A Way of Doing Something that is Particular to Oneself
Throughout my life as a photographer I’ve been somewhat haunted by the thought of having to have my own style, to take shots that are instantly recognisable as mine and that show consistent characteristics that relate to my ‘brand’. In reality I just wanted to take photos.
Much is written about the need to find your own style, I’ve bought numerous books on the topic but somewhere in the back of my mind I’ve had a problem with this. A large part of creative me just wanted to be a butterfly and flit around in the bright skies of what’s possible.
As I ask photographers what their primary challenges are in their creative life so many are telling me that the ongoing hunt for their own particular, unique style is holding them back. Surely this is no good thing but what’s to be done about it? I’m going to share my thoughts in a moment, but first let’s explore what could be meant by that simple five letter word.
The Cambridge dictionary defines ‘style’ as a way of doing something that is particular to oneself. And herein lies the clue, it’s ‘particular to oneself.’
Constantly Seeking your Style
When I was constantly seeking my style I remember feeling inadequate and unfocused. I didn’t know what to do, I couldn’t really choose my one way of doing things and it hampered my picture taking. My photography moved from being creative to chasing something that was difficult to describe, let alone catch and it resulted in my being unhappy with much of my personal work.
If you feel that you lack your own particular photographic style maybe you can relate to this and perhaps you find yourself focusing on something intangible that makes you feel guilty about flitting around different looks, processes and topics. This can be a real problem but there is an easy way ahead if we approach the problem from another perspective.
I couldn’t easily hone down onto my style because I wanted to do a bit of everything, and the two don’t really make good bedfellows to be honest. It was only when I allowed myself to spend vast amounts of time shooting what I loved that I found my way ahead and became known amongst a growing list of clients as the photographer who could catch the spirit of a place. That’s what I enjoyed doing, and my clients saw it in my shots before I did!
Our Approach to Photography Dictates our Style
I’ve come to realise that photographic style is all about how I do my photography. It’s not really a chosen path that dictates how I do something, in fact it’s quite the opposite: my personal style is created by my approach to my photography rather than my photography being dictated by my style. How do I compose my shots? What particular techniques do I employ to arrange the parts of my composition? How do I work with light? What processing technique do I use? How do I then present my work?
All of these are questions, the answers to which can help define individual style. These considerations will eventually gel together to become the way you do things. However before looking at how a personal style can be cultivated it’s worth asking the question ‘do you really need to have a particular style’.
If you enjoy shooting lots of subjects, have an eclectic approach to processing and glory in being a creative butterfly and don’t need to become ‘known’, then perhaps concerns about nailing a particular style are not for you. If the pursuit inhibits your creativity I suggest just getting on with shooting your way without prejudice and immersing in the joy of your photography without trying to enforce restrictive regimens.
Trying to get Seen?
A style is only really of value if you want to become known for it, and if you have any hopes of making it professionally then it absolutely does matter, even if this is simply selling a few prints, getting subscribers for your blog or being published in magazines. Buyers (and followers) choose their photographers because their style fits with their branding, their interests and their needs, therefore it becomes paramount in the search for clients.
For most photographers this is not a concern but still, your style may creep up on you and define you in the eyes of your audience whoever that might be. You can probably think of countless photographers who’s work exudes their style. Pep Ventosa, Martin Parr, Michael Kenna, Valda Bailey and David Ward come immediately to mind as photographers who’s images are instantly recognisable as their own. Can you think of any? I know two of these personally and trust me, they didn’t go searching for their style, it just kind of developed. And that’s the secret really, if there is one.
Your style will find you, or more accurately your style will grow as you shoot and study and create something of your photography. If we shoot consistently, deepening and exploring the aspects of photography that excite and engage us it’s inevitable that this will mature into a way of doing things that is ‘particular to oneself’ to go back to the dictionary definition of style.
So it fits that if a photographer really enjoys multiple disciplines she will eventually develop a range of styles with some overlap between the topics she turns her attention to. This does take time of course and may never happen if she doesn’t give sufficient attention to her creative process and discover what she enjoys the most. Time is indeed of the essence.
Building an Audience
Further to this, if she is trying to build an audience it’s hugely important that she only shows work that fits within her one chosen style, her way of working, rather than confusing her followers with images captured in many different styles. With a consistent approach, and showing only work that exhibits a particular feel, a photographer will eventually be recognisable from their pictures and will pique the interest of relevant buyers or followers.
This will mean that the photographers audience will come to know their speciality whether the chosen platform is Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, their own website or whatever. The shots will be memorably, recognisably theirs and so they’ll become known, and booked, on the strength of the particular look that they can bring. There’s little in the way of a high quality market for generalist shooters today which makes it more important than ever to become known for a niche or a look.
Even if a jobbing photographer shoots a wide range of subjects and enjoys creating outcomes in a variety of styles it’s hugely important that he keeps his portfolio tight and focused rather than posting every aspect of his work. After all, if a client is looking for a photographer who specialises is sepia toned garden shoots they’re more likely to commission someone who shows nothing but sepia toned garden shots in their online portfolio, rather than the photographer who adds beach scenes, action sports, montages and colourful people shots into the mix! Most likely our monochrome garden photographer does enjoy shooting other genres but has the good sense to keep those images away from the eyes of his potential clients.
Consistency is the key.
If you feel like flitting between different topics, processes and outcomes that’s all good too. What’s the point of hobbling yourself if you don’t really need to become known for a particular style. However, if you get out and shoot on a very regular basis, study creative photography and take a proactive approach to your craft you will most likely develop a look that is particularly you and one day someone will say to you, I saw that shot and instantly knew it was yours! That’s it, your style has found you!
If you’d like to enjoy a guided approach to your photography and draw on my 50 years of boots on the ground experience take a look at my new Creativity Beyond the Camera Club which is geared towards helping photographers of all abilities develop their own, unique creative voice.