Photographers will spend tons of money and lots of time perfecting their use of the tools of their trade. We buy books and classes, watch tutorials, and spend time practicing, gather in professional groups, and shadow other photographers. While we learn how to use our gear, there is one thing we shouldn’t overlook, because it’s the thing that ultimately matters the most: vision.
For those photographers who consider themselves artists, the one question that always seems beyond answering is “How do I make my work stand out?” In an age when image creation and distribution is so easy, that’s a great question. Often, the photographer will take a new class or buy a new piece of gear to give themselves that little edge, but the shine always wears off and they find themselves searching for the next thing, the next new piece of gear or the class that will finally teach them that one thing they’ve been missing, the thing that will bring them to a new level. What so many fail to realize is that, at that point, skill is mostlyirrelevant.
Given enough time behind the camera, skill level becomes a largely useless way to distinguish oneself. It’s not what gear they use that’s important, what f-stop, ISO, or aperture a photographer uses that will set their work apart. It’s not what choice of light source or modifier a photographer uses that will distinguish them from their peers, it’s why they chose those they chose those settings, that modifier, or that light pattern.
As an example, look at the work of Peter Lindbergh versus the work of Peggy Sirota. Both shoot very high-profile photographs that include celebrities, magazine covers, and advertisements, but the end results are many aesthetic worlds apart. While the work they do obviously requires a certain level of skill, these photographers don’t get hired because of their skill set, they get hired for their vision. If you’ve ever spent any time on Pinterest perusing family portraits, you’ll have seen what happens when everyone’s work begins to look the same; a family in a field of tall grass, backlit at sunset. The fact is, any one of a thousand photographers can take beautiful family portraits that are sharp, correctly exposed, and nicely lit, so price often ends up being the deciding factor for clients looking to have portraits taken.
Why does a magazine hire Annie Leibovitz? It’s not because she can properly light and pose her subjects, it’s because her work is stamped, very uniquely, with her visual signature.
So, what is it that makes people stop and stare for long minutes at one photographer's work while passing up that of another? It’s vision. It’s the unique way one person sees a thing, and how they approach turning what they see into a finished image. It’s the way someone chooses to apply their skills, not the skills themselves, that is most important. That is not to say that building skill is irrelevant since skill is what allows us to realize our vision, the problem is that those skills are largely the same skills everyone else is building. This means that, at some point, skill level fades into the background and vision is what wins the day.
So, if it’s vision that truly separates the cream from the milk, maybe it’s time we start asking new questions. Instead of asking a photographer we admire about their settings, or looking at another photographer’s work and wondering what light source they used, maybe we should start asking a more difficult, but more important question: why?
Is that photographer you admire shooting in low key, black and white? Why? What are those artistic choices communicating to you, and what is it that you are connecting with as a viewer? Is it the intimacy, the sensuality of the light that draws you in?
Or maybe you find you prefer bright, warm colors and smiling eye contact. Why? Is it the warmth, the friendly openness those choices convey that speaks to you?
Each choice that is made regarding how to apply photographic skill to creating an image should always be in the service of a vision, and that is the one part of the job that is unique to the photographer behind the camera. Anyone can learn to manipulate the exposure triangle, but not everyone can see the world in the same way.
So, if vision is ultimately the most important thing, how does one go about finding out what their vision is and how to hone it? That’s the question of the ages, but I think I can give a little bit of insight.
Everyone that has a unique mixture of personality, experiences, and preferences that separate us as individuals. Being authentic to who you are is the first part of having a vision, so those seeds are already there, planted deep inside you. It seems to me then that the first step in watering those seeds is to start asking yourself what makes you light up? What is it that you can’t stop thinking about, that inspires you and drives you?
Maybe it’s honest connection or joy or sensuality that makes you feel connected to an image. Maybe it’s being challenged, confronting pain, or questioning human nature. It doesn't matter what it is, as long as you know it. After that, start looking at work you love (hint: it shouldn’t be just photography) and try to figure out what is about how the piece was made that makes you love it. Take it apart and examine what makes you connect to the photo; is it the light, the color, the subject matter, the mood or the composition?
Hone that instrument that is yours alone, that no one else can replicate: your mind. Start believing that it’s your mind that is your most important piece of gear. Build as much skill in the way you see as you have in the way you manipulate your camera, and your work will no longer be merely another in a long line of similar work, it will scream out that it is a child of your heart.