Defining your style is one of the, if not the, most difficult and time-consuming aspects of photography. It takes many people years or even decades of shooting before they really start to narrow down their photographic style.
Today I am going to try and speed you up past all that trial and error to help you start figuring out your style right now! It’s an incredibly simple process that after reading might sound completely obvious, but maybe something you didn’t consider before.
To make this easy, I will break it down into two phases. But be warned, this is about to get real nerdy.
Phase One: Exploration and Analysis
Phase Two: Growth and Development
So first you need to explore — everything great starts with exploration, right? So start by making a folder on your phone, or computer, or wherever you tend to look at photos the most. Name that folder “Style Development” or something similar.
From there you will need to start looking at photos. Scour the web and start looking at tons of photos, every time you come across a photo that resonates with you, add it to the folder. You may not know why you are drawn to a particular image, but that’s okay for now, just add it to the folder.
When looking at photos make sure to look at many different types of photos from different time periods, different genres, and from many different photographers. The more photos you save, the better this works so make sure to look at tons and tons of photographs.
This may take weeks, or even months of looking through photos but trust me, it’s worth it!
Okay, now it’s time to get nerdy once you have a fairly large collection of images (anywhere from hundreds to thousands). Take that giant folder of images and open them up in your favorite image viewer. We are going to start looking through all those photos you saved and start analyzing.
At this point, you probably won’t know what it is that draws you to these particular photos, but don’t worry, because we are going to analyze them and figure that out. The goal of this process is to learn what it is exactly that excites you photographically.
In my opinion, the best way to do that is to analyze photos you like so you can start understanding yourself and start understanding your desires as a photographer.
Once you have the photos loaded up and ready to view, grab yourself a notebook and a pen, or open up your notes application on your phone. Start going through the images, looking at them one by one and start trying to find similarities between them.
Basically, what you are doing is trying to establish not only why these particular photos speak to you but also what most or all of these photos have in common with each other.
Start thinking of things in adjectives and start asking yourself these types of questions.
Are these photos colorful and vibrant? Not colorful and vibrant? Contrasty or not contrasty? If there are people in the frame, are they posed or not posed? How does this photo make you feel? What is the composition like?
The goal here is to start breaking the majority of these photos down into adjectives that describe them.
For instance, when I did this for myself, these are some of the adjectives that described my collection of photos:
- Simple and sophisticated compositions
- Lots of visual impact
I wrote that list of adjectives down and that became the beginning of my style.
Once you have gone through this process and analyzed each photo, you can start to identify what it is you are drawn and then start to understand what type of work you want to create. Once you know what you want to create, your style is born.
Growth and Development
So you have a vague idea of what it is you want to create. Now it’s time to grow that idea into a developed and unique photographic style. That all starts with shooting in a way that tries to follow your list of adjectives, so what I did was carry my list around with me for a while.
Every time I was putting together a shot I would ask myself: “Is this Colorful? Contrasty? Is my composition simple?”. If I could answer “yes” to those questions I would proceed with the shot. If I answered “No” to those questions I would try to find a way to turn that “no” into a “yes”.
At first, it was a conscious thought of “Does this fit within what it is I want to create?” But after a while, it became subconscious, and once it becomes subconscious is when the real development starts happening. That subconscious style is your foundation, and from that point on it is just about shooting, experimentation and building off of the experiments that work and forgetting about the ones that don’t.
I am currently at this point in my style development and I’ve actually tried to make it a point to not look at too many other photographers’ work because I find it starts to influence my own work — that’s totally not a bad thing, but I am curious to see where my style goes organically, without too much outside influence.
Developing your own personal style is just one part of the long journey that is photography.
P.S. If you are interested in learning more I have a few other resources that might help you along your way. First, is my guide to multiple exposures and the second is my full day intensive off camera flash workshop. You can also watch my MagMod ambassador video here.
About the author: Carsten Schertzer is a formerly homeless teenager turned professional wedding and engagement photographer in Los Angeles. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can see more of his work here and follow him on Instagram here. If you are interested in learning more about how you can use off camera flash and magmod to create awesome wedding photography you can sign up for his workshop here.