"How did you develop your photographic style?"
It's probably the question I get asked the most, but I rarely give the answer that people want to hear. The fact is a photographic style takes years and years to develop with hundreds if not thousands of hours behind the lens.
To further cement that fact, consider that every image of mine currently out there on the web was taken after I'd already put in those thousands of hours. I simply don't have any images out there that I took whilst I was finding my way, and even if you did see the old shots, you wouldn't recognise them as mine because after all, they aren't taken in my style.
Is a photographic style important?
So how important is a photographic style? Do we need one? Why do I need one? To explain why I believe a photographic style is important I'm going to first discuss what I perceive to be the route to being a successful professional photographer and what importance a photographic style plays in that.
The Three Keys to a Successful Business
I'm often heard preaching at the start of my workshops that to be a successful at anything, you need to be able to do one of these three things. And by 'successful' I mean make money - I fully appreciate that this is not the definition of success so I'm referring to becoming a professional photographer in this instance.
1. Be cheaper than your competitor. It's just a basic rule of economics that you'll always find clients who will always be happy to pay the least amount for a deliverable.
2. Be the best at what you do. This is fairly obvious; the fastest person around the track will always be able to make a successful living, after all you're the best at it.
3. Offer something unique. This is simple supply and demand; if you are the only person selling something, people have to buy it from you. You've cornered the market.
Why Those Three Keys to Success Don't Apply to a Successful Photographic Business
Here's where that roadmap to success gets tricky for us photographers in the current market.
Number 1 - Be Cheaper
With the digital age of photography being here to stay it's fairly easy to see just how many of us have access to powerful cameras. With this global love of photography and it's incredibly low barrier to entry has come the proliferation of photographers (camera owners) willing to work for free. I'm not here to argue whether it's right to wrong as that's about as futile as arguing with the sun for coming up each morning. The fact is, it happens and it happens a lot, we've all done it and it's simply unlikely to ever change.
So to be the cheapest photographer is actually an impossibility, in fact photographers are now paying magazines to be featured in them where as only a few years ago, the magazines were paying us. It's due to this incredibly odd phenomenon of people being happy to work for free that makes the first rule to success of 'be cheaper' redundant.
Number 2 - Be Better
This one seems pretty straight forward. All you have to do is be better than your competition and you'll be successful. Put the work in and you'll be rewarded. This is indeed true for formula 1 drivers, or runners and in fact any business where you can somehow prove that you're the best. For us creatives that's a little harder. I can't prove I'm better than you at photography because all art is subjective.
Just like you can't prove to me that your favourite music is better than my favourite music, it's subjective based on the tastes of the customer. Don't get wrong, of course we like to tell ourselves that if I do this for 10 years I'll be better than somebody who has been doing it for 10 months but it simply isn't true as that person who's only been shooting for a heartbeat may well be far more successful *cough*brooklyn*beckham*cough*
Number 3 - Be Different
By now there should be a lightbulb going off in your mind with this last one because being different is where we as creatives can really excel. If you as a business offer something that nobody else can offer, you will be successful. This is hard to do in certain businesses like accounting, window cleaning or plumbing as they provide a service that revolves around a complete or incomplete status. I have a leaky pipe, I call a plumber and he fixes it. He gets paid when the job is very clearly and definably complete and the pipe isn't leaking any more. You don't shop around for the plumber that is offering you something different. So if we as photographers can offer something to a client that they love but they can't get anywhere else, they have to pay what we ask.
Welcome to the importance of a photographic style.
You Already Have a Photographic Style
Just like a musician or a painter or a chef, the success of a photographer is built on their ability to offer something different and unique and we refer to this a photographic style. You'll be pleased to know that there is actually no way to avoid this if you're human. Do anything long enough and you'll eventually have a style or personalised way of doing it. It's not right or wrong nor is it better or worse than anybody else's, it's simply your interpretation of that task.
The reason I say we all have a photographic style is because we all have preferences as individual people and our preferences are different for each of us. For example we all like different foods, different colours, different music and different photos. These preferences are already built into you right now.
Take a look at the three images below and pick your favourite.
The image you choose is irrelevant but just be aware that other people will have chosen a different favourite image to you and that is what makes you different. Of course I only gave you a very small sample to choose from so there's going to be a lot of people that chose the same image as you, but now take that same principle and apply it to all images everywhere. The chances of two people choosing all the same favourite images is very unlikely.
The point I'm making here is that you already know what you like, that's the really important thing I want you to take away here as I want you to trust in that and follow it.
Don't you ever get bored of shooting gel shots?
This is another question that I've received a few times in the past and the answer is 'no, of course not'. I wasn't visited one night by the photo gods and assigned as 'the gel guy' forever, never allowed to shoot another black and white landscape for as long as I lived. I don't get up and think:
'Ughhhh, not another gel shoot! I wish I could just shoot some f1.2 natural light shots today. Please photo-gods, be merciful!'
I don't think that because firstly I have zero interest in even recognising that as a photograph, even on my laziest and hungover art college days I never considered that to be acceptable and secondly I LOVE shooting with loads of crazy coloured lights and all of the challenges and unique possibilities that holds. I didn't choose this style to one day become bored of it, sure it will evolve and adapt but this style was in me long before I realised it and I can no more change my photographic style than I can change the fact that I detest avocados.
How to Develop your own Personal Style
Okay so finally we've made it to the part that involves actions. We've established that a photographic style is important to our success and we've established that our photographic is already inside us, now all we need to do is unlock it.
This should be simple right? After all our photographic style is already inside us as a collection of our likes and dislikes just waiting to be unleashed in the form of our next photograph. Yes, it is that simple, keep taking more and more pictures and over time you'll take pictures that you like and ones that you don't like. Take some more pictures and you'll find that you're taking less and less pictures that you don't like, and more pictures that you love, this is your photographic style emerging.
Doing this is just like any other creative endeavour though, it takes time. Nobody picks up the cello and expects to be writing Mozart level symphonies within 6 months but photographers seem to think their art form shouldn't abide by those rules, they want awesomeness now.
I can respect this insatiable desire to improve but remember that you haven't seen a single image from the first ten years of my career and I'd wager the same is true of a lot of other professional photographers you follow. So although a photographic style can take time to refine and master you can certainly give yourself a head start by looking at what you love and build upon that.
Unlocking your Photographic Style
I've used this technique with some of the photographers I've mentored in the past and it's proven to be useful and effective with them so I'll share with you what I shared with them and hopefully it will get you on the right path.
Step 1 - Choose 3 - 5 of your favourite photographers
This step involves you taking a little time to really think about 3 to 5 photographers whose work you really, really love. It can't really be just 1 photographer as we need a larger group of images to work from but 3 to 5 is a good place to start.
I never did this when I was starting out so I'm going to retrospectively do it with you here as if I was doing when I was starting out about 20 years ago at art college. Back then the photographic world was a very different place and in some respects, it was easier to be inspired by greatness as you only got to see the work of true masters in our field. Now, we're bombarded by millions of shots taken from all walks of life and all viable in their own right but ultimately this can be an information overload.
20 years ago I was heavily influenced by the work of Nick Knight, Nadav Kander and a little later Bruno Dayan. Before writing this article I actually hadn't looked at their work in years but going back and researching it for this article simply reinforces all of the points I've made up until now. If you're not familiar with their work then check it out and you'll see the immediate and very real impact their styles have had on my work to this day.
Step 2 - Choose 3 or 4 of your favourite images from each of their portfolio
Next I want you to sit down and go through the portfolios of each of the photographers you really love and pick out the 3 or 4 shots from each of them that you love the most. Choosing your favourite photographers should have been the hard part and the part that might have required a bit of time, but now that we're in their portfolios, choosing your favourite shots should be a little more straight forward. Sometimes it can be easier to not overthink it. Remember, you instinctively know what you like, trust yourself and don't be tricked into choosing a popular image or an image that you think you should love, just go with your gut.
At this stage it's not necessary to separate all the shots into different categories, just put 3 or 4 images from each of the photographers into a single folder.
Step 3 - Analyse each image to understand why you like it
Earlier in this article I asked you what your favourite image was out of the three that I showed you. It's very easy to ascertain what you prefer when choosing, but far harder to understand why you prefer it. Remember, even the most unartistic person in the world could have chosen which image they preferred, the skill comes in understanding why. This skill I'm referring to is probably one of the most overlooked skill in photography and ironically it's the one we use with every single image we take no matter what it is. We take a shot, look at it, and we know instantly whether we like it or not. Understanding this process is the key to getting better as it tells us what we've done wrong what we need to address to improve it.
Open up each of your chosen shots separately and list 5 or 6 things that stand out to you as the things that you love about them. At this stage remember that you could have been looking at any one of the trillions of other images out there right now at your fingertips but you've chosen this one, there must be a reason for it.
Here's some things to consider with any photograph but it may get you started. colour, composition, expression, model pose, tone, contrast, lens choice, photographer angle, scene, lighting, set design, clothing, makeup, brightness, mood, movement, backgrounds, palettes. themes, skin, texture.
The things I've outlined above are very broad but they're a start. For example, if you love the lighting in your chosen image, try to describe what it is that you like about it. Do you like the fact that it sculpts the body, do you like the fact that it hides areas in shadow or do you like the fact that it shows off the hair and makeup perfectly. The deeper you can go into interpreting why you like the shot the more understanding you'll have into what you love as a photographer.
Step 4 - The Pattern
Once you've gone through each of the images and analysed to the best of your ability what you like about each of them, it's time to bring them all together. This is the easy part as all you have to do now is look at all of the different things you've written and look for similarities among them. For example maybe you've written vibrant colour next to most of them, maybe you've written ambiguous expression or maybe even close up lens length.
It's these commonalities amongst the images that are driving you as a photographer, and it's these core ideals that you should be focusing on in your next photoshoot.
After all if you can take a photo that includes all the things that you love about about other peoples photographs, you're going to like it and by shooting what you like you develop a photographic style.
So all that sounds fairly simple right? Choose a few shots, write down what you like and then go away and take some shots that includes those things. In principle yes, it's that easy, after all a photographic style is our interpretation of what we love but as you'll find out, it's surprisingly hard to really truly understand and interpret what we love in our favourite images.
Firstly I think we find it hard to interpret images because we can often be too literal about it and our current photographic generation is convinced that the tools used to take the shot play a fundamental role in it's impression on us. Concepts like sharpness and detail are not what we actually love about a shot it is merely the delivery method of the things that actually matter such as the mood of a shot or the interest or the feeling we get from viewing it. Sharpness and detail are important but they are important like an artist choosing a squirrel haired brush over a hog or camel haired brush. They are valid choices with consequences but nobody cares what animal hair brush you used if the painting ultimately engages us and makes us feel something.
The point I'm making here is don't be afraid to analyse a shot like a viewer not a photographer.
Don't be afraid to think about how a shot makes you feel and once you've established that only then can you decode that feeling and break it down into our photographic language of composition, colour theory and so on.
As always I fully appreciate anybody who has read all the way down here, I know we live in a time of soundbites and Instagram so all the more respect to yourself for engaging for this long :) I hope this technique helps some of you to better understand one of the more mystifying topics of our photographic industry. Like I said right from the start, a photographic style takes time to develop but by doing this little exercise and understanding what you like and don't like in photos will certainly help you fast track the process.
If you have any questions then let me know and I'll do my best to answer them as quickly as I can but if you go through this exercise and want to share your results then I'd love to hear some of the repeating patterns that came out of your collection of images :)
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