One of the most valuable selling points that many of the world’s top photographers have is that they have invested in creating a signature look to their photography that builds a consistent sense of identity across their entire body of work. A very common question I am asked is how to develop your style. It seems to be a goal that many photographers are chasing, but have no idea how to go about.
I Hate Having a Style
I just wanted to preface this whole discussion with a comment about the fact that I, Ryan Cooper, don't really want to have a style. Style is a business decision. At its very core, “style” is making a choice to repeat a similar creative visual direction over and over with little variation.
I’ve always been a strong supporter of the quote: “variety is the spice of life.” I don’t actually want to be doing the same thing over and over; I would much rather be trying radically different things every time I grab my camera. The reason I don’t is that it is fairly impossible to market that sort of mindset effectively.
I have, though, been able to partially mitigate the frustrating need for a style by choosing two quite different ones for my fashion and cosplay work.
How Do I Find My Visual Style?
Finding your style begins with a strong understanding of what aesthetics you are passionate about. To do this, expect to invest a fairly massive chunk of time looking at photos made by other photographers.
Start collecting a folder of photos you encounter online that reflect the sort of visual style you would love to create. It is critical to remember that this folder should represent the sort of work you want to create and not just work you like. It is possible to like a photo without wanting that photo to be the sort of work you create. For example, I respect and admire the work of Richard Avedon; he was an extremely talented photographer. However, I would not necessarily want any of his images to be in my portfolio. His work is great, but it is not me.
When editing and working, keep the examples you saved in mind and try to work towards them without copying them. Leverage them as inspiration to help propel your own creative direction. If you are shooting often and working with this actively in your mind, you should see a sense of visual style begin to take shape. Be patient, though; expect to spend thousands of hours.
How Do I Create a Stylistic Identity?
Your style has two very important parts to it, the first being the visual style, as outlined above, but even more important is the identity of your style. The message in your photos is critical to creating a sense of your own identity and is often even harder to find than your visual style.
For years, I’ve been advocating a simple exercise that I feel does a great job of helping to narrow down an identity. I picked it up back when I used to (primarily) be a graphic designer, as it was a method I would use to help a company communicate their identity to me so I could effectively design their brand or logo.
Step 1: Write down five positive words that describe what you want your photography to be. These words can be feelings, colors, adjectives, verbs, actions, whatever. All that matters is that they reflect what your photography should be.
Step 2: Write down five positive words that you don’t want your photography to be. This should be much harder, as they can very well be things that you like. For example, the word “cuddly” is certainly a positive trait, but it is probably not one that Ronda Rousey wants associated with her brand. Think of this step as defining five compliments you don’t want to receive.
Step 3: Stick your lists on the fridge, tattoo them to the inside of your eyelids, make them the wallpaper of your phone, whatever, so long as you have a constant reminder of your lists. Keep each item in mind when shooting and continually ask yourself if the photos you are creating are a reflection of what you have written. Find ways to keep pushing yourself to more closely aligning with them each time you shoot.
How Your Style Changes
Style will never be a finite, definable thing, because it evolves as you do. Once you have figured out the two aspects of your style, don’t let yourself think of them as hard and fast rules. If your perceptions or tastes change, embrace those changes and update your internal definition of your style to match.
More than anything, though, don’t worry too much about your style. It is part of who you are; so, it will be something you naturally tend towards no matter what you do. Just keep shooting what inspires you, while trying to always improve the quality of your work and your style will certainly take shape.