Identifying Your Photographic Inspiration and Style

Your muse will reveal itself to you, if you take the time to listen. Let your camera be your compass.

Photo: <a href="" target="none">Jen Hooks</a>.

Today’s technology makes the creation of a photograph a trivial thing. With the rapid improvement of cameras within mobile devices in the last decade, we are rarely without the ability to take photographs of the minutiae of our daily lives. We can share images with others with the tap of a button, and the feedback in the form of likes and comments is addictive. With the trivialization of photography in an age of selfies, latte art, sunsets, and vintage color filters (all of which I love, if I’m being honest), some of the heart and art of the craft seems to be getting lost. As a photographer, do you take the time to identify and understand what really excites you when you find it in front of your lens? If not, do you wish to start?

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” — Maya Angelou

Have your camera with you whenever possible, and don’t wait.

When my first daughter was a little over a year old, there was a beautiful field of soybeans that we passed every day on the way home from her daycare. It shone like bronze in the early evening light, and it would be easy and safe for me to take a few photos of her there. I stalled for a few weeks, never making the time to prioritize it, even though I thought about it every single day as we drove past. I finally managed to take her there one evening in late October, and I got some lovely shots of her in the glowing early sunset light. She also had a ball.

A photo of a toddler in a soybean field in the fall. Photo by Jen Hooks.

Don’t stall on taking that shot that you’ve been fantasizing about. The opportunity may not last. Photo: Jen Hooks.

Two days later, the field was harvested, and gone. I’d almost missed the opportunity. To date, the photos my daughter and I captured that day remain some of my favorites. Photography captures moments, and moments don’t keep. Be ready.

Be persistent.

One of the many benefits of digital photography is the ability to take multiple photos of the same subject, with little to no additional cost. My favorite and most commonly photographed subject is my children, and frequently, for every ten mediocre photos I take of them, I get one that is particularly touching, funny, or charming. Persistence is key; don’t stop until you’ve got the image you want. An added benefit of shooting a lot is that occasionally, a rare gem will appear when you weren’t expecting it.

Out of the 186 shots of my girls that I took on this summer afternoon, this quirky photo was one that I originally considered to be an outtake, and is now my favorite. Photo: Jen Hooks.

Out of the 186 shots (yes, really) of my girls that I took on this summer afternoon, this quirky photo was one that I originally considered to be an outtake, and is now my favorite from the day. Photo: Jen Hooks.

What makes you happy?

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” ― Anaïs Nin

When I got my first DSLR camera in 2006, all I wanted to do was take macro shots of flowers. I was fascinated with how detailed the images were — almost like the camera was acting as a microscope. Eventually, I moved toward photographing people, and in 2010, I started my own photography business. I devoured countless articles about how a professional portfolio should be focused, concise, and should only include images that are demonstrative of the product that you’re trying to sell. That by all means, you should never include personal photography with your professional work. I felt like the value of the countless beautiful flower photos I’d taken previously had been diminished, yet I still heeded the advice. I scaled back on photographing plants in favor of photographing people, and I felt a distinct creative void in doing so.

Shoot what you love, no matter what. Photo: Jen Hooks.

Shoot what you love, no matter what. Photo: Jen Hooks.

Now, I photograph whatever moves me and excites me, and if it doesn’t fit inside of anyone else’s box, so be it. Your photography is exactly that: yours. If your repertoire includes kitten portraits and monster truck event photography, do your thing. Perhaps you’re only interested in taking candid street photography. Maybe you love a good flower macro as much as I do, or you’re beginning a new love affair with wedding photography. Your muse will reveal itself to you, if you take the time to listen. Let your camera be your compass.

“Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.” – Yousuf Karsh

Have a clear vision.

When your shutter snaps, are you creating a photo that has an intention? Are you taking a photo of something, or about something? Knowing the story that you’re trying to tell with the image will help you create a better photograph. Perhaps you will take photos both of and about your subjects. Maybe you discover that you prefer your photos to tell stories exclusively. What excites you?

A photo of a subject is expository and descriptive, likely with a shallow depth of field, and simply composed. Photo: Jen Hooks.

A photo of a subject is expository and descriptive, likely with a shallow depth of field, and simply composed. Photo: Jen Hooks.

A photo about a subject compels the viewer to want to know more, and sparks the imagination. Photo: Jen Hooks.

A photo about a subject compels the viewer to want to know more, and ignites the imagination. Photo: Jen Hooks.

Look at the delicious brownies in the top photo above. Photos of a subject expose details and are inherently descriptive in nature. The detailed texture of the brownie and simplicity of the composition make the viewer feel as though they can almost smell the cocoa, taste the gooey chocolate, or remember their favorite aunt’s famous recipe.

The bottom photo tells a story. On the evening I took this, my children had spent a full day on the sand, in the sun. We had dinner in a restaurant overlooking the beach, and I spent most of the night managing the needs of an overtired one-month-old. My oldest had a considerable amount of ketchup on her new white gauze blouse. There were tantrums, and there was whining. Everyone was sweaty and sunburned, and no children wanted to eat the food we’d ordered. Other diners were obviously (and rightfully) annoyed. It was the kind of chaos that only comes with having three kids under four years old. But the sunset that evening was too good to pass up; it was cotton candy on a perfect canvas. So we went to the sand after dinner, and my previously cantankerous three-year-old metamorphosed into a quiet little mermaid, breathing in the salt and calm of the sea. This image, for me, evokes the relief and peace that we all felt in that moment. It tells a story.

Stop the comparison.

“Comparison is the death of joy.” – Mark Twain

I’m guilty of it. With the internet serving as a worldwide photo gallery, it is difficult to resist looking at others’ work and thinking, “I’ll never be as good as them.” Pinterest is awash with board after board of photography inspiration, posing ideas for portraiture, and camera advice; even I have one. Seasoned photobloggers with stunning image after image in their portfolio can be a tempting example to aspire to. But photography style is as individual as the person pressing the shutter, and comparing oneself to a different photographer serves no purpose other than to derail creativity. Experience is, by its very nature, something that comes only with time. If you find yourself more hindered than helped by viewing another photographer’s work, consider disconnecting from them temporarily. Instead, get behind your camera and find who you are as an artist. Your images will eventually show you.

The question of "Who am I, as an artist?" is answered by the images you create. Photo: Jen Hooks.

The question of “Who am I, as an artist?” is answered by the images you create. Photo: Jen Hooks.

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  1. This is a well written reminder of why I take photos. I take them for me. They’re something (usually a texture or light) that catches my attention. I also read about keeping to one “theme” but it didn’t feel right. My interests lead me in different directions….it’s a patchwork of interests.

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  2. Great read. I agree with all of what you said here. I love this line “Photography captures moments, and moments don’t keep. Be ready.” I am a macro flower explorer as well, I don’t feel right with myself if I haven’t stuck my lens in the center of a flower recently. And, the plethora of images can make anyone question their photography worth. I always find when I turn away from the screens and back to the details in front of my camera I always find something beautiful to capture. That is what is most important to me, hints of beauty captured.

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    1. Gorgeous stuff! I see lots of textures, geometrics, and patterns in your work, and interesting angles. I think you know exactly who you are as a photographer. Your heart knows, even if your mind doesn’t yet. 🙂

      Liked by 5 people

  3. Like my blog posts, I captured what moves me without regard of what others might think or say about my subjects. It’s my art, it is important to please myself first before I can ever dream of pleasing other people. My works have to carry my heart and soul or otherwise there is no use to put it out there.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Perfectly stated! Your words here really say a lot! I found your comment regarding “stop the comparison” right on for myself. At one point I felt sort of lost – the comparisons – my head was spinning. Photography is a form of expression for myself (of course with a dream)….I stopped the comparisons and shoot for myself – be it no likes or 100 likes. Your post is spot on!

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  5. After having gotten the most out of my point & shoot (shooting food) and buying my first DSLR, like you I got hooked on flower macros. Then I realised what you can do with a DSLR in food photography and got hooked on that. I still go back to flower macros every once in a while because I feel it’s a part of my photography style. And although my friends think I have found my muse/niche in food photography, personally I’m still looking for that muse elsewhere and I hope to find it one day soon.
    I also tend to dither too long, and if it had been me passing by that field of soy beans, I know it would have been just my luck to go there on the day it was cut down…
    Not comparing your pictures to other people’s (and always thinking their’s are better) takes a long while to learn, I’m not there yet.
    So basically I agree with everything you say in your post 🙂

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  6. Nice post. I enjoyed it. With regard to your first point, I’d suggest wearing your camera, not just having it with you. A camera in a closed bag is an impediment if you’re after spontaneous photos.

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  7. I totally agree. I got my first DSLR in 2013 after a horrible newborn shoot at a chain photography studio with my second daughter. I still consider myself an amateur photographer, but I thought I could do better than this and bought an inexpensive Nikon (totally worth the $500 investment). And over the past 18 months I’ve had so much fun shooting my two girls.

    I love your photos of your baby 🙂 They grow way too fast!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. A well written and thought provoking article with beautiful photography. I am a keen flower photographer, but have always liked capturing the detail in objects around me, be it a window, a door, a stone, a statue. More recently I moved into landscapes possibly inspired by the beautiful countryside around me. I still photograph flowers and stones and details, I don’t think I could ever just photograph one topic – but one thing photography has taught me is to take the time to stop and look around. I see much more now than I ever did.

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  9. Yesterday, when I was trying to photograph nearby sitting pigeons I clicked more than 40 shots after which I found the perfect one. True, rare gems need patience. I loved your photography. Each of your photo tells a story.

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  10. Great article. I’m still finding my style (definitely into the macro flower shot phase), but I have a great love for nature, travel, and culture. I want to inspire others to go out and explore for themselves. Glad to see I’m not the only one.

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  11. Sometimes the heart changes. For years, I photographed people and delighted in portraits. Now it’s more about objects and places, working out how to build a story or make a statement. Thinking about it, there’s a drive to connect the detail, however small, with the bigger picture, the experience.

    Thanks for a great post that gets us thinking.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Thank you for saying this. It took me thirty years before I discovered what I was my kind of photographs. And most of those years the camera was put away. Take the kind of photographs that interests you and they will be good. All the best!

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