Developing A StyleMay 22, 2023
A question that I see come up often in conversation is “how do I create my own style?” Every time I see the conversation start, it quickly gets flooded with anecdotes and well—this post will be no different. However, I want to also talk about my thought process on what style is, and why it might be easier than you think to develop one. You’re probably doing it already!
When I first started taking photos, I definitely didn’t have a style. Truthfully, I don’t know if it’s possible to have one right away. I just had things that caught my attention and I started taking pictures of those things. Most of them would make for bad photos when judged against any of my more recent work, but not all of them. If you’re looking for a style, I’d suggest to start as simply as possible and just take pictures of what you like. Maybe you like flowers, or your pet, or the beach, or any number of things—take pictures of those things, and review them. Don’t just review them the day you take them, either. Go back to them from time to time and see how what you did then matches what you’re doing currently. What made you take that picture, what do you think you’d do differently? Things often take some time to reveal themselves, and a personal style is no different.
As you continue to practice and take photos, you’ll gain more and more information about your tendencies. Do you have a preferred framing? Are you drawn to specific colors, specific subjects? Are there common themes present in what you photograph? If the answer is “no,” don’t fret. Just keep photographing what you like—and be open to that changing as time goes on.
Maybe you’ve taken enough pictures in the same way, and you want to shake things up. Allow yourself to do that, and more importantly, allow yourself to be bad at it. No one starts out taking the best photos, or to look at it another way, you’ll have many “best photo you’ve ever taken” moments as time goes on. The best photo you’ve ever taken in your first year might not even be a contender for top five once you have two or three years under your belt.
What if you’re looking for inspiration? There are so many places you can go for that, and it doesn’t have to be limited to photography. Check out a museum, pick up a book or a magazine, take note of images you see while out and about, etc. I tend to think that inspiration and curiosity are linked, so hopefully seeing something that inspires you makes you curious about how you can incorporate some of those elements into your own work. Speaking of curiosity, there are many free resources to learn different techniques for taking and editing photographs. Take some time to learn something new and then try to apply it out in the field. I think that peers can also be a great source of inspiration. Seeing work that you enjoy to the point that you’d like to try and make it yourself can yield some interesting results, and I think a lot of styles are just an amalgam of the things we observe—and it’s that personal blend and perception that makes it unique.
The photos above—a portrait, a street scene, and a live music shot—all have my same style. I’ve always enjoyed reflections, deep shadows, and little pockets of light. I keep an eye out for it, and it’s a treat when I can capture one or more of those things in an image. All my photos aren’t like this, but I think that when people are asked to describe my work, photos like these are the ones that come to mind. I took these photos and I feel confident in the style they represent. How will you know when you’ve found a style you like? I think you’ll feel a personal satisfaction that comes from within you. Speaking of which, try not to let your social media momentum dictate what you do or don’t create. You make your art; your audience doesn’t. It is a really difficult thing to keep in mind sometimes, because it’s very easy to attach the value of your work to its online reception, but those things don’t always align. There are things that will get a lot of traction that won’t be what you like, and there will be things you love that are seemingly invisible. There are so many things that go into that—algorithms, dubious engagement tactics, legit marketing—none of those things serve the development of your style. Try not to let it sway you.
The last thing I’ll touch on is originality. I said this earlier, but a lot of styles are just mutations and derivations of other things. Your next original idea might just be a novel twist on something much more common, or maybe it’ll be several iterations beyond that. Maybe you’ll think of something you’ve never seen before. You’ll go do it, and then learn that it’s the same idea someone else had decades ago—you just weren’t aware. There’s nothing wrong with that, and that isn’t a reason not to do it anymore. I remember the day that I learned about Ernst Haas. I had never heard of him or seen his work before, but once I saw it, I saw a lot of things that I liked taking pictures of in his work. There are photographs of his from the 1950s and 1970s that use reflections and silhouettes in ways I absolutely adore. I still take photos like that, even though people have been doing it way before I was born. I do it because I keep that first rule in mind: take pictures of what you like.