How to Find Your Style as a Photographer

How to Find Your Style as a Photographer

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.

Experimentation is key to developing style. Orange was always outside of my comfort zone, which meant it had to be tested.


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.

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12 Comments

Michael Coen's picture

Excellent article. I'm much the same way in that I essentially wear the same thing everyday and am always afraid that I'll never find my style because I don't have any. I'm still very new to photography, so I know it will take a while, but I love the distinction you make between "defining" a style and allowing it to, instead, come out. Thanks for the article.

Aaron Patton's picture

Thanks Michael Coen - it's liberating to just not worry about having a style. Shoot images you'd want to look at and the rest will follow. Much more enjoyable that way!

Pat Green's picture

This was very interesting and informative! I need to be inspired again to find style as a photographer. Thanks for sharing this article and hope to get more informative articles from you.

Loving your blog!

I see a lot of what you write in my own artistic evolution. I consider myself somewhere down the path towards a style, unsure where exactly but it doesn't matter anymore; I'm not even sure I want to end up with a definite style. I'd rather keep exploring ways of artistic expression, myself, the world. Instead of worrying about the 'style' I now care about whether the image resonates with me. I caught myself a few times thinking 'hell yeah, that's good, I wish I had taken that picture... oh wait, I did' :-), that's what tells me I found something that is right with me. It may well be different in a couple of years but it is right at this moment. I sure do have my colour grading and compositional preferences but I use them to better express what I need rather than have them constrain my art. For example, I usually go for muted colour palette, even mono- or duochromatic images but if colours are a key part of what makes the image work I go full monty out of my comfort zone if need be, style be damned.

Michael Holst's picture

In any of my creative classes in college we would find it easier to define someone else's style rather than our own because looking at our own work we see what our own inspirations were for the work when other people can't. I find myself admiring so many photographers in many different styles that I end up having a hard time choosing a path for my own work.

Mark Niebauer's picture

Worthless article. Impossible to develop a style. Go back to art school pleeeze. Oh I forgot, you never went. . .

Now read the article.

Aaron Patton's picture

imagei _ They don’t teach reading in art school.

Tim Davis's picture

I went and had a look at your website Mark. If that site is the culmination of years of art school...I'd ask for a refund.

Aaron Patton's picture

Mark Niebauer - I checked out your blog post regarding style, and if you'd take a minute to read my article, I don't think we differ in opinion on the topic. Please, before spewing vitriol into the world, read what you're commenting on first.

Cheers.

Michael Holst's picture

Has already deleted his accounts... wow.

Rick McEvoy's picture

Thank you Aaron - I enjoyed this article.
A couple of things that stand out for me.

Sub-conscious is one - I recently had a portfolio review at the BIPP and things were pointed out to me that I was not aware of that I have subconsciously started doing.

Also, this takes time. It took me 10 years to even begin to have a style of my own.
Thanks again

Regards from England

Rick McEvoy - http://rickmcevoyphotography.com/