What makes a famous photographer famous? It’s not the gear he uses, and it’s normally not a single image, either. Most of the greatest photographers have a certain style that makes their images immediately recognizable. Style is the reason why you can pick an Ansel Adams landscape out from a thousand others. Style makes you unique, it’s an extension of your personality and it’s what sets you apart from everyone else.
What Style is Not
There are many misconceptions about how to develop a style, so I’d like to start by addressing some of the most common assumptions. Style is not the subject you choose, nor is it the technique or type of processing you like. You can’t simply take black and white images and call that your style, and you can’t pick a genre like urban decay or portraiture as a style. Style is made up of all of these things but is much deeper than that. When people look at your images, they should be able to see a little bit of you in them.
Developing Your Style
Instead of being defined as a specific genre or subset of images, style is a blend of choices that you make as you create an image. It starts with your perspective – your unique insight on a given subject. The exposure choices you routinely make – whether you prefer to expose for shadows or for highlights – will become part of your style. Some photographers use color as part of their style. Do you prefer deep, rich tones, or would you rather take images with a paler, more old-fashioned look? There are many more questions you can ask about your style, such as:
- Do you use available light only or are you fond of strobism?
- Is film grain or sensor noise a huge drawback or do you prefer a textured image?
- Do you get in close to your subjects or shoot from far away?
- Is there a certain element – trees, people or anything else – that are always included in your photos?
There’s much more to a personal style than this, but these examples start to reveal the bigger picture. It’s also important to realize that style is more than making a choice between the variables I’ve presented. It’s all about taking these choices and fine-tuning them into something that is entirely yours.
What Not to Do
There are a couple of common mistakes that I see photographers make concerning their style. First, don’t force your style. It’s not something that you can just sit down and decide upon. You must always remember that your style is something that will grow and evolve with time and experience. Take as many photos as you can and let your style develop naturally.
The other problem is that some photographers rely on style alone to make their images great. This is a fine thing to do if you have a well-developed style, but keep in mind that it can also be limiting. Many of the most successful photographers enjoy stepping outside their comfort zones to try new things. It is this willingness to deviate from the norm that helps them continue to grow as artists.
In short, the best way to develop your style is to not worry about it. Just take pictures – lots of them. Somewhere along the line, you’ll start to develop certain preferences, and your photographs will become recognizable as yours and yours alone.