Develop your vision.
I've been taking pictures for a long time now. Back in 1992 is when I bought my first camera. Yeah I know, I'm old. It was a Canon AE-1, with a 50mm f/1.8 lens. I bought it in a pawn shop in Tulsa Oklahoma of all places. I still have it actually, sitting in an old camera bag tucked away in a basement closet.
My decision to get a camera came not from an interest in photography, but from a curiosity in how they worked. I've always loved knowing how machines do what they do, so with the help of my soon to be brother-in-law, I picked one up to see what made these things tic.
Soon after, I took a night class on how use the thing. It was a little confusing to me at the time. Once I knew how to operate it, I began to get curious about how the film worked, So I took another class on how to develop film, and make prints.
I really enjoyed the printmaking part. I still remember the first print I ever made. It was a black and white picture of a pier in Belleville, and as I saw the image magically begin to appear on the paper before my eyes, I was hooked. This was when I became a photographer.
Over the next few years, I took plenty of photos; sending the film away in the mail and waiting to get prints back, only to realize they are all blurry. It was a hobby, and I enjoyed it but I never felt that my images were anything special, and that was fine.
Eventually my hobby, wasn't much of a hobby anymore. The camera sat unused in the bag. At that time, to shoot a roll of 36 pictures, mail it away and then get 4x6 prints that may or may not be properly exposed, was a bit expensive, so the hobby took a backseat to life.
Sometime around 2004 I bought my first digital point and shoot. Right away, I could see the advantage of knowing exactly what the picture looked like, and no film to waste getting it!
So I bought my first digital SLR camera. It was a Canon 30D and I paired it with a Tamron 24-75mm lens. I was hooked again, but this time digital files gave me the ability to do my own developing again. Much like the image appearing in the developing tray, I felt excited when I would process the image on a computer.
I was finally able to craft an image to match how I felt at the time of pressing the shutter. In other words, I was able to apply my own filter on the image. Early on I obtained a (less than legal) copy of Adobe Photoshop, and began building my catalogue, but more importantly I started learning how to post process my images.
Another few years went by and again, I felt my hobby was just a hobby. I wanted to improve my work and feel challenged by it. Somewhere online I read about a picture-a-day challenge. This group challenged it's members to take a photograph every single day of something, and post it. Intrigued, I decided to try this myself. I called it my Project 365.
When I started, I decided that I would use my phone, take a picture, process it on the phone and then post it to Facebook and Instagram and G+ (yeah that G+). My reasoning for using my phone was that I would have no excuse for not taking a picture, as I would always have my camera, and that by using a simple camera, I could focus on the art of composition.
I started the project on April 9, 2014. No reason at all on that date, it just happened to be the next day. My first picture was of my bathroom counter with the sink and a tube of toothpaste. Gripping image really. The next day I shot the tire on my car, and the day after that, a glass yellow-jacket trap in my backyard. It wasn't long before I realized how hard this was going to be.
Also, I was starting to feel limited by the phone, and the inability to control aperture and shutter speed, so I switched to my DSLR. Now I could at least craft the image better.
When you have to take a picture everyday, you kind of become obsessed with what you are looking at. I became much more aware of light, and the quality of the light. I could tell if it was harsh or soft, warm or cold, bright or dark. I could see how objects looked in differing light. I also started to see how subtle changes in light could make that object way more interesting to look at.
So I started using a flash, to put the light where I wanted it. I would take a picture, look at the back of the camera, and if it didn't look the way it did in my mind, I would change a settings and see what that would do.
Soon I was taking pictures of brooms, railings, baseballs, bugs, coins, tools, cups, peanut butter jars, and even a self portrait or two for good measure. (I refuse to call them selfies.)
I felt like my composition skills were getting better and better. My subjects were certainly not exciting, but they were presented in an interesting way. But something else was happening too that I was not intentionally working on.
On some of my daily posts someone would comment that they knew the image was mine before even reading the post. They said that it looked like a 'Dan Fleury' image. I realized that I had developed a style of my own. By using a completely legitimate licenced copy of Lightroom every day, I learned how to craft my vision.
Now I could see the final image I wanted before even putting the camera up to my eye. Having that vision allowed me to see everything differently. Basically I started to see through my filter.
When I look at something now, I know how to make it look interesting because I can see the picture already. So when I am ready to shoot, I know what settings I want, what lens will work best and what angle to shoot from. Then further in Lightroom, I could transform that digital image into a picture that was a true reflection of what I saw, and how it felt to be there.
This street image from New York City is a great example of this. I knew one of the images I wanted to capture was of a moody graffiti street picture, and had spent a couple of days without seeing it. On my last day in the city as I was walking to the train station, I saw this building, and I knew right away I had found what I wanted. The resulting image is exactly what I had envisioned, and this is one of my favourite pictures.
By forcing myself to think, live and breathe photography every day for a year, I was able to finally find my vision. I still process in a very similar style today with a few changes here and there, because the filter that I see the world through is a little bit older now.
So if you are looking for a way to give your work a unifying feel, I strongly encourage you to give a project like this a try. I know of people that are on year four and five or more on their projects. I could never do that, but I do from time to time, think that I should try again. Maybe a once a week picture might do?