How do I find my photographic style? This question has been coming up a lot lately. Do you know what your style is? More importantly, does it even matter? Here, I list 10 steps you need to take to find YOUR photographic style.
More and more, I am finding new and/or young photographers who have been told that in order to turn professional, they need to know what their style is. Also, I am often asked about “finding my style” and my answer is always the same: DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT!
I honestly think that the discussion of “photographic style” is a hindrance to the development of a young or new photographer. In short, it’s a creativity killer and a topic that should not be considered by the photographer. Instead it should be left to those who view the photographers work to decide.
I would define photographic style as something that you realize or become aware of after years of shooting. Your style is something that you discover by looking back at your work and recognizing that you have “habits” in your creative choices. It may be a type of lighting or post processing, or it could possibly be using wide angle lenses more than telephotos or using wide angle lenses in situations where telephotos are generally considered the norm. Your style may be a preference for color or black and white. It may be as simple as preferring Landscapes or People.
So my advice to anyone who thinks that they need to find a style or know their style…
STOP trying, STOP thinking about it, and STOP listening to misguided people who tell you that you need a photographic style and whatever you do… Don’t define your photographic style before it defines itself.
Once you place a label on your work, you have created a set of rules–a box–that says you cannot step beyond that because then it won’t “fit your style”. If you want your work to remain relevant and interesting throughout your life and career, you have be willing to experiment, learn, grow, challenge yourself, adapt, solve problems – all of which is hard to do if you have a label that says you can’t.
Seriously. Is this idea of “having a photographic style” really that important? Not at all. I have yet to meet the photographer who picked up a camera for the very first time because they were pondering the concept of style. I have also never met a photographer who told me they became passionate about photography because they wanted to have a style.
Even though I think it’s not important, I know, people will still talk about photographic style. So if you are looking for some advice about how to develop your style and even how to know it when you see it, here are my suggestions.
1. Find your passion
Think back to WHY you picked up a camera in the first place. Was it to photograph the people in your family? Landscapes? Travel Pictures? Flowers? Pets?
Consider photos that you have seen BEFORE you got started in photography. Photos that caught your attention, photos that you admired.
Reflect on the life experiences that you enjoy the most. Are you drawn to nature? Do you love to to travel? Are you a foodie? Do you find people fascinating?
Thinking about these things will help you FEEL. Feeling is the source of emotion. Passion is a strong and barely controllable emotion. If you are able to imagine your life without the camera and without your favorite subjects, then you aren’t passionate about it and, well, you have bigger problems than worrying about your style.
2. Forget what everyone else is doing
A common mistake photographers make is to observe other photographers. They think that since the current trend is to photograph an interesting building with a dark stormy sky and then place a bride and groom in the bottom of the frame – so small that you can’t tell who they are – well, they think that they should do that. Or they think that since everybody is talking about high speed sync and overpowering the sun that they should do that. Or they think that since everyone is more excited about the bokeh in the background than they are the subject – they think that they should do that as well because they think that is what clients want.
Then these same young photographers become frustrated when they try to recreate these techniques. They then look at their photos compared to the photos of the photographers they are trying to copy, and they realize that they have failed. Or worse yet: they’ve just added to the noise by creating an image that is the same as what everyone else is doing. Bottom line: “sameness is boring”.
3. Practice makes perfect
While this speaks for itself I would strongly encourage you to watch this video.
Bottom line: you can’t become a great photographer by thinking about it or reading about it or by watching YouTube videos. You need to pick up your camera and take pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. Be sure to make mistakes, and LOTS of them. The more mistakes, the more you will learn. That is, if you are passionate about what you are shooting.
4. Focus on your SUBJECT – not your equipment
We all love toys, but gear does not make the photo. If you don’t truly understand your gear, how it works, and what its capabilities are, you are not going to be able to get the best out of it. Understand that photographers made portraits with beautiful creamy backgrounds thirty plus years ago when f/2.8 was considered a revolutionary fast lens. Photographers overpowered sunlight with speedlights and stopped fast action with flashes in the 1980s, long before we heard of High Speed Sync. These trendy exciting features are nothing more than convenience. They are advancements in technology that make your job easier only if you actually understand how and why to use it and if you have developed proper shooting techniques.
5. Technique matters
Advancements in technology have made photography more accessible to the average person, and that is a wonderful thing. But if you want to be seen as an accomplished photographer, understand that the technology isn’t what gets you there, because everyone has access to that same technology.
A great photographer understands light. Which means they understand it from a technical aspect as well as from a visualaspect. They truly understand how the exposure triangle works without having to rely on their cameras light meter, and they understand that depth of field is not a blurry background and they can use it as the creative and problem solving tool that it is.
A great photographer understands post production at every level. Photographer and retoucher are two different job titles. So you may outsource your retouching, which more and more photographers are doing as the technology advances. But if you do not understand the techniques and the process involved, it is almost impossible to direct and communicate with a retoucher. This ability to communicate clearly is essential to ensuring that that your images look their best.
6. Be a problem solver
Photographers love to create problems. Great photographers are great problem solvers. Every time we get an idea for a photograph, we create a problem. For starters we want it to be better than any other photo we have taken. We don’t want it to be boring. Inevitably there will be issues with the location or the subject or the light or the lack of gear… so we have to solve the problem.
Solving the problem is where you have to put everything together, your idea, your knowledge and understanding of lighting, depth of field, lenses, composition. This is where your passion for your subject matter has to motivate you to work through the problems by relying on your knowledge of your equipment and what it can do and how it works, and this is where the practice that you should have been doing on a regular basis will pay off.
7. Success is in the details
The best photos are deliberate. Things are done purposefully. Exposure is good and there is detail in the highlights and shadows. The color balance is either correct or uniquely interesting, but not off or ugly. Hair is in place and not full of distracting fly-aways. If it is messy hair it is messy in a way that looks really cool. Backgrounds are not distracting and things aren’t growing out of people’s heads. The important elements are in focus and not blurry. The shadows are not harsh when they should be soft. The poses are flattering and the body language matches the idea and the list goes on.
If you are not a freak about details, your work will not be seen as anything more than average. The best photographers are control freaks who worry about every little detail in their photographs.
8. Learn how to edit
You can look like a rock star with 5 photos or a complete hack with 10. Remember that no one else will experience your photographs they same way you do. The more photos you show – especially of the same subject or from the same shoot – the lesser the quality of the images to the viewer, meaning the less of an impact they’ll have. You are doing this because YOU had fun or because you achieved a personal milestone with the photos – but the people who view your photographs won’t have the same experience.
There is only one best shot. Don’t think that people care so much about your photography that they want to see ten photos of the same thing just with different camera angles or lenses or poses. They don’t.
9. Pay more attention to your heart than your brain
If you Google the phrase “iconic photographs” you will find hundreds of instantly recognizable images that have stood the test of time and are considered to be incredible examples of photography. Many of them break the creativity killing rules rules of composition and lighting. What they all have in common, though, is that they evoke emotion.
They are not just technically great images, but they represent moments in time that people connect with. They represent feelings that people have experienced. They communicate.
Rely on your brain for the technical stuff. Rely on your heart for the creative choices. The choices that give your photographs meaning and allow you to connect with your subject. Don’t worry about the rules. Pay attention to how the photo makes you feel and how all of the elements that you have included make you feel. Let your emotions guide your technical decisions.
10.Know that your photographic style won’t emerge right away.
Once you have shot hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of images, look back and review your work. Your work will tell you what that style is.
You expected something a little more complicated? Sorry – that’s really it.
The bottom line is that as photographers, we are creating something that is viewed in a subjective manner. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” right? Regardless of how good you are, not everyone will enjoy your work. If you want your work to remain relevant and interesting throughout your life and career, you must be willing to experiment, learn, grow, challenge yourself, adapt, solve problems – all of which is hard to do if you have a label that says you can’t.
This holds true even if we are talking photography as a business. A successful photographer has to take photographs to the best of their ability. If he or she is smart, they will take photographs of a subject that they enjoy, or better yet, are passionate about. That of course would make it a bit easier to do great work. But then, once they have found their passion and developed a skill set – in order to survive and pay their bills – they have to find someone who is dumb enough to pay them for what they do, right!?!?
If they try to do what the next guy is doing or what they think someone wants them to do, not only will they not produce great work, they won’t enjoy what they are doing.
So my advice for you, if you have been considering your photographic style and you haven’t been shooting for at least ten years… go and pick up your camera and shoot something and shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot. Then go and shoot even more. Because your best shot is your next shot. Remember this and your style will take care of itself.