How to Refine Your Photographic Style

How to Refine Your Photographic Style

When I started out my photography business, I was always told how important it was to have a strong and personal style. At the time, I did not understand what that meant. I knew all my pictures were too different to make for an impactful portfolio. I also knew that my retouching was inconsistent. But no one told me how to create that sought-after "photographic style." Even the word "create" was probably wrong. Rather, it appears that a style is developed and refined shoot after shoot, job after job. It is a neverending process. However, there are some points to help develop an impactful style.

Technical Skills Matter

Despite photography being more and more accessible, technical skills still matter. I hear a lot of people saying that the photographer’s eye is what creates an image. It surely participates greatly. However, a strong knowledge of the exposure triangle, lighting, posing, and other technical things helps too. "Photo" comes from a Greek word that means "light." So, if you do not have any technical knowledge of lighting, you might be in trouble when trying to create impactful pictures.

Reading light is very important. Learning how backlighting will affect your final output (i.e., flare, a possibly overexposed sky, loss of contrast, etc.) or how short-lighting can change the figure of your subject are only two examples of technical aspects that could make a difference in your work. 

It has to become second nature to you. Think of it as learning to drive a manual car. You cannot concentrate on how you are going to change into the next gear and read the signals on the road at the same time, while also watching if there is anyone wanting to cross the road. The brain does not work this way. Learn your craft until you do not even have to think about it. Then you can get fully creative.

The same goes for retouching. It is a very important tool to have in your toolbelt. It can make or break an image. If you do not like to spend time in front of your computer or do not wish to learn about Capture One, Photoshop, and the like, starting looking for retouchers. There is no shame in having someone doing your retouching for you. Keep in mind that photographer and retoucher are two separate jobs. You can be good at one, but not at the other. Do what you know best and leave the rest to someone who can make you work stand out.

Model: Léa at Modelscouting by Jana Hernette. Photography and retouching: Quentin Décaillet.

Equipment Should Help, Not Get in the Way

If you have not seen the recent Fstoppers videos talking about the iPhone, you definitely should head over to our Youtube channel and watch them. They are a great demonstration of how gear is not so important in the final result if you know how it is limited and in what ways. For example, an iPhone will not synchronize with studio strobes, so you have to work with continuous lighting, the same way you probably know your camera’s ISO can only go up so high until the image looks awfully bad.

Equipment is and always will be important for a professional photographer. You must know its limitations and how to get the best out of it. For example, I know my Canon cameras are better at keeping details in the highlights than in the shadows. So, my images have to be ever so slightly overexposed to get the most out of the sensor and maximize dynamic range in post-production. While this is true for my cameras, it might not be for yours. I know, for example, that Nikon’s cameras keep more information in the shadows.

Get Inspired and Analyze Images

Creating breathtaking images is not just a technical matter. Inspiration plays a huge role. You must be inspired by what you photograph, meaning you must find interest in what you look at and document or shoot. Why should you be interested in what you photograph? Well, first, it will make your job better because you probably have an understanding of what you photograph. If your thing is weddings, you probably know about what happens during the day and how to anticipate the important moments.

Second, if you are curious about what you take pictures of, you probably will find it easier to learn about it. By "learn," I mean find inspiration by looking at pictures of it. You like beauty photography? Then look at other photographers, analyze their images, find what you like, understand how everything was made, and think of how you could have made things differently. Then, try to make your very own version. Do not copy, though. Copying is bad, but getting inspired and using the elements you like from the base image to make your vision come to life is a great exercise.

For weddings, recreating might be difficult as it is more of an "on the spot" thing. However, examining tons of images and trying to keep them in mind to be inspired quickly on the day of can be very helpful! It has been for me and it still is! As soon as I have downtime in my schedule, I try to spend it reading magazines, watching movies, or on websites such as Pinterest. Analyzing other people’s work will help you become a better photographer. It also helps you learn what you want to do or not. It is how you can refine your style.

Model: Naïs at VIP Models (Paris). Photography and retouching: Quentin Décaillet.

Use Your Equipment

Now, you must put it all together. Knowing your craft, your gear, and creating your own vision of inspirational images cannot be achieved or done without practice. You have to go out and shoot. Shooting a lot is a very crucial part of your style research. You cannot find what you like doing or not by seating in front of Facebook or the TV.

Go out, experiment, learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are very important in the learning process. Do not trash all those ugly-looking pictures you do not keep when you cull a shoot right away. Spend some time analyzing what you did wrong. More importantly, try to think of something you could have done differently to make the image a keeper. If you cannot criticize your own work, ask around.

We have a great community here on Fstoppers. Add photos to your portfolio and see how others note your work. You can also use the groups to ask for critiques or help.

Listen to Your Heart

With all these technical aspects in mind, there is one piece of the puzzle that is still missing: emotions. You must put your heart and soul into your work. An image must have a soul; it must be more than just technically good. A photographic style will never be complete without a part of you. A style has to be more than just a color processing you apply over and over to all your images or a similar lighting pattern. These are things that can be copied by other photographers.

Putting your heart into your work is something that can be difficult to understand. At least, it was for me when I started out. How the heck was I going to make people feel the way I felt when I envisioned and then took my picture?

I am sure you have already experienced that situation where you have to shoot when you are sad or even depressed. The result was surely not the same as when you are happy and full of energy. Your images were perhaps darker, the way you talked to your client probably changed, you got different emotions out of them, and the poses that came to your mind might also have been different. This is the proof that your emotions are part of your work.

To define your style, you must be able to use them. But you must understand them first so you can then control them. It is important to understand your emotions and how they affect your work, because if you experience recurrent mood swings, your work will be all over the place and most likely not consistent. A style is also about consistency, even though it can evolve and thus change.

Model: Sindi Arifi. Makeup: Marinka Haas. Photography and retouching: Quentin Décaillet.

As you can see, developing and refining a style takes more than a preset. When I started out, I was sure that I just had to apply a similar preset to all my images to make them "consistent" and give them a "similar style." Sure, they had the same coloring and a pretty similar toning, but they were not consistent technically and the mood would change quite a bit because I could not control my emotions. Shooting more and shooting personal projects on a regular basis helped me a lot. To develop your own style, you must shoot what you like, which in turn will attract the clientele and jobs you want.

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11 Comments

Matt Kosterman's picture

Curious where you get the bit about Canon having more data in the highlights and Nikon in the shadows?I'm fairly certain that raw files, by their nature, are better off being slightly over-exposed than slightly under. I get superb highlight recovery with both my Nikon bodies.

Quentin Decaillet's picture

I get it from retouching files for other photographers and experience from others who have switched :)
You'll always be better off using ETTR for maximizing the dynamic range of your images. But if using Canon you can overexpose slightly more than with Nikon and still recover the info. If using Nikon, recovering shadows is not so much of problem as it is with Canon.

And I thought my Canon 100D is defective. I have observed this from my bracketed shots wherein i I recover the shadows on my underexposed shots, they appear to have more noise compared to the shadows on the overexposed shot. Now I recover shadows from my underexposed shots so that my digital blending will be seamless, just in case someone asks.

Quentin Decaillet's picture

Which is why I am saying we do not really create our style, but rather develop and then refine it. My article is meant to give pointers to those who, like me when I started out, find it hard to improve their craft and know what to do next to become more consistent.
Also, while I do get your point I don't believe creativity is a "you have it or not" kind of things. Everyone can be creative, but not everyone knows how to be creative. But that is another topic ;)

Matt Sweadner's picture

Creativity is a muscle. It can be developed. Some people may have more of a head start than others though.

Paul Langereis's picture

I totally agree with the author on his comments. While some people are able to find their own style in a short time, some people take time to deleop their own style. I have been into the fine arts for a long time, and even I know wehn I started out as a child, sketching and drawing, I learned a lot through observation so now I have a good eye and technique for these modes of expression. However, it took me some time to find my own style. I began by mimicing/ copying photos when I began sketching as a youth, but now I can sketch and draw things in any way I choose. Same with my photographic career. I began learning how a dslr functions. Then I began learning the capabilities of my cameras (exposure triangle). Then, once I was comfotable with my gear and exposure, I began looking at my work to see if I really have a style with landscape work. I do for sure. Sure, other photographers have a similar style, but who cares. You have to go with what you like (your heart). I also search a lot of forums, and to be honest, I don't see that many photographers that have a totally individual style. I see how one photographer influences many others, an dthen people make it their own by changing something subtle. Maybe some photographers end up with very unique styles/ brands, but I am pretty sure most of them started of by others influencing their direction. A great artice, and one that reminds me I am still on the path to find a more unique style of my own. Will that happen? Who knows. For me it is more about the path I am on, the journey.

Edgar Maivel's picture

I see it this way, first you have to have clear idea what you trying to achieve, tools and techniques will support you in it, obviously takes time learn and practice to get there, and everyone is unique in some way...

Dana Goldstein's picture

I think a trap many of us fall into is looking at too many images WITHIN our specialization (if we have one). There are only so many ring shots any wedding photographer needs to see in one lifetime. I've recommended to friends to seek out images in completely different genres from their own, and see if there is something in that, that speaks to them, something they can incorporate and make their images unique amongst those that shoot what they do. This also goes to having a strong, wide knowledge of the history of photography.

Matt Sweadner's picture

Devorah, you are so right about incorporating things from other genres.

David Jaan's picture

I think a huge mistake photographers make is trying to copy styles from other photographers. I was at fault of this when I first started. It wasn't until I stopped paying attention to what others were doing and started paying attention to what I was doing that things really started to click. Instead of trying to copy a lighting technique or pose I just did what looks good to me.

Inspiration can come from many sources which can be a great kick in the ass to learn knew things, but as every image is unique so is every creator. My favorite thing is to go into woodshed mode with my camera and just start trying new things. Not necessarily following a tutorial or source material, but rather just seeing what I, the creator, can do.

Dave Sattler's picture

Great points by the author, as he said in a reply, this is about helping beginners and I believe some of us in a slump, as we loose our stile, or it gets rusty. Everyone learns different and everyone has a slump and needs a read also, on back to basics. Agree again with this article. So many I know just run with the camera and crash after a few years. They never look for help or ideas, nor ask. Those seem to be the one hit wonders, talents gone to waste.