10 Easy Steps to Developing Your Own Photographic Style

There is a precious commodity in photography that many strive for and yet it seems only a handful of lucky folk obtain: the skill of having a unique photographic style. Despite the apparent scarcity of this ability, I’m certain that anyone can bring their own individual voice to the table provided you apply a little discipline to your image-making. It is therefore the aim of this blog to give some pointers to help you cultivate your personal flair and make your images stand out from the crowd.

High Line 1 - A trip to New York in March 13' is where I felt my style really crystallise 

1. What do you want to say?

What are the distinctive characteristics of your take on life? Essentially what makes you, you? Do you want to bring humour / pathos / humanity to your images? Do you want a straight-up documentary style or execute an abstract aesthetic, or somewhere in-between. Pick a stance that sits comfortably with your ego and go forth, hand in hand when framing the world.

2. Shoot for a while with one prime lens

Not only will you learn to ‘see’ in that focal length but your images will have a continuity as well. If you don’t have any primes, just keep the zoom at a set focal length that you prefer… you can even stick a bit of tape on it to keep it set there. If you are uncertain of what your favoured focal length is, if you are a Lightroom user help is at hand. Enter the Library Module select ‘All Photographs’ from the Catalogue panel on the left, then do a Library Filter with the focal length metadata to see which one you use most commonly. Easy.

3. Notice repeating themes in your work

When my style was forming, I noticed a leading diagonal line in the foreground of several images I liked. Once I’d clocked this, I actively sought to add these to the composition when framing the world. This led to a subtle continuity between one image and the next. A piece of advice I gleaned from one of my favourite photographers, Todd Hido, is to “…find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.” This quote is apparently from a list of ‘rules’ pinned up in his office, written by Sister Corita Kent. Repetition is part of the creative process, as well as reviewing and ruminating over past work that resonates with you.

Racecourse 2 - The diagonal line in the foreground was deliberately added to the composition

4. Shoot exclusively in colour or B&W for a while

Totally self explanatory but also a fundamental in my opinion. Remember, I’m only suggesting you do this whilst your approach evolves in order to speed up the process.

5. Find a project

What better way to uncover a cohesion to your work than by declaring a unifying theme to your excursions. It doesn’t have to be highfalutin or conceptual, just shoot a series with the colour red as a subject, do a street photography project with people wearing hats, look for visual optical illusions (hard!) when you shoot… basically whatever will inspire you to get out of the house at 0500 on a Sunday morning when it’s pouring with rain!

6. Stick to an aspect ratio

For about a year I shot almost exclusively in square format and the acceleration I felt in my development was exhilarating. By solely shooting 1x1 I believe I learnt what works and what doesn’t at a quicker rate than if I’d been chopping and changing aspect ratios. Recently, I’ve mainly been shooting 3 x 2 but what I find really interesting is that most my current work would still look fine if cropped square. The foundations I laid back then have evidently stood firm. I’ve also seen photographers shoot exclusively in portrait orientation and when you look at their portfolio this lends a characteristic harmony to their work.

Billing Road - A recent piece that would also work cropped square

7. Find a ‘look’ and stick with it

By that I mean get a fairly standard post processing workflow… don’t saturate one image then leave the next one neutral. Always apply a vignette… or not. Do you like your images to be low contrast or high? Presets can help hugely with this. Once you’ve worked out your sharpening techniques and application of contrast, etc. standardise this and save it as a preset you apply to every image. If you add a border around your photos, stick with the same dimensions and specifications each time… it’ll make an image look like YOUR image.

8. If it ain’t ‘you’, don’t show it!

If you’ve religiously followed steps 1 - 7 you will hopefully be well on your way to cultivating a characteristic approach to your image-making. Now your job is to be ruthless and unyielding with your style.  I take (or at least pre-visualise) shots all the time that I feel are ‘interesting’ but they just don’t fit with my aesthetic. They just are not ‘me’… so either the files sit on my hard drive or I don’t press the shutter in the first place. It’s that simple. 

An example of a shot that I like, but I just don't feel it's 'me', so you won't see it anywhere else!

Which leads us perfectly to step nine…

9. Only ever show your best work

This has to be one of the most important bits of advice that I can impart… (that, and this game is all about the *LIGHT*). If it isn’t up to scratch then leave it on the hard drive. When I go out on a photowalk I’d estimate that I come back with something worth posting on Flickr about 50% of the time. Yes, it’s frustrating sometimes but when I do come back with a good shot it’s an even bigger thrill.  And looking back over a years work, I’ll have maybe nine or ten images that I am truly happy with. That’ll be from 10 000+ shutter actuations. Ansel was right; it’s not easy to get a compelling shot.

10. Be disciplined with the above

Once you feel that your characteristic approach has crystallised then you can start ignoring one /some / all of the above as you’ll have hard-wired your modus operandi into each shutter count. But you need to give yourself a fighting chance of reaching Nirvana by applying some discipline on the way. 

Thankfully the above 10 steps aren't as challenging as perhaps they sound simply because the photographic journey is as equally satisfying as the destination.

All thats left is for me to wish you luck achieving your goal and I look forward to seeing your personal take on this wonderful world sometime soon.

Teignmouth 2


Photographers Luck

Its been *far* too long since my last blog, but thats what having a one year old does to you, I suppose. However a shot I took yesterday inspired me to put pen to paper, so to speak. In fact it was actually several shots that culminated in the cogs whirring but the image that sparked it all was this one:

Now it’s not my best shot ever or even my favourite from recent weeks, but it was my choice capture from the Sunday morning shoot in Milton Keynes and one that I was certainly very happy to post on my Flickr stream. More importantly it precipitated the following discussion in my head… and isn’t that what Art is supposed to do?

So the subject of this blog is this: Photographers Luck. Fortuitousness. Serendipity. Call it what you will, but we all need a good dose of it once in a while to bag a keeper whilst out hunting for our next photo.

Why exactly did this photo set off all neurones firing in my brain? Well, being 1/2 hour away from where I live, I’ve photographically explored Milton Keynes many times… and I often find myself framing a shot from one of the numerous underpasses you come across. All of them are very similar to each other but they all have a slightly different personality; be it due to a blown bulb, a bit of graffiti or a missing stone from the wall. There’s always something different to spot when you walk into the next one. Whether or not that underpass delivers a scene worth documenting is another matter altogether. Indeed, it was only two weeks previously that I went on a night-time shoot and took this:

I like this shot, but I don’t *love* it. I thought about posting it, but decided against it as it just didn’t quite grab me by the short and curlys. There's another 'splatter' shot on my Flickr stream that I prefer. No photographers luck that day.

Conversely, when I came across the scene on Sunday, I was instantly seduced by the laser beam of light bisecting the wall. I couldn’t work out what was happening but I instantly knew I’d struck it lucky.  Most of the walkways in MK are made up of two underpasses with an open air gap in-between. These double acts correlate to each direction of dual-carriageway above . When I moved on to it’s twin underpass just slightly east this is what I saw:

Apologies for the dreadful diagram. 

And getting a little over excited about it all...

 

I think its good, but with the whole lower half of the image bathed in morning sun, I don't find it quite as engaging as scalpel-like shaft found in it’s westerly brother. When taking in this lesser scene the penny dropped. The sun was at the *perfect* angle to allow for that sliver of photons to travel through the gap between each underpass. The light had travelled 150 million km only to be soaked up by the roads above, except for an inch-thick streak bursting through. The fact that it was joining up the thirds of my framing whilst simultaneously creating two triangles in the image… that was some mind-blowing geometry in front of me.

 

I thought to revisit the underpass where I’d been two weeks earlier… perhaps this could be an even better image?

In a word, no. There are now two subjects vying for your attention: the slash of sunlight and the splat of oomska. Too much. Irrespective of this however, what’s really interesting is that this is taken just 1 minute later than the first shot (I checked the EXIF) and notice that the shaft isn’t so precise. It’s getting thicker from the ever rising sun. One minute making the difference. Serendipity playing her hand again.

One aspect I love about this crazy passion we share is that different times of day/month/year can yield drastically different results. I often like to think of one place as two completely different playgrounds… that of day and night. An area that is full of opportunity by day may afford nothing by night and visa versa. Therefore one way to cook up some of that elusive elixir called luck is to plan to visit the same place at several times of the day and night and on different days of the week. Shots that are possible on a quiet Sunday morning probably wouldn’t be so achievable on a busier Saturday am, for example. 

Lets face it, if I’d wandered through that fateful underpass just 30 mins later, it probably would have been a plain-jane walkway with little to entice me in… Or would it?! How am I to know unless I go back again at different times of the day? One thing is for sure: if I had been there just 10 minutes earlier then there would be no beam of light… but there might have been a weasel riding a woodpecker. Too late, I missed them. This time. 

Above is my favourite shot from these underpasses (and one of my favourites of all time, for that matter). Clearly this could only be taken in Autumn. I was in the right place at the right time. It leads me to ponder how they look shortly after a snow blizzard arrives… but I’ll probably be wondering this for some time as I’d also be stranded in Milton Keynes in that eventuality. 

On Saturday night Mrs F and I sampled a few too many gin cocktails (much nicer than I was expecting), but I still set the alarm for 06.00 having only had 5 and 1/2 hours sleep. I dragged my sorry arse out of bed to go traipsing around MK at 7am on a freezing Sunday morning. In doing so I maximised my chances of getting that keeper. I created my own good fortune. 

So although we sometimes need a little luck to fire the shutter at the right place and the right time, we can surely boost our odds by putting in some good old fashioned *effort* to capturing that decisive moment. To close with a quote from Benjamin Franklin, "Diligence is the mother of good luck."

Stay lucky :)

Nikon Df Review...

…I didn’t think I’d ever be writing this, even a few short weeks ago.

Surely I’d never forsake my beloved Fuji X-Pro 1…

And the divine XF14mm?

Both gone!

So what went wrong with the love affair that I thought would last forever*?

* Please note: ‘forever’ in digital photography equates to an absolute maximum of three years.

Chipboard Surround

Alas the gallery that sells my work, Redbird Editions, said that my latest images had reached the limits of the cameras capability. They just weren’t clean enough to print. Many of the recent shots I’ve taken were at ISO 3200 - 6400. Even the Prince of low-light, the X-Pro1, couldn’t produce files that were good enough. Feeling emasculated, I was given a firm nudge towards full frame. But I really didn’t want to sell my Fuji gear, we’ve properly bonded over the past two years and grown to love each others quirks.

I can image some of the good folks who read this will be shouting at their computer screens hollering, “Why didn’t he just use a tripod and lower the ISO?!” To get the majority of my images I’m either climbing into a disused factory or traipsing around Northampton until I find something of intrigue. Either way, I need my kit to be as small and light as possible. I’d considered a tripod, long and hard. What’s more, I suggested to Redbird that I could try retaking some of their selections with a tripod, but their answer was clear. For their large, high quality prints the X-Pro comes up short. Gutted.

But what to choose? The realistically priced options then (sorry Leica):

Sony A7R, Canon 5DIII, Nikon D610, D800 and last but clearly not least the Df.

So my priorities were: as lightweight/small as possible and fantastic in low light. Straight away the heavier/larger DSLRs were out for me. Bye bye 5DIII, D800 and the D610. This may seem like a rash move but my back aches enough without any camera gear over my shoulder. The weight of a system is important to me. Just the Df and the Sony in a straight shoot-out then. The Sony came close. Really close. Alas it fell at the final furlong for two reasons:

Lack of glass - Coming from Fuji, it’s my understanding that many NEX users decidedly covet the Fujinon glass despite Sony being the more mature system. Doesn’t bode well for the A7R. 

I could use adapters but from what I have seen wide angles are generally below par on the A7R… Almost all my fine art work is shot at 21mm. Looking at the lens roadmap, I could be happy with the system in 2015 but that’s not now… Bugger.

Retail Park 4

So on to the Df: It’s Nikons lightest and smallest full frame camera - tick. After loving the direct controls of the X-Pro the Df was also the camera that tugged the hardest on my heart strings - tick. Finally, its sensor is rated by DxOMark as the world beating king of low light photography - game over. Of course, it does’t hurt that it looks bloody beautiful as well ;-)

Prior to buying the camera I was aware that the Df has had it’s detractors but knowing how I shoot, I was pretty sure the negatives wouldn’t really affect me.

So lets address some of the criticisms I’ve read about the Df (often, I suspect, from people who haven’t even handled the camera yet):

Sub-standard AF - Errr, I’ve come from the Fuji X-Pro1… With the Fuji** I’d sometimes be stood there waiting to get focus whilst a cup of tea is going cold and another hair on my head is turning grey… I can’t believe people moan about this! “…39 vs 51 blah blah…”

** I should say at this point that the Fuji AF didn’t really bother me for my style of photography, but for others it might be a deal-breaker.

Confused Controls - Once I’d set up the camera I can categorically state that the user interface - the physical dials - are perfect for me. I shoot in either M or A mode usually with Auto ISO on, so the direct dials mean I never have to menu dive. The elements that make up exposure are at my fingertips. Perfect.

One elegant use of the dials is that once the Max ISO is set for Auto ISO, this figure can be overridden using the ISO dial manually. For example, if I have 3200 set as default max ISO but things get dark (as is usual in my photographic world), I can quickly set 6400 or 12800 on the dial and still get the shot. Not a menu in sight. Why do some people not appreciate that such manual control isn’t necessarily a retrograde step. Perhaps getting rid of them was maybe an error in the first place? 

There are also little things that for those who reside in Nikonland will be familiar with, but coming from Fujiville seem like such a luxury… the little dial for metering for example. I usually shoot with spot exposure, but can change to evaluative metering in an instant should the lighting call for it. Again, no menus. Happy days!

Whats even better is that in M mode with Auto ISO on, Nikon allow for the Exposure Comp dials to work by altering the ISO up or down. Brilliant! Are you listening Fuji?

No in-built Flash - Oh wait, best performing high ISO in any camera ever. Who needs flash!? I can understand that for some, they may wish to trigger their speedlights from the on-board flash. If this is your modus operandi then there may be better cameras for you. Should I want to occasionally dabble in a bit of fill flash, the leaf shutter and fantastic built-in flash on board my X100 will cover that with aplomb.

No Video - I’m a stills photographer, not a videographer. Never used video before. Am I about to start any time soon? Very much doubt it…

Only 5.5 frames per second - could be 2 frames per second and I wouldn't care less. I never ever use burst mode as I like to feel that I’ve captured the decisive moment, not the camera.

Max Sutter Speed only 1/4000 - My average shutter speed is probably 1/60. Enough said.

Too expensive - Well the Df is £2749 with kit lens in the UK. This would equate to approx. £2500 body only, but this option isn’t actually available in the UK market yet. There is no doubt that this is a pricey camera! For comparison: the D800 = £2050 body only, D610 = £1500. 

I decided that the grey market option was a no-brainer for this camera… Panamoz.com offered a 2 year guarantee for £1790 with the 50mm kit lens. That’s £1000 cheaper than in the UK or to put it another way, over a third off the price off. It’s essentially the same price as the D610. 

So that means I have the sensor of the £4000 flagship D4 for just over £1500. Same price that I paid for my X-Pro1 give or take 50 quid. Doesn’t seem so pricey now…

The commonly made criticisms therefore didn't seem particularly relevant to me, so I took the plunge. If you are thinking of buying the Df  how do the negatives stack up against your requirements?

Retail Park 3

I suspect that by now you can guess that I like this camera… A lot. But is there anything I don’t like about the Df ?

Despite it being the lightest full frame DSLR that Nikon produce, it is still heavier than my Fuji, especially with the Zeiss 21mm attached! That lens weighs about as much as the camera body. That is hardly the fault of the Df however. And this is all forgiven when I look at the files when I get home. Sumptuous.

Edit (9th March 2014): The size and weight of the Zeiss was getting to me, so I compared the Nikon 20mm 2.8D with it. The Zeiss, whilst fabulous to the edge of the frame, is now sold as in the centre they have very similar performace at f2.8 and f4. The 20mm, like Goldilocks' porridge is just right on the Df.

Here is an image taken with the 20mm (as is In And Out 1 below):

1< (Nikon 20mm 2.8D)

Also, I do miss the EVF on the X-Pro1 as a means to assess WB and Exposure. The ‘mini TV’ would fairly accurately replicate the final image in the viewfinder prior to the shot being taken.

Additionally, the EVF would allow me to compose in 1x1 which is my current format of choice. There is a grid overlay in the Nikon OVF which shows 1x1 but it is nowhere near as clear as the square format option in the EVF of the X-Pro1.

Finally, it seems there is an option in other Nikons to double tap a button to format SD card. Please Mr Nikon San can we have this in a firmware update? If that was implemented, I would only need to access the menu during a month of Sundays…

In And Out 1 (Nikon 20mm 2.8D)

The aim of this review is to perhaps coax a few people who are considering the Df towards the camera because it might fit them well too, but also to deter others for whom another option would suit them better.  Essentially what I am trying to say is that the Df isn’t for everyone, or even lots of people… But for those who want it’s standout features, there is nothing else that can match it on the market IMHO.

I wish the forum troll could understand the saying ‘Horses for Courses’ rather than bleating on about statistics that don’t take into account an individuals photographic style. Whoever thought up the expression ‘measurebating’ hit the nail firmly on the head. Certain forums would be much more pleasant places to hang out*** if we could all understand that what works for one, maybe doesn’t work for another. And why all the pent-up aggression about it? Seriously, life is too short. Get into knitting if photography is making your blood boil so readily. And you’ll give yourself piles…

*** Despite this, I am a glutton for punishment as I still seem to come back for more.

So for now, I’ll let the people who don’t get the Nikon Df  troll incessantly about what it doesn’t have, whilst I enjoy taking images that aim to utilise what it does have to the fullest extent…

Retail Park 1

Full disclosure: The image Retail Park 4 is a reshoot from my X-Pro1 images (as are most in this article), but the leaves in the image have been Photoshopped in from the original Fuji file. Autumn has long gone after all…

A review of the Fujifilm XF 14mm Lens

For this blog I want to take a real-world look at the 14mm XF lens for Fuji’s X-Series.

Please click on the images to view them in a Lightbox.

Similar to my ‘review’ of the X-Pro1 for Urbexing (here) this won’t be a technical analysis of MTF charts or an examination of the extent to which the lens vignettes. These can be found in depth here (DPReview) or here (Lenstip). This blog aims to look at how and why I started to use the 14mm for virtually every shot I take.

When I got my X-Pro1 almost a couple of years ago (time flies when you are having fun), I purchased the full kit, i.e. the 18mm, 35mm and the 60mm. The 35mm was, for me, the one... So sharp wide open, which made it a low-light beast. The 18 was getting some usage and the 60 often sat at home... alone (despite it’s fabulous optics).

My kit now comprises of the 14, 35, 60 and 18-55mm zoom. Whenever I go out shooting of late my bag contains just the 14mm attached to the camera and the 35, which sits in the bag 95% of the time. The 60 and zoom stay at home, but at least now they have each other. 

I have thought about selling them but have kept them for two reasons: 

1) You take a substantial hit on used gear.

2) In my head there will be a ‘rainy day’ scenario when these two lenses will come into their own. I’m still waiting patiently for that day to come...

Genuinely I could live with just the 35 (for family/personal shots) and the 14mm. Nothing else, nada, ne rien, 何も.

Let’s start with the obvious. This lens has beautiful optics - images are sharp and distortion free at any aperture. The lens is optically corrected too - to such perfection that the Leica engineers would be proud of themselves if they’d designed this lens. It makes you want to go out and shoot with it…

So when I first started using the 14mm I was finding my images just had too much in the shot. There were too many distracting elements and often the subject was difficult to identify. I quickly came to the conclusion that the difference between the 14 & 18mm lenses are huge. I kept at it and discovered two things which made a big difference:

Shooting Square Format - Opting for 1x1 means that a third of the image is removed (that’s complex maths for my feeble mind) which in turn eliminates a third of extraneous objects from the image. This leads to a distillation of the subject matter. Good.

Getting Closer - The second ‘technique’ I employed was to get much closer to what I was shooting. With the 14mm, you get about 90 degrees FOV (although obviously less in square format) which can lead to too many elements in the final image. By getting closer to the subject, in my mind, gives more impact to the shot.

The optical viewfinder of the X-Pro1 is far from ideal when using the 14mm. The whole advantage of using a ‘rangefinder’ OVF is that you can see outside the framelines, but you can’t actually see the framelines at all when using the 14mm. Using the EVF is therefore a must. More importantly when using the EVF, it is easier to alter the angles of the camera so that  the verticals and/or horizontals are parallel. It is very easy to accidentally have a ‘keystone’ effect with such a wide angle lens, so this accuracy is important. What’s more, should I get home, open the files and find the image is more skewed than expected there’s a quick fix. Lightroom 5 has a magic button that corrects tilted and slanted images. Ideal. Kids of today don’t know how easy they’ve got it…

One of the many things I love about photography is the ability to alter how we see everyday objects. This may be by taking advantage of the smaller dynamic range of a camera in relation to our eyes, or freezing time with a fast shutter speed. In the case of the 14mm, the way it amplifies the acuity of angles is one of it’s most appealing features for me. Tantamount to all of my recent Flickr images are taken with this lens, so much so that I consider it to be a hallmark of my style. I occasionally read magnetic reviews of the 23mm and have considered putting it on my lust-list, but I realise I have no interest in it whatsoever. This lack of appeal from any other lens or camera system is solely due to the irrepressible mojo of the XF14mm.