Should you think more about having a coherent and distinctive style to your photography? If you want to raise your game, then finding your own look is imperative. There's one surefire way of developing that. However, some big obstacles will try to trip you up along the way.
What Is style?
In photography, style is the distinctive appearance of a group of images. As in other arts, the great photographers have their own characteristic styles, although these may change over time. Style results from a mix of variables that come together, making a coherent look across a body of work.
Genre and Style Are Not Synonymous
Do you pigeonhole yourself into a particular genre of photography? Perhaps you consider yourself a wildlife or landscape photographer. Maybe studio portraiture is strictly your thing. But, then again, you could roam the streets with your camera looking for people interacting with the urban environment. Alternatively, you might seek out danger and put your life at risk as an extreme sports or war photographer.
If you do, then bravo bravissimo. You have joined the ranks of some of the best-known photographers that have ever lived. Ansel Adams shot black and white landscapes, Cartier-Bresson famously photographed people on the street, and Sir Donald "Don" McCullin is often referred to as a war photographer. But these are genres, not styles.
All those photographers also embraced other areas of photography too. For example, his excellent book “McCullin in Africa” documented the sometimes life of pastoral tribes in Ethiopia, near the unsettled border with Sudan. Then, a more recent collection of his is an exquisite collection of black and white landscapes; the quiet peace of the natural world, a stark contrast to the horrors of war and deprivation his lens has witnessed. Nevertheless, despite the different genres, there is an overlap in his photographic style, similarities that help identify the photographs as his.
Style can be something we cannot easily identify or describe, and so it is frequently ignored in photographic discussions. That is because it is the result of a sometimes complex combination of creative elements that give a particular look.
How to Find Our Styles
There is a multitude of things you can do to develop your own unique style of photography. First and foremost is your photographic eye. That means being able to identify a series of subjects that fit together and composing the shots to show those subjects in a way that helps convey your message.
That continuity is reliant on a number of factors: positioning of the subject; focal length; aperture; proximity, showing or stopping movement; lighting brightness, angle, and color; camera positioning; frame aspect ratio; genre. Of course, you don’t need to keep all these factors the same for all photographs. Just choosing a few for a series of photos will add coherence across all the shots.
Where Have all the Styles Gone?
Those 12 factors alone have 479,001,600 possible combinations, and that’s not including other variables such as lens filters, weather conditions, plus image processing, and editing.
Yet, despite this huge variety of possibilities, we constantly see similar-looking images. This partly results from us trying to emulate the style of those trailblazers who inspire us. If you are a fan of, say, Annie Leibovitz, then your photos are likely to imitate her fabulous work. On top of that, because they have not developed their own style, novice photographers tend to shoot very similar photographs. That is not only through a lack of skills. Even when they do learn to override the automatic settings, novices use mostly very similar beginners' cameras and, more importantly, kit lenses that, although okay quality, do restrict creative possibilities.
Others' Opinions Are Holding Us Back
Digital photography, more than any other art, is restrained by pressure from sometimes aggressive opinions of the internet. The online world has a vocal minority of conservatively opinionated, self-appointed critics whose objective it is to constrain photography and prevent it from expanding.
Take, for example, street photography. I have read that you mustn’t use a telephoto lens. But, that is nothing more than opinion. Others state that images of people talking on cell phones should be dismissed. Why? Those are perfect examples of contemporary life.
The worst sin, according to the self-appointed experts, is photographing homeless people begging for alms. Unkind assumptions are instantly made about the photographers that record images of the homeless. The photographer is clearly taking advantage of their misfortune. Yet, isn’t photographing and raising awareness of social injustice is surely a worthy thing to do? Furthermore, most photographers will do some kindness in return for taking the photo. Perhaps we should question the motivations of those who want to sweep the depiction of homelessness under the carpet and, instead, insist we only present a sanitized version of our society.
Why You Shouldn't Listen to the Critics
Historically, it was magazine editors, especially in fashion magazines, deciding what style was worthy of publication. They served as a restrictive filter, preventing experimentation in new areas that did not fit with their opinion; they decided what photographic styles should be fashionable. Now, however, their influence has diminished.
Although imperfect, the internet should be a far more democratic driver of taste than the critics. Though magazine critics have been replaced by those opinionated people on the internet who think they are entitled to decide what is and isn't acceptable, fortunately, they have an overblown belief in their influence. Style becomes fashion not because of the say-so of a few noisy individuals, but of the masses.
But there are two problems with that. Firstly, as in any field of art, the vast majority of viewers will choose the low-brow, easy-to-like over that which is more challenging. Whether it is TV, books, music, wall art, cinema, or photography, the majority are more likely to watch, read, or click the like button if the art is easy to comprehend. Furthermore, those producing the art are most likely to attempt to please their audience. This leads to an overall lowering of quality. Worse than that, styles stagnate into comfortable mediocrity.
Secondly, visibility, and therefore broad approval, is skewed by commercial interests. For example, social media companies are not democratic. They sway the number of views posts get to maximize their own profits; unless you pay them, if you want your images to be seen more widely, then you must bow to their optimization algorithms. To reach the widest audience and have the most engagements, some say Instagram requires you to post fourteen times a week, although others claim it's at least once per day. Either way, can any self-respecting photographer produce that amount of quality content? Not many can. Consequently, top-rate images posted on Instagram are swamped by mass-produced cell phone snaps. As a result, unique styles struggle to breakthrough. So, maybe we should seek other means of sharing our photographic art.
How to Develop a Style
If you want to develop your own style then, firstly, accept that there is nothing new under the sun. Find out what is already out there. Do research. Then experiment with different techniques. Do this by looking at other photographs and discovering what you do and don’t like, work out how the images were composed, captured, and developed, then try to repeat that. Also, read articles about photographic techniques and, especially, interviews with photographers. They usually contain great hints and tips.
Next, go out and try combining those different approaches in new and creative ways. Don't be afraid to fail in your attempts. The worst that can happen is that your work goes unappreciated, or some troll will criticize it in the comments. Although, that might not be a bad thing. After all, van Gogh’s paintings were dismissed by his contemporaries. However, experimenting may result in you being ahead of the game, and starting a new trend in photography.
By experimentation, you can discover photographic styles that suit you. Only when photographing to meet the requirements of a client’s contract is it necessary to restrict your style and shoot what they expect. Even then, they have probably commissioned you because they know and like your style.
Finally, the images I included for this article were a style experiment. Some I like better than others, and so will adopt those techniques I prefer and reject the others. Have you developed your own style? Or, is having unique originality not something that concerns you? It will be interesting to hear your opinions and see demonstrations of your style in the comments.