Photo-Philosophy Photos & Projects

Finding a style not a camera – By Taylor Ervin

Of course we are all here because we love cameras. But after over a year and a half of shooting film seriously, I’ve come to the conclusion that the camera doesn’t matter. Ok it does matter a little bit, but any basic SLR or rangefinder and a solid 50mm lens will be enough to get a great shot in 99 percent of situations.

So, I’m instead going to talk about how focusing on developing my technique and style has helped me to take better photos and to get more joy out of photography. 

When I first picked up my dad’s old Canon early last year I began shooting without a clear idea of what I wanted to shoot. At the time, I was just a few months away from turning thirty which had provoked a mild existential crisis. I felt I needed to grab hold of time and stop it. My youth was slipping away. I couldn’t stop my head from balding or the cells in my body from slowly deteriorating, but I could at least document the passage of the world before my eyes, and that provided some pacification to the dread of my creeping death. It gave me a sense of control. But what to shoot?

For the first few months, I wandered around lower Manhattan (where I currently live) snapping shots of whatever caught my eye. Occasionally I would capture something decent, but for the most part the photos were boring, and the dread was starting to creep back in. I needed a subject. 

So, I started to bring my camera to parties. I slapped a cheap flash on my Canon and suddenly I had a reason to take photos. I could document my friends. This began one half of my current practice as a photographer (I’ll get to the second half in just a bit). This was also the first moment that I sensed a need to acquire new gear.

I found that fiddling with the manual controls of the Canon in varying states of sobriety was getting in the way. I needed something that would require as little thinking on my part as possible. I needed something that I could just point and shoot. So, I shuffled through a few plastic 90s era point and shoots that were either broken or slightly defective until I finally found a nice little Olympus that worked for me. It’ still the main camera I use for parties. And no, it’s not one of the famous ones. 

Party photography had whetted my appetite, but it was limiting. Firstly, I wanted to shoot photos more often than I had parties to go to, and secondly the party photography approach was limiting creatively. I needed another subject, but I didn’t have one, so I continued to wander about Manhattan in my spare time shooting photos on the street. Over time, my photos improved but only from a technical perspective. I was nailing exposure and focus, but my photos were still boring. I bought a new camera, a Pentax, hoping that would help. It didn’t. I found the Pentax more comfortable and enjoyable to use, but it didn’t make my photos any better. 

When I finally began taking photographs that I was happy with, it came as the result of constraints that were beyond my control. The first constraint was that I had taken on a new job back in February that required me to work regular hours from 10am – 6pm everyday. Previously I had worked as a freelancer with much more flexible hours, so I was often able to wander around and take photos during the day. The second constraint was that the sun during the winter months had already long since set by the time I was done with work.  So, I was limited to shooting in the darkness If I wanted to shoot outside on a weeknight.

The constraint of shooting at night with only available light narrowed the potential subject matter enough that I began to produce better images with a more distinct story and point of view. I have always been a fan of film noir both the 1940s Humphrey Bogart variety and the the late 80s cyberpunk variety. Those kinds of films often convey a certain mood of late modern urban isolation and loneliness through the poetics of shadow. A single figure bathed in the light emanating from an all night diner on an otherwise deserted city street. I found that shooting at night gave me an opportunity to try and capture some of these kinds of images.

These images, of course, are cliches, but they have become cliches because they are part of a common visual language that we all share and that resonates with us. When I produce an image that has noir-sh elements, I’m connecting with a rich history that still feels relevant to me in the same way that a simple navy blue blazer never goes out of style. The blazer can be paired with a fat tie, a skinny tie, blue jeans and Air Jordans or dress slacks and Gucci loafers. Even when the context changes the blue blazer anchors the look in something familiar. Manhattan in 2019 is not the same as San Francisco in 1941 yet the noir approach provides a common visual language which helps to express a shared sentiment across disparate contexts. 

The majority of what I shoot is still shit, but I now have a specific goal in mind when I’m out shooting and sometimes I’m able to achieve it. Below are the results. Enjoy. 

In case you are really curious. Most of these were shot on TMax 400 with a Pentax P30t paired with a SMC-A 50mm f/2 lens. 

You can see more of my photos at taylorervin.com or at taylorerv1n.tumblr.com

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20 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Dale Rogers
    July 17, 2019 at 10:17 am

    Just what I needed to hear. I love finding bargin cameras and learning how to shoot with them but it does nothing for my photos and storytelling with them. Great photos too! cheers dale

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Jake
    July 17, 2019 at 11:15 am

    This was a great read, really refreshing. I almost wish you didn’t mention your camera and lens at the end! Thank you for sharing your experiences up until this point. The images you’ve shared in the style that you’ve found are fantastic. My favourites are the street in the rain (absolutely incredible capture here!) and the side profile of the dude – presumably a friend – smoking.

    Because you mentioned it – I am familiar with that camera and it is fantastic. Because it automatically reads the DX coding with no manual override, are all your shots at 400? Or do you mess with the DX coding to push?

    Thanks again, fantastic read and images.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    thorsten wulff
    July 17, 2019 at 11:15 am

    Very intriguing play of light and shadow, Taylor. And nice to see what you squeeze out of a TMX while the whole world is drooling about the 61 mp sony.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    G.A.P
    July 17, 2019 at 11:45 am

    Thank you for writing this essay. Since it has been published on a website that most frequently releases commentaries on cameras and lenses, your contribution sticks out as innocently provocative.
    I beg to differ from you. In my view, gear does contribute to a very large degree to the look of our photographs, and therefore plays a fundamental role in defining our own photographic “style”.
    After all, photographs show reality as the camera sees it, not as our eyes see it. We just choose in which direction to point it, what to include/exclude in the frame, when to trip the shutter and for how long.
    For as much as we would like to believe that we are the sole authors of our pictures, I think that we have to admit that the photographic medium (defined by any camera, lens, film/sensor combination) has its own technological subconscious. So much so that we choose our gear according to what we think will give us the expected results in relation to the subject matter of choice, the lighting conditions and the desired rendition of the scene. Choosing the right medium, and knowing its potentials and limitations, is therefore a key step in the process of defining one’s “style”.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Peter Samson
    July 17, 2019 at 3:57 pm

    Thanks, a good read. I am reminded of a quote that may be attributed to the Seattle-based photographer Chase Jarvis:

    The best camera is the one that you have with you.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Russ Butner
    July 17, 2019 at 6:30 pm

    Finding ones own vision and style is similar to an author finding their own voice. It takes much time and practice. You reach quality through quantity. The harder you seek it, the more elusive it becomes. In regards to photography, shoot, shoot, and shoot some more. And in time, it finds you.

    Russ Butner
    Spirit VisionPhotography

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Tiffany Perez
    July 18, 2019 at 1:13 am

    I love the way you approached this process. Evolving not from your gear but rather from your circumstances. I am trying to find what I like to shoot myself with a similar constraint of only being able to shoot before or after work really. That made me develop the way I shoot now which is more drive-by photography as it is the only way I can get shots using the time I have. Looking at your photos and reading your story has inspired me to give night photography a shot to get my photography fix. Thanks for the inspiration.

    PS I think those photos are anything but shit haha

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Larry Posavad
    July 18, 2019 at 2:37 am

    Buddy, put off your crisis. Thirty is nothing! This is the start of the best 20 years of your life. Decades from now you’ll look back and laugh.
    I like your message. I like your photos- you’re developing a good theme. Keep it up.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Russ Butner
    July 18, 2019 at 5:47 am

    Finding Ones Own Vision.

    Finding ones own vision and style is similar to an author finding their own voice. It takes much time and practice. You reach quality through quantity. The harder you seek it, the more elusive it becomes. In regards to photography, shoot, shoot, and shoot some more. And in time, it finds you.

    Russ Butner
    Spirit Vision Photography

  • Avatar
    Reply
    John
    July 18, 2019 at 6:39 am

    Interesting story on something that I think all photographers need is a style…not just a series of pictures of everything. Nice job!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Neal
    July 18, 2019 at 8:04 am

    I think your photos are great!
    In response to an early sentence, you say “the camera doesn’t matter” we’ve all heard it before and I fully understand where you are coming from.

    But…. if the camera truly doesn’t matter then wouldn’t we all be shooting with our phones? or at least cheap interchangeable lens digital cameras.

    The camera matters a lot to me, Style or no, I can’t pick up my 4×5 and do what I can with my Konica RF. just as I wouldn’t use an RB67 on a desert trek and shoot studio portraits with a disposable. Thats only one part of the picture though, the camera also comes with it’s constraints as you mentioned and it’s nuances which can be adored or reprised. I love the look and feel of my Rolleiflex TLRs and my old fixed lens rangefinders. At the end of the day, if something gives you joy and serves a purpose it can make all the difference in how you see the world and the kinds of photographs you make. at least in my experience.

    I certainly agree with you on finding “your” style, it can be tricky and even daunting and whats worse, sometimes our style can change over the years. I’m in mid-thirties myself and have found my style shifts around a bit depending on what projects I’m working on.

    great article anyway! appreciated the read.

    Cheers
    Neal.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    dezutter tjen
    July 18, 2019 at 9:08 am

    yes that’s it …It’s not the Leica or the Pentax Spotmatic F .Is the hart trough your eyes !!!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Dan
    July 18, 2019 at 11:55 am

    Nice article, it fits in with the theme of recent articles here and on podcasts talking about gearheads and taking stances on whats best or why camera Z is superior to Y..

    I guess I’d consider myself a recovering gearaholic – after 20 or so top of the line, rave review cameras I’ve wittled it down to 2 bodies that no one seems to care for much (reflected in low price and nice availability) and a handful of lenses. After getting the kit sorted, I’m finding that my photography is still quite shit. (gee, what a surprise)

    So lets stop talking about gear in any facet – how do we change my shit photos into halfway decent ones? I’m not really a workshop guy, I’ve tried a few video series but nothing really made me sit up and take notice. What I’ve seen was either too basic or aimed at the digital crowd.
    So what’s a good book I can lug around this summer to teach me how to level the horizon, meter to get silhouettes, framing tips.. just something a bit direct and to the point, because I haven’t found it yet. Any recommendations? (Hamish feel free to chime in here)

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Benjamin Johnson
    July 18, 2019 at 2:21 pm

    Hi Taylor. I really enjoyed this post, as this is something I’ve been struggling with myself recently. I was just wondering if you’d be able to go into any more detail about how you meter for night-time shots. Do you let the camera do it for you?

  • Avatar
    Reply
    BWF
    July 18, 2019 at 3:58 pm

    Great article! Always enjoyable to hear how a photographer got to where he/she is with a style. Great photos as well! Don’t sell yourself short.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Eric
    July 18, 2019 at 6:55 pm

    I do not know if the camera doesn’t matter, because a camera can also provide constraints that will help to develop a style. But you are absolutely right, sometimes (often?) it is better to have fewer possibilities than more. It forces us to think in different, new ways and triggers creativity.
    By the way: several great images with this article. The first one, and the one with the two ‘suits’ are great. My favorite, however, is the last one with the lamp posts and the steam!

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    Reply
    Rob Hawthorn
    July 19, 2019 at 12:16 pm

    Really interesting article, Taylor, and great photos as well. Congratulations on finding your style! That’s a great place to be. For me personally, though I feel I have found my own style when it comes to shooting formal portraits, I’m still pretty down on my own travel and street type stuff –which I love to shoot ,but rarely see much merit or find much satisfaction in my results. Maybe I’ll get there one day. Keep. up the good work, you’ve clearly hit on something with the noir style. I particularly like your shot taken in the heavy rain. The moment I saw it I heard in my head that sinister motif from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Taxi Driver.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Nick
    July 19, 2019 at 12:37 pm

    A good read… thanks.

    I read an amusing article (I forget where) that said there were 3 stages of realisation in photography:

    1. Thinking the camera matters.
    2. Thinking the camera doesnt matter
    3. Knowing the camera matters.

    I think there is a certain amount of wisdom in this!

    Nik

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Barnaby Nutt
    July 19, 2019 at 1:31 pm

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
    Delighted to read articles like this – hats off to Hamish for giving it a platform

  • Avatar
    Reply
    George Appletree
    July 20, 2019 at 1:33 pm

    For sure. The point is making interesting photographs, not buying interesting cameras. Style anyhow requires a camera to be developed. If you have a Xpan that conditions your style; if a rangefinder digital Leica, your style and your pocket. Some cameras provide you acquiring some skills; some others, different ones. A large format camera with a tripod isn’t the right choice to develop a street photography one.
    There’s a path in the middle. The difficult is to course it (in the cqasee you find it))

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