When I was starting in photography, I kept hearing peers and educators talking about their photographic style. I was totally lost. I had no idea what my style was, because as desperate as I was to define it, I hadn't yet discovered it. Discovered is the wrong word. My style wasn't yet.
In a lot of ways, I may be the last person qualified to talk about style. I wear the same thing every day: black v-neck, jeans, black shoes, hair in a ponytail, and an ivy cap. For events where I need to look more professional, I throw a suit jacket on top, and people are genuinely impressed that I dressed up (I love working in a field where you can get away with this). How does this relate to photography? Well, what some people may see as a lack of style, I see as a distillation of wardrobe. I view photographic style in much the same way.
Distillation is important to me, not only as a Scotch connoisseur, but also as a creative. In whiskey making, it's the part of the process where the fermented grain mixture is heated to the point where the spirit evaporates out to be collected, and the rest is discarded. Discovering your style is, in a way, an act of distillation. You take all the things you do, all the things you know, all the things you like, and you put that big mess through some time and heat, and the goodness that rises to the top is what eventually defines your style as a photographer. The rest gets thrown away.
Every time we pick up a camera, we make a series of choices based on either prior preference or new experimentation. As we compose a photograph, do we center the subject, weight them to one side, or go off the rails with something unique? Past preference tells us what we know and like, while experimentation says, "Let's try something different." Aperture narrower or wider? Shutter speed fast or slow? White balance warmer or cooler? Rembrandt or Paramount lighting? Do we retouch this thing or leave it? The list of decisions goes on and on for every image we make. Image after image, those experiments and choices become preferences, and preferences become more dominant the next time we look through the viewfinder.
That, over time, becomes our style: a series of choices that eventually begins to show up repeatedly and consistently in the work we do - choices that we then subconsciously apply to new scenarios in front of us. Attempting to create or force a style of our own is a fool's errand, and has led to an abundance of photographers defining their style by what Lightroom preset pack they've chosen to purchase. As great as they are as tools, Mastin Labs and VSCO are not personal styles.
Unlike my unchanging wardrobe, a photographic style should not be restrictive and should be ever-evolving. As much as my wife wants me to wear a blue shirt every now and again, I know what I'm about. But in my photography, I'm always trying new little things to push myself one way or another. What works gets kept, and what doesn't gets discarded.
So, is developing a style inherently active or passive? I believe that it's both. We must be actively working and experimenting to begin to develop preferences, but the long arc of those preferences distilling into style must be passive or we're not being honest with ourselves. That is to say, if we force it, it's no longer genuine.
It's been ten years now, and I still couldn't define my style if you asked me to, but the difference is that I don't care about that anymore. I remember the first time I overheard someone looking at an image of mine and saying, "Is that an Aaron Patton photo? It looks like an Aaron Patton photo," and I knew that somehow I was developing a style of my own. That's the only definition you need, and you can't give it to yourself.
If you're new at this or still struggling to find your voice, stop worrying about it. Just keep working. Eventually, it will happen without you even realizing it.