Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration's shove or society's kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It's all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager. — Susan Sontag
Being technically proficient is just part of the bigger puzzle in what it takes to stand out as a photographer. I think one of the most important and difficult stages of one’s creative life is finding one's creative vision. A lucky few seem to come out of the gate with a unique and wonderful style, or artistic vision. For most of us, however, it takes years, even decades, to really find that inner creative voice.
Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people. — Leo Burnett
How does one go about finding their creative vision? Here are a few tips to help you out:
Immerse yourself in all things visual. Watch foreign films, visit art galleries, and sit and study your favorite works of art. Spend an hour or two a week pouring through art and design books; study the images from the icons of photography. These images will become a visual Rolodex of sorts, and you will be amazed how you will be able to recall these images and be inspired by them, which will, in turn, reflect in your work. Elements like composition, light quality, and posing will become easier as you educate yourself visually.
Don't confuse style with processing technique. Try and stay current without following the current post-work or processing trend. Images that are too trendy will become dated quickly. Strip down a photograph to its basic level — unedited with no post-work. Is it still interesting or visually effective? Or is the processing technique the first thing one notices when they view the image? Less is more.
Take risks! Step outside your comfort zone. Are you primarily a daylight shooter? Shoot some studio work. Rent, buy, or borrow some lights, and dive head first into studio strobe lighting. Do you shoot in colour only? Train your eye to evaluate scenes in black and white. Do you shoot still life or landscape 99% of the time? Book a model and stylists, and try some fashion work. The best way to evolve is to keep pushing yourself creatively. Do not let fear of making a mistake keep you from challenging yourself as a creative person. After all, as Salvador Dali reminds us: “Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.” Not everything you shoot will be gold, but you will always learn something when you create images. As you develop, you will make fewer and fewer mistakes and be able to handle any situation with ease. The important part is that you keep shooting.
Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst. — Henri Cartier-Bresson
Be open to new ways of seeing. Photographers and other creative types often find a style and never deviate or evolve. One must always be in a constant state of creative flux to stay relevant. Don't try and be better than the next guy or gal, be different.
You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club. — Jack London
Use creative exercises. Clip out five or six photographs or images that speak to you on a creative or possibly an emotional level. Choose images that you would love to create yourself — images that leap off the page and make you want to grab your camera and shoot something. If you are a commercial photographer, I recommend finding images from award issues of top advertising industry magazines, such as Lürzer's Archive Magazine and Communication Arts. For those fashion shooters out there, I recommend Italian Vogue, as it is the Bible for fashion photography.
Don't rush this process. It may take a while to compile five or six images that really speak to you. Once you have them, post them on a wall, your fridge, or your front door — anywhere you can see them easily.
Once you have selected the images, then start shooting with these visual guidelines in mind. The idea is to produce a body of work that speaks to you on a visceral level. Eventually you will have work in your book that is distinctly you. Have the kind of images in your portfolio that you wish to get paid to shoot. If you want to shoot lifestyle, then shoot a ton of lifestyle; become a master at lifestyle. If you wish to become an editorial portrait shooter, then shoot portraits like the world is coming to an end. Keep going and do not stop.
Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last, you create what you will. — George Bernard Shaw
Stay inspired and keep shooting!