Developing Your Style

December 22, 2021

Serious photographers work hard to find their style. Searching for that certain something that says "this is the work of "x."" It can take years for a photographer to develop their own personal style. And some never do, happily content snapping away without ever committing to a particular style.

Style is borne out of many things. Visual styles are often first developed through studying other photographers’ and artists’ work. That process usually starts when we are very young children before we even have any interest in becoming an artist. And it continues and grows after we pursue photography as a craft. And that stylistic inspiration isn’t limited to just printed images and photography. Often as children we may see scenes in real life, in movies, or on television and some of those images get imprinted on our brains and end up influencing us for a lifetime. For me, some of my earliest visual influences came through many sources.

Things that influenced me greatly included my visits to parks (being out in a natural environment,) being out after dark in New York City (mesmerized by glowing lights in the darkness,) flipping through my mom’s album collection (the amazing covers,) some of the illustrated books of my childhood (most enchanted by forest scenes,) the circus (the spectacular of performance and action,) a religious prayer book illustrated with nature photos (peace through a connection with nature,) and television (especially the musical performances on variety shows where the performers were dressed in sparkly outfits that would sparkle and hypnotize me as a child.) Those things had a great influence on my visual tastes and still impact me today.

Take the time to think about it and you will find that you too have a list. Those early influences likely have had more of an affect that you realize. Making a list could help you on your way to discovering your personal style. Writing it down helps you sort it out better.

Other factors that can strongly influence your style are your subjects and available shooting situations. Your subject matter often dictates how it needs to be captured. If your preferred style is of, for example, light and airy high key imagery with no shadows but what you have to shoot are buildings and scenes under harsh high contrast lighting with strong shadows, then things are not going to work out for you at that particular time. You will need to either adapt your style or come back at another time or find another subject. But that is the thing about style, you’ll find that your subjects will influence your shooting style. If you live in a city surrounded by such high contrast scenes in daylight, you’ll find through practice how to make those scenes work photographically. And then suddenly that high contrast look becomes part of your style. Or you can find that you can’t work with it, and then opt to shoot only with artificial light or during overcast days.

But don’t forget that you don’t need to shoot everything the same way or under the same lighting conditions in order to have a personal style. I have a love of different lighting situations and subjects. I use whatever techniques necessary to capture the best possible image of whatever it is that I am shooting at the time. But everything still ends up coming together well as a collection in my body of work. And that’s the thing about style, some aspects of it are so subtle that you may not even notice it while you’re shooting. The way you compose a scene or frame your subject are a big part of your style, even if they may not be as obvious as some other stylistic aspects such as key, lighting, or color preferences.

Other strong factors contributing to your style are your photographic knowledge and gear. Your gear influences your style simply because of how certain cameras and lenses record a scene. For example, using a compact camera will render scenes with deep focus because of the smaller sensors in those cameras (do an internet search if you want to learn more about the physics that are the reason for this.) You will find creating images with shallow depth of field, an aspect of my own personal style, an impossibility with those types of cameras. If you shoot with a Holga or pinhole camera, you will find creating images with deep depth of field and high sharpness an impossibility. Is it the camera that influences a photographer’s style or is it the photographer that chooses to use particular gear to support his style? It can be either and sometimes even both. I think an SLR or mirrorless camera along with a two zoom lens basic kit is an ideal place for any photographer to start gear wise. As your experience grows and your style develops, you can add more lenses to your kit as needed. I myself bought lenses over the years to support my then current work and had often found that those tools made an impact on my style. Both by supporting my style and also by influencing it, which I will later explain in this post.

Here are some tips on how to develop your own personal photographic style:

Observe & Critique The Work Of Others

Yes right back to the beginning again: observation. Only this time more proactively. Spending time looking at other photographers’ work helps us to decide what types of images are pleasing to us and also inspires us to try new things photographically. Putting into words what exactly it is that you like about an image can help you to remember to incorporate some of those elements into your own shooting repertoire. I am not encouraging to copy someone’s work exactly, although trying to duplicate a photo exactly can be a great learning exercise. Rather, I am encouraging you to find inspiration to try new techniques. Expanding your range is one way to help grow your own personal style.

Observe & Critique Your Own Work

Taking the time to critique your own work is an invaluable tool to develop your own style. I discuss learning through the editing process in my blog post "Editing As Part Of The Learning Process." In addition to using that time to critique your technique, you can also use that time to observe any trends in your work. Those trends are clues to your personal style. When gathering images that you wish to print or share online, try to put those images into collection folders in your computer. Organize your images by theme and you will often see a stylistic trend throughout your work. If you do not, don’t worry. You just haven’t developed your style yet. Keep shooting and working at it. If you do, you’ll eventually start to see a stylistic trend emerge.

Shallow depth of field is part of my style. Here I used a telephoto lens and a wide aperture to achieve it.

Post Your Work Online

There are many online communities that you can post your photos to. Comments on those sites can range from simple compliments to more wordy critiques that often contain clues to help you understand and find your photographic style. Because of my adventures with 3D digital art, I used to post a lot to an online community called Renderosity, which is primarily a 3d imaging art site. After I redeveloped my love affair with photography again in 2006, I started posting my photos there. The photo community there is very small but helpful. Through the comments I received there, I started to discover my own personal style. While I may have eventually noticed a style throughout my work, I do feel that posting there helped me to develop my style much quicker than I would have been able to do on my own. Another benefit to participating in an online community is that you will also learn by critiquing the work of others. Taking the time to verbalize exactly why you like someone’s photo not only helps them grow as an artist, but also you as well.

Two rules however. One: don’t post if you can’t find the time to comment on others’ works. That is especially important if posting to a smaller online community, such as Renderosity’s photo galleries. For a larger site like Flickr, the best way to get views and comments is to post in groups. These groups also require you to participate. It’s a give and take to participate in these groups online, if you don’t comment and favorite other photographers’ work, you can’t expect them to do the same for you. And two: don’t be mean. If you don’t like a photo, no need to comment. But if you do choose to comment, never be cruel. You may choose to give advice on how to make a photo stronger, but unless the poster requests an honest critique and solicits advice, it is best just to keep your critique to yourself. It is a great idea however, to critique the image in your head for your own learning process.

One of my most viewed & repinned images on Pinterest.

Build Your Photographic Knowledge Base

One of the best things about photography is how diverse it is. No matter how much you know, you can always learn more. There are so many different types of photographic subjects that you can stay busy for a lifetime experimenting with all of them. First, make sure you know all the basics. Learn by taking a course or workshop, reading books and magazines, watching instructional videos, or reading on the internet. And most importantly, by then doing what you have just learned about as nothing beats real life experimentation. Having a solid foundation of photographic knowledge will help you whether you want to record a scene realistically or if you want to go even further and manipulate the scene to record as you envision it. By having a wide photographic knowledge base, you can chose to use advanced techniques that would be unavailable to a less experienced photographer. Once you have mastered the basics, you can beyond just taking a nice snapshot and instead record an image with style.

Here I used my Lensbaby lens. Soft & dreamy images like this one are a big part of my photographic style.

Build Your Photographic Kit

As I have already mentioned, your gear can have an effect on your photographic style. Besides the obvious benefits and limitations of your chosen type of camera and its system, there are other factors that can influence your style. Some lenses lend themselves well to certain types of imagery. For example, a lens with a wide aperture that is capable of recording beautiful bokeh lends itself well to dreamy, shallow depth of field imagery. Or it would in my hands anyway, since my style is biased that way. But a photographer that normally shoots deep focus images, may find that having such a lens leads them to experimenting with shallow depth of field for the first time. That lens can then possibly have an influence on the evolution of that photographer’s style.

I like to add to my kit slowly. Choosing to add lenses and accessories to my kit one at a time and fully exploring each new item before buying something new. If you already have a personal style, you should chose gear that supports your style and also fills in the "holes" in your gear bag such as perhaps the need for a lens in the telephoto or wide angle focal lengths. In my case I needed something to help me record better macros, which is why I purchased the Ex25 extension tube many years ago. That purchase filled a "hole" in my camera bag and also supported my love of closeups which are part of my photographic style. Other past equipment purchases that influenced my style were my Lensbaby and both of my telephoto lenses – a 40-150mm and 70-300mm (80-300mm and 140-600mm in 35mm size equivalent.)

What equipment will end up influencing your own photographic style? Some ideas are to try focal lengths not already covered by your kit lenses. Macro lenses, extension tubes, and tele-extenders can also help you enter the exciting world of closeup photography. A new camera can also end up influencing your style as well, especially one with an expanded dynamic range or high ISO capability, or perhaps some other feature that you never experienced before.

My EX25 Tube had influenced me to capture many wonderful closeups such as this one.

Use Filters & Computer Effects

Some photographers like to use filters, either in the computer or optical filters on the lenses, as part of their style. When done skillfully and with artistic expression in mind, rather than done just as a gimmick, filters can be effective. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and if you find a technique that works for you make it a collection of images using those techniques. Even though I prefer to do most of my effects in camera, I have a few collections based around computer effects such my recent Altered Vision collection which is based on a computer filter to mimic cross processed film.

A favorite from my Altered Vision series. Color enhanced in Photoshop.

Take Snapshots

Don’t be afraid to take photos just for fun without worrying about where they fit in with your photo collections. You may choose not to display those images as part of your portfolio, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take them. I often need to remind myself of this one.

Get A Professional Critique

Having your portfolio reviewed by a professional at a portfolio review session is a good way to help discover your personal style. A pro can objectively tell you where your photographic strengths and weaknesses lie. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially if you are paying for the review.

Get Out There & Shoot

That’s the very best way to develop your style. All the reading and photo viewing alone won’t help you develop style, only a lot of image taking will. In the days of film that is the main reason why professional photographers’ work were so much better than that of hobbyist shooters. They were just out there more often, and shooting more photos than the average enthusiast. It was just too expensive for hobbyist shooters to afford the high costs of such luxurious frame after frame shooting sessions. With digital that has changed, and hobbyists can now shoot all the photos they want without having to worry about throwing away money by taking risky shots. Memory cards and off computer storage (dvds, removable hard drives, etc.) are cheap now. Take advantage of that fact and shoot, shoot, shoot!

All these tips have helped me develop my own style. I hope these tips get you off to a good start to developing and evolving your own photographic style. Now turn off your computer and go shoot something!

Expanding my range by shooting wide.

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