Why You Should Learn to Appreciate Your Own Photographic Style (and Stop Comparing it to Others)

Why You Should Learn to Appreciate Your Own Photographic Style (and Stop Comparing it to Others)

Being involved in any creative industry usually guarantees one thing: we’re never happy with the work we produce. At least not for long. We’re constantly striving to better ourselves and the work we’re putting out. And in the age of the internet, we’re consuming more images from other photographers than ever, meaning that it’s all too easy to compare our work to that of our peers. For years I questioned my own shooting style, but here’s why I believe you should learn to love your photographic approach just the way it is.

Discovering What Works Best for You

When I was starting out, I was so full of creative ideas. I grew up in a place where there was little to do, so everyone was – or had tried to be – a photographer. I remember thinking I needed to do something that was going to grab people’s attention and let them know I was here. I settled on shooting an “Elements” series – starting with fire. My friend and I found an abandoned cottage, and shot a bunch of photos with her surrounded by flames. It felt revolutionary at the time. Since then, I’ve tried a bunch of creative shoot theme ideas (including a “10 Commandments” series, which is laughable to look back on now!), until I settled on the shooting style that I now produce day in day out.

My ideal shooting situation would mean only myself and my subject are present. I much prefer keeping things minimal, and having just the two of us means we have a chance to actually chat and get to know each other – really break that ice before we start taking photos. In an ideal world we’d be shooting during the last couple of hours of light for the day, with my model sporting minimal makeup, and wearing their own clothes. This is my niche. It’s how I started out, back when I was taking photos of friends in order to build a portfolio, and will always be how I feel most at home shooting. I love immersing myself in a creative idea with a full team, and doing commissions for print magazines, but really my heart lies with a more natural one-on-one.

As much as I love experimenting, my favourite images to shoot are low-key, natural, straightforward portraits. Usually outside using only the available light.

Developing a Recognisable Style

So much of a photographer’s workflow is understated. Sometimes we really aren't credited for all of the work that goes into the final product. A photographer isn’t just a button presser, but is responsible for bringing all of the elements of the shoot together. We pick the location, scouting the specific spots that we’re going to take photos. Often, I like to get involved in the styling side of things, especially when the model is bringing their own clothes and may be unsure what is the right fit for the shoot. We pick the subject, assemble the team, battle against all light conditions and then go home and edit the final results.

Naturally, when we’ve worked through this process hundreds of times, we discover what kinds of things we do and don’t like shooting. We develop both a shooting style and an editing style. What this means is your images become a representation of you. They take shape based on your personal preferences – whether that be deciding between shooting landscape or portrait, your preferred focal length, how sharp your images are and even the type of subjects you go for.

All of this helps shape your portfolio, and after a while you develop a recognisable style; an invaluable asset as a photographer. Potential clients browsing your website will undoubtedly feel more confident about the prospect of hiring you if they can identify a recurring style – it helps them to visualise what the end result of their own photoshoot would be. A signature style will also mean that you are more likely to be selected when a client needs photos in the style you associate yourself with.

Since I take a very naturalistic approach, my regular clients include the likes of:

-Model agencies who need images of their new signings. They need photos that are clear and straightforward, to show other photographers and big brands what their new talent looks like. Other photographers can then get a clear idea of that model's look and suitability for their own project, and can hire them for more elaborate and complex editorial shoots.

-Corporations such as architectural and law firms who need professional, clean-looking portraits of their staff. They can see I have a natural shooting style, and can tell I’m comfortable shooting without the aid of a huge team, which makes me an ideal fit since many of the employees at any given corporate place of work will be without professional grooming and styling, and would perhaps feel intimidated by large numbers of people on set.

-Music publications that can see I have experience working with artists

Having a recognisable style is but one reason why you should appreciate your personal shooting techniques.

I try to focus more on movement and interaction than heavy grooming or styling

But what does having a set style also mean? We inevitably start to question whether our methods are good enough. I’ve suffered many an identity crisis – my work’s not good enough, that other photographer shot the same model better then me, he or she has way more followers - is there something I'm doing wrong?

Let me start by saying that you should stop comparing your own work to that of other photographers. In an age governed by social media and internet perception, we are all increasingly guilty of passing judgment based on social media followings. Perception is everything in 2015. What you should try to remember is that, much like you, your favourite photographers only publish their best work. They, too, will have overexposed a couple of shots, or ruined a potentially great image because their focus was off. Take inspiration from other creatives by all means, but don’t allow jealousy of those you admire to take over.

In the same sense, you shouldn’t worry about having every shoot you do be bigger and better than the last. Every shoot you undertake doesn’t have to spurn a portfolio-defining image. Don’t allow yourself to always feel the pressure to produce images that are evidently “better” than those from the shoot previous. This is almost always counter-productive and will likely only disrupt the natural flow of the shoot. Read what I wrote about the creative liberation that comes with starting a blog. Shoot what you love so that you never lose passion for what you do.

Changing The Way You Perceive Your Images

The way I prefer to look at my photos, I don’t necessarily sit and think that that’s the best portrait I have ever seen of that particular subject. But instead, that photo is my perception of that person in photographic form. It’s my interpretation – how I felt they looked well, how I perceived their personality, and ultimately how I wanted to show them off to the world. It’s looking at my images in this way that helps me to celebrate the work I’ve produced, rather than comparing my portraits to other photographers and feeling that I've produced something lesser than one of my peers. There are no guidelines, but these photos are the result of a collaboration between myself and my subject. That's something nobody can touch, that nobody can replicate, and that's what makes them special.

It’s fine if you want to experiment with different photographic styles. In fact, it should be encouraged. Just don’t be afraid to return to what you love shooting most. Stop torturing yourself and keep enjoying every step of the process you undergo when you're taking the photos you love most.

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10 Comments

Mark Niebauer's picture

A style is something that is only observable in hind sight. You cannot achieve it or study it.

Geoff Bosco's picture

I don't completely disagree. But, there are ways you can get in the way of your own development of it.

Travis Alex's picture

This article is hittign to close to home for me.

I am still learning so much, and, as of the last year (out of the 2 short years I have taken photography seriously, late bloomer), it's less about quality of photographs anymore, and more about what you have to say. Content is king now.

I used to preach from a high horse "Quality over quantity". I noticed, that with all this quality talk, my work suffered, and my images came out...well, boring and not worth really talking about. Meanwhile, my friends are making moves with work I considered "less than quality". I realized my stubbornness has made blind to the fact of what's really important: Saying something and being humble.

I'm very excited to go into 2016. I have been following what's new in the industry for a few months now, I am hitting the books and studying business photography. I've been practicing new lighting, and looking around the globe for inspiration all over social media. I scarped ideas that I no longer see any real value in and started with new fresh ideas from ground up.

It's fucking hard work. I'm excited though. I know I am ready to be a new face of photography, and I will not stop until I reach my goal.

Mike Anderson's picture

Travis,
I definitely had the same mentality of quality over quantity. So much so that, in the beginning of my photography career, it often discouraged me from shooting all together. I always thought that if every shot I took wasn't perfect than I wasn't a photographer. When I finally got over that ridiculous notion, I found that my photography improved tremendously. I'm looking forward to 2016 as well. It's going to be big year for me. I look forward to seeing what you produce! See you around!

Travis Alex's picture

Oh man, your situation sounds very similar to mine. I thought I was the only one. You just made my week.

Chris Adval's picture

I don't know... at 5 years doing photography, am stilling trying to find my style that I'm happy with and works for my business. By comparing to others' styles, I learn other techniques that can work for my own blend of style. As well know what I don't like added as my own style.

Mike Anderson's picture

I've been going through the same thing recently. I always tried to force myself into finding a style or doing something that was completely new that no one had seen before... I even, embarrassingly, asked Joe Mcnally at one of his seminars how to find a style... Of course, he's sort of a generalist so he didn't give me an answer that satisfied me. Anyway, it took me longer than I'd like to admit to realize I just had to go out there and shoot anything that inspired me. Just get behind a camera. I'm finally slowly starting to build an idea of what my niche in photography can be. I'm looking forward to flushing that out and seeing where it takes me. Loved the article. It's always good to hear that even the greatest among us have the same thoughts and, sometimes, the same insecurities.

Tyler Yates's picture

I know there is a huge difference between just doing this a hobby vs. someone who look at this as a money making career. So my personal thoughts are as someone who enjoys this as a hobby. I think the article was great and points out how I feel sometimes when look at others work. I feel like to many people try to fit into the same kind of style, and I often see the same images repeated over and over. I don't like doing a lot of post processing, because its not really all that fun for me. Taking pictures is fun, so why ruin it by stressing over the post processing aspect of it. I enjoy the really simple, almost toned down aspect of taking pictures as described by the author. Granted this is just how I feel.

Neoklis Bloukos's picture

brilliant article thank you

Bill Larkin's picture

Thanks for the article, I definitely see your point, I do actually disagree a little bit... I believe that comparing yourself to others that are better than you, can in fact make you better. I've always done that. I feel a strong, honest, self-analysis is a great way to mark where you are, as well as help you figure out how to get better.

By not comparing, maybe one is able to be happy with their own work, but... that inhibits growth in my opinion.

I do agree about your own "style" for sure. But I also strongly believe there IS a such thing as better photographers than others, some will argue and claim that all art is subjective... and it is to a point, but there definitely still is a such thing as quality, I know there are those who are better than me, and that helps me continue to grow! :)

B