I don't mean fashion, of course. I don't care about your hat or your jacket or your shoes. I'm talking about the kind of style people see when they look at your photographs, not at you. Style is not so important when you're a beginner, because most beginning photographers are still getting their feet wet. A beginning photographer is just starting to explore the different realms of photography, to experiment with composition, subject and light. Most beginning photographers have yet to develop a personal style.
But as you move on from experimentation to mastery, if you don't have your own, personal style there's going to be a very big something missing from your portfolio. Serious photographers need to have style.
[ Top image Yellow Restaurant & Red Hotel in Normandy style by Flickr user ShironekoEuro]
What exactly is photographic style?
Very simply put, your photographic style is a reflection of the world around you, as viewed through your own eyes/lens. If you're putting a little bit of yourself into every photograph you take, you've found your style. If, however, all of your images seem generic, and/or could have possibly been taken by a million other different photographers, style is something you need to start looking for.
When you look at a professional photographer's portfolio, style is evident. If you've been following famous photographers, it is fairly easy to pick an Annie Leibowitz or Edward S. Curtis photograph out of a lineup. Ansel Adams should also be a dead giveaway. But what about those lesser-known photographers? Try snooping someone's photo stream on Flickr and see if you can spot a cohesive thread running through all of his/her photographs. If you can; you've found a photographer who has a well-defined style.
strides out by Flickr user jenny downing
The most interesting thing about this Flickr experiment is that you might not even be able to pinpoint what that cohesive thread actually is. But the more you see one photographer's images, the easier it will be to spot her images even in the absence of a caption/and or attribution.
So how do I define my own style?
The first thing you need to do is have a good old-fashioned therapy session. With yourself. What inspires you? What drives you? Are you political, artistic, or altruistic? How do you look at the world around you? Is it full of beauty and hope? Or is it gloomy and hopeless? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. A photographer can have almost any outlook on life and the world around him and use that to produce excellent photographs. But if you've never really nailed down your own personal outlook on the world, it's going to be very difficult for you to nail down your own personal photographic style, too.
Albarracín (XVI) (NO HDR) by Flickr user Jose Luis Mieza Photography
How do others define my style?
You're not done yet, because what you think about your own work may not be the same as what other people think about your work. You may be surprised to discover that your style isn't what you thought it was.
Here's another experiment: choose a dozen or so of your very best images. Print them and put them in a portfolio binder, then show the whole thing to as many people as you can. Have each person come up with a sentence or two describing the body of work as a whole. Try not to prompt them in any way, but take careful note of the words they choose. If they have a hard time coming up with just a sentence or two to describe all the photos in the collection, it could be that your style is still developing. If this is the case, then hone in on just a few of your favorite images and ask them to try again.
When you get your answer, whether it is for the entire portfolio or just a few favorite images, you'll start to have an understanding of how others see your work. Compare the answer you get from others with the way you feel about your own work. Are the two in line? Or vastly different? If they are vastly different, then you either need to change the way you approach your subjects so that it is more in line with the style you want to have, or you need to embrace the style that everyone else thinks you have.
The Golden Tones of the Blues by Flickr user ecstaticist
Now that you've nailed down your style, how can you refine it?
The answer is that you need to specialize. That doesn't mean of course that you can never deviate from your favorite subjects, but you should try to narrow your portfolio down to those subjects that you are passionate about and/or that you have a good feeling for. Do you love to photograph people? Stick with people. You can put them in a million different situations and still maintain that same look and feel throughout. Do you like landscapes? Fill your portfolio with images of mountains, meadows and rivers, and try to avoid the temptation to throw in a shot of your four year old niece, regardless of how cute she may be. Do you prefer to shoot in color, black and white, or HDR? Pick one and stick with it.
A Portrait in Darkness by Flickr user seanmcgrath
Don't forget about mood, either. Mood can go a long way towards defining your style. Some photographers have a surreal mood throughout their portfolio, and others have a fun and quirky mood. Some photographers go for pure beauty and others prefer gritty images.
Whatever you decide in terms of subject, mood and format - try to be consistent. This is one area where you can learn from other photographers. Spend some time at the bookstore looking through photography books, preferably books that encompass a body of work from one photographer. See if you can pinpoint that photographer's style, just as your friends did for you. Try to find that common thread that gives that photographer his unique signature.
Cup of Weasel Gold Coffee at Hue Cafe in The Old Quarter - Hanoi, Vietnam by Flickr user ChrisGoldNY
What if I still haven't figured out my style?
If you've gone through your whole portfolio and really can't find that common thread, you need to do some experimenting. Start by digging through my library of tips or example images and trying out some techniques that you may not have tried before. Find something you love and keep refining it until you've made it your own. Then try applying that technique to different subjects. Be consistent, keep experimenting and practicing and eventually your style will begin to emerge.
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