I've walked around with enough other photographers to see that there is a vast difference in shooting styles and focal length preference among us. I'm a profligate shooter. Promiscuous with the shutter button. And wedged into a focal length preference of something between 35mm and 85mm. That's my sweet spot. My comfort zone. My photographic happy place.
I was out in the downtown area one day, a few years back, with a friend who wanted to go out and make photographs. I carried a single camera with a 50mm lens while he insisted on bringing along two hulking Nikon D8xx bodies, one with a 70-200mm lens and the the other with a 14-24mm lens. I'd see something I wanted to photograph and I'd work the scene by moving all over the place and playing with different angles, different exposure settings and different distances between the camera and subject. My friend would "lock on" to a subject, address it as a target shooter might, zoom in and out to test a range of focal lengths, etc. all without clicking a single frame. Only after much concentrated appraisal would he click his shutter and make a photograph. If the subject was especially captivating for him he might splurge and take three or four almost identical frames. Then he was done with the subject matter and ready to move on.
I was so put off by his rigid approach to photographing that I never went out photographing with him again. His hesitancy and single-minded approach to each subject encountered was anathema to me. In retrospect I think I should have recommended that he acquire an 8x10 inch view camera and spend that same amount of time and care making images that would better reflect the sheer amount of time he lavished on each frame.
Often people will tell me that I shoot too much. Or I shoot too fast. But I remember many years ago being at the HRC (Humanities Research Center) at UT looking at contact sheets of Henri Cartier-Bresson and realizing that he didn't just capture one decisive moment (the popular assumption..) rather he worked a scene and shot multiple frames at multiple angles until he finally zeroed in on what it was he was looking for. Sure, there are images of his that depended on perfect timing but it's important to remember that had he chosen a different frame from the same roll of film that too may have been considered a masterpiece. HCB was curious and not overly frugal with his frame count. He shot it until he got it.
It's funny when people instinctively want to limit their shooting and are parsimonious with their digital "frames." At the same time they talk about wanting to establish a personal style. But in my mind the two desires are diametrically opposed. In order to evolve a style, as opposed to just aping the fashion of the day, it seems obvious that you have to look and look at stuff and photograph with intention over a long period of time. The iterative nature of photographing in this way allows the photographer to be like a sculptor relentlessly peeling away the unnecessary "marble" to reveal the final art.
When we start out we all copy our photographic "heroes" but over time and with lots of looking and photographing we (hopefully) cut away the clichés of our craft and hone in on what excites us personally. We begin to form a style when we begin to ignore everything outside our own individual tastes. And I posit that this comes from a dedication to photographing in bulk and with passion. Almost akin to a pianist practicing daily for years and years. Or swimming every day to develop and maintain an efficient stroke coupled with endurance.
For years and years I worked on getting paid work and on shooting the kinds of subjects I thought other people would like. At some point I started shooting more and more just for myself. A while after that point an art director said (for the first time) that he was hiring me for my style. I remarked that I was not aware I had a style. He point to a stream of work in my portfolio and said that it was evident to him. We had working history together and his observation of my "style" came after years of working together on routine projects. We dug down a bit and he suggested that when I stopped "caring" about what other people thought about my work that I had opened up to making more images that reflected my own tastes and judgements. That's when the work began to differentiate from all the other beginners. Insouciance it seems is a good reagent.
Looking back I can see that any style I have evolved over time came from being out with a camera and photographing at every opportunity. And holding onto the hard to describe feelings of contentment or satisfaction that seems to come from looking and interpreting the external world and re-making it in a way that made me happy.
When I first started making portraits for clients I was nervous and apprehensive. I tried to make formal images in the way I'd seen others do in magazines and advertising. I tried always to follow the rules as if that would ensure success. It was only after years and years of meeting strangers and trying to get a nice expression that I started to feel comfortable with the process and started spending much more time trying to establish some sort of emotional bridge with the subject rather than depending on following the rules of composition and lighting that everyone else followed in order to make the portrait work. It was almost an epiphany when I realized that if I didn't make a human connection all the technology and rule following in photography would not result in a "good" or "effective" portrait. And the "rules" certainly would not be sufficient to create what I wanted to see in a photograph of a real person.
A few years back I spent an afternoon walking around Reykjavik with a camera and a lens taking photographs of the architecture in the city. My choice of lens was not the same as someone else would have made. I spent my time with a 30mm f1.4 lens on a G9. That gave me a perspective equal to about a 60mm lens on a 35mm camera. Too tight as far as most architecture photographers are concerned. But for me, especially shooting in my favorite square crop, it was just perfect. How do I know? Because it felt comfortable instead of limiting. I was happy to comp images within the constraints of the system. I didn't feel the need to include everything nor did I need to burrow down to smaller details. Sure, I'd step forward or backward of left or right but only to make the frame feel more comfortable. It was a wonderful way to photograph and I was sad when the light faded and I had to call it quits.
In whatever downtime I have these days I'm making an effort to throw away images that are now useless to me and only take up space in the archives. I'm trying to make sure the images I do like are well backed up even though I have no expectation that they'll live on after my demise. I like the idea of selfishly being able to review and savor what I've done for my own pleasure. But in the process of reviewing thousands of frames it's interesting to me to see now that there is a style to my work that's identifiable to me. I couch it as having a respect for the space around an object. Not too close and not too far away. Not too wide and not too tight. Room for the subject to breath but not so far away that a frame is too safe or too sterile. Certainly not a case of not being able to clearly identify the subject that was important enough to me to want to capture it.
I'm not as good a writer as I'd like to be. It's been difficult for me to put into words why I like to be out examining the world and photographing it all the time. Why I spend afternoons walking through town and plan solo trips to other places specifically to walk around and look and sometimes photograph. Why I'm constantly looking for the camera that results in the greatest transparency for me.
If I could write better maybe you would understand that it's all part of me trying to drink in as much of the world as I can while I am still able to; even if what I define as the "world" is only what I find in my own backyard, my own neighborhood or my own city. That I share it with you is immaterial to how I shoot or what I shoot. I'd shoot the same way for an audience of only one. But I share it because it's part of my process. The very act of sharing compels me to select, edit, prepare and commit to the image. And that's an important part of growing and evolving my own style. And continuing to evolve it...
It's silly to say I wish I had never had to earn a living or be responsible for anything so I could be out photographing all the time but the reality is that the constrictions of everyday life are part of the very ingredients and friction that make the between moments, when I can go out and photograph, so happy for me. The times when adult life intrudes are the accelerants to light the fire for the photography when I get to do it.
I can't explain very well why the 50mm lens is so comfortable for me. I can't explain why wide angle work leaves me bored or why the dependance on a specific lighting method or subject matter generally seems contrived. But when I look through zillions of my files I find that I consistently gravitate to the 50mm or, at most, up to 70mms as my preferred window onto the world.
I do know that the process of photographing as continuously as I do is part of the reason (probably most of the reason) that I feel I've finally worked my way into photographing in a manner that seems just right for me. The exercise of going back and reviewing what works and what doesn't in past work is so important but it's equally important not to get stuck in an endless review when there is some much more to photograph and, contextually, so little time in which to do it.
You may dismiss my style of photography but that doesn't dismiss the pleasure I get from re-living those moments of photography or the enthusiasm for going out and doing it some more.