Should you give more thought to giving a cohesive and distinctive style to your photography? If you want to up your game, finding your own look is imperative. There is a surefire way to develop this. However, some big obstacles will try to trip you along the way.
What is styling?
In photography, style is the distinctive aspect of a group of images. As in other arts, great photographers have their own characteristic styles, although these may change over time. The style results from a mixture of variables that come together, giving a cohesive look across a body of work.
Gender and style are not synonymous
Do you lock yourself into a particular genre of photography? You may consider yourself a wildlife or landscape photographer. Maybe studio portraiture is strictly your thing. But, again, you can walk the streets with your camera looking for people interacting with the urban environment. Alternatively, you could seek out danger and put your life on the line as an extreme sports or war photographer.
If you do, then bravo bravissimo. You have joined the ranks of some of the most famous photographers who have ever lived. Ansel Adams photographed black and white landscapes, Cartier-Bresson photographed people on the street, and Sir Donald “Don” McCullin is often referred to as a war photographer. But these are genres, not styles.
All of these photographers also embraced other areas of photography. For example, his excellent book “McCullin in Africa” documented the sometimes life of pastoral tribes in Ethiopia, near the volatile border with Sudan. Then a more recent collection from him is an exquisite collection of black and white landscapes; the quiet peace of the natural world, a stark contrast to the horrors of war and deprivation his lens has witnessed. Nevertheless, despite the different genres, there is an overlap in his photographic style, similarities that help identify the photographs as his own.
Style can be something we cannot easily identify or describe, and so it is often overlooked in photographic discussions. This is because it is the result of a sometimes complex combination of creative elements that give a particular look.
How to find our styles
There are tons of things you can do to develop your own style of photography. First and foremost, your photographic eye. This means being able to identify a series of interlocking subjects and composing the shots to show those subjects in a way that helps convey your message.
This continuity depends on several factors: positioning of the subject; focal distance; opening; proximity, showing or stopping movement; brightness, angle and color of lighting; camera positioning; aspect ratio; kind. Of course, you don’t need to keep all of these factors the same for all photos. Just picking a few for a series of photos will add consistency to any shots.
Where have all the styles gone?
These 12 factors alone have 479,001,600 possible combinations, and that doesn’t include other variables such as lens filters, weather conditions, and image processing and editing.
Yet despite this wide variety of possibilities, we constantly see similar images. Part of that is because we try to emulate the style of those pioneers who inspire us. If you’re a fan of Annie Leibovitz, for example, your photos are likely to mimic her fabulous work. On top of that, because they haven’t developed their own style, beginner photographers tend to take very similar photos. It’s not just for lack of skills. Even when learning to bypass automatic settings, novices mostly use very similar beginner cameras and, more importantly, kit lenses which, while good quality, limit creative possibilities.
The opinions of others hold us back
Digital photography, more than any other art, is hampered by the pressure of the sometimes aggressive opinions of the internet. The online world has a vocal minority of self-proclaimed critics with conservative views whose aim is to constrain photography and prevent it from growing.
Take, for example, street photography. I read that you shouldn’t use a telephoto lens. But this is nothing more than an opinion. Others say images of people talking on cell phones should be rejected. Why? They are perfect examples of contemporary life.
The worst sin, according to self-proclaimed experts, is photographing homeless people begging for alms. Disparaging assumptions are instantly made about photographers recording images of homeless people. The photographer is clearly profiting from their misfortune. Yet, isn’t photographing and raising awareness of social injustice certainly a good thing to do? Also, most photographers will do a little kindness in exchange for taking the photo. Perhaps we should question the motives of those who want to sweep the portrayal of homelessness under the rug and, instead, insist that we present only a sanitized version of our society.
Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Critics
Historically, magazine editors, especially in fashion magazines, decide which style deserves publication. They served as a restrictive filter, preventing experimentation in new areas that did not correspond to their opinion; they decided which photographic styles should be fashionable. Now, however, their influence has waned.
Although imperfect, the Internet should be a much more democratic vector of taste than critics. Although magazine critics have been replaced by those opinionated people on the internet who think they have the right to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not, luckily they over-believe in their influence. Style becomes fashion not because of the words of a few loud individuals, but of the masses.
But there are two problems with this. First of all, as with any field of art, the vast majority of viewers will choose the low-brow, easy to love, over the more difficult. Whether it’s TV, books, music, wall art, movies, or photography, the majority are more likely to watch, read, or hit the like button if the art is easy to understand. Also, those who produce the art are more likely to try to please their audience. This leads to an overall drop in quality. Worse than that, styles stagnate in comfortable mediocrity.
Second, visibility, and therefore general approval, is skewed by commercial interests. For example, social media companies are not democratic. They influence the number of views posts get to maximize their own profits; unless you pay them, if you want your images to be seen more widely, then you have to comply with their optimization algorithms. To reach the widest audience and get the most engagement, some say Instagram requires you to post fourteen times a week, although others claim it’s at least once a day. Anyway, can a self-respecting photographer produce such an amount of quality content? Few people can. Consequently, the top-notch images posted on Instagram are overwhelmed by mass-produced cellphone snaps. As a result, unique styles struggle to break through. So maybe we should look for other ways to share our photographic art.
How to develop a style
If you want to develop your own style, first accept that there is nothing new under the sun. Find out what already exists. Do research. Then experiment with different techniques. Do this by looking at other photos and finding out your likes and dislikes, determining how the images were composed, captured, and developed, and then trying to repeat that. Also read articles on photographic techniques and, above all, interviews with photographers. They usually contain great tips and tricks.
Then go out and try to combine these different approaches in new and creative ways. Do not be afraid to fail in your attempts. The worst that can happen is that your work is not appreciated, or that a troll criticizes it in the comments. Although that might not be a bad thing. After all, van Gogh’s paintings were rejected by his contemporaries. However, experimentation can give you a head start and start a new trend in photography.
By experimenting, you can discover photographic styles that suit you. Only when shooting to meet the requirements of a client’s contract is it necessary to restrict your style and shoot what they expect. Even then, they probably commissioned you because they know and like your style.
Finally, the images I included for this article were a styling experiment. Some I like better than others, and therefore will adopt the techniques I prefer and reject the others. Have you developed your own style? Or, is having a unique originality not about you? It will be interesting to hear your opinions and see demonstrations of your style in the comments.