There is one thing above any piece of gear or software that can improve the quality of our image making. Best of all, it's free. Call me cheap, but I'm constantly trying to think of ways and means to improve my work for either no or low financial cost. I want to try and showcase some ways we can improve without necessarily buying new stuff and this article kicks that thinking off.
Today I’m looking at the development of our personal style of image making. At it's most basic level, this is how we express ourselves through how we shoot. Whether we realize it or not, the development of a style of working begins from the moment we pick up our camera. There are plenty of articles on style, but it's a rather elusive topic. Hopefully this post sheds some light on tangible actions we can undertake to improve and strengthen the images we make through better understanding of the process of finding (or refining) our own style.
Why is Style So Important?
Our perspective and view on the world is what sets us apart. Offering something different means someone might like your work enough to buy it. Developing your style won't guarantee you will win more work or secure more clients, but it certainly will help differentiate you from the pack. Many of us shoot stills and video together these days, which means we have to think about how style bridges our stills and motion work together.
To be clear - thinking about how we develop our style and the process of how we can develop it is far more productive than trying to actually develop a style of work. By this I mean, don't worry if you can't define your style, or even know how to begin doing so. If this article gives some basic structure and understanding to how you can begin to think about what your style might be, and what style of work you enjoy in others, then we’re at a good starting point.
So Where Do We Start?
We are bombarded everyday with photos and video. Being able to offer a different perspective is all the more challenging, which makes it all the more important. We all have access to the tools and techniques to produce good work, and it’s our style that will set us apart.
“Style has no formula, but it has a secret key.
It is the extension of your personality.”
This quote from Haas is insightful. There is no specific route to discovering our style (which is why I think discussion on it remains pretty elusive) but we can begin to find it by better understanding ourselves and by asking why it is we like how we shoot and edit our own work, and what we like in the work of others. After all, if style is about self-expression, trying to understand what resonates with us and why, is a useful starting point to understanding why it is we express ourselves in the way we do.
Here’s a few tips to try and make this a little more tangible and useful:
1.) Use Key Words
Could you describe in a few simple words or sentences the style of images you are making now? What about the style of images you’d like to be making? I saw this exercise recently at a workshop and everyone found it thought provoking. It’s rare for most of us to sit and contemplate this stuff but it’s a great way of understanding how we like to express ourselves through our work.
I constantly find words and phrases like "classic, timeless, clean lines, emotive, edgy, small gestures, working background and foreground together" associated with what I shoot. I don't necessarily think of these words as I'm shooting but over time I've come to realize they tend to describe the work that resonates with me when I look back at it.
When I look back at my work, I keep seeing patterns cropping up and try to assign a word or two to what these patterns best describe in the work I like or the work I want to be doing.
2.) Developing a Style Might Not Cost Anything, But it Takes Investment in Other Ways – Namely a lot of Time and Practice.
Zack Arias: …Style is something that takes a long, long, long time… really, what it takes is shooting and just doing it over and over and over. It has to just develop …when I started in photography, I thought I knew where I was going …but that changed and I’d go down a different route and that would change and even just as last year, I was trying to break out of how I shoot things, do things differently….every year, I seem to try to push my style and every year I fail pretty miserably doing that. And it’s just one of those I need to learn slowly and just slowly move forward.
Chase Jarvis: If you try and develop a style from your living room, it’s unlikely that you’re going to and a lot of people, like, oh, when do you know when you got a style? You don’t know until you look back six months or a year or two years and say, oh, wow.
Zack Arias: Or ten years...
3.) Periodically Review Your Work
Steve Jobs, in his famous Stamford commencement speech, said “you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards”. I recently saw some of Lindsay Adler's early fashion work. Her overall aesthetic of bold, clean, graphic images, and some of her signature lighting style was completely evident in this early work. The patterns emerge by looking back over our work and reviewing it against what we are doing today.
4.) Find inspiration
Ask yourself “what is it I enjoy about the imagery I see other photographers or videographers creating?” Find your “style gurus”, other photographers or videographers you admire and ask yourself why you like their work.
Magnum photographers have been a great starting point for me, because many of them have distinct and strong bodies of work. Elliot Erwitt’s humor and whimsy, Alex Webb’s interesting composition and spatial awareness, and Cartier Bresson’s strong geometric ordering and surrealist timing constantly intrigue me. These are photographers whose imagery consistently resonates their personal style.
For videographers, documentaries like Visions of Light provide a wonderful insight into the world of cinematography and lighting styles, and we can think about applying this to our video work.
5.) Developing a Style is a Constant Learning Process, Not a Point in Time
Trying to force yourself to develop your style is a sure path to frustration, don't get bogged down in trying to find or even define your style (it might change over time anyway). It's a journey of self- expression and discovery.
Try to learn to enjoy the process, something which we can often forget when we get caught up in the frustration of trying to interpret our work or when we compare ourselves to others. This is one of the reasons I like applying simple key descriptive words to how you like to express yourself, rather than trying to have a rigid definition of what your style is.
6.) Our Style is Not Our Subjects or Our Tools
Bruce Dorn once said, “no one ever sat down and asked Hemingway what type of typewriter he used”.
Our subject is what we see, tools and technique are what we use t0 capture our subject, our style is how we use those tools to express what we are seeing and how it makes us feel.
I once heard an interview where the photographer said if you can’t find 100 things to shoot within a 1 block radius of where you are right now, you aren’t looking hard enough. Practice seeing and shooting mundane things in a new way. Jay Maisel is a constant source of inspiration to live out this philosophy. De-clutter away from your gear and just go out and shoot what you want, with whatever camera you have to hand.
7.) Don’t Separate your “Creative Work” From Your “Client Work”
Make the opportunity to integrate your creativity and expression into all forms of your client work. It’s probably this same voice and expression that led to you being booked in the first place.
Make time to get the shot the client wants, then play and experiment and shoot a little more putting your own style and twist on it.
On this, Brian Smith, in his book 'Secrets of Great Portrait Photography', says , "Show the work you love to shoot. This sounds really basic, but it’s amazing how often photographers get this wrong by showing what they think clients want. Work that comes from your heart is always the strongest. When it’s what you love to shoot, it doesn’t even seem like work, does it?".
8.) Learn the Rules so you can Break Them Consistently
It’s useful to become proficient with the rules of photography so you can experiment and practice applying your own unique twist to them, or break them completely. By understanding them, you can understand how you broke them the first time, which means you can do it again.
This consistency allows you to practice your own unique form of self expression, which is the basis for helping to define your style of working.
Some might argue that the best image makers have no particular style, or one that can’t be defined or compartmentalized. I sometimes look at Steven Meisel's work and think of him in this way. He is able to flip so readily from one form of stylistic expression in one shoot to something completely different in the next. Solve Sundsbo, another successful fashion photographer, was talking some years ago about this when he first started out:
"People would say to me, 'I'm not sure I can hire you, I'm not sure what you're doing. What is your style?'. I was mortified and thought I was never going to make a living as a photographer. If I've got a style, it's that I've got no style."
While I don’t think for a second that photographers like Meisel or Sundsbo have no style to their work, it remains something very fluid, that they are able to refine and play with depending on the mood they are looking to create, or the shoot they happen to be doing on any given day. They still put their heart and soul into their work, and if there is anything about photographers like this, it is that regardless of what they shoot, you can tell there is clearly part of them in their work.
Jay Maisel might best summarize this thinking. In the documentary on Jay by The Big Picture, on going out to shoot in the street he says: "I try very hard not to predetermine what I'm going to do. I want to go out as unprepared as possible so that I can get filled up with what the world has to offer."
Perhaps this constant openness and receptiveness, to see the same things in new ways, is simply a masterful level of self-expression, an unclassifiable style that we all strive to achieve in our work?
Is developing a style of work important to you and if so, what tips and techniques do you apply to your work? Would love to hear your thoughts.