There are many parts of life where personal style is desirable; those that dress in the latest fashion apparel seek it, those that perform for a living strive for it, and those that write for a living depend on it for success. The dictionary defines style as “a way, method, or manner of saying, writing or performing.” I would like to add photographing to that list.
This definition applies to photography since the term photography actually means to “write with light.” A good photograph can “say” a lot, and a well-displayed print can make for a good “performance.”
The style is an essential ingredient to a professional photographer’s critical and commercial success, but it can also be helpful to those that call photography a hobby. It is tough to define exactly what photographic style looks like, but we know it when we see it. One instantly knows when they are looking at an Ansel Adams landscape or Yousuf Karish portrait or a World War II photograph by Robert Capa. The question is whether we as non-professionals can develop a photographic style and will it help us take better images.
It is often said that art is something you are accused of creating; it rarely happens by the maker’s proclamation. Photographic style may also follow the same path, meaning what may escape the photographer’s view is readily seen by others. It has been my experience that photographic style is something that takes a long time to develop, but the good news is every photographer is constantly working on their style since their very first photo. The process of always taking photos and constantly evaluating and reevaluating what you are doing and how you shoot naturally develops your style.
Personal style is not a lifelong dedication to taking landscape or portrait photos; it is a body of work that over time reveals your vision of your surroundings. It is a mode of communication with your viewer that is instantly recognizable as your vision that is both thought-provoking and unique.
When a photographer makes a conscious effort to develop a photographic style, it naturally becomes a process of constantly reevaluating goals towards what is essentially a moving target. They will repeatedly ask themselves questions like: “How I will know when I have a style?” “What will it look like?”, and “Will it be what I want?”
While some aspects of style development occur naturally there are certain skill sets that they can learn to develop.
The first of these skills is the ability to edit, and I do not mean on the computer using Photoshop. The editing I am referring to is the ability to select and display your best images. These are the images you feel represent your vision and will convey the message that you want the world to see. You must be your own harshest critic, isolate those images with meaning, and then work to get them better. It’s healthy to the creative process to never be fully satisfied, style comes from the constant drive to improve. Seek out knowledgeable critiques and opinions about your work – it is an important part of your editing process. You may be your own toughest critic; however, that does not necessarily mean you are the most observant one.
Good quality feedback is essential, but it is not always that easy to find. You can also seek the opinions of those less photographically knowledgeable but whose views you respect. Often those not inhibited by the technical aspects of photography can get right to the heart of what’s right or wrong with an image solely based on the image’s emotional impact.
Also, take time to read and view photography books, lots of them, from any photographers you wish. Try to view photos of each photographer at different points in their life and see how their personal style develops over time. Go to galleries and museums to view photographs and take note of each image’s impact. Don’t buy a new camera every year; become an expert in working your camera. Read the manual a couple of times and practice what you’ve read. Once you know your camera, you can concentrate on what’s going on in front of the lens.
The important thing to remember about developing a personal style is it will take time – a lifetime in some cases – and it is always evolving since it is a learning process. It does not matter much what others think of your style. You must photograph what you like and what you “see.” Satisfying someone else’s expectations will never get you where you want to go or need to be.