Posted by: Stacy Hanna | March 13, 2009

Shoot What You Love: The Art of Finding Yourself

(Note:  Stacy Hanna, a Central Illinois photographer, is guest-blogging today on a topic of great impact. Enjoy!)

I snuck on over here today to chat about what it means to find your photographic identity. I’m doing this as much for myself as well as for any readers who might be struggling with this idea like I am. As Joe McNally’s very first section of “The Moment it Clicks” book is dedicated to, this post is all about figuring out and shooting what you love.

What kind of photographer are you? Are you a fine art, commercial, portrait, or wedding photographer? What kind of work to do you truly love to shoot and does that match up with your portfolio and the kind of work you are trying to sell?

Those are very wide caverns to fit into. If you know which one of those you fall into, maybe you need refinement. What is your best work of? If you know you are a commercial shooter, do you know what kind of work suits you best? Are you sports advertising shooter or are you a corporate events photographer? The same can be said for portraits. Is your specialty babies and children or seniors and families?

Maybe this is clear to you and you’re already out there doing it. Good for you! Keep it up and don’t lose site of your vision. If your artistic vision matches what you are selling, then you are probably ahead of the pack. Just be sure to keep finding new things that inspire that vision or you might wind up like the next group.

Some of us out there, however, fall on the other side of the fence. We had a vision and lost site of it or some of us shoot everything under the sun, but can’t find our true passion and are still trying on various photographic hats, so to speak. This is a topic that reared its ugly head and slapped me in the face a coupe of months ago. I’ve had a true loss of vision. I’ve lost my photographic identity. I have no idea right now who I am as an artist. Ouch.

Okay, it probably didn’t jump out of nowhere and slap me. It crept along with a thought that turned into several, which turned into widespread panic. Who am I as photographer and where do I want to go from here? If I am going to continue on, even as a weekend professional, then I need to discover my true passion (and fast!).

Of course, it is this kind of rush mentality that is stalling my creative energy even further. I can honestly say I haven’t taken a photo in three weeks and that is a long time for me. Even if it has no purpose other than the joy of shooting, I usually take photos that never see the light of day. Now, I can’t think of a thing I want to shoot. I read a lot of photo blogs for inspiration and to learn. I love seeing what others create and I’ve been scouring these pages even more looking for advice that will guide me in the right direction.

Here are two things that I have been reading about lately online from the pros that know their stuff, which I found helpful. The first is David DuChemin. David is spending this week writing about Vision. He has a great slogan, “Gear is Good, Vision is Better”. Genius. We all get sucked into the latest gadgets and gear. I’m guilty of that. We all are. It is part of what is fun about photography – the stuff. But the stuff won’t book you a job. Your vision will. I recommend you stop over there and see what he is doing. He is all about just being right now. No rules, no right and wrong, just shooting, just being a photographer. This is sound advice and I love that he is producing art that is very different from his everyday work. It seems like just letting go could be invaluable.

The other person that I can’t get enough of reading right now is Zack Arias. He has taken it upon himself to help people with their vision, but in a very hands-on way. He is critiquing people’s websites or online portfolios. He is helping people see where their true potential and strengths lay and is honestly telling them what images don’t fit in with their overall vision. I love watching his videos of the critiques because it is helping me see other’s work and also seeing how I should be putting together a portfolio and wondering myself what crap I can cut out of my own website.

This is important because when I started my business about a year ago I had a plan. I had ideas. I bought lots of gear and invested in lenses, websites, marketing, education, you name it, and now here I am a year later wondering if I really want to be the same photographer that dove in head first a year ago. I don’t know if I am really a year wiser. I sure hope that is what all this confusion means.

What I do know is that there are so many people I know that want to go pro and do what I did. It sounds fabulous. It looks like fun. Trust me folks. It is all of those things, but it is also a lot of work. I won’t go into the work part because it is something I think you must and will learn for yourself if you start making money as a photographer. All of that work is fine if you really love what you are shooting, but if you don’t love it, you will quickly lose your vision.

I loved shooting just because I loved it. I didn’t think it mattered if the love lined up with the important thing in running a photography business – making money. And that led to weddings. This is probably a common thought. I loved doing them as a second shooter and still love many things about wedding photography, but on my own I started to realize they were more stressful than I wanted. I started to worry about them before the big day came and then I started to have anxiety about just booking them. Yuck.

I started to long for photo walks without a purpose to see the world through a lens, no pressure to succeed or fail – to find myself again. Both David DuChemin and Zack Arias are helping me see that:

  1. I am not alone in this quest for finding my true identity as an artist. Even the most talented professionals need to keep feeding their creative vision. They need inspiration to keep going and sometimes work is just that, work.
  2. It is okay to take a step back and look in at myself and really critique my own work. To pull out the stuff that might be weighing me down. To really hone in on the best of what I have to offer. If I don’t do that. I will remain dissatisfied and my art won’t have any meaning to me.

Right now I am taking a huge step backward. I am evaluating my body of work to see what I am the best at and weighing that with what type of photography I enjoy most. I hope that when I’ve done all this and I figure it all out, that those two things match up and I can put myself out there confidently, but with a little more wisdom on my shoulders and a better portfolio. I also hope that I can take their advice and just be, and create for creation’s sake, and also force myself to weed out what doesn’t fit. It is a big task, but an important one. These are a few things to keep in mind yourself if you want to show your photographic identity.

  1. Your portfolio should clearly show who you are as a photographer, whether it is a book or an online gallery. The work should be your best work, be concise, and showcase your strengths. Buyers and clients want to know what kind of work they can expect from you. If you show a dozen images of fashion models and then a dozen more of your puppy at home, what kind of message are you sending? Does that make you a photographer for dog fashion shows? Or do you not know which you would rather be doing, dog portraits or fashion shows?
  2. Having a portfolio of work that is clear is just the start. If you know what kind of photographer you are, then you know who your audience is and you can figure out how to best reach them. You’ll notice that the websites of wedding and portrait photographers are very different from those of commercial and fine art shooters. Different markets, different styles. Heck, even the differences between baby photographers and senior portraits shooters are very different and marketing between the groups can vary greatly as well.
  3. Having a web-based portfolio and spending advertising dollars to reach your intended audience costs money. It is important to know who you are before you start doing either of those things. If you don’t know, then you might be sending mixed signals and not really reaching any audience and thus wasting time and money. I think you’ll book more clients if it is clear who you are. Confuse people and potential customers will pass you up for someone who clearly fits their needs.

I hope that my experience and my pitfalls can help someone else – either in the same boat or someone just starting out. Read all you can and don’t be surprised if you learn a few lessons the hard way yourself. Thanks to David Vernon for letting me sneak over here and pour all of this out. I know it is a little different than you normally read over here. Now go and find yourself and remember to shoot what you love.

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Responses

  1. Nice post!!

    Think about this….The other week when we visited Kevin’s studio, he was leaving for Colorado that afternoon. It wasn’t for a job, it was just to get out and shoot something he enjoyed. Yet, his day job is commercial photography.

    The ugly side of being a professional is sometimes you end up (or maybe start out) in a genre that pays the bills, not necessarily what you shoot for fun.

    I’m quite happy remaining a hobbyist. Like you said, no pressure to succeed or fail! If I made a buck or two, that would be great! But, if I don’t, that’s ok too.

  2. Thanks, Stacy, for sharing your introspection with the rest of us. You’ve treated a serious and relevant topic with both grace and objectivity – an undertaking in itself.

    While I don’t have photography-specific anecdotes to share here, there’s a couple general life lessons that I fall back on when these types of “what is my purpose in life?” questions arise:

    1. Don’t take yourself so seriously.

    2. It can be very difficult sometimes to define what you are. It’s usually much easier to define what you are not.

    Cheers!
    Matt

  3. Stacey,

    Great article. I am still searching. So your article gives me alot to think about,,,

    Great job and good luck

    Ed

  4. Wow Stacy, great article! I’ve been cleaning out my harddrive recently and ran into a batch of photojournalism pics I took a couple of years back and wondered how and when I’d made the switch from people and events to just landscapes. And WHY? I set out to be a photojournalist and it seems I’m the farthest away from that as you can ever get!

    You’ve given me stuff to read and think about. Thanks!

  5. […] time, I wrote about vision and what it means to find your vision and starting that journey of shooting what you love.  It […]

  6. […] Bad Things Happen to Good Gear: Part #1 (Well look who dropped by – our favorite Vision author, Ms. Stacy Hanna. And Stacy’s loss is our gain today as we deal with the temporary absence of […]


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