November 16, 2010

Pancake Session: The Why

We get a LOT of questions from you guys about how to find and define your signature style. And believe me, I’m always the first to say “hey, if you figure that one out, be sure to let me know.” :) It’s a tough business, this figuring out who you are as a photographer and what you want your photography to look like. But it’s also important business. Because it’s the kind of thing where if you can nail down what that is exactly and stay true to it consistently shoot after shoot, it will change your whole business. Because what we know, is that the people who want your exact style of photography will know that they can’t get it anywhere else. And that makes you irreplaceable.

Great, I wanna be irreplaceable. So how do I get there?

Well, like we said…this is tough business. And we certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers. We spent a good bit of time drifting when we were first starting out, just trying to be like everyone else. To look like everyone else. To want the same things from our images as everyone else. And that of course, just made us a bad copy of everyone else. We kept sacrificing everything we thought photography could be for the sake of what someone else had already said it should be. And we were really unhappy in the process. It wasn’t until we started to ask ourselves the “Why” questions, why do we want to do what we do in the first place, that we really started to get a handle on the “What.” What do we want our images to look like and stand for?

So because this topic of finding your signature style is so HUGE to begin with, we decided to break it up into two parts. This first part will be about starting with your Why and boiling that down into a filter for how you shoot. This is a big part of what we just talked about at PartnerCon. And then the second part (coming soon!) will be about how you go about defining and marketing that signature look.

So let’s start with the hard part, shall we? Sit down in front of your computer. Turn all distractions off. Take a deep breath. Now type what is in your heart: Why do you want to do what you do in the first place?

Tough question, right. Well after much soul searching, here is what we came up with:

We recognize that what we do is about preserving life, preserving love, and preserving history. To provide the very proof that that love existed in the first place. Therefore, in reverence for the gravity of that which we do, we choose to exercise the restraint to only tell those stories through the veil of authenticity and to capture the meaningful images that will record that history for the generations yet to come.

Whew. Heavy stuff, right? But important stuff also.

Now once you have that Why written out in paragraph form, proper punctuation, I want you to boil it down into 3-5 words that you want your images to stand for based on that Why. This will become your filter.

We all know that on the wedding day, we are faced with a million tiny minute by minute choices. Where to hang the dress, how to pose the portraits, to speak or not to speak, to get the shot or to get out of the way. And in the flurry of the day, it can be very easy to lose sight of the Why. To lose sight of how you want to shoot. And to just shoot and pose the way you just saw someone else do it on their blog. But if you can use that Why as a filter for everything you’re doing, then it will just keep bringing you back to the type of images you really want to create.

For us, our Why boiled down into the filter of AEIOU. We want all of the choices that we make on the wedding day, and therefore the images that we create, to be guided by these things. We want our images to be: Authentic, Emotional/Enduring, Intimate, Organic and Universal. (Unversal in the sense that anyone, even if they weren’t there on the wedding day, could look at those pictures and feel like they were there.)

And because of this filter, we make very different choices with our posing, lighting and photoshop than we might otherwise just by going by what everyone else is showing on their blogs. We make choices that define our unique, signature style.

And here’s the really great thing about Why’s and filters: ours don’t have to be the same as yours. You may have a completely different Why from ours that requires completely different choices on the wedding day. And those choices will create a signature style for you very different from ours. Good. That’s the idea. That’s what makes you unique. That’s what makes us unique. And that therefore makes us both irreplaceable to our clients.

So step one is to start with the Why. And then once you have it, to never lose sight of it.

** HUGE thanks to Jeff Youngren for rockin out these shots for us of our PartnerCon talk.

Ok, contest time. Leave us a note in the comment box with your filter, your 3-5 words that your Why can be boiled down to to guide you when you’re shooting. And then, since they sponsored our Platform at PartnerCon, we are going to be picking one lucky winner to receive a $100 gift card to Adorama! Contest ends tomorrow at 5pm EST!

  1. Chelsea McGowan

    We went through this when we were in the nitty-gritty of our rebranding, and I’m SO pleased with how that soul-searching work paid off. Our new brand (debuting in January) kind of kicks tail. Just saying.
    Our "filter" is : Bright, Real, Accessible, and Loved-Up. I know that last one isn’t really a word, but come on… it’s what we do!!!

  2. Jody Gray

    You two rock my socks. Always such a wealth of info. … we’ll let someone else make a go for the gift card, hence no filter ;)

  3. Nadya

    Hmm… this is a tough one, but iw ould have to say my why in 3-5 words is…..
    Emotional, Romantic, Fun & creative , with a touch of modern

    LOL maybe im still all over the place! but as i looked at my sessions i def. can tell the first 3 workds are there, but the last are what i am still working on! …great post!! ^.^

  4. Alison

    It has been a long road to find my style and I am still working on it. I use Past, Present, Future to filter and focus as I work with clients from the beginning and gettting to know where they came from, capture them as they are and we talk about the future- thier dreams, ideas, passions and what we can capture the "next time" they allow me to photograph them. It is focusing my clean and simple style with building long term relationships/clients. Wow, longer than intended! Sorry!:) Thanks for pointing me in the direction of myself at STL and sharing your take on it here.

  5. Holli True

    Love, love, LOVE this post! I am currently going through my business with a fine-tooth comb because I can feel a disconnect from what I want my business to look like and what it actually looks like currently. Reading this has totally inspired me! :) Now I want to tackle the branding monster head-on! Thank you!!

    My filter will be: TRIED & True. When I shoot I will ask myself, "Am I shooting TRIED & True?" Timeless. Romantic. Intimate. Earthy. Divine. This little filter will be easy to remember since True is my last name. ;)

    Amazing post! Thank you so much!! Happy Tuesday!

  6. Royce Walston

    Great advice! I think so many individuals wanting to be in the photography business don’t examine what drives them. Identifying those motivations and creating a filter is most important to keep in touch with where you want to go. My filter: Dramatic, Stylish, Emotive. Thanks for the great post.

  7. irena

    My filter defines the simplicity of the images I want to capture.

    Moments with
    Personality &

    Artifice shows through the lens and photos are nothing unless they capture the essence of the individual or the moment. :)

  8. Mel

    PS. You looked super adorable in NOLA! Just wanted you to know. Love that dress!

  9. Karen (Mikols) Bonar

    I’m constantly thinking, but haven’t narrowed my words. BUT let me say Mary, I think you should approach Starbucks and ask them to sponsor you …. because seriously …. they should.

  10. Spring

    Poetic, Inspired, Genuine, Boundless & Timeless.

  11. Elizabeth

    Thank for the inspiring post, it was awesome. I love your pictures and blog, and think you guys are great. Now you have really made think about my business in a new light.

  12. Sarajane Case

    I have thought about this in every aspect of my life. Not only as a photographer, but, as an individual. I think we all have a unique beauty and grace that is our own and I have been searching to pin mine down for years.. There’s nothing more attractive to me than a person who is foremost who they are. Therefore, my words are these…

    personal: as a photographer, I want my images to reflect who my subject is, not who I want them to be.
    evocative: I want my images to provoke a feeling and to remind the viewer of a similar feeling they’ve had.
    timeless: I hope they will be as beautiful and meaningful in 50 years as they are the week after their wedding. After all of the editing trends have faded, I want my images to stand true.

    with love,

  13. Becky

    Brand new to all of this, trying to figure it all out. My best results come from the times when I don’t think about anyone else’s work and just go for what feels right…I guess my filter is Real, Timeless, Just Feels Right…I have a lot of work to do with branding, so thanks for the tips =)

  14. Joe Don

    Thanks for bringing this to the forefront of my business. It is so important.

    Engaging, Faithful, True, Warm, Festive

  15. Catherine

    Thanks for this thought provoking post…you two are awesome! I want my work to reflect the kind of person I always want to be as a photographer, friend a person in life. My filter: always try and develop a relationship between me and my client…one that will last for years. I want their photos to be personal to them…to truly capture what they feel on that day. Emotional…That’s me…I want my clients photos to stir up emotions in their hearts every time they glance at them. Timeless…I want generations to come to look at the photos I captured and be in awe at how the people looked in them…how they give a sense of Joy, Love, Happiness. Thanks for stirring my heart!

  16. Ashley Scobey

    I’m looking at a post-it, stuck on the wall right in between our computers, that reads: "Always be: Inspiring, Expressive, and Relational". That’s why we do this. That’s who we are.

  17. Alicia Kleppinger

    M – I LOOOOVE your dress!! You look fierce!

  18. Ely

    DERR: Document, Emotion, Reveal, Relationship.

    I want to document moments that irreplaceable, show the intensity of emotions amongst people who love each other, Reveal an aspect or view that other people may not notice, and show relationships between people.

    I like that my word turned out to be DERR, because when I think about what I want to represent, I can be like– "derr…just go for DERR!"

  19. Linda Kuo

    For one thing what a pretty outfit! Professional but stylish. You both look so comfortable, relaxed and in command. My acronym is PET:
    pointed, expressive, timeless.

  20. Kelly Ewell

    I have been struggling with this recently and I’m trying to do just what you talk about – define my style. I think it’s hard to stand out when so many people say they want to create images that are personal, emotional, and timeless. I may want to be that too, but my challenge has been to define my style and be unique at the same time. It remains to be set but today I strive to be: CAPTIVATING (I want to draw people into the image to look at it longer or more deeply), UNIQUE (I want to create images where I see things that most others might not and give images that all the Uncle Bob’s can’t create themselves), and DYNAMIC (I want to capture the range from big moments to tiny details that define my clients). While not necessarily a photographic style, I also aim to be assured – both for myself in my abilities and vision and for my clients in their decision to choose me as their photographer. It’s a tall order that I’m still working towards!

  21. Katie J

    I am also trying to capture Timeless and Effortless Love

  22. Ravyn

    When we book our clients, I get a little giddy knowing that we probably just made two new friends. There’s something so amazing about that last 10 minutes you’re shooting a wedding: The wedding party telling you to stay and have fun with them! To me, that lets us know that we did our job, and we stayed true to ourselves. We are outgoing, and we love people. I’d say our filter is: TRUST (I love that our clients will do anything we ask. We want them to trust that we are making images they’ll love), CAPTIVATION (If our potential clients aren’t captivating to us, then what’s the point? We stay true to our ‘ideal client’. We seriously love our clients and do our best work because we are wanting to make them happy). Lastly, IMPROVEMENT (we are always learning and trying new techniques. We don’t believe in complacency … we will always try to keep the dust off of the preverbal lens by keeping it fresh and fun for our clients.
    Love this post! PS, you two look adorable in your PartnerCon presentation get-up!!

  23. Ray

    Great pancake session! I’m not a photographer, but this is very useful information for those who are. You are such a great teacher. ^o^

  24. Jane

    I do what I do (as my logo says) ‘for the moments you don’t want to forget’

    For me the images of my father are all I have of him (no memories, he passed before I was 2) so those moments are what has driven me to become a photographer.

  25. Jessie Emeric

    Ok, I did the exercise and it was harder! But I boiled down my filter words to be: 1.Connectivity-I want to build a connection with our couples & convey that connection in our images.
    2. Relaxed -our couples are relaxed because they trust us and know us, and our images are also relaxed – no strange or ultra high fashion poses with us!
    3 & 4. Modern, yet Classic – I dont like to go to crazy in post production, because I want our clients to love their images 20 yrs from now too. But, I do want them to be fresh and new and clean…
    Well, I’m working on in it, right?

  26. Kristen Wheeler

    J&M you always know the right thing to say and when. I was so sorry I could not see you in NOLA.

    What is my filter? Wow, what a timely question.

    Why do I do what I do in the first place?
    I do what I do because it’s what makes me happy. I may have less money and means now that I am not in the corporate world, but I will take being happy at doing what I do over that any day. Going to Africa last year really made me realize what is important. A smile is worth more than any amount of money gained or spent, and happiness is found in your heart, not your wallet or the amount of “stuff” you have or covet. I could display this in ONE image that I took while there, and many people have felt the same way after looking at it.

    So what is my filter? Happiness.
    Happiness for me as I am doing what makes me smile and what makes my clients and friends smile.
    If I can’t get a client to laugh at a shoot or event then I have failed miserably. One of my favorite clients (can I say that?) once thanked me for her wedding photos by saying I was so much more than her photographer, but also her comedian…..that made my day.
    Importance. I have found what is really important to me and if I can share that with my clients, family, and friends, and they learn what’s really important to them then I have done my job…..period.

    Lots of Love and cant wait to see if you are coming to Florida!!!!

    Love K

  27. shyla

    TOTALLY off the subject, but you sure do look dang HOT in that first photo Miss Mary.

  28. Feuza reis

    wished I was in partnercon this year but did not make it, this quest for defining my style and brand and thus photography has been an interesting one, I find it hard not to nail down what I want my style to be but to shoot images to reflect that style if that makes sense. But my words are. Funny, Funky, Artisy, Modern, Real

  29. Suzanna March

    I’ve given this idea a lot of thought since hearing you both speak about this in your October workshop. So… here goes!

    My filter is: Heartfelt, honest and unexpected storytelling.

    I shoot real people in settings that reflect who they truly are and what they honestly love. I want my clients to always expect the unexpected — something modern, creative and fun. To see their whole story through the smaller moments, an intimate glance or exquisite detail. These details captivate me and make each story a classic.

    I try to keep this in mind while shooting whether it’s a love story, a story of promise and excitement for the future, or a sentimental story about changes, friendship, and the passing of time. To show people their own story, all the imperfect heartfelt, honest and unexpected moments of it.

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