Finding Your Photography Voice

Finding Your Photography Voice

by Michelle Arnold 11.08.17

My photography voice

~ The Struggle is Real

I’m going with the assumption that only those who’ve spent time searching for their photography voice are reading this blog, and probably most of you haven’t found it yet. I’m not claiming to have wrapped up this journey myself but I know I’m on to something and I want to share what I’ve discovered with you. Why? Because the last leg of any journey is always the toughest and it’s best to be with friends when going through it. This struggle is real!

One concept that I have seen proven to be true over and over in my life is that when learning a new skill, whether it be public speaking, writing code, or photography, you will learn 80% of what you need to know in the first 20% of your journey. The last 20% of what can be learned will take the remaining 80% of your time. This last bit will consist of the tough lessons, and I can’t tell you what they are because they will be different for everybody. Unfortunately, they are also the lessons that will set you apart from others. Sure you can stop at 80% and be good at what you do and even make a fair amount of money. But to be great, to be a cut above the rest, to achieve your dream, you must preserver and tackle the tough lessons.

For far too many of us, finding our photography voice falls in that last 20% bucket. We know how to use our camera (at least 80% of it anyway), we are comfortable with processing software, we’ve solidified our genre, and we know our favorite subjects. What we’re missing though, is our voice. You know, that elusive thing that ties our portfolio together, that keeps our work uniform, that gives viewers the ability to pick out our work from the crowd, and what keeps paying customers coming back for more.

~ Getting Lost

This is the easy part of any journey and it’s no different when you’re on the journey to search of your photography voice. Some of us are lost right from the start while others deal with the yo-yo or teeter-totter effect where they waver between being almost on to something, and being completely off track. There are many reasons this happens. I’ll share a few pitfalls that I’ve experienced (often more than once) and maybe you will share some of yours.

1. ~ Getting caught up in what other people are doing. 

This pit fall usually happens when looking at photographs taken by other photographers especially when searching for inspiration or looking to stoke up motivation. We’re at a low point, which is why we’re looking at the work of others, so we’re vulnerable to getting “caught up” in somebody else’s voice. It’s easy to fall victim to thinking “the grass is always greener on the other side”. We love what other photographers are doing. We aspire to be as awesome as they are, and somehow we think that what we are doing is not as good. We see that some of them have clean white images, others have bright colorful ones, some create soft pastel pictures, and yet others produce dark moody work. Some photographers are purists, others are innovators, some are big picture while others are macro. We can go on and on. Suddenly we’ve lost all context of our own voice, and worse yet move onto pit fall number 2.

2. ~ Copying someone else’s photography voice. 

This seems like the same thing as pitfall fall number 1, but its not. This pit fall happens when you find yourself deeply drawn to a particular person’s work and you get obsessed with emulating it. You’ve found yet another amazing photographer that focuses on your genre and their photography voice speaks to you. Somehow they make it look so easy, and you start thinking, “I can do that”. But it’s not that easy – and thankfully so. Copying is not going to help you find your voice, or set you apart from others. The better thing to do is absorb the work of your favorite photographer. You know their images make you “feel” something which is what is speaking to you. Think about what you feel. Think about how the image is getting you to feel that. Keep these examples in mind, does an image of old hands kneading bread dough make you feel nostalgic? Does a cute puppy make you feel happy?  Does the lack of technology make you yearn for simpler times?

3. ~ Giving up or taking a break.

We all need to take breaks and sometimes it’s best to give up for the day, but walking away for too long is not the answer. If it’s getting difficult and frustrating then you’ve reached the exact point where you are about to learn something. Pay attention to what kind of break you’re thinking you’re taking. Are you exhausted and need a “rest and eat” break, or are you taking a “walk around the block so I don’t throw my camera” break, or are you thinking of the “I give up” break. Go ahead and follow through with break types one and two, but steer clear of the third one. I recommend pushing through this roadblock and find out what’s on the other side. It could very well be the break you are looking for.

~ Good news

Your voice is going to be what you’re good at. It’s really that simple. However, we humans have a strange affinity for believing that if it comes too easy, it isn’t worth doing. Instead of focusing on what we’re good at, we consume too much brain power beating ourselves up for the things we’re not good at. By no means am I telling you to stop striving to be better. I absolutely want you to push through that last 20% and become the best you can be, but when looking for your voice it’s likely to be right in front of you. I suggest you pick a few of your favorite images. Hopefully they are very diverse. Study them and write down their similarities.

Here’s what I’ve discovered so far about my photography voice… My images are typically on the darker side; they are a bit moody. I like the shadows and I like black. I see my composition as simple, yet not plain. And I prefer macro shots, because I like the detail.


                    Macro                               Simple but not Plain                     Dark  & Moody

~ Finding Your Voice

The best images that you take will reflect who you are, and not anybody else. The reason you cannot copy somebody else’s voice is because you won’t be satisfied unless you are being true to your own character. Embrace who you are and unleash your creativity. Here’s a few ideas to help your get further in your journey…

1. Look at your magazine collection or recipe books. Absorb the titles, the colors, the mood, and the subjects. Lay them out on the floor and view them as whole. Do you see a pattern? Remove the odd ones that are muddying the visual. Now do you see a theme? What about this collage appeals to you, and what doesn’t?

2. Look at your wardrobe. Is there a color scheme in your closet? indoor or outdoor? tailored or casual? traditional or trendy? Can you use this knowledge to narrow your search for your voice?

3. Do you have a favorite season? Do you enjoy the pastels of spring, the vibrant colors of summer, the muted tones of autumn, or the neutrals of winter? Is there a season that gives you more inspiration than the others? What is it about that season that speaks to you?

4. What’s your favorite time of day? Do you enjoy the low light of early morning, the misty dew, and the cool air? Maybe you prefer the bright light of midday, the sun on your face, and the warm wind. You might prefer the colorful light of evening, relaxation, and the slower pace. Can reflecting on this lead you to your voice?

~ The Aha moment “RELIEF”

You’ll know when you’ve found or accepted your photography voice. You’ll notice that you can photograph for hours on end and it feels like its only been minutes, your frustration level is low, you enjoy the challenges, and you produce an abundance of quality images.


Whether you’ve found your photography voice or not I would love to hear about your search?

Your comments are greatly appreciated!

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2 Responses

  1. Hi Michelle,
    Thank you so much for this article! I currently completed a month long photography challenge on Instagram where the objective was to post 3x a week based on a given theme. I struggled SO SO SO much during this challenge but I think working through the frustration, taking breaks, and trying again helped so much with this challenge. I am hoping to find a glimpse of my photography voice soon so that I can keep improving.

    • Michelle Lee says:

      Hi Tiffany,
      I’m happy to hear that you found value in my article. Committing to a photo challenge is a fantastic way for photographers to get closer to finding their voice. It sounds like it will certainly help clarify what is NOT their voice. Great job for sticking with it, and thank you for sharing your experience with me. Please stay in touch as you progress on your journey. Good luck!

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