As I was putting together a second set of photos for my El Camino Real series, I noticed lots of minor variances and inconsistencies comparing newer photos with the first set.
This highlighted a challenge I, and likely many others, have in photography: maintaining a level of consistency throughout a project as you work on it. A project might span a year or more, keeping a consistent look and feel across the photos can be difficult. I’m not there yet, but here is how I’m trying to be more consistent.
One problem is with gear acquisition syndrome, wanting and buying new cameras, lenses, and switching between digital and film, each produces a different look. Using only a single camera and medium (film or digital) will help a great deal.
For a series, you want the shots to have a similar feel, and look like they should be together. It doesn’t mean every shot to look the same, that would get a little boring. It is often good to mix different subjects, from detail to wide, different angles, and even time of day to provide more context to a series; but there still needs to be a thread of visual cohesion between all the images.
In digital processing, I’ve settled on using a single VSCO film preset. The preset I use is based on Kodak Portra film, which is also my preferred stock when shooting film; there is just a certain look I like about it. The preset and actual film still differ, but its close and helps bridge the look if I shoot both in a project.
The VSCO presets are tuned for specific camera formats, I’m quite happy with the results using them with Fuji RAW files. However, I can’t quite get the same look I like when shooting with my digital point & shoot or camera phone, so I tend not to use those when shooting a project.
The key for processing is to be consistent, I apply the preset on import and that is mostly it. I might touch up lighting here and there, but I try to keep digital processing minimal. If you use a different preset, Instagram filter, or custom editing on each shot, there will be a hodge podge of photos, the individual shots might each look great, but together it can be a mess.
One of my favorite photographers to follow is Shawn Theodore who’s work is instantly recognizable by the very consistent treatment of color, shadows, and subject throughout his photos.
Switching lenses and using different focal lengths can add some inconsistency to a series, however this is largely dependent on the subject of the series. If your series is a mix of portraits and scenery, it might make sense to use a longer focal length for the portraits and a wide-angle for the scenery. However, mixing focal lengths for portraits with some wide, some normal, and some long it will be noticeable since each focal length distorts or flattens features differently.
Besides the physics of the lens, the choice of focal length also effects many other aspects of the photo, such as how close do you need to get, how much are you in the scene to photograph it, how much background shows, etc…
A good example of this is Brandon Stone’s Humans of New York project. His photos are easily recognizable due to their consistency. Almost all portraits are from the same distance, showing about the same size of person and background. Plus as mentioned in the above section, he has a very consistent processing; each photo isn’t a different retro look, he keeps it very minimal.
One of the biggest unifying aspects to produce consistent photos is the quality of light you shoot in. If you consistently shoot your photos at the same time of day, with similar processing, they will keep a similar look. However, if your project spans an entire year or more, that time of day changes with the sun. A soft 8am light during winter, might already be a harsh sun during summer.
I run into this problem, since I often will shoot after I drop my kids off at school and before I start work, which is mostly the same time through the year but ends up being a noticeably different light.
The color cast or grading of film can be subtle but has profound impact on mood and tone of images. Sunrise tends to be a cooler color cast, while a sunset tends to be warmer. Hollywood controls this very effectively with movies, see this great article on Color and the Look of a Film.
An example of a photographer who produces a great consistent look through the use of light is Jorge Quinteros. His photos are always so bright and lively using the sun in such a great way.
The format is another consideration to keep in mind. You don’t really want inconsistent formats, from landscape, to portrait, to square. Having some slight variance is good, but it should be predictable and similar; not randomly switching between them. Slightly different crops and ratios start to be real noticeable when a series is together. I mostly shoot everything in landscape, but this still crops up when shooting 35mm and 6×4.5 which have slightly different landscape ratios.
These are a few things I try to keep in mind when putting together a series. I’m not necessarily thinking of all this while I’m out shooting; but I do try to put together my gear based on what project I might be working on. I really start thinking about it when putting together the sequencing and series; usually I end up wishing I didn’t experiment with that new camera/film/lenses/technique.
Finally, I don’t think a photographer has to always produce the same look, you don’t need to be a “Black and White”, “Alternative Processing”, or whatever type of photographer; which is why I spoke in this article of series. For a series, it makes sense to keep consistent. Starting a new series is liberating and can be anything you want, just keep it consistent.