers have client and personal works that are nearly interchangeable.  They’re great examples of artists who have remained true to their vision, and have attracted clients who appreciate their work.

When you do decide to put your work out there for public comment, be very careful whom you listen to.  Art is supposed to be subjective; that means not everyone will like or understand it.  I would far rather have ten people who adore and understand my work, than a hundred who think it’s nice.  It’s easy to get wrapped up in how many comments your images receive online, but you cannot judge your work that way.  (If you’re shooting images specifically according to what gets you the most comments, it’s time to take a break from posting images.)

You might be thinking that this all sounds intimidating.  Well, it certainly can be at first.  It can be overwhelming, but once you get started, it gets a lot easier, and becomes a way of life.  Remember that you are an artist, not a picture taker, and enjoy the journey.

Photography tutorial by CJ Nicolai.

About the Author:

Visit CJ Nicolai online.


  1. Astrid Dec 15 2011 at 6:09 am - Reply

    Thank you for this. I needed it. I have felt conflicted lately, because when parents hire me to photograph their babies/children, the expect me to bring along colorful knitted hats and vintage chairs, even though I don't show any of those on my website. If they have some of their own, they expect me to use them. And I do, because I'm terrible about saying "no". Of course, those are the only photos they buy. Not the artsy-fartsy non-trendy ones. I only have myself to blame!

    And I'm starting my personal project today. The one people thought was weird when I was bouncing the idea off of them a couple of months ago.

    Thank you. I'm off to grow a pair.

  2. LaceyMeyers Dec 15 2011 at 6:53 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing this, CJ. I generally 'shoot without fear' when photographing my own children but for a session, it was this past weekend. I was so blown away by the light and atmosphere we had that I was in my own little world the entire time we shot and I LOVE the results! Also when photographing my rocker brother. He completely inspires me to loose myself in the creative process.

  3. Stephanie Dec 15 2011 at 7:09 am - Reply

    Wonderful article. Thanks so much for sharing those links, too! This is great advice I will definitely take to heart.


  4. Lauren B Dec 15 2011 at 7:19 am - Reply

    Thank you for this wonderful post…it makes me feel more comfortable and confident to search for my own style! I'm always get inspired when others say it's okay to go outside the box…I'm slowly start to creep outside the box, but still nervous…I think I'm going to start my own personal photography project, I'm excited…since the New Year is coming, I think I'm going to call it Graditude!


  5. celestejones Dec 15 2011 at 8:13 am - Reply

    Thank you so much for this CJ.

  6. anne Dec 15 2011 at 8:30 am - Reply

    Thank you so much CJ… We so need to get out of our ruts to get higher !

    (hope this sentence makes sens !)

  7. Kelsey K. Anderson Dec 15 2011 at 8:36 am - Reply

    I bet you LOVE Pinterest! 😉 Wonderful artistic advice.

  8. Adele Humphries Dec 15 2011 at 8:37 am - Reply

    Such an important message. Thank you for sharing it. x

  9. Michelle McDaid Dec 15 2011 at 8:52 am - Reply

    Thank you for this. This is the best article this site has ever posted. Another photographer gave me almost exactly the same advice earlier this year and this has served to be a good reminder to nurture the individual creativity within me. AND another slap upside the head to tell me to STOP LOOKING AT OTHER PEOPLE'S WORK. I have a month or so of slow business and I'm going to spend it working on personal projects. :o)

  10. Katrina Stewart Dec 15 2011 at 10:22 am - Reply

    This article has completely re-invigorated me. Thank you for this wake-up call. I'm excited to start generating ideas for a personal project. Thank-you for this.

  11. Joyce Dec 15 2011 at 10:29 am - Reply

    Wow! Thank you CJ for a hard knock on the head! Just what i needed <3 It's so easy to fall in the line of "norm". This article is going to be my launching pad for my photography resolution in 2012!!

  12. Holly Thompson Dec 15 2011 at 11:46 am - Reply

    Fantastic words of advice, CJ! I have admired you and your amazing artistry ever since joining CM. You are an inspiration to the artist in all of us!

  13. Amber Dec 15 2011 at 12:51 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this article CJ. I just finished watching your breakout session last night and enjoyed that as well. I am tired of all the shots that look like everyone else's. Thanks for reminding us to be original and to stop following the trends.

  14. CallieMarie Dec 15 2011 at 12:59 pm - Reply

    This is an absolutely outstanding article. You hit the nail on the head with the "art by consensus" statement and have made me more confident going forward with the style I'm developing (which tends to be a bit quirky and unconventional). Some love it, some don't. To each his own. It makes me extremely uncomfortable to shoot and/or process a photograph the way it's "supposed" to be done just to appease The Consensus. I'll do my photography the best way I know how–with the unique mind that God gave me.

  15. kim shapiro Dec 15 2011 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for this article. It spoke to me & made me remember why i became a photographer in the first place. It takes a brave soul to follow your heart & develop images that you love that are "different" because of all of the critique & fear of people not hiring you when you are trying to make a living doing this. I would LOVE the type of client who wants something other then mainstream photos but I guess I can't ever get them without exposing what i'm capable of.

  16. Amber R. Dec 15 2011 at 1:50 pm - Reply

    Thank you! This is what I have been thinking about CONSTANTLY lately. When looking at everyone else's work, I feel pressure to conform. I spent about half of my college career studying art before I decided to become a teacher, and one of the most important lessons I learned was from one of my art professors. Mistakes make the most beautiful art! This is why I cannot attend photography "workshops" where I will be taught to photograph babies with the cliche'd props or the vintage chair in the field. It's so easy to become a follower, to do what others are doing. I am most happy with my work when I come up with my own idea, stretch the rules of photography, and get inspiration from the personality of my client! I don't need to be like everyone else. I don't need to be the most trendy or popular. I only need to be me.

  17. Gwyn Dec 15 2011 at 5:36 pm - Reply

    I so enjoyed your post. I am a very newbie with my camera. I just registered for the shooting 101 course today! I can't wait to learn all about the settings of my camera. I know nothing about all the terms but I am anxious to learn and play with my camera!

  18. Heather N. Dec 15 2011 at 5:56 pm - Reply

    This was simply beautiful and inspiring! Thank you Cheryl for your amazing words and wisdom.

  19. Lisa (Tout Petit Pix Dec 16 2011 at 12:45 am - Reply

    Such a meaningful reminder. And at such a perfect timing for me <3

  20. Maryanne Gobble Phot Dec 17 2011 at 6:41 am - Reply

    Love the quote in the beginning!

    I do disagree with "Have at least one personal project at all times. And I don’t mean photographing your own family"

    I held back from using my family in my personal projects for a long time and it was the worst decision of my photographic life. Now that they are in my frame I'm t so into it, I have dropped all clients and have focused solely on my family for now.

    It's changed me, them, and certainly is defining my photographic style.

  21. CJ Nicolai Dec 17 2011 at 1:32 pm - Reply

    Maryanne, whatever works for the photographer is great. In writing that, I wasn't implying that one's own family isn't a worthy subject, and I am all for using the people in your life as subjects and participants. My point was that it is quite easy to define ourselves by our role in our families and not push further as individuals. In other words, I would never recommend neglecting our own families from photographs, but would highly recommend projects that push us out of our own four walls.

  22. Patricia (@CichLee) Dec 17 2011 at 7:43 pm - Reply

    Fantastic reminders to enjoy all art — I'd add enjoy other passions too (rock climbing, dancing, music) to fuel busting out beyond your boundaries.

    I always cringe a little at newborn sessions with babies hung from trees, folded hands beneath chins, curled up in everything from buckets to boxes, many beautifully shot and processed for sure. Seems to me, babies naturally belong in the arms of their parents and it's in those arms that there size and attachment is best seen — and won't be the same in a year, 5 years or ever again. It's a shame to miss photographing that moment.

    Thank you for introducing me to Cheryl Jacobs Nicolai. Loving her film work and thoughts behind it.

  23. Patricia (@CichLee) Dec 17 2011 at 7:53 pm - Reply

    Maryanne Gobble's reply – "I held back from using my family in my personal projects for a long time and it was the worst decision of my photographic life."

    So true.

    And so inspiring is her art infused with deep love and exploration.

  24. London Wedding Photo Dec 18 2011 at 11:14 pm - Reply

    Very good article. I do believe though it is good to analyses other peoples work. You should deconstruct it and then use what you have learnt to produce something of your own!

  25. Beckie (g8rbeckie) Dec 19 2011 at 7:20 am - Reply

    CJ you're amazing, and so talented! I am so guilty of wanting my photography to please other people though – and I'm not even in business. I just do this for myself and yet I feel the need to be mainstream and have the validation that it's good in the eyes of others. Funny how that works!

    Your suggestion to have a personal project is amazing. I am going to spend time thinking about this so I can find something meaningful that will help me come into my own as a true artist.


  26. Lindsey Dec 19 2011 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    This was a fantastic read. We need more articles like this one 🙂 Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  27. CJ Nicolai Dec 20 2011 at 10:17 am - Reply

    London Wedding Photographer, absolutely, it is good to analyze others' works. I am simply suggesting that there are many other kinds of work to analyze than that which is too similar to our own. It's too easy to compare ourselves to others, and also to unintentionally mimic it.

    It's good to be diverse. 😉

  28. Trish Dec 20 2011 at 11:57 pm - Reply

    Beautifully written, Cheryl. I checked out of the portrait photography world a while ago and I feel like I can hear my voice again and I'm happier with my work. You speak the truth and your advice is spot on.

  29. Maryanne Gobble Phot Dec 23 2011 at 9:52 am - Reply

    "My point was that it is quite easy to define ourselves by our role in our families and not push further as individuals. In other words, I would never recommend neglecting our own families from photographs, but would highly recommend projects that push us out of our own four walls."

    I just don't think weather or not your related to your subjects has bearing on pushing out of your four walls or defining your individuality. If so, what of Sally Mann's work, or a good portion or Imogen Cunningham or Wynn Bullock? To name a few. What would their bodies of work be if you took out their kids and spouses? And Weston, didn't he use wives/lovers in his work?

    Alfred Stieglitz's photos of his wife place # 7 and 8 in the most expensive photos EVER sold in history. Both over 1 million. What is Alfred Stieglitz without Georgia O Keefe?

  30. cate waters Dec 28 2011 at 10:49 am - Reply

    I read your "things a photog needs to know" and that specific piece of advice really resonated with me immediately. I went out and within seconds started writing a blog post about what it meant to me and why I found it to be one of the most important pieces of advice someone could give me. I love that you followed that article up with such a poignant touch on that specific piece of advice. Like you said, people can say it over and over again but I think it takes months… sometimes years for a photog to really embrace that mentality and be ok with it.

  31. CJ Nicolai Dec 28 2011 at 1:19 pm - Reply

    Maryanne, as I mentioned previously, I have used my own family as subjects in much of my work and have no objection to it. I was merely making a point, especially considering the number of posts I see on forums designating an image as "JMK", meaning "just my kid." For many people on these forums, and beyond, their children are their only subjects simply because they are available.

    Rather than limit ourselves to only those easily available to us, I was encouraging the readers to branch out. Besides forcing us to take risks, it also helps eliminate the question of whether the artist is struggling with the "Mommy goggles" issue.

    Again, in no way did I say or imply that one cannot make great art of his or her family. I hope I have clarified my point successfully.

    Best regards,

    – CJ

  32. Tony|Essex Wedding P Jan 14 2012 at 1:17 am - Reply

    Wonderful article and great advice, somewhere in there is the difference between a 'photo' and 'art'.

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