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I believe it was Charles Bukowski, the controversial author and poet, who once said, “It’s better to do a dull thing with style than a dangerous thing without it.” Regardless of your inclinations (or lack thereof) to the rest of his work, it’s hard to deny the fact that Bukowski touched on something far-reaching with that simple sentence.
What does it mean to have style in photography? It’s difficult to say but one thing is for certain; finding your photographic style is not easy. Or is it?
For better or worse, today we’re going to delve into the murky waters of what it means to cultivate and recognise style in photography. We will, of course, discuss some popular photography styles but most importantly, we’re going to investigate how you can go about finding your own.
Style is like love. It’s not easy to define or even understand but you know when it’s there... and you know when it’s not.
True style is rare, it always has been. If there’s an accurate way to characterise what style is in photography, then it very well might be the notion that it comes about when we are completely honest with ourselves and our work. The reason I say this is because you can never discover your own idiosyncrasies as a photographer while you attempt to imitate the style of someone else.
Photography style is how you choose to compose, shoot and process your photographs. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
Alright, let’s slow down. I’m already getting ahead of myself here. First of all, style is nothing more than a habit, more or less an exhibition of recurring characteristics. In photography, style translates into the manner in which we tend to compose, shoot and process our photographs.
So, is style nothing more than a pattern? Do we choose our own style or does it come about through the influence of other popular photography styles that we happen to encounter. The short answer is simply...yes, but understanding and thereby unearthing your own photographic style goes so much deeper than that.
Let’s have a look at a hypothetical albeit weird scenario. Bear with me here.
Imagine you have never heard of photography before; never have you seen a photograph or even a painting or drawing. Complete tabula rasa; you’re a photographic blank slate. Then, suddenly, someone comes along and gives you a camera. They show you how it functions and teach you the basic principles of photography but never actually show you a photograph. How will your photos look? What will you make pictures of and why? It’s a tough one.
Style comes about when you put more of yourself into your work. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
Now, I know that’s quite a stretch but the point of that little exercise is to illustrate the point that we are all influenced by something or someone when we make our photos, whether consciously or subconsciously. The way people develop their own unique photography styles is by taking those influences and injecting parts of themselves as they learn more and more about the craft of making photos. Gradually, slowly but surely, a metamorphosis occurs.
Now, let’s go back to our original hypothetical scenario when we somehow managed to learn how to make photos without ever seeing one beforehand. What would we choose to photograph first? More than likely, we would begin with the things around us, our homes and friends and family. Then, we might notice we like a certain time of day for shooting because the light changes colours. We might also begin to realise that we enjoy our pictures when they have high contrasts between light and dark areas or when there are bright, vibrant colours which jump out at us.
As photographers, we gravitate towards our own style. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
We might not completely understand why we gravitate towards a certain type of photo or why our images begin sharing similar traits but it happens and we enjoy the process. This, my friends, is the most pure definition of photographic style.
Personal and unique photography styles aren’t something that can be forced or manufactured, at least not with any long lasting meaning. That being said, perhaps one of the most important yet misunderstood aspects of cultivating and actualising your own style as a photographer comes down to what we’re about to talk about next.
Fear of the unknown is one of the most universally shared apprehensions of us humans. Death. Taxes. The ‘check engine’ light on our car. Did I leave the oven on???
Whenever we aren’t sure about something, we tend to become nervous. The same is true with the way some people approach finding their style in photography. I’m here to tell you that the best thing you can do is to simply embrace the fear and keep going.
Be brave and allow yourself to put your creative ideas into your work. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
Work to learn how your favourite photo makers compose their photos and educate yourself in the techniques of the masters... but don’t stop there. Allow the perspectives of others to motivate your own creative ideas but don’t fall into the trap of believing that your work has no value if it doesn’t look like what’s popular. This can lead to self doubt, bland emulation and at worse, plagiarism.
Most importantly, you must never allow yourself to forget that discovering your own style is a journey, not a destination. Finding your style should never be your ultimate goal because goals change. Rather, try to understand that your style is a vehicle that you can use to better express how you view the world through your camera.
I wish that there was a secret formula which existed that would allow us to instantly discover our photographic style. Sadly, this is not the case. However, that’s not to imply that there aren’t ways we can expedite the process. Here are a few tips, some obvious and others not, which can help you as you journey along to finding your style in photography.
In order to keep progressing towards finding your style, you will need to put in the work. You will have to make lots and lots of photos and yes, you will learn more from your mistakes than your success.
Not only will you need to keep practicing with your camera but you should also drink in the entire medium of photography whenever there is an opportunity to do so. Go to museums and photo galleries. Read books on photography technique and articles online (reputable ones) just like you’re doing right now.
Be patient with your camera. Shoot often and you'll develop your own photography style. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
Most importantly, don’t forget this solid wisdom from Bruce Lee. Yes, THAT Bruce Lee::
“Long-term consistency beats short-term intensity.”
You’ll never develop your own photographic style by sporadically make hundreds of photos for a few days only to then go for months without even touching your camera. Your style is a product of long term exercise and patience. It can’t be rushed.
As cliche as it might sound, you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone in order to help find your style. Well, at least sometimes. I’m in no way arguing against ignoring the things you like shooting the most. However, variety is the spice of life... or at least I’m told.
Get outside of your comfort zone. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
To help your style in photography evolve, you should never allow your creativity to stand in the same place for too long without at least sampling the waters elsewhere. Make a point to try new forms and genres of photography at least a couple times per year. Not only can you learn new technical skills that can translate back to your normal type of photography but it will also inadvertently expose you to new ways of approaching subjects and light. This all serves as more building blocks for the foundation of your own unique photographic style.
I mentioned earlier about how some of the greatest influences on my photography have come from the work of those who were not actually photographers. While this is true, it’s not to say I haven’t had enormous help from studying the work of photographers whom I respect; both famous and unknown.
Your style extends beyond your camera. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
That’s not where it ends, however. I must admit that while viewing the images made by my favourite photographers is a great thing, the most long-lasting impact on my own photographic style came from the people themselves. Learning about the lives and habits and philosophies photographers your admire can help you understand better how their styles were moulded by their experiences. In turn, you can do the same.
Here is short list of highly recommended (and budget friendly) reading that I feel will go a long way in learning to develop your own style in photography:
Photographic style is not set in stone. You are not the same person you were twenty, ten or even five years ago. We are the products of our own experience and the same is true with our photography.
Sometimes, I look back on some of my own work from ten years ago and notice how decidedly different they are from the photos I made last week. Not merely from a technical standpoint (at least I hope) but rather in their content and aesthetic. No doubt this evolution in my style will continue as long as I am permitted to take photographs.
Photography styles continually evolve. Photo by: 'Adam Welch'.
A steady refinement and refocus on how you approach your own photography will in turn result in an ever-changing evolution in your photographic style as well. This is a perfectly healthy, natural progression in the life of any committed photographer.
If you haven’t already noticed, attempting to truly understand what style means in photography can be an oddly difficult task. This doesn’t mean that discovering your own photographic style is complicated, far from it in fact.
So why do so many of us struggle with finding our own particular style for our photos? The answer is quite simply that we often tend to get in our own way. We can become so preoccupied with attempting to gain a certain style for our work that we inadvertently steer ourselves in a direction that we don’t really want to go.
When we do this, the nature of our work suffers and so does our enjoyment of the craft that is photography. In a way, photography style is somewhat of a paradox. You can never find your style when you’re looking for it; when you’re not looking for it is when it is when it’s finally found.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this honest excursion into attempting to understand what photography style is and how you can go about successfully finding your own. Always remember that style comes about as a result of patience and practice, hard work and conscious dedication. Take your time and learn as much about different types of photography as you can possibly digest. Avoid the easy temptation of producing carbon copies of other photographers work just because their styles might be “trending” at any given time. Trends fade. True style doesn’t fade, it only evolves.
Most importantly, never stop. Keep shooting. Keep working. Keep learning. Keep exploring. Your style will take care of itself.
How would you describe your photography style? Do you have one or have you experimented with a few different types? How did it go? Share your thoughts and leave a comment below!