When you start out in photography you often look at others work and say "I wish I could take photos like that". I know that was something I was often thinking as I started out in Wildlife Photography. The fact is, it is good to gain inspiration from others...that's the easy part. The hard part is carving out your own photographic style.
Whilst I have been a photographer for 20+ years, I have only focused on wildlife photographer in the last 2 years. So I still have a lot to learn! This is one of the things that attracts me to wildlife photography; it is challenging. But whilst I learn every time I go out with my camera I have come to realise these last two years, that in such a short space of time I have come very far on my own photographic journey. Much of this journey has been developing my own photographic style.
Yes, I am inspired by many incredible photographers out there....some more than others....but the ones I really, and I mean really and truly appreciate, are the ones who have managed to create their own style. These are the photographers that if you were to look at their work, and their name wasn't next to it, I'd be able to have a guess who's work it was, and I'm certain I'd get it right, about 90% of the time.
So how do you develop your own photographic style? Well, it isn't easy and it comes down to you as an individual. My own photographic style has started to develop the last 2 years based on about 5 or 6 photographers who are key influencers. So with that said, here are 5 things I've learnt in developing my own photographic style...
1. Be inspired by others work, emulate, but don't copy.
Yep, that's right...go look at others work that speaks to you, that jumps out at you, that makes you stop what you are doing and simply makes you sit up and say "wow, I want to take photographs like that"...yes like that, not the same as, but in a similar style as. If you find others work inspiring to look at, you'll find that very same work inspire you in the field. Emulating photographers that inspire you will push you to develop your own style.
I make no secret of the fact that I am a fan (amongst others) of Andrew Beck. He is a master at what I term "wildscapes", capturing animals in their environments. When so many photographers reach for the 400mm and 600mm lenses, Andrew is with a 16-35, 24-70 or 70-200 and building the context of what he sees all around him. This image of a lone Elephant in Ngala Private Game reserve was directly influenced by Andrew. I zoomed out, not in, I wanted to show the low veld as much as the Elephant itself. Without viewing his work I wouldn't have even tried something like this. I used a second body and wider lens to take this image that I had specifically with me on this trip.
2. Don't fall into the trap of tight zooms and portraits.
Wildlife photography is not always about zooming in on the subjects and creating tight portraits, it just isn't. We are bombarded by images like this. Think about the context of the animal; its behaviour, its environment, its habitat. Use this wider context to create a more compelling story of your image. Draw your viewer into the scene rather than into just the animal.
It is fantastic to see three female lions. But the story is 3 female lions crossing a river. A wider angle shows the context of how one leads to a vantage point and the two others tentatively follow.
3. Know your camera inside out so you spend less time on the settings and more time on your creative vision.
Its a very basic one, but if you don't know your camera inside out, you will spend more time on the technical aspects of photography than on realising your own creative vision. Your own photographic style can only develop when you don't have to worry or stress about white balance, aperture, shutter speed, iso, focal length and so on. Getting the technical stuff right is important, but it should not be at the expense of realising the vision of the image you want to create. Once you know your camera intimately, you will have the speed of thought and anticipation at any sighting to focus on the image you want to create and not how to take it.
I shot this otter shot with a Canon 5Dmkiii that I bought just the day before. It was the first time I'd used the camera. But having shot with a 7D for 6 years, I knew the basics. I also watched the otter for a while and like this I was able to anticipate him running up the bank, which is exactly the shot I wanted. I focused on getting the shot and I didn't have to worry how to use my new 5Dmkiii.
4. Understand how the camera in your hands can be used as a creative tool.
Photography = drawing with light. It comes from the Greek language. We so often forget that simple fact!!! Your camera has an abundance of possibilities to create something unique. Things as simple as shallow depth of field can help you isolate subjects and draw in the viewers eye to one particular area or part of the scene. More complex things such as panning or zooming with slower shutter speeds can create a sense of movement and dynamism in a scene. If you understand some of these aspects of how your camera works, you have a more powerful creative tool in your hands.
Two young hyenas came to the den to rejoin the group. As the lead hyena picked his route through the bush, I used a shallow depth of field to project the distance between the two subjects to accentuate the feeling of one following the other.
5. Playing it safe is easy. Experimenting and failing takes courage, but will push you further as a photographer.
I am not advocating you spend all your hard earned dough on the photo safari of your dreams to come back home and off load your cards to find thousands of useless shots. Not at all. The simple rule is at each sighting, bank your shots. Get those shots you know you are comfortable and happy with. Once you have those in the bag, start to experiment. If you are at a Lion sighting and they are all flat cat, how many images of flat cats do you want? 20, 30, 40? No. Work the sighting into credible, bankable shots and then explore other options. Don't be afraid to experiment. I'd personally rather have a go and fail (see the image below) and work towards becoming a better photographer, than having 30 RAW images of the same animal at various angles be it Portrait or Landscape! I talk from experience...there is nothing more frustrating than finding you've blown a shot. But over time you learn to accept that. I now positively embrace the fact that I am going to fail at some point at a sighting...but I'll learn something positive from it for the next time. I wrote a separate blog on this subject here if you want to know more about Experimenting and Failing!
Close, but not quiet! I tried a panning shot with this running fox in order to convey movement. I used a slow shutter speed and almost made the shot work other than the fact I cut of the tail. In the end it was a failure...but a successful failure as it is a step in the right direction!
I started this blog by saying "I have only focused on wildlife photographer in the last 2 years. So I still have a lot to learn! This is one of the things that attracts me to wildlife photography; it is challenging.". In very simple terms it is a journey, but these 5 things are what I have learnt in such a short space of time and more importantly they are the 5 things that have helped me come up a learning curve relatively quickly. If I go back to my first safari in May 2013 where I took this image...
When I look back at this image I realise just how little I knew. This image is nothing more than a proof shot. On my first safari experience I was under the spell of seeing so many incredible animals, that I didn't engage my brain in the slightest (but didn't have the knowledge to do so then!). Viewing a pride of Lions I remember how I was focused on zooming in as much as possible, which wasn't appropriate at this sighting where I should have taken a wider angle to show the story of a pride of lions lying in the long grass.
To my last safari in November 2014 where I took this image...
16 months later at the Ngala Private Game reserve this Lion put on a show. Walking along the dry river bank, he stopped and posed, he lay down and roared. It was spectacular. With the 5 things I learnt, I put them to good use at this sighting. I got roughly 8 very different images of the same animal conveying a range of different behaviours. This one image is a personal favourite. I wanted to show the river bank as the males settingsand waited until he had to climb across the tree branch showing nothing would stop him on his walk.
You will see clearly that my own photographic style has evolved considerably in that time. The two images to me are night and day. For sure the image from May 2013 is much more of a "proof shot" i.e. "I saw a Lion, YAY!", than a wildlife image. But I chose it, because back in May 2013 when I took that image I had the idea in my mind that it was a wildlife photograph.
I put a lot of hard work and personal devotion into the journey so far. Yes it is my passion and so from that perspective putting in the work isn't an issue when you truly love doing something. And when I say "work" I don't mean sitting in a 4x4 on a game drive in South Africa, camera and lens in hand! I mean the hours I spend reading, listening, engaging, digesting content, videos, photos, and books. The time I put in to learning Lightroom and understanding the impact that can have on my images, my style and my photography. The sum total of all of this simply improves my photographic "craft" and thereby is helping me shape my own photographic style, albeit slowly but surely. Take these 5 things with you on your own journey...I know they will help you develop your own personal style.