How to Stand Out in an Already Unique World with Jess Hess
It’s a tough world for the artist looking to stand out. When it comes to uniqueness, it’s hard to think of something that hasn’t been done to some extent or the other. It really, truly seems like everything already has. I’d like to preface the bulk of my article and say that no, I don’t believe everything has been done before. I’m sure there are lots of ideas that have never come to fruition. What are they? Beats me. I guess I’ll know them when I see them. If I’m lucky, I’ll know them when I do them. So how are we supposed to stand out? How are we supposed to grab attention when we think we’ve seen everything?
1. Work on hitting the “trifecta”: a good idea, excellent technique, and a strong vision
I read somewhere once that an impactful photo can be felt regardless of technical excellence. So it would seem to stand that if you can score on both your technical quality and your impact, the image will be even more valuable, yeah? Combine your skills in such a way that your work stands out as extra polished. A strong vision and a strong idea aren’t the same thing. An idea can simply be “trash the dress” or “underwater goddess,” and your vision of those scenes could be wildly different from others’ of the same. How you approach an idea and the personal touches you put on it are what makes the difference. Arguably the hardest part of the trifecta is the good idea. It’s hard to come up with a new idea. You can’t research how to do something differently, because the baseline doesn’t exist to look up in the first place. The kicker here is that the idea doesn’t have to be the hardest part. If you focus on the other two bases, you can still create something entirely unique. Find an idea you like, whether something you’ve done before or something you’ve seen before, and use that idea in a fresh way. Bring your technical excellence to the idea, and bring your new vision as well. It doesn’t matter if there are hundreds of photos of a woman in a field of lavender or of witches around a fire, so long as yours are different.
An example of this that comes to mind is a very classic idea where a spread of fine foods and wines are arranged on a lovely table with magnificent linens and dark, moody tones. It’s been done over and over in painting and photograph alike. And while there are a multitude of wonderful pieces with this very idea, the one that sticks in my mind the most is a photo of the same setup with fast food. The same lighting, the same luxury linens, the same feeling and mood, but the subject was swapped out. The juxtaposition of old and new, of luxury and bottom of the barrel; it struck me, and I thought it was absolutely genius. They used a classic idea, and shot it in the classic way, but approached the vision in a very off-the-wall manner, thus giving it an entirely new distinction. They hit their trifecta while only ever having to focus on changing one of the aspects. They copied something done thousands of times and over hundreds of years and still made it entirely unique and brand new.
2. Don’t ignore the power of juxtaposition
Things that aren’t supposed to be there tend to stick out. Part of the reason white mascara is so popular in fashion and beauty photography is because eyelashes typically aren’t supposed to be white—they stand out. It’s the opposite of what it’s supposed to be. When you imagine a photo of a young boy, you might picture him smiling, because he’s “supposed” to be smiling, but why can’t he be sad? Don’t ignore the “things that shouldn’t be”—embrace them. Remember the photos of Marilyn Monroe in that potato-sack dress? Juxtaposition can be found in all kinds of things and all types of photography.
For instance, in photojournalism, you might see a photo of a grown child in clothes that are much too small for them. A photo like this would show poverty and difficulties among the lower class. The vision of innocence being restricted by the harsh realities of the adult world—that’s an impactful photograph. An example for fine art photography could be a mock fashion shoot where your subject is pale and sickly, in a hospital gown, and modeling a colostomy bag or IV in the same manner you’d see a model pose with a designer handbag. You’d be mating the fashion world with the real world in a way that might make people stop and really take a look. As one more example of juxtaposition, a fashion photographer might choose a model with a unibrow or other distinctive feature (yes, you’ve seen this done dozens of times before) and photograph said subject like they would any beauty client. It’s blending the beauty industry’s standards of how to look with a real-world take on something that’s usually socially unconventional. It’s blending exorbitant grooming with the face’s natural state, together in one look.
Pairing opposing styles or moods can really help create a well-rounded, impactful photograph. It gives your viewers something they have to process, at least subconsciously, while they view your image. When you can hold the attention of your audience for more than a few seconds, you stand a better chance of having that image remembered.
3. Don’t try too hard to stick out, or you’ll find yourself still looking to others for inspiration
If you find yourself researching ideas, you’ll be looking at the same 50 images that the rest of us are looking at. When you notice photography trends among your friends and peers, it isn’t by some coincidence—it is because we are all being advertised to and inspired by the same images and articles. You can’t just do things because you do or don’t see people doing them. You need to try things that you actually want to do.
Just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t automatically make it good, either. Being different for the sake of being different doesn’t have a perfect success rate. Remember, however, that the next photo you take certainly won’t be your last photo. So while you should definitely take time and care to plan each session, you don’t have to throw all your apples into one basket. Save ideas until the time is right, and allow yourself to experiment. There will always be more to create and more images to capture. The excitement of any single image is fleeting; it comes and goes. One photograph doesn’t have to speak for your entire portfolio. Once your portfolio is seasoned enough, it all works as one being. It is the amalgamation of all your collective hard work and learned skills; one entity that shows to the world what you can do.
A photograph won’t give you an edge, but a unique and diverse portfolio just might. Some photos are going to be magnificent, while others will be restrained. But what will make you distinct is your ability to be the one who created both. This means that you don’t need to push yourself so hard to stick out, you only need to push yourself to keep creating new and interesting images without giving up. Another thing to remember is that most people strive to be the best at something while never considering that they could be the “only” at something. Being the best at what you do definitely gives you a leg up on the competition, but being the only one who does something can help you take giant leaps over those competitors. Ask yourself: what is it that makes you unique?
4. Don’t overextend your ability. Practice a lot, and sometimes show restraint
We all want to advance, and the faster we can do it, the better. We have clients to obtain, notoriety to achieve, and conventions to smash. This desire pushes a lot of us, myself included, into ruining photos because we think we have to. This is done in multiple ways. For instance:
-We rush into ideas because we simply have to shoot them as soon as possible, even if we know we aren’t ready to do so. Just because you yearn to shoot something now doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Wait until you can gather the appropriate wardrobe, or until you find the specific location you want. If your vision is bigger than your skillset and dedication to planning, you won’t ever achieve the image in your head. It’s something that takes work. Take your time. Give your all to each session, and if things don’t turn out perfectly, you can always redo them later.
It’s easy to cut corners. For example, fantasy photography is incredibly popular across the world. Some people are so keen to start shooting fantasy that they invest in a bunch of wardrobe items and edit photos into oblivion to try to keep up with the trends. They have no planning, no restraint, no technical skill—but they have a photo of a fairy, and of a mermaid, and of an angel, and that is all they care about. They tick it off their checklist and move on. If you can’t execute something correctly, you should choose to either not do it until you know how, or to instead do it over and over again until you can. Don’t just stop because you’ve marked an idea off your list. It also helps to try taking some plain-Jane portraits first. Once you knock those out of the park, move on to the bigger ideas. If you can take an ordinary portrait and wow people with the results, imagine what you’ll do with all your creative ideas. A wise dog once said, “Sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.” We all have to suck for a while—that’s life. If you refuse to run the risk of possibly sucking, you won’t advance. If you refuse to work and rework your ideas until you’re better, you won’t advance.
Not showing restraint. You might start with one light, and eventually the number of lights you own will grow. But just because you have six lights doesn’t mean they all need to be used all the time. If you’re afraid to not use all your gear at once, you’re not showing restraint. Some sessions call for six lights, some call for one. That was something I struggled with for a time. Just because I have something doesn’t mean it needs to be utilized in every session. It’s ok to use a setup that isn’t technically as good if it’s going to produce the results I’m trying to create. Another example of this is sacrificing image quality for an edit. You may really want to change your background to some fantasy woodland dream, but if your subject’s hair where it meets the swapped background is blurry, or if you’ve left a lot of ghosting around the subject (stuff being erased that shouldn’t be erased, artifacts left over from the old background, too soft a brush for your layer mask, etc.), you have destroyed your image quality for the sake of an idea. Proper execution is necessary if you want your images to have the impact you hope for. Fairy lights and falling flower petals can be neat, but if they don’t look believable, you run the risk of ruining your image. So while you may really want to change something to fit your idea, if you don’t know how to do it properly, you are taking away from your image by not restraining yourself. This is again where practice makes perfect, but sometimes not doing something is the key to a successful photograph.
If you don’t learn how to do exactly what you want to do, your work will be buried in a sea of other mediocre work. A million people are creating so-so images of women on unicorns, so you need to create the photo of that. Standing out is often an uphill battle, and you won’t get anywhere by sitting on your a**. There aren’t any shortcuts that you can take to having a well-rounded, thoughtful, technically stunning portfolio. Not a one.
5. Your work isn’t the only thing that should be unique
Your approach and the experience you offer should also stand out. You’ve got to be unique. You can certainly take a page from successful photographers around you on how to approach finding and booking clients, but things are a bit different when it comes to different types of work, especially fine-art or conceptual photography.
For portraits, you’re selling a memory. For conceptual, you’re selling a look or an experience. People want to see themselves as their fictional counterparts. They want to look and feel powerful, and this means that the approach you take to plan and execute a session could be wildly different than usual. Personally speaking, I make a lot of headpieces and accessories. Because I’m the only one in the world with these headpieces, it helps me sell sessions to people who are fans of my design work and want to be pictured in that work. I also make a lot of custom pieces specifically for certain clients and their ideas. My ability to do this helps secure my spot as a person who can “make the impossible happen,” which gives me the edge on my competition.
Because I’m willing to go the extra mile for each individual client, I can offer everyone a very custom, tailored experience. I can give clients exactly what they want and make their fantasy selves come to life. One example of this is that I’ll often have clients tell me how they want a photo to make them feel, and I will do the design work from there. I had a woman tell me she wanted me to “unlock her inner dark goddess,” and we did just that. She didn’t tell me anything aside from that. We were able to make her dream a reality, and she absolutely adored the images. Not because of how she looked, per se, but because of how she felt when she looked at herself as that character.
Alternatively, a lot of people buy or rent wardrobe items from well-known designers and then advertise portrait sessions utilizing those costumes. This is selling a look. And while that is less unique than creating a new concept for each client, it can be a great way to book a lot of clients quickly and make the most of your rented wardrobe. A photographer can sell the same look to numerous clients because those clients are dying to be pictured in that specific designer’s pieces, and it’s a different method of advertising altogether. This is still unique in a way, because you will be the only one in your area with that costume to offer, which can help set you apart from the crowd.
It definitely pays to be attentive to trends and what people like, and then purchase items for your arsenal that align with those desires. Having an interesting wardrobe can be the difference between securing a client or not, and it helps to expand your collection with new and unique pieces. I’ve seen several less-than-spectacular photographers find success by having good ideas and a good wardrobe.
So back to that trifecta—if you can offer those things coupled with technical excellence, you have a recipe for success. What helps make you stand out as a photographer might not have anything to do with photography. Be it making wardrobe items, or doing makeup, or your editing skills, or even your out-there personality: if you can focus on expanding your network of skills, there is so much more you can offer to your clients. So how does this section pertain to portrait and wedding photographers? Simple: What are you doing that your competition is not? What is your competition doing that you are not?
If you consistently push yourself to be interesting, an interesting portfolio it will make. You’ve got to work hard, practice continuously, and marry all your collective skills to create dynamic and impactful photos that will grab your audience’s attention. Mind your details very closely, mix opposing ideas, and don’t be afraid to try new things or retry old things if it means creating what you want. Don’t cut corners. Focus on the experience you have to offer, and work your way to the top. The major secret behind standing out and succeeding lies only in one’s ability to stick it out and keep working. That’s all there is to it—just keep trying.