How do you develop your own style? Most of the photography world make it seem like your style is hiding in a closet and someone forgot to give you the key. This leaves photographers searching high and low for their style. If you could only find your style, surely your photography would jump to the next level, right? Unlikely … and here is why.
Style is your signature. It is your unique way of doing something that no one else does. By combining a point of view with your life experience and a special touch, style should express itself naturally. But it does not. Why?
Because most of the internet world is focused on developing style before establishing a foundation. If a photographer does not have a solid grasp on their craft, their style will never emerge.
Over the course of running workshops, teaching one on one private lessons, and building out online photography classes I’ve seen hundreds of photography students struggle with style. If I could sum it up, without intending to offend anyone’s sensibilities, I’ll explain it with an analogy.
Let’s remove the camera from the equation and exchange it for a guitar. The process looks something like this:
• Someone likes music and wants to learn how to play the guitar.
• They research all the different guitars on the market, reading endless reviews hoping that the right guitar will make them into a musician.
• They buy a guitar and never get really comfortable with the instrument.
• They can’t play by ear, they can’t read music, they need to look at their hands as they play, and they practice from time to time.
• And then they feel like they can’t find their own style and don’t know why Jimi Hendrix found his style.
Without a firm grasp on some basics, it is nearly impossible to progress. It does not matter if we are talking about Jimi Hendrix learning to play the guitar, Shakespeare learning to write, or Claude Monet learning to paint, they all developed their unique styles on a solid foundation and thousands of hours of practice. But this happens in photography all the time. Developing style is something that takes time, constant reinvention, and a bit of outside influence. No one develops in a bubble.
Developing style is something that takes time, constant reinvention, and a bit of outside influence. No one develops in a bubble.
One year, I listened to a very ‘well known’ photographer who is in their 70s say that they just rolled out of bed and made pictures. They made it sound like they never practiced, never struggled, and never even knew what the word failure meant. This is the biggest load of bullsh*t I’ve ever heard … and unfortunately it is common to hear. There are a number of established professionals who like to pretend like they were just ‘born with it,’ but developing style takes time.
Look at the early work of any photographer … Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, or Eugene Smith. You will notice that almost all of the early work is boring. It is generic, unimaginative, and could easily be mistaken for someone else’s work. That is COMPLETELY normal and where every artists begins their path. No one pops out of the artistic womb a fully formed, stylish artist. It takes years to develop.
Another very well known photographer said, “My style is shooting with a 35mm lens … any good photographer shoots just one focal length.”
35mm is a focal length; it is not a style. The gear you use only speaks to your ability to shop, not your style.
Imagine you heard a painter say, “Oh I just use round brushes, never filberts. That is my style.” It would be absurd. The tool an artist uses should be invisible. It is the thing they make that matters. And someone with a developed sense of style should be able to express it with any tool.
It seems like every day I open up Facebook there is a new photo competition which claims that they are looking for photographers with a unique style. But try looking through the winners. The selections are so profoundly repetitive that even someone without an eye for pictures might say “This stuff all looks the same.”
Style is not holding anyone back. Style is the icing on the cake; it is not the cake itself. The first step is learning how to measure ingredients, mix them properly, bake the cake, and prepare it for finishing before you get to the icing. Even a Michelin Star-quality icing job will not save a cake that is undercooked. All the ingredients need to come together, in a specific order, before style can emerge.
The nice thing about photography is that the learning curve is not too steep. In my estimation, someone can go from a complete beginner to creating professional grade images in less than a year. Unlike many of the other creative arts like painting, drawing, and sculpting … photography is a quick art. The camera does a lot of the heavy lifting, and you can get through the basics of any type of work in just a few months.
After the basics are in place, you will notice small, unique touches in your pictures. This is where style starts to flourish and your uniqueness begins to emerge. In the mean time, ask yourself, “What excites you most about photography?” The search for that answer will likely reveal your style to you in a most enjoyable way.
Ask yourself, “What excites you most about photography?”