Phil Chester: How Do You Find Your Voice Within Your Photography?
Destination wedding photographer from Portland, laid back, sarcastic and brilliant at catching people in their most natural and genuine state. Has a great story about dropping out of college, serving 4,5 years in active duty Army, being deployed twice during his tour to Afghanistan, and starting his photography path with a few images featured by National Geographic. Phil loves where he is right now, and believes that you can never really reach a final destination, since you’re continuously growing and developing your style and skills. And for those of you who are still searching for your style, here are a few incredible insights from Phil Chester:
This is one of those bullet point keynote speaker conference workshop topics. And rightfully so. The question “how do you find your voice within your photography?” is like asking someone “how do you make yourself happier?”
IT ALL STARTS WITH TASTE
If you haven’t seen this video, I highly recommend it!
Mr. Glass nails it on the head when talking about the process in which “finding your voice” entails. It all starts with your taste. Your taste defines everything. Your taste dictates what you prefer to photograph and how you approach it. Finding your voice is a long road with no end goal in sight and there’s no right or wrong path to figure it out. Think of adolescence, you’re a confused awkward human being trying to understand what it means to be happy, be accepted, and how to earn an allowance. You start to grow up and only through experiences and time do you start to figure out what it is you actually want. It took me damn near 30 years to start to close that gap.
That being said there are a few steps you can take to figure out who you are as a photographer.
Figure out what the hell you enjoy shooting most
Notice which kind of shoots satisfy your creative soul more. Ask yourself “What do I enjoy shooting most and how do I like to approach each shoot?” If you don’t know the answer, that’s ok! Keep exploring, shoot anything and everything. Try your hand at candid street photography, try shooting a wedding, contact a stylist and set up an editorial shoot, go on a road trip and photograph your journey with some friends. Once you understand what you like to shoot most, you can start to fine tune your voice within that field.
Build a portfolio
Whether this be a folder on your desktop or a private gallery, put together your favorite images you’ve taken and ask yourself:
– What are the similarities in these photos?
– What is the common subject in these?
– What kind of light am I most drawn to?
– What kind of location are most of these photos in?
– What was the purpose behind these shoots?
– What’s the overall mood in these images?
This should be a pretty big eye opener to what you like most about your work. This is your voice!
Give Yourself Assignments / Shoot For Free
After reviewing your own portfolio, you should have a more detailed idea of what you’re drawn to. Now it’s time to fine tune. Shooting for free is a wonderful way to explore and play more without any pressure. To quote the famous New York Times Fashion Photographer Bill Cunningham “If you’re not being paid, you can’t be told what to do.”
Call it personal work or a passion project, whatever, this freedom during a session will allow you to “fail” without fear. I highly stress doing this. You can’t wait around for people to contact you. You can’t play victim and say “well no one wants to book me for a shoot.” You have to MAKE IT HAPPEN. Contact anyone you know, approach businesses, models, stylists, designers, strike up a conversation with an interesting looking person at a coffee shop, cruise instagram and reach out to people you’ve wanted to work with. Every month I send out about 40-60 emails to people I want to work with on personal shoots. Out of those 40-60, maybe 3-4 people get back to me. Those 3-4 sessions end up being the ones when I create some of my favorite photos. Be genuine, real, passionate and excited.
Try that idea you’ve had in your head but were too scared to try during a paid shoot. Pitch the idea of traveling with someone to that location you thought no one would want to go to because it’s too much of an inconvenience. That freedom of simply trying and exploring new ideas, will feed your creative brain way more than a paid shoot ever will.
Curate Your Own Work
Every month or so, once you have completed a few shoots/weddings, sit down and fine tune your portfolio. Notice what sticks out most in your portfolio and remove what doesn’t feel like you. There’s a good chance your style will have changed from 2 years ago.
Look at work outside of your field. For me, I rarely find inspiration in wedding work anymore. A lot of it comes from editorial photography magazines and blogs as well as movies. Your brain needs a constant supply of new inspiration to keep pushing yourself creatively.
Get Outside Your Comfort Zone
If you’ve noticed yourself shooting with muscle memory tendencies, think – ok, I have this shoot coming up, what are different ways I can approach this? Maybe I could try taking a few steps back when I shoot because I always stand at this distance from the subject. Maybe I could try this idea I’ve been too scared to try. Maybe I’ll limit myself to just one lens. Maybe I’ll shoot film this time. Give yourself limits on personal shoots, you’ll be surprised at what switching up your routine will do for you, in seeing things with a fresh perspective.
In closing, there’s no right or wrong way to find your voice. It’s yours. And no one, but you, can help you in discovering it. The more you photograph and the more you analyze your favorite images, the more you’ll understand what direction you’re heading and how to steer closer to what you want. Remember, you’re always fine tuning and you’ll never be exactly where you want to be, just on the right path.
Gear – Digital: Canon 5D Mark III, Sigma 24mm f/1.4 ART, Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART, Canon 35 f/1.4L, Canon 45mm T/S, Canon 135mm f/2L
Film: Leica M7 with Zeiss 35mm f/2 biogon, Pentax 67 with 75mm f/2.8 + 105mm f/2.4
Favorite Presets – Color: VSCO Film Pack 6: Portra 160 +1
B&W: Tri-X +1
Favorite Playlist – Follow me on Spotify, it’s my playlist called “The Calm”
Favorite Books – “Illusions” by Richard Bach
“Ask And It Is Given” by Jerry & Esther Hicks
Life Motto – Do whatever the fuck makes you happy.