Lindsay Adler on Developing a Personal Style: From Good to Great

Lindsay Adler on Developing a Personal Style: From Good to Great

Since the mid-2010s, there have been more photographs taken each year than existed in the history of photography. The democratization of photography and the removal of barriers to entry means there are also more professional photographers than ever before in history. Given this steep competitive curve, how is it possible to stand out? 

Not only are there more professional photographers, a quick review of social media will show you that there are more highly competent photographers entering the market almost daily. If you want to continue to succeed and grow, how can you stand out?

I was lucky enough to sit in on Lindsay Adler’s recent lecture: From Good to Great at ProFusion Expo in Toronto, organized and sponsored by Vistek, who hosts product launches and seminars throughout the year.

Adler explained that in her (successful) experience, her personal style is what helps to set her apart from the growing number of professional photographers.

Lindsay Adler. Personal style and gels.

Not Price

Adler was adamant that standing out from the crowd based on price isn’t sustainable (Fstoppers is replete with similar articles). Basically, trying to be the lowest bidder at all times is only going to reduce your income and force you out of the business. After all, you need to earn enough to eat. If you’re constantly lowering your price to stand out, eventually, you’ll lower it enough that you won’t be able to sustain yourself or your business.

Not Client Experience

It’s a trend in many business ventures to offer your clients a better experience than the competition. Go try on a suit or a dress in a proper high-end boutique and you’ll get a posh, private room and maybe a glass of something sparkly. Ask your high-priced attorney a question by email and you’re likely to get a response in less than an hour. 

In wedding and portrait photography, it’s become typical to offer your clients more one-on-one planning time, prettier boxes or albums, the illusion of friendship for life, or maybe photo review sessions with wine or a bag of retro candy? It’s a similar trend in commercial photography to offer quicker turnaround time, nicer studio design with fancy couches and wing-back chairs, or catered lunches and an expensive wrap party.

With a little research, everyone can figure out how to offer a better experience and, with a little hustle, implement this experience. Eventually, there will be more than enough photographers offering your particular brand of experience that you can’t stand out anymore. Eventually, a more and more refined experience will actually start to cost you money, which again, is competing on price and isn’t sustainable. 

Style

Instead of competing with such a crowded field, Adler suggests you compete in an arena where you can clearly set yourself apart: personal style. 

Because a strong personal style comes only from a considered reflection of the world through the lens of your own experiences, nobody else can quite match it. Sure, personal styles can be mimicked, but a constantly evolving style, a style that continues to engage the world, will always be a step ahead of the imitators.

Adler’s Story

Lindsay Adler. Light control.

During her lecture, Adler shared a personal story of an early setback that helped her see how important style was. As a young photographer fresh out of art school, Adler met with an agency art director to review her portfolio. Despite her initial successes, the AD wasn’t impressed. The AD commented that he liked the technical execution of the images, but there was no impact, no personal style to help him remember her work as distinct from her peers. 

At this point in her career, Adler decided it was time to develop her style, a style that was as unique to her as possible.

Developing a Style

The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne - Chaucer

There are scores, if not hundreds of articles and videos online that talk about the importance of style or how to develop your own personal style. I’ve probably read most of them. However, Adler’s approach has simple instructions and a strong call to continued action that is within everyone’s reach. It’ll just require a little work.

Define Your Style 

According to Adler, the first thing to do is to pick a handful of your favorite photos from your portfolio and then choose three to five words that describe your images. Here, you’re creating a type of ultra elevator pitch. A word or two should describe each of the (1) subject matter, (2) visual motif, and (3) emotion. 

  • Describe your subject matter            
  • Describe your visual motif
  • Describe your emotion

As an example, Adler gave a few words to the work of her peers Brooke Shaden and Chris Knight:

Shaden:

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Please hold me in a space of kindness when I say this: I had a day of struggle that I need support on. Consistently, I’m at the lowest of low points when I'm in social interaction. When I spend time in a large group, when I’m exposed to too much input and not enough processing time, I really suffer. I am a quick processor, but also a solitary processor. I don’t enjoy being asked to be vulnerable or raw in a group. I don’t cope well with taking on other people’s traumas. I am genuinely terrified of social interaction, from vague pleasantries to parties to a simple dinner. I am a natural public speaker through and through, but I can’t bring myself to actually attend the events I speak at. I am empathetic to my core, but I don’t know how to carry other people’s issues as my own. A lot of this points to my need for control. Some of it my over-sensitive nature. But mostly, it's okay. It's okay to not be what other people expect you to be. It's okay to feel overwhelmed. It's okay to know, in your heart, that you are a black sheep. Even in a community of uniqueness, I am Other. We all are in our own triggering yet beautiful ways. 🌙 So I’m coming off of a hard day. I am such a vibrantly joyful person – many of you know that – but not every day feels effervescent. Not everyday should. So today I’m asking for support because I know I need it, and if I need it, then I know someone else does, too.

A post shared by Brooke Shaden | creative soul (@brookeshaden) on

Dark

Painterly

Whimsical

Fine Art  

Knight:

Dramatic

Painterly

Timeless

Portraiture

Helmut Newton:

I asked Adler to provide another example, this time of a photographer whose work is a touchstone in the fashion photography world:

Power 

Female strength 

Sexuality

(Explored through the realm of) fashion photography

Adler:

As part of her presentation, Adler even provided an elevator pitch for her own work:

Clean

Bold

Graphic

Fashion

Refine Your Style 

Once you can clearly define your style, you need to spend time to refine it. Adler points out that style has to be exercised for it to evolve. 

It’s not where you take things from; it’s where you take them to. - Jean-Luc Godard

Adler finds that it’s best to schedule a few “play” days a month to shoot for you. These play days will help you to continue to dive into and refine your style. In order to develop concepts for these play days, Adler suggests that you take some time to look at some of the photography greats to analyze their work and keep what you like while being true to the definition of your style.

If you copy from one book, that’s plagiarism; if you copy from many books, that’s research. - Wallace Notestein (a Yale professor who was also part of the U.S. delegation to Versailles at the close of World War One)

Evolve Your Style

Lindsay Adler. Concept.

If you’re going to compete with other photographers based on style, you’re going to have to continue to put effort into your style. As soon as you’ve developed a personal style, you will stand apart from others who either don’t have their own style or who have a different style from you. Any success based on your style will attract imitators. You will have to constantly evolve your style to stay ahead of those who expect to ride your coattails to success.

I was taken by Adler’s idea that once you’ve developed a strong and unique enough style that a potential client who wants that style is going to have to hire you to get it. Of course, no style is 100% unique, but Adler also pointed out that if you can develop your style to the point that you’re competing with only a handful of photographers instead of hundreds or even thousands of photographers, you’re already a step ahead in the quoting process.

More Adler

If you’d like a bit more of Adler, she’s recently launched an expert gel photography tutorial. You can also check out her very well-subscribed signature tutorial on lighting.

Remember, the goal is to take what resonates with you and make it yours through your own process. Adler’s work and tutorials are certainly an inspiring place to start.

Your Experience Creating Style?

What work have you put into developing your own style?

Lead and inline images provided by Lindsay Adler.

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7 Comments

Tom Jensen's picture

I was at her presentation at ProFusion as well. If you get a chance to see her do this talk definitely attend it. It's very inspiring no matter what type of photography you do.
Also, I ran into her on the first day (we talked weather, because that's what we do in Canada. Sorry Lindsay.) and I had a moment to thank her for her great talk after this presentation, and Lindsay is as nice and as sweet as you imagine she is from watching her videos and livecasts.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

The ProFusion Expo was great. Find myself looking forward to next year already!
Did you happen to catch Adler's presentation at the Canon booth - about what she called in camera composites?

Tom Jensen's picture

Yes, I caught that on Day 1, and then watched a little bit of it again on Day 2. (All while carrying my giant Nikon shopping bag. Fortunately nobody from Canon smacked me!!) When you first see the background image, all those fake ferns, and the tiny space you wonder how the hell she's going to pull it off. Well, she pulled it off amazingly like the pro she is!! It was something to behold.

Jeff Walsh's picture

Killer article. Thank you for posting, especially for those of us who havent heard her talk

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Thanks Jeff. If you get a chance, and she travels quite a bit, attend one of her seminars on getting over excuses and getting it done!

Mike Yamin's picture

I have a lot of respect for Lindsay. Many teachers aren't also great photographers, but she is both... definitely the real deal!

Brent Daniel's picture

Fantastic article, Mark! Great bit of insight and inspiration!