Pictures are everywhere. They exist in the shapes and colors and faces that we see every day.
Life being what it is, we’re usually not looking for pictures unless we have a camera in our hand. But, with the ubiquitous presence and quality of today’s cellphones, everyone has a camera wherever they go. If you’re a serious photographer, the reasons to use your cellphone camera every day can be a effective part of your growth and vision.
One of the limitations of being a professional photographer is the necessity of shooting what the client is asking for rather than shooting exactly what you’d like to shoot. When there’s a client paying for the work there are concepts to execute, layouts to follow, type placement to consider (see below), and budgets to manage. Of course, the ideal situation is when both coexist gracefully and everyone produces exactly the work they would have produced had there been no limitations at all. Unfortunately, the relationships that offer such freedom are exceedingly rare. However, when you develop one, they are worth protecting like you would any valuable bond.
So, unless you are one of the fortunate few who has no restrictions on what or how you shoot, one path to boundary-free photography is to create personal pictures. The subject could be lions on an African safari, people riding the subway home, or interesting architectural shapes. As an artist, becoming your own client is the environment where you can produce some of your most authentic pictures and engage in creative play. Since you’ll have no one to please but yourself, you can go down any creative path you choose without worrying about how a client might feel about it. Free of restrictions, you’re able to explore unfamiliar subjects or unusual ways of working. You can try shooting at odd angles, experiment with different lighting techniques, test out special effects, or employ unconventional post-processing methods.
The other benefit to producing personal work is what it does for your professional work. We all have those “go to” solutions for creating photographs that suit our personal style such as long lenses, out of focus backgrounds, soft boxes, grids, remote cameras, or even software that gives our images a certain look. Relying on those tried and true pathways is like driving the same route to the office everyday. After awhile, we barely have to think about it.
“To discover a new vision or develop innovative ideas and solutions that go beyond what you did on the last shoot, you have to work at having to think about it.”
And therein lies the hazard for the photographer who wants to remain fresh and creative: To discover a new vision or develop innovative ideas and solutions that go beyond what you did on the last shoot, you have to work at having to think about it. The best way to do that, in my opinion, is to make pictures that involve risk, experimentation, or discomfort—and that’s sometimes difficult to do if you have a client you need to serve.
Years ago when I built a social networking page for my business, I tried to come up with a way to create content for the page that wasn’t client work, yet also wasn’t pictures of some spectacular food that I was about to consume. I’ve never wanted to be a “broadcaster” of my life experiences and I’ve never believed that people care about the sushi I’m about to eat or what my friends look like after several bottles of wine. And, I don’t believe potential clients are dying to see those pictures either. However, I’ve always believed that if I worked at making an interesting picture, one that was also appealing to the viewer, someone might enjoy looking at my photographs.
So, I began the habit of producing an image a day on my iPhone and publishing it on my page. The general idea was to try to find everyday objects, photograph then in an unusual or abstract way, and then hopefully engage followers with interesting pictures. What I discovered was that just the simple act of looking for pictures everywhere was a way to sharpen my eye and broaden my attention to the pictures all around me.
After the capture was made, I would experiment with it using software on my phone or computer. I’d crop it into unusual ratios, tweak the color, sometimes change it to black and white, make it contrasty, add some grain, blur it, add a vignette, or turn it upside down. I tried to treat the photograph like a jazz musician treats improvising: find a groove that feels right and just play. I’d do all kinds of things to the photographs that I’d never do if I was working for a client. I found myself using software and hardware in ways I’d never dared when someone was paying me, and through experimentation, I was also expanding my capabilities for those same paying clients.
And that’s why I kept doing it.
What I discovered by making a picture a day was that the impact went beyond influencing my professional work. Once I began sharing my personal images with clients and potential clients through a variety of marketing channels, the images began to influence the way those people viewed me as a visual thinker. But, I quickly discovered that I was limited to exposing the images to only those people who had chosen to visit my page or who were receiving my marketing. The emergence of Instagram changed all that. Today, it’s simple to publish a picture to my Instagram feed @joeyterrill and potentially expose it to 100 million people around the world. Hopefully, viewers enjoy the images I post. But, where I believe the most valuable benefit lies is in simply looking for photographs every day.
In assignment photography, an editor or art director is generally looking for a photographer that feels right for a given assignment. Clients know that two photographers can venture out and each will interpret the same subject in completely different ways. Compelling personal work is just one more way to show them how you might interpret that assignment in your own unique way.
Actively looking for photographs is one of the most powerful ways to develop your eye as you go about your daily life. Once you’ve found a subject that looks promising, photograph it in the way that instinctively seems right. Then, look for a different way…then another…then another. By the time you run out of ideas, you’ll have pushed yourself to see the subject in a way you might not have considered before and your personal style will begin to reveal itself in every picture you create—whether for Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, The New York Times, or Sports Illustrated.
“I had become a sleepwalker on the sidewalk”
In her fascinating new book, On Looking, author Alexandra Horowitz tells the story of how the New York city block surrounding her apartment turned out to be an undiscovered treasure once she began exploring that same block with eleven different walking companions. She discovered that although she’d lived there for years, she wasn’t really seeing it. “I had become a sleepwalker on the sidewalk,” she writes.
In the book, she describes walks with a geologist, a doctor, a typographer, and even someone who doesn’t see at all—a blind woman. Throughout the process, she became aware of what she’d been missing. “Together, we became investigators of the ordinary, considering the block—the street and everything on it— as a living being that could be observed. In this way, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and the old the new.” The book is a fascinating story of discovery and vision and an inspiration to any photographer who finds themselves saying, “I don’t see any pictures,” but would like to see them.
In a future story, I’d like to share the process I use to make iPhone images including which camera apps deliver the highest quality capture, useful software for getting different looks from each image, some interesting iPhoneography websites, a professional case and tripod designed for the iPhone, and a few other bits of information that hopefully will be inspiring.