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See a photographic trend? Run like hell!

Posted by Greg Blue on Monday, December 7th, 2015

One of the great things about social media and the Internet is that you can spot stylistic trends very quickly. The challenging thing for many photographers is resisting the urge to jump on the bandwagon. You shouldn’t be identifying trends with the goal of following them – you should instead run like hell in the opposite direction!

The image making process is impacted by a number of considerations such as:

1) A strong image concept or strong opinions on the photographer’s part (the most important consideration in my opinion)

2) Client need – Your clients will likely have specific needs that they want shot in a specific style. But it is always best when the client has based their stylistic needs on your own style because they are blown away by your work!

2) Technique, or a deep understanding of photographic principles (a close second in my opinion)

3) Trends, which in my opinion means too many people lounging in the same end of the pool (usually the shallow end).

 

In a previous post, I wrote about copying other photographs for the purpose of learning a technique or becoming more familiar with lighting theory. I do actually think that’s a valuable exercise, but only as an academic exercise. For your actual work, you are far better off trying to create work that is unlike other images already out there. It’s not easy doing this, but it will quickly make you a better photographer.

It can be incredibly tempting, especially for a new photographer, to copy the style or work of photographers that they admire. It’s understandable to want to look as cool or gather as many compliments as that photographer. You might even think you’ll be left behind if you don’t because “everybody else is doing it.” Pursuing an original body of work will be a lot harder, but it will take you way further in your career than the alternative.

If you are a hobbyist photographer, then you’ll probably be fine copying other’s work (but I still don’t recommend it). But if you are planning on making a career as a photographer, then this can be a serious error. It’s not an effective marketing strategy to simply look at your competition and say; “I could do that.” If your competition is already shooting a particular style, then they would have an enormous advantage over you if you copied them. Worse, you could get a reputation for being a hack.

It seems as soon as someone does something original, there will soon be a wave of other photographers copying that photographer’s ideas. Shooting underwater is a good example – Toronto photographer Barbara Cole began shooting fine art underwater portraits, followed closely by New York photographer Howard Schatz. Now it’s being done by everyone. Another photographer shot a series of images where he froze models throwing powder into the air with strobes. Everybody’s doing that now too. I’m not saying you should never do either type of work, but I suggest that if you do, you should make sure you take it in an absolutely new direction.

You could easily make the argument every photographer is influenced by many other photographers, and you would be absolutely correct. Working in a similar style to another photographer is not uncommon, and you should be fine – especially if you are applying that style to a very different type of work. Copying another photographer’s idea can be very dangerous. If you get too close to an original idea, you could find yourself facing a lawsuit.

Finally, there is always the problem of a client asking you to copy another photographer’s image for a paid assignment. Thankfully, I have rarely experienced that, as it is hard to bite your tongue and not suggest that they simply hire that original photographer, if they want that same shot.

 

Buried At Sea!

The primary problem with following visual or stylistic trends is that your work will become buried in a sea of similar work. Without question, every modern photograph taken has a significant amount of influence from previous photographers before it. But there seems to be a growing problem with really widespread trends, where many photographers produce work that is very similar. It’s wise to keep an eye out on trends, study them and figure out how the techniques are done, but if you’re intrigued enough to use the technique, you should challenge yourself to only use it in a way not done before.

One of the best defenses against trends is to become fiercely opinionated – assuming you are not already! Yes, there is a difference between being fiercely opinionated and simply being close-minded, arrogant and combative. If you look at the majority of photographers out there who buck the trends and push themselves to create something new (often creating new trends while they’re at it), you’ll likely find that, on top of being decent people, they are probably highly opinionated.

One such opinion is deciding when a particular style is now overdone and it is time to move on (and that includes their own style). Don’t get me wrong, being fiercely opinionated does not mean you cannot join in the conversation in a respectful and polite way. As a matter of fact, the next best thing to being fiercely opinionated is to be fiercely curious about other people’s opinions! The conversation’s never as interesting when someone simply shares your opinion – it’s far more interesting when they have an alternative opinion, and even better if their opinion is so well articulated that it alters yours.

A fantastic and inspirational example of this is to spend time looking at past and current masters of the craft – photographers like Karsh, Penn, Ritts, and Leibovits. Look at their work, and you will see that their execution is often more about craft than style – but it’s their ideas and artistic goals that make their work stand the test of time!

Their work is often considered extremely simple compared to modern productions – usually the most prominent production value was careful, but simple lighting. Photoshop did not exist back when many of their most beloved images were taken. I’m certainly not saying you should avoid Photoshop – I use it on almost every image I take, and it is a critical tool. But trends by nature tend to be short lived – ideals and philosophy tend to create lasting images.

I know how difficult it is to create images on that level – my work is certainly not at that stage yet, and frankly may never be. But the fact that it is so difficult is what makes it so worthwhile to pursue – we may not be remembered in the future along with the likes of Julia Margaret Cameron or Henry Cartier-Bresson, but exercising the same values will definitely make us all better photographers.

Author of title photograph unknown. It certainly wasn’t me. Thank God.


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See a photographic trend? Run like hell!
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See a photographic trend? Run like hell!
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One of the great things about social media and the Internet is that you can spot stylistic trends very quickly. The challenging thing for many photographers is resisting the urge to jump on the bandwagon. You shouldn’t be identifying trends with the goal of following them – you should instead run like hell in the opposite direction!
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