A Personal Voice


I believe that every photographer brings something of himself or herself into the taking of a photograph – simply by being a different individual than any other. What I mean is (and I have written about this before on the blog); I believe we all show something original in our creative work. It might not be grand, but it’s ours. However, does this mean that every photographer has a specific personal voice? Originality – as I see it here – and a personal voice are closely connected, but does that mean that every photographerer – the occasional snapshooter as well as the pro – has his or her own voice?

I think not. It takes more to have a photographic voice than just being a person who shoots a snapshot now and then even then when that same person inherently – consciously or not – brings some of his or her personality into the picture. It takes a clear vision and a coherent body of work to be able to be able to distinguish a photographer’s personal voice.

What is a personal voice then? It’s a fingerprint of the person behind the camera that clearly relates to the photographer’s personal vision and expression. It’s this vague something that makes a photo stand out and shout this picture is taken by this photographer, no matter what the subject matter is and what technique the photographer has used. It’s a reflective projection of the person’s idea through the whole process of taking and making a photograph.

For a photographer a personal voice results from many specific choices the photographer makes in composition, focal length, timing, lighting, the colour palette – or black and white – and other technical variables. But even more important is maybe the subject and subject matter at least for some photographers – such that Ansel Adams’s well known voice is closely related to bold and majestic landscapes or the voice of Henri Lartigue is very much connected to his choice of subject matter; his family and his relationship with the wealthy Paris. On the other hand some photographers, such as Albert Watson and late Brian Lanker, shoot across a whole range of subject matter and still have a clearly recognizable photographic voice. Finally for many photographers post-production is where the personal vocie emerges and where the photographer’s own vision and expression comes to together in a specific manner. I believe before mentioned Ansel Adams’s photographic voice is a clear case of the latter. Without his eminent darkroom skills none of his photographs would have reach iconic level, his photographs would actually have been pretty boring. On the other hand a photographer such as David LaChapelle builds his photographs in the studio with bold colours and a bizarre, at times grotesque, and sexual twist to his approach.

Yet, even when a photographic voice seems to be grounded on one specific part of the production, be it in the studio or in the darkroom or a specific technique, I still believe that a conscious approach through the whole process from the first vision to the end result is necessary for the personal voice to develop. Ansel Adams wouldn’t have been able to do his elaborate darkroom work if he hadn’t used the zone system already at the time of shooting the negatives. And LaChapelle still needs to have control of the output of his complex studio pictures. The whole process involves so many choices, these in turn; depend directly on our personal tastes and interests. This is why it for most of us takes a while for a personal voice to develop, because at in the beginning the photographer might simply explore all the possibilities in photography, and not yet have fixed ideas about how images ought to look according to his or her taste.

Now, this last statement, is interesting in connection with what I wrote in a posting not long ago, Trust Your Instinct, that to be creative we have to let go of preconceived ideas of what a photograph ought to look like and tap into our unconscious mind. Does this mean there is a conflict of interest between a personal voice and creativity? I actually think so – if you think of a personal voice more as style. I think a well develop style – if used consequently – can inhibit our creativity. That’s why we as photographers need to take chances in between, let go, lose control and give ourselves assignments to break with everything we believe in. To encourage creativity and to not be inhibit in our approach. Creativity after all means to bring into being something new and surprising. Then later we can then always bring that new revelation into our palette of styles and make it part of our photographic voice.


63 thoughts on “A Personal Voice

    1. It could be, but not necessarily. It’s usually a combination of lots of factors that clearly state this photo was taken/created by this photographer. It’s the same in other arts. One talk about an author’s voice, too.

  1. The more I take photos, the more I think my style, or voice, is trying to talk to me. It’s still in whispering mode though. LOL Just keep shooting, a wise photographer told me though. So I do.

  2. I’ve read and re-read this post with great interest as usual Otto! I’ve been using my new Sony A7R a fair bit lately. I can take hand held shots with this camera where the Nikon D800e is just too heavy. I’ve limited myself to a 35mm fixed focal length lens with the new camera and I’ve had numerous comments on my blog from people seeing work that is not my usual, liking it just the same but noting that it’s different.
    This new camera has allowed me to see in a slightly different way and it’s producing some different results. I’m not tied to a fixed position and a long wait. I’m not setting a certain time of day (I usually like to shoot very early in the morning or at dusk with the DSLR). I’m able to move around a lot more a take the shot from wherever I might be when the light comes good rather than setting up the shot and simply waiting. An additional camera added to my line-up with a fixed focal length has introduced something new and interesting and rings very true with your final paragraph.
    I’ve had a similar experience with film which I hope to continue to explore. It’s about evolution I think, our voice continues to evolve and whilst things might change, the essense of who we are as a photographer can still be discerned, even if it’s not as immediately obvious in new work with a slightly different perspective, be that subject, equipment or anything else. I wonder if you agree?

    1. You are so right. The process you describe is indeed all about evolution and development – and a way to evolve our voice. I still your voice is quite clear even when some factors due to like playing with a new camera is different. Thanks for this very thoughtful and elaborate comment, Adrian.

  3. Nice post, Otto. Thank you.
    Another way to look at it is that each photographer has something to discover, perhaps something s/he is looking for or something unique about a scene that appeals to the eye. There are also different motivations. Someone who just snaps pics for documentation of events may have different reasons for taking a photo than someone who sees relationships between shapes, interactions between foreground/background, etc. for example.
    Always great to read your posts.

    1. Yes, developing the photographic voice may certainly be seen as a discovery. We have different reason for the art we create and that of course is reflected in our personal voice. Thank you for commenting, Jack.

  4. Well spoken and pretty true for those who are ‘trying’ to express personal feelings, ideas, hopes and dreams by means of photography. For some a life-safer.

    1. Expressing oneself through art is definitely very important for many. Just think about how much therapy authors have obtained by writing about difficult issues for them to deal with. Thanks for the comment, Paula.

  5. Otto, an inner voice, which manifests itself as a personal style, is a concept that I cannot define within myself. When I view your work, there bubbles a vision, a direction. My style seems illusive, maybe simply intuitive. I am more attached to the process, the actual doing. That creative journey is a must. Maybe style has so many variations as to be seriously difficult for most of us to grasp. Thanks again for a topic that incites.

    1. I think we should be more attached to the process thank figuring out our artistic voice. That’s the only way it will manifest itself. Thank you for the comment, Sally.

  6. Thank you for another thought-provoking post, Otto. I think that is one of the reasons I enjoy the various photo challenges one can find online. It gives me an opportunity to try something new, and think outside of my usual box. I’m on a blogging break of sorts right now (not posting on my own blog, but catching up with others), and I’m using some of this time to learn more about my camera and try out some new things. I might not end up with anything worth posting, but it is refreshing to take photos just for fun and to learn.

    1. The thing with trying out something new, is that it does’t necessarily produce anything worth keeping right then and there. But it expands your mind and will eventually show it work, directly or more subtly. So just keep having fun with trying out something new. 🙂

  7. I think it can be somewhat difficult for some who have seen sucess based on his/her approach to break off to do different ways. In musical world, not many bands can do so or survive different generation of music. It can be done however. A good post for us to think about this part, perhpas get out of the groove every now and then for just fun 🙂

    1. I believe you are quite right. It is difficult. But I also know from myself that I lose interest in bands that aren’t able to renew their music. So, yes, it’s definitely a good idea to get out of the groove every so often.

  8. After reading an older post you wrote about photographic voice and not quite sure what it was, I looked back at lots of my old blog posts and I was then able to recognize my own voice. Seeing it, was fun. It isn’t terribly well defined but it is there. Thanks for helping me to be more aware!

    1. I am glad you are able to recognize your voice. And usually it’s not well defined, it’s not set in stone, but it’s still this intangible voice that is yours. 🙂

  9. Very true, I think we leave a part of ourselves in every shot and the more we shoot, the more we refine our voice. It is great to review old and new shots and try to find and see just what it is that in this ‘consistent voice.’

    1. Yes, it’s easier to find the read thread that makes up our voice by reviewing old and new work – at the same time it’s a great way to see how one has developed over time. Thank you for your comment, Randall.

  10. Many important points here, Otto and great timing. With so many avenues to see art and photographs these days it can be hard to be open to inspiration without feeling like you might be copying someone else’s style. Taking a moment to think about what you are trying to say/express first helps retain the personal voice that is truly your own.

    1. We should all learn from other artists and if necessary copy them in order to learn something new – and then bring whatever we have learned to our own level and make it part of our own voice.

  11. Hello, this kind of picture reminds me of my childhood in the DRC, to photograph beautiful colors! thank you for visiting my home, spend a pleasant day! Does rolero

  12. Personal voice? I love that! Perspective, whether in writing or other art forms, changes everything. You’re truly capturing the essence of what the one behind the camera intends.

  13. When I began my blog, one of my publicly stated goals was “to learn how to write.” That confused some people, because I clearly knew how to punctuate, spell, and write a grammatical sentence.

    But what I meant wasn’t related to the mechanics of writing. It had much more to do with what you’ve described as developing a personal voice. I’d spent years in academia, where impersonality, the disappearance of the writer behind phrases like “one would think” or “it is said” was considered good. Moving away from that has been a years-long process.

    I think it’s worth noting that our personal voice can be both discovered and developed. The process seems to me cyclical rather than linear. I may discover something about my preferences, and then try to develop it. On the other hand, the process of developing a piece may lead to a new discovery. And around and around we go!

    1. What you write about academic phrasing is so correct. It’s not meant to engage is it! All the better for you that you started out on a discovery of your own voice. And, yes, I think you may well be right, that the development of a personal voice might be more cyclical than linear. Hardly anything creative is linear, is it!

  14. I wonder to what extent a ‘personal voice’ grows subconsciously? I have never deliberately set out to create images in a distinctly personal style and yet I acknowledge that when I look back over my work I can identify various ‘common denominators’ that somehow seem to suggest a personal fingerprint.

    1. I think a personal voice only grows subconsciously. If you deliberately try to force it in a specific direction it won’t be true to yourself. At least that’s how I see it.

  15. This post definitely gives some food for thought. I’d like to work more on developing my personal voice, or my personal vision. I’m not very good at the technical aspects of photography, and I feel a better grasp of the technical aspects would allow me to develop more. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and observations, Otto. 🙂

    1. I think you can come a long way without too much technical knowledge – but at some point in the development it’s natural that some desire to know the craft itself is pushing on.

  16. Great article Otto. The last para is particularly interesting. I agree with you, being too dogmatic about personal voice can sometimes come in the way of creativity. Reminds me of Picasso’s famous statement: “Taste is the enemy of creativeness” 🙂

  17. Wonderful topic!

    I noticed that many photographers have a very strong personal voice, whether they concentrate on specific subjects or the photos have a unified style to them. In contrast, I feel my photos are all over the place, especially in editing. It’s as if each photo calls for its own “look” and I engage each one differently (that’s why it takes me so long to edit). Maybe I’m dealing with too many voices, haha!

    1. You have your own voice. It’s doesn’t mean that you stick to one style or one subject. It’s maybe not always easy to recognize or even describe one’s voice, but it’s there and develops with time and the more one photograph.

  18. Molto interessante e stimolante quello che hai scritto. Grazie per il tempo che dedichi a chi ama la fotografia, dando consigli e spiegando danti aspetti del mondo della fotografia.
    Saluti, Patrizia

  19. Such an interesting topic. I don’t feel like I have my own voice at the moment but I’m experimenting and trying to find it 🙂

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