3 tough truths about finding your photographic style
After coming home from a shoot, I uploaded my photos into Lightroom and started sorting through them. When the photo above popped up, I felt a brief wave across my brain and a quick squeeze in my stomach that comes when I see an image I’ve made and just know: this is exactly right.
It wasn’t some epic shot I’d been trying over and over to get, nor was it necessarily because of a purposeful composition or subject. Frankly, it was an unexpected moment caught in a few seconds as a wild urban coyote moved through the brush. But I got that rush of excitement at seeing the image because something I had been working on for awhile finally showed up.
Invisibly, but certainly there, is me.
There are some photographers whose work you immediately recognize because they have a certain style, a certain approach to the scene or subject. Maybe it’s the mood, or the angle, the light they prefer or the depth of field. Whatever it is there’s a something that makes you look and say, “Oh, I know who took that.” Or at least, “This reminds me of [photographer]’s work.”
Nick Brandt’s elephants, Ian McAllister’s wolves, Brian Skerry’s marine life, Cristina Mittermeier’s indigenous people… there are photographers who show their subjects in a way that you see the subject, but also recognize the photographer in how the subject is shown. It is a certain something that sets their work apart, that makes it identifiable. It’s like recognizing someone’s voice as soon as they say, “Hello” on the phone. You recognize the pitch, the accent, the way they stress certain syllables – you don’t need them to announce their name to know who is on the other end of the line.
I had been wondering for years when I would find my voice in photography. It was an evolution I knew would happen if I just let it roll forward on its own. I have waited a long time for it to appear, and during that time I’ve learned three difficult truths about the process, or really the waiting, behind finding one’s own style.
You don’t find your style, your style finds you
There are dozens of articles on the web about finding your style in a certain number of steps. The claim is that by following their five steps, or seven steps or ten steps, your style will suddenly emerge. It’s true you can do a few things to help move the process along, like study the work of other photographers with whose style you feel a kinship, or give yourself assignments to push your creativity or editing process.
While these strategies will help your photography in many ways, a genuine style is something that cannot be decided on and then pursued. That would be the same as deciding what personality you want to have and then acting only in that way. A nice idea (and something so many self-help books promote) but not realistic. You are who you are, and your style is an extension of that.
It’s not something anyone can force, or else the forcing is made apparent in a photograph that just doesn’t sit quite right with viewers. There’s a something that isn’t there, or is too much there. You just know when someone tries too hard. It has to come forward on its own.
For the last few years, I’ve simply kept a set of emotions and thoughts in my head as I shoot — a nebulous, shapeless notion of what I like, of who I am, of what I think on an instinctual level about a scene. I’ve tried to bring that out in the images I take, and in the images I select for editing.
Eventually, those decisions added up into something that has become more and more apparent, like a mist slowly thinning until you can finally make out the scene beyond.
Your style is crafted with intuition
Ask any expert and they will tell you that to make great photographs, you need to know your subject well. Knowing your subject provides you a connection with them, allows you to predict behavior or movements which leads to capturing “the decisive moment.”
When you know your subject well, you have a fluidity of feeling and thought. You shoot with your heart as much as your head. There is an intuition to knowing how to compose a scene, when to click your shutter.
And really, you can really only find this level of connection when you shoot what you love. For some, that is families or weddings, for others it is pets or wildlife, while others connect most deeply with adventure or travel or landscapes. Whatever it is, you have to find out what you most love to shoot before you can find out what your style actually is.
For me, the key factor in helping my style finally appear was my dog. I know how cliché this may sound but, let’s face it, many photographers get their beginning in photographing their own children, or their own creations in the kitchen, or their own travels or yes, their own pets.
In the first year or two of starting in photography, I struggled in finding subject matter with which I really connected. I began with street photography since opportunities were everywhere, but never felt comfortable photographing strangers. Sports photography had a certain appeal because I love tracking fast movement and capturing a critical moment, but I don’t have a connection with sports themselves. I have always had a profound connection to the natural world, and I finally knew that wildlife photography was where I was headed. But even then, for the first couple years I was taking descent photos but not photos that said something, not photos where I looked at them and got that squeeze in my stomach. My photos were the result of a certain fledgling skill set and a situation, but they lacked soul.
Then I got my dog.
There is such a quiet comfort in our hikes and beach runs together, such an intimacy of spirit that it makes it easy to create images in the way I want to create them. I know my dog like I know myself. I know what each little flinch of muscle means, I know what he’s going to do before he does it because I can see him planning a move as he plans it.
It was through this connection with him that I finally started to truly connect with my photography. My subject wasn’t going anywhere, I wasn’t worried about a wild animal taking off, about missing my one and only chance with a species. I could play.
Importantly, it was at the same time that I adopted him and was working on The Ethiopian Wolf book. I realized that canids have my heart and soul. And when I realized that, I knew it wasn’t long before I would start to see my style click into place — quietly, tenuously, it would arrive if I was patient and mindful.
With enough time photographing my own dog, photographing rescue dogs, and photographing wild coyotes and other canid species, I started to see my style appear in the same way as an image appears on a sheet of paper floating in a bath of developer.
But this was when the third lesson became apparent.
If you can’t translate your style into every subject you shoot, then you haven’t really found your style
One bit of advice from experts is to study the photography of the greats. Learn how they crafted iconic photographs and with that knowledge, go shoot. But there is a difference between copying and creating, and it takes knowing your own style in order to create.
You can study the masters, but you’ll only find your style through study if you can identify exactly what about their photos speak to you. Recognizing that you connect with the photos is step one. Step two is zeroing in on exactly why. When you know why, you can question if that aspect of their style is actually part of your style, or if it is simply something you appreciate as a viewer.
So if you want to study the masters, you need to know that you’ll only find the smallest fragments of scattered somethings, that you then have to recognize in yourself in order to adopt, or rather, to nurture. If some approach to composition, or some relationship to light, or some preference for expression isn’t in you already, it’ll probably never be part of you. So resolve to appreciate that in other images but continue the search for your own ideals.
This is important because when you copy a style, it’s difficult to translate it to everything you shoot. It is something you have to be highly conscious of in order to pull off because it doesn’t come naturally. But if you discover yourself, you can translate that into anything you shoot, because all you’re doing is being you.
Some beginners think they can rely on a certain preset or filter in post processing to give their images a unique look. But this is jamming a square peg into a round hole. You can’t force your photos through a filter and pretend you’ve created a style. The only thing people will recognize of you in your photos is that you have a penchant for a certain filter and relentlessly process your photos this way. But are you reflected in the photos? Possibly, but probably (hopefully) not.
When I first picked up photography, I thought that I didn’t want to develop a style because I wanted to be able to shoot anything in any way. I was actually mistaking a lack of skill for perceived flexibility. Because I hadn’t yet gathered a skill set solid enough to shoot in a specific style when I wanted and shift out of it into something else whenever I needed, I thought that meant I would be fettered if I did indeed settle into a style.
I eventually learned that in finding my style I am not ruling out possibility, I am polishing my identity. The reality is that once you find your own style and have a hefty set of skills to pull from, you can shift in and out of certain looks whenever the moment calls for it. You can shoot one way for a commercial client but come back into your own when working on a photo project. It becomes as easy as wearing a fancy dress for a cocktail party, then slipping back into my usual jeans and a t-shirt when I get home.
What a thrilling thing it is to know that you can stretch out of your comfort zone and come back to yourself whenever you want. How much the possibilities for your photography expand once you know who you are! You can not only shoot in whatever way is needed, but you can also bring a touch of your signature style into it as well.
When you find your style, you will find yourself looking at any image you take and saying, “I know you.”
And you will be speaking both about the subject and about you.