The Step-By-Step Guide To Photography Style (Part 1)

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“Oh God! Everybody’s doing what I’m doing!”

It was  2005, and I’d just made the transition to digital after years of shooting film, and started working towards making a living from photography. In my film days I’d done some work for NGO’s and shot the odd wedding, and made one half-hearted attempt in the late 90’s of starting a photography business but now was the time to get serious.

In my early digital days, I was one of the only photographers in my area doing the kind of work I was doing. I was producing mostly travel stock, independently at first and later as a contract photographer for Lonely Planet Images. Over time, though, more people here started buying DSLR’s and producing their own work. A few years later, social media came along, and a lot of those images that I’d had success in licensing were now everywhere, being produced by numerous photographers.

And as I was teaching small workshops, private lessons, and running photowalks, a lot of the Sunday night uploads to Flickr weren’t all that much different from the stock photography that I was producing.

I needed something that would make my work unique again.

And I stumbled upon the one thing that could do that … it’s called style.

What Is Style?

Merriam-Webster defines style as;

  • a particular way in which something is done, created, or performed
  • a particular form or design of something
  • a way of behaving or of doing things

Other resources give similar definitions, and any one of those above can apply to photography. The way a subject is lit, the way it is processed, the choice of the camera system and focal length of the lens, the time of day — all these factors and more go into creating your style. Don’t for a moment think that it’s just about the equipment and technical elements, though.

They can help you produce your style, but your natural style will come from more intangible factors. Your interests, your dreams, and your desires are all essential components that go into creating your style.

Why Have Style?

I grew up in an era when guitar-based rock music ruled the airwaves. Within the first few seconds of a song, I can tell if the guitarist is Edward Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix. Why? Because they each have a distinct style, and in both cases, it’s a style that has spawned many imitators but no one who truly sounds the same.

… your style flows out of thousands and thousands of photographs taken over time that reflect you and your artistic vision.

Look at the art world. I bet you can recognize a Van Gogh or a Salvador Dali or an Andy Warhol work. Photography is much the same. I can see a travel photograph and instantly recognize the work of Steve McCurry. Or a portrait by Annie Leibovitz. In all cases, it’s the creator of the music or painting or photograph that gives it that unique style.

If you’re a working photographer, and your photographs look the same as everyone else’s, why would a client hire you? In a lot of cases like that, you may only get hired if you are the cheapest. After all, if you and your competition look the same, why would a client want to pay more when they can have the same thing for less?

If you have distinct characteristics, though, it is much more likely that you’re being hired because of your photography style. Cost is less of an issue because it is your unique way of seeing that is what the client wants. (Yes, there are obviously other issues that go into selecting a photographer but for the sake of argument let’s assume they are equal). Style is what makes you stand out, especially to somebody who knows nothing else about you.

Style vs. Trend

In the photography world, style and trend often get linked. If you remember back a few years, HDR was all the rage. Photomatix Pro was the software of choice, and the various photo sharing sites were full of vibrant, colorful, tone-mapped photos that ranged from realistic to cartoonish.

It seemed that everyone with a camera was creating HDR photography. The vast majority of photographers who were shooting in that manner were likely doing so because it was the trend of the time.

“Everyone is doing it, so I better too.” Then, when a new trend came along, they latched on to that one. Those photographers have probably not created an HDR photograph since.

There was, however, a much smaller segment of the photography world who had been shooting HDR long before it became popular, and continued doing it after everyone else had moved on to other things. For those photographers, it was and is their style.

Style is what makes you stand out, especially to somebody who knows nothing else about you.

That’s not to say that once you have a style, you’re stuck with it forever. A photographer may shoot in one particular style today, and after a few years, be doing something completely different.

That’s fine. There would be commercial considerations that the photographer would need to be aware of, but I know of a few photographers who have who have completely changed what and how they shot and continued to be successful. Often, they may slowly roll out their new photography style in a “Personal” section of their website, or even have a completely separate website.

Discovering Your Style

So how do you go about identifying your style? Before getting into too much detail, take a moment to look at your portfolio and see if there’s a single theme or vision running through it.

I don’t mean what genre is it, but what elements link it together. Just see if there’s a single thing that jumps out at you when considering your portfolio as a whole. If you don’t have a portfolio, then just choose 20-30 of your favorite images from the past year. If you are serious about making it as a professional photographer, this is an exercise you’ll find yourself repeating with a much larger selection of images but for now keep it simple to get an idea.

Often as photographers, we’re not fully aware of what we are shooting when we’re starting out. The temptation is to photograph anything and everything. It’s only over time, as our focus and interests become more selective that we start to see elements of a style.

And that is what creates the uniqueness to a style — your style flows out of thousands and thousands of photographs taken over time that reflect you and your artistic vision.

The Power of Three

There’s a principle in psychology that revolves around the power of three. You’re probably most familiar with it in photography through the rule of thirds. You can harness the power of three in defining the genres of photography that you concentrate on, as well as your style that reaches across genres.

I’ve spent most of my career as a working photographer in the travel field. You can divide that into three aspects: people, places, food. That does not equal style in and of itself, but just mentioning those three elements to somebody will bring up some ideas or feelings in their mind before they’ve ever seen my work.

It’s the beginnings of style. From there I can refine things down even further.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll go into more details regarding this refinement and the acquisition of style.

For now, though, your homework is to go through your own work and begin the process of identifying your style.

Take a look through your portfolio or a selection of 20-30 favorite images. This exercise makes for a good starting point.

If you want to do this thoroughly, start with a larger selection of photographs. You can do this in Lightroom by creating a Collection to hold them all – or even better, get all those images printed and spread them out on a table or on the floor.

Start looking for the common theme or themes that run through your work and you’ll have an excellent start on understanding, refining, and/or aquiring your unique photography style.