Defining your style

(This entry is a repost of the May 6 entry in my short-lived Wix blog)

One term that many emerging photographers struggle with is the concept of personal style.  How do you develop a unique style?  Why does it even matter?  This is something I’ve given some thought to over the last few months as I come to grips with the concept myself.

“What is personal style?”

If you think of photographers that you admire, you’ll find that there are certain qualities that seem to permeate their work, and that it’s these qualities that resound with you on an emotional level.  This is independent of the subject matter they shoot.  It may be their use of light, as with artists such as Trent Parke.  Maybe it’s the way they use colour, one striking feature of Steve McCurry’s work.  Beyond these factors, it’s essentially how a photographer communicates his response to the subject that will determine their style.  It’s a combination of the choices of composition, lighting, exposure, framing, focus, depth of field etc that are all reliant on their internal response to what they are capturing.  So really, personal style is less reliant on technical choices and execution and more on your “eye”.

“So how do I develop my own style?”

The starting point of working out your style is to know yourself.  What makes you tick?  What inspires you to pick up a camera in the first place?  For me, my background inspires me to take photos from a particular angle (emotionally).  I grew up in a poor family, raised by a single mother with a mental illness that made stable work a challenge for her.  As a result, money was always a problem, and although I was a bright student, the lack of opportunity that resulted from my financial disadvantage frustrated me.  This upbringing deeply influenced my whole world view.  I have become someone who empathises with those whose situation in life is difficult, and who sees them as people unlucky to be born into that life, but not with a patronising sense of sympathy.  We make the most of our situation and I don’t simply see disadvantage, I see admirable qualities in how people overcome and even find joy in moments of darkness.  This influences the kind of photographs I take significantly.  It is likely someone who grew up in an affluent family would not take images of poverty in the same way as I do, and that’s not a bad thing, it’s just what makes our images different.

Bottle Girl

//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js A young girl carries plastic bottles collected for sale to recyclers to supplement her family’s income in Tancun urban village, Guangzhou, China. Photo © 2011 Adam Robert Young

Beyond that, consider what moves you as a photographer.  This can include considering what it is you like about your favourite photographs.  What strikes you and inspires you to go out with a camera and create?  Don’t just limit this to photographic art – check out some paintings, sculptures, architecture, and the world in general.  Do you find yourself drawn more to strong, vibrant colours or to neutral tones?  Personally, I love clarity and contrast.  I love the way light falling across an object can change the way it looks, particularly when there is bright light and deep shadows.  I like the quality of different temperatures of light coming from different angles.  These all influence my photography and help create my personal style by affecting the decisions I make when shooting.  I’m more likely to underexpose slightly as I like the flavour the added shadows bring, and I am most excited when there is interesting light.  Knowing this about myself helps me to focus my photography on creating images that reflect what inspires me personally, and it is through this knowledge that my personal style has begun to emerge.

Kitchen 3

In this photo of a family preparing for lunar new year celebrations in Vietnam, both my background and personal visual preferences informed my decisions on exposure, framing and aperture.  A different photographer may have come up with an amazing image that featured a bright kitchen and more focus on other features of the setting, but that would be based on their own personality and world view.  For me, the key factors are usually light and people. Being true to yourself is important in developing a style that sets you apart from others.  Photo © 2012 Adam Robert Young

“I still don’t see what my style is, so what can I do?”

An important key in developing your style is to just shoot what you wanna shoot without actually thinking about style at all.  Shoot often, shoot prolifically, and once you’ve done that, shoot some more.  As you build up a larger collection of images, you’ll likely start to see trends emerging in your overall approach.  This is likely to be a reflection of what inspires you.  Once you see those trends, pursue them all the more.  You’ll likely enjoy shooting even more when you shoot to your strengths and what moves you, and that in turn will bring out an increasingly obvious personal style in your work.  Emulating photographers you respect can  help you develop qualities that make you more satisfied with your art, but there comes a time to blaze your own trails – to break free from anything that may restrict you and shoot what is truly “you”.  Of course your style will evolve and change just as your personality changes over time, but that’s all a part of the journey and what keeps it all fresh!

That’s just a few of my thoughts on the topic, please feel free to add your ideas in the comments section!

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