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.”
I think one has to differentiate between style and subject matter. If you gravitate towards the outdoors, cityscapes, sunrises, underwater photography, etc., I don't view that as a particular style. I view style as black and white, lighting and exposure techniques, etc.
It's interesting that when you think of style, you are thinking mostly of colors and lighting.
I think mostly of composition and perspective when I think of style ... and particularly the way that perspective and composition fuel one another in any given image. Perhaps I should be paying more attention to lighting and colors, like you do.
I think style is a bit of all of that and more. For example as I described my style is vibrant punchy colors, deep almost crushed darks, layered comp, and the specific angled light of sunrise/sunset. In my wildlife photos you can see me use a formula. Compare the pronghorn and fox photos above, subject on left stepping into the light with a punchy background to contrast. I use the same camera settings and framing. I do that formula over and over with all types of wildlife. Of course I photograph other ways and compositions however these are my favorite stylized formulas that I like to use the most and have become a bit known for.
That's an excellent read. Thanks for writing it.
You are very welcome Ivor! Thank you for taking the time to let me know that you enjoyed my article. :)
Thanks so much for writing this.
To me, personal style and vision is the most important thing in creating worthwhile images. More important than what gear you use, more important than the subject matter, and more important than "capturing a moment in time", or "telling a story" with your photo.
And yet, vision and style are discussed less than any of these other, lesser things. Solid articles like yours can help to correct that, and get us thinking about the things that will help us the most when it comes to making photos that are truly worthwhile.
You are very welcome Tom! This is exactly why I wanted to write on the topic of style and intentional approaches not just to a single photo but to portfolios as a whole. I have more articles coming soon on topics like this. I hope that they help broaden the mindset and help everyone create stronger meaningful work. As always thank you for commenting to let me know your thoughts. I always appreciate it!
In Kate's post, she refers to her style as "vibrant punchy colors, deep almost crushed darks, layered comp, and the specific angled light of sunrise/sunset." That style refers to the manner in which she processes her pictures, which she controls.
If you're on an African safari taking pics of elephants, I don't see how vision and personal style factor in. You take what you can. You control virtually nothing. Subject matter, capturing the moment, telling a story, proper exposure & composition...
Mark, compare the photographic styles of Andy Biggs, Nick Brandt, and Matthias Mugisha who have their own visions and styles, especially Mugisha whose work is amazing. Yes, if you are stuck on a package tour sitting atop a Landcruiser with a 5D mk IV and a long lens, then you will get the same sausage machine photos as the person who sat in the same car with the same kit the previous week. But, like with all genres, the outstanding photographers go the extra mile to ensure they achieve their vision.
Mark Carr said,
"If you're on an African safari taking pics of elephants, I don't see how vision and personal style factor in. You take what you can. You control virtually nothing."
I see things differently. A photographer is almost always able to control what focal length they use, which will have a great affect on how large, or small, their subject appears in the frame. This also affects how much of the surrounding habitat is included - a choice that is pretty much always controlled by the photographer.
One can also control which one of the Elephants one shoots, or which one is given greater visual value in the image (if a group of elephants are shown).
Timing is also controlled by the photographer.
And to some extent, the position from which you shoot is controlled by the photographer. On a decent safari, you tell the driver what position you want to shoot from, and they do their best to get there so you can align the subjects up with whatever background elements you want to align them with, or align them with the light source just the way you want.
Also, on a decent safari, you can decide if you want to stick with the Elephants for hours, so that you will still be with them at the golden hour, or if you want to leave that group of Elephants and go off in a different direction looking for other subjects.
If one truly had no control at all, over any of the aspects of the photos one were taking, then why in the world would one ever spend his/her hard-earned money on such a trip? One should carefully research any safari before committing to it, so that it doesn't end up being a horrible waste of money.
Mark there is always a little bit that you can do even in moments where much is out of your control. In your example of being on safari in a vehicle you can look for moments where the animals are moving and choose to drag the shutter while keeping the focus point on the face of the wildlife. This will give the illusion of extra motion blur vs freezing the frame with a high shutter speed. Then you can use lens choice to either go in tight with a telephoto for portrait or intimate scenes vs taking environmental compositions with a wide angle lens. You can also choose which moments to take that match your style. If I was on safari I would look for times when the light matches my aesthetic, sunrise and sunset specifically when the light is at that angle pointing. I would look for the bright angled light and ask the guides to park where I can best make use of the light.
Then in other times, when I do not like the light or scenario, I may just enjoy my time with the wildlife without creating photos. I see more and photograph more than what I choose to include in my portfolio. When appropriate, culling images that do not match your vision, either by not creating excess in the first place or deleting once at the pc are also important choices.