Are you struggling to find your style as a photographer? In teaching photography, I am often asked how you even know what your style should be. This is both the easiest and hardest question. Let me explain why.
There is often a stage, arrived to at different times for every photographer, where you know how to use your gear but question exactly how your photos should look. You start to go beyond just accepting a photograph that is sharp and properly exposed meaning that it is “good.” You want more.
Style is subjective, polarizing, and variable. However, above all, as a photographer, you are an artist, even if you don’t accept that moniker. From day one, you have an idea of what you like, even if you don’t realize it. When you scroll social media or wander an art gallery, you see photos and like or dislike them. You will see in a moment how this is foundational. Defining your style for yourself when you first start out is often tied to a bouquet of imposter syndrome, wanting to photograph everything, and still learning how to harness the light that shapes everything we do.
Think of style in other industries to help you apply it to photography. Think of styles in architecture, interior design, cars, and fashion and how you prefer those in your own life. Your style starts with what you like.
As a photographer, style can be described as a repeating pattern that carries through your artwork like a fingerprint. It can take a long time to refine, and as you grow as a photographer, so too will your style evolve and change over time. The beginning of discovering your style is in identifying what you already like and then incorporating those ideas into your work. Over time, this will become how you see.
In whatever way you consume the media of your peers, whether it be Instagram, Facebook groups, Flickr, etc., take a browse. As you go through, you will gravitate towards some images and breeze past others that don’t catch your eye. Create a collection of your favorites.
A camera is a tool, and everyone uses it differently and sees the world in a unique way. Slow down and start to analyze the photographs that make you hit the like button. Especially pay attention to photos that make you think, “I wish I created that.” Why do you like those photos, really why? Is it the subject matter, certain colors or tones, composition, editing? If you really enjoy a piece, click and look at the rest of that photographer’s work. Do you also like most of their photographs? What defining feature would you say unifies their artwork?
They say that imitation is the truest form of flatter. However, sometimes, that is just putting lipstick on copyright infringement. I do, however, challenge you to analyze the work of other photographers that you admire and aspire to be. Discover what you like about their work and then do so for several others. Pull out the concepts of their styles and mash it all together to form the clay with which you will create your own aesthetic.
As a nature photographer, I already gravitate towards the outdoors. Knowing what genre fuels your muse helps narrow down what you should photograph. For me, as well as most photographers, as it is the key to what we do, light plays a crucial role.
I love sunrise light. There is nothing like autumn in the mountains, when everything is quiet and the cold makes fog over the lakes and meadows. Most humans are sleeping, and the wildlife is bold. The trees are a blaze of color. I love big, punchy color. The mountains shield the valleys and lakes so that the sun has to work extra hard to climb them. As the sun slowly rises, the light finally spills over the edge of the mountains like a cup filling. It quite literally pours over the landscape. When I see that kind of light, whether I am scrolling Instagram and notice it in another’s art, see it in the paintings of the masters, or I am out in the field basking in the glow myself, I know that is my favorite. The best of it all is called alpenglow. When that rose gold optical phenomenon hits a mountaintop, it takes my breath away. I will gladly wake up early and drive hours just to see that light.
What in your own life would you hustle for? What subject, light, or rare phenomenon would you go out of your way for? Start there, start with what makes your heart sing. Then, when you are in that moment, remember the camera as a tool. Remember the concepts that you like most in the work of others. Build your photo piece by piece using that foundation.
With nature photography, you can imagine I am in the field with a plan for landscape or wildlife in mind. If possible, I choose a day with just enough clouds in the sky to have interest there as well. The angled fresh sunrise light already gives me the vibrant warm glow. I just have to capture it. I will accept sunset too if it is a bright enough day, not overcast. Whether it be scenery or wildlife, I am mindful towards where the sun is in relation to my subject to really show off that light. I like seeing the sun's rays, and I don't mind a natural lens flare. Then, I start finding my subject and analyze the surrounding area. I prefer layered compositions, so when the location allows, I look for foreground objects to help add interest. For me, a very low perspective is preferred, so I am often sitting or flat out on the ground. In my style, I create a great deal of vertical compositions with this look and method. I want an extremely close and distinct foreground, subject in the middle ground, and a supporting but not too busy background. I also use this formula for horizontal and wide panoramic photographs.
Later, at my computer, the digital darkroom work begins. I drag my curves to create contrast, dodge and burn, and color correct to try to get my photo to look like what I saw in the field. I go for natural but a bit more pop, contrast, and deep darks, combined with vibrancy to help the viewer feel what I felt. In your own work, you might prefer certain presets, black and white conversions, color overlays, whatever it takes so that your photo makes you satisfied. Create a formula for how you photograph and how you post-process. Repeat these processes, and you will create a portfolio of work that you are proud of. Just by doing what you love and applying what you prefer to your work, your style will emerge.
It all started by questioning yourself to identify what and why you like specific photographs, then being intentional in applying that to your own work. This starts you on the path of unifying your photography. In time, that unification will be the signature that ties it all together. Some day, someone will be looking at your photographs and say: “I wish I created that.”