Style is something a lot of photographers, and maybe a lot of creatives talk about. Style is a positive thing, something to attain, something to have. At least it seems so. I don’t think it’s something to have, it’s something you are. Something you can avoid, but it’s obvious when you do.
Last week another photographer and I talked about how we love the look of white and ephemeral photos. You know, the ones that look beautiful and make you feel happy all at the same time. But as much as we love that style, we agreed over our coffee that we hated our own photos when we attempted that style. It wasn’t that we were taking bad photos, it only wasn’t who we were.
I’ll add here that her style is not like mine either. Which is totally ok. I love her work and admire her for having what I would call an edgy style. It’s definitive and absolutely her. I can pick her photos out because I know her and her style fits her. There is no other way to explain it.
I’m going to boil down to my point in a minute but first I want you to consider your own style. You might be searching for it or not sure if you have one. I’ve been there – I wanted someone to tell me what my style was because that would be so much easier! I could then shoot and process that way. Fit myself into a system and work it. Or, someone may have told you to develop your style or that your work or portfolio needs more cohesion. Yes, I’ve been there too. In any of these situations you wonder how you will ever figure out a style.
And here’s my point. You don’t figure out a style like you figure out a system. You can’t just choose a style, pick out an action or preset that fits it, and use it until kingdom come. You won’t love your work then. And you’re no longer pushing yourself but creating a factory. You aren’t allowing for growth, development, and curiosity to flourish.
Instead, your style is you. It is many things about you. You have to dig and then dig even deeper to pull out what elements make up your style. It’s tough work because it requires you to shoot a lot, process a lot, think a lot, and be curious. It requires you to think about yourself, your past, and your feelings. That can be tough especially when our society urges us to repress a lot of that. It requires growth, which may hurt a little. In short you have to let it all surface and feel it.
Then when you do that, your style will emerge. But, don’t trash it if you’re unsure of it, are afraid of it, or don’t care for it at first. I tried to ignore my style. I didn’t want it to be what it was because it wasn’t popular or pretty. But I’ve found I’ll never love my photos until I embrace it and accept it as me. Embrace your style and use it to express what you want. That expression will come out much clearer and you’ll consistently love your photos.
So what makes up your style? How do you discover it? What do you need to do? I know you’re scanning trying to figure all this out. But remember, it’s a journey. It takes some time, acceptance, and searching. And I do have some things that will help.
If you know you need to make your work more cohesive, want to define a style for yourself, or are not even sure if you have a style, then consider these exercises to dig in and discover.
Copying is good, especially in the beginning because you learn a lot. You learn how to do something and you learn whether you like something or not. Let me make a disclaimer here though. I don’t mean outright copying someone word for word or element for element. What I mean is, take a characteristic you like about something (I say something because it doesn’t have to be a photograph) then use it for your own purposes. Discover if you love that element in your work. Many times you’ll find you don’t like it when you do it and other times you’ll find it works great with a few tweaks. But you are taking a characteristic, not an entire idea, and borrowing it to play with and create your own work.
For example, I love the bright white, rustic, Fixer Upper look. When I explored it in my photography, I found I didn’t like the bright white part of it. I do love the rustic, but not because it’s rustic. I love it because I love the texture rustic elements create. It took a long time to figure that out but now I know texture is a part of my style. It took countless photos (thank goodness for digital) and me wondering what my problem was. But the more I played and teased out the elements, the more I discovered what I loved about it.
Take a deep look at yourself. Find your why, find your heart, and find your past. Within all these you’ll find yourself and what makes your photos you. So look into your past and write down descriptive words about the child you were. How you played, how you acted, how you interacted. What your favorite things to do were and what you loved.
For example, I played well by myself and actually enjoyed it. That comes out in my photos as I find many of them have only a single person in them. I also loved to organize as a child. My mom caught me when I was 2 lining up the recycling along the wall in perfect order. I find this characteristic in my love of lines, organization, and geometry in my photos. I also love shadows and contrast that create a more moody photo. This is a result of my love for a good mystery book. I couldn’t put down a Nancy Drew as a child and was reading Agatha Christie at 11 years.
Besides your childhood, take a look at what you love now. How you feel. What you surround yourself with. If it’s easier, start with the surface. How do you decorate your home or dress yourself? These will give you clues to your photos.
I almost always dress in neutrals but add one color item, usually a belt or shoes. I find I love monochromatic or neutral photos with a hint of color or a vibrant pop of a color. My home looks the same way. My living room is all neutrals with hints of orange and green here and there.
After that go deeper. Look at your life and the emotions you felt, the stories you’ve seen. What stands out to you? These are the stories and emotions your style leans towards. Get to know yourself. Are you an introvert? Do you find humor in almost everything? Are you a thinker? Knowing your own personality will help you create themes in your photography.
If you’ve ever heard people gush about how they found their style with a 365, believe it. There’s a reason regular and consistent shooting and processing help photographers develop their style. Elements start to stand out and you see patterns and development. So, if you want to define your style, start a personal project that requires you to shoot, explore, and challenge yourself.
Here’s two assignments that are sure to make you start thinking then acting on what you find.
First take your time to create a portfolio or file of photos that other people captured. There are two criteria here. First collect many – like upwards to 100. Second only choose photos that speak to you. That you love. Not that you only like or find interesting or you think are well made. They can be terrible photos but if it moves you put it in the file.
After you’ve chosen your photos, go through them one by one and write down one characteristic of each that you love about the photo. Make it the thing you love the most. After you’ve made the list, go through it. What are the patterns you see? Is there a singular or a couple of characteristics that stand out? Start with those elements and include them in your own photography (see Copying above).
Second, create a portfolio of your own work, with the same two criteria as above. Collect around 100 of your absolute favorite photos. They do not need to be technically good. This is only for you. You only need to love them. Do the same assignment with this group. Go through them and list what you love about them. Then go over those elements and decipher the patterns. Are there any that keep cropping up that you need to pay more attention to?
Keep going back to those elements in both these exercises and include them in your work. If you find an element isn’t working then explore why or give it up.
Finding your style is a journey. It’s a discovery that requires introspection, work, and the understanding that it’s deeply personal. This journey may take you to explore styles or elements you never thought of. As I developed my style I wasn’t sure of it because it wasn’t popular, it didn’t look pretty, and I didn’t know what to think about it. But I did know that I loved my photos more. As a result, I can’t ditch that style because it is me. It’s my hope that with these suggestions you can arrive at your style more directly than I did.