Letting Your Style Find You
Experienced photographers will oftentimes explain that one of the most important things anemerging photographer can do is to identify and develop their “style” of photography. They will talk about the importance of having a personal photographic style so that people seeing your work will identify it as yours and they point to photographers such as Ansell Adams, Steve McCurry or Annie Leibovitz as examples of photographers that have developed a signature style of photography.
This can send emerging photographers on a fruitless exploration of Photoshop plugins, odd compositions and an endless array of photographic experiments in search of something they can call their “style” of photography. My reality has been that these types of photographic excursions are rarely fruitful, oftentimes frustrating and ultimately end up where they artistically began and the emerging photographer is no closer to “finding” their style of photography than when they began.
I believe that we never really “find” our artistic style, but rather, it finds us and when it does, we are stuck with it forever. The question then becomes; how do we create a space where our artistic style can find us?
While not very enlightening, it’s important to recognize that the vast majority of photographers (you and me) won’t have a photographic style until after they have taken thousands of photographs. While our parents and close friends have already expressed that we are photographic geniuses, we still need to create thousands of photographs before any aesthetic tendencies will start to shine through.
For those that have already created the requisite thousands of photographs, the next step involves taking a day (or two) to look through each photograph, flagging the ones deemed to be “the best”. It doesn’t matter if others like the image and in fact, it’s probably best to ignore what anyone else has said and just select the images that you like best. Once the first group of images is flagged, go back and do the same thing a second time (third if necessary) until there are only the top 20-40 images remaining.
The Fun Part
It’s now time to look for what these images have in common. Said another way, what are your aesthetic tendencies. Is there a common subject matter (people, landscape, still life, etc.,), composition (flat, angled, distant, close, symmetry, balance, angular, etc.,), use of color and tone (hues included, omitted, high contrast, low contrast, saturation, greyscale), etc. The goal isn’t to identify differences because not every image will have all of the tendencies, but rather, to discover what is similar amongst the images and take note of those similarities.
After identifying a decent set of tendencies, establish a project for the next number of months to create images that embrace those tendencies. While its not necessary to use every tendency in every image, the goal is to use them in creating images that you really love, regardless of what anyone else in the world thinks.
For me, embracing my aesthetic tendencies was like coming home. I threw off any notion of creating different types of images and created a series of images that I wanted to create. They embraced the framing, coloring, composition, subject matter, etc., that I was drawn to and it was a new and liberating experience. It still took a lot of time and effort before I worked through all of the nuances of what I enjoyed and encompassed as an artist, and to some extent, I continue along that path today, but it gave me a solid base to start from.
A few of my initial tendencies have been replaced since then but for the most part, the things I saw originally, remain with me today. While we can all still try new things and explore different topics with our photography, once you’ve identified and embraced your tendencies, it becomes almost impossible to create images any other way.