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How do figure out what you’re trying to say?


I recently wrote about the importance of having something to say in your photography. As mentioned, I think most people are trying to say something, if only on a subconscious level. The challenge I’ve seen people run into is how to figure out how to figure that out. No, the previous sentence isn’t a typo. I’m not the poster-child for success in this area. I floundered for a long time trying to understand what was trying to say. Yet, I can share my experiences in the hope is smooths some of the friction I ran into. I’m attempting to write this without self-pontification or psychobabble. We’ll see how well that goes.

For most of the years I’ve taken photos, all I knew was that I liked to take photos. I had no idea why and I didn’t try to understand it. Looking back, I should have looked at the things that occupied my mind on a constant basis. The subjects that I gravitated towards in conversations. The things that generated strong emotions and opinions. The things I both cared for and detested. I should have focused on those from the start and pick the medium to best represent them. Mediums come and go, but the things that make me who I am persist. 

This sounds easy — it’s not. There’s one huge piece missing in the above advice — you need to know why you care about the things you do. You can ask five different people why they like dogs and get five different answers — if you get any answers at all. Life is busy and most of us don’t sit around thinking about why we like or dislike things. Even if/when we do, the rationale can be ephemeral, amorphous, shifting. Inflection isn’t always the most enjoyable thing to do and it seems highly unproductive. Then again, working with no direction for years is unproductiver. Real talk — it’s the whys behind what we care about that will help drive direction and purpose to work. Otherwise you’re just taking random pictures of dogs because “you like them”. 

In short, define what you care about, why so, and how to best say it. That’s what I wish I would have done… Now, for what I actually did.

For the longest time, I just kept taking photos. I made the mistake of not doing that — and wasted a lot of time. Vary your subject/genre to help derive clarity through elimination. You need to come into this process with an open mind and focus on understanding intent. Your immediate photographic preferences aren’t important. 

My saving grace was that I neurotically analyzed my photos — good and bad. I worked to understand why I liked/disliked photos beyond aesthetic rationale. I also looked for general patterns in subject and composition. The photos you continually retake tell you who you are. (This is a paraphrased quote from a photographer I cannot recall, apologies). 

Finding the patterns and photos you like is, again, the easy part. Understanding the root causes behind those patterns is the challenge. I’ve made big strides, but I still grapple with it. The process has been full of stalls, missteps and do-overs. To a certain extent, it reveals itself when it does. The important thing for me was to keep photographing and let it go where it went. There’s a part of me that thinks I’ll never stop grappling with this. I’m OK with that.

This got me a long way. I eventually learned my lesson and went through the exercise of defining what I care about. That’s when the big leaps began. It took a lot of time and effort, but a lot of things make sense now (photography and non-photography related). It might be the best thing I’ve gotten from this whole process. Just the basic understanding of why the hell I do this.

Like I said, it sounds easy — it’s not. At least not for me. Hopefully it’ll be a little easier for you.

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