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What Moves You

Finding your own photo style is a journey, not a destination
This Article Features Photo Zoom
Click To Enlarge Participants at the 2008 Moab MUni Fest unicycle festival in Utah.

To what can we look to inspire our photographic style, and what are the benefits of knowing our photographic style? As photographers, we fly, drive or hike into the world’s farthest corners to be surrounded by beautiful landscapes or a constant whirl of exotic people and events. We place ourselves in these places for the rich opportunities for photos. For every photographer, whether he or she knows it or not, the moment or place that inspires a photo rarely is an accident. It’s our unique individual photo style created and guided by our personality that produces the more creative photos we make. Not just our choice of shooting in color or black-and-white, but every choice, from where we travel and the method of transportation to camera formats and even travel companions, are all personal choices that reflect a photographic style.

Strong photographic style is inextricably linked to the photographer’s personality. Master photographers have learned how to combine aspects of their personality with photographic technique to create a distinctive photographic style. It’s not a big stretch to figure out the personality of photographers Diane Arbus, Steven Meisel or Richard Avedon by looking at their photography. In 1970, Richard Avedon said, “If a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it’s as though I’ve neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up. I know that the accident of my being a photographer has made my life possible.”

I can look at any of my earlier photos and describe the core reason that brought me to that particular place at that time to make the photo. When I was a new photographer, I didn’t understand that many facets of your personality are the motivations that help build your photographic style. On my early assignments, I was nervous that I’d step into an assignment and freeze. I had nightmares that, on the shoot, everyone would wait for me to make my move, and I wouldn’t have a single idea of what to photograph. As it turned out, my shoots always went well. I always thought the reason was because I organize my shoots well. On the surface, that was true.

Going a little deeper, my assignments are organized around a personal agenda, where I try to make each shoot a positive experience for myself and all involved. Some photographers might thrive creatively on adversity and intensity, but that doesn’t work for me. On my photo shoots, my assistants are friends and are part of my community. I’m careful to review the location of my next shoot and the people and activity in the location, since that interconnection is as important to me personally as it is to my photos. Early in my career, I developed a personal photo style and didn’t even know at the time that I had done so. After years of travel and photographing, I now understand that key aspects of my photographic style are centered around my personality.

Like many photographers, I look for inspiration in many things: travel to remote places; meeting photographers, artists and other exceptional people; viewing art and photography in galleries, magazines and books. All of these inspire, but a personal photographic style isn’t about going out one day and deciding to mimic landscapes like Gary Braasch or blast all your subjects with a ring light to make photos like Martin Parr. To emulate these techniques will make your photos a pale imitation of the masters, but with time, they could be the path to creating your own personal style.

For example, portrait work by photographer Martin Schoeller, who assisted Annie Leibovitz for several years, at first was very similar to Annie’s photography, but now Martin has his own distinctive style. Man Ray, a master of camera and photo manipulation, said, “Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how,’ while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why.’ Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.”

One aspect of my personality—my curiosity—has inspired me to photograph a wide range of subjects. I don’t accept that adventure photography has to fit a prescripted genre. I think what keeps photographers inspired is to cross boundaries and apply their stylistic eye to completely new subjects. This means not taking your photographic style so literally that it prevents you from trying something new.

The willingness to explore is what led me to shoot unicyclists in Utah. This fun photo shoot came about following a conversation with a bike mechanic in Colorado. That was when I first heard about the Moab MUni (stands for mountain unicycle) Fest. My motivation to go shoot the uni riders was a personal decision to capture a mode of transportation that’s more familiar under a circus big top than in the surreal sandstone landscape of southwestern Utah. The Moab MUni Fest celebrated its ninth year in the spring of 2008 and attracted more than 200 participants from all over the U.S. What motivated me during the festival was the possibility of capturing a photo of a familiar landscape with an unusual twist. The unicyclists would offer a dash of the exotic to the desert landscape.

I spent only one afternoon with the unicyclists on the first day of the three-day festival. I brought my two-wheeled mountain bike, but knew I’d probably leave the bike at my car. Instead, I chose to be on foot, running along with the unicyclists as they made their way on marked trails across the sandstone landscape known as the Slickrock Trail just outside of Moab. The few hours I spent with the unicyclists was no different than if I was photographing rock climbers in Yosemite. I carried a hydration pack, energy bars and plenty of sunscreen, and my camera was in a camera hip bag with room for a single camera body, a few lenses and a flash. I carried my camera out of the bag the whole time. Keeping up with the various groups of unicyclists who I followed wasn’t a problem since I could easily run to intersect their trails in the petrified sand dunes.

Going into this shoot, I had no idea what kind of shot I’d be able to get. I didn’t research unicycling photography to see what had been done already; I just approached the photography like any of my adventure shoots. The look I was going for would be a spontaneous moment. The result, despite the unusual subject matter, is my own photo stylistically. Next year, I plan to stay a few more days in Moab, since you never know where the next photo might take you.

Visit Bill Hatcher’s website at

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.