The internet seems to be bursting at its virtual seams with creative ideas and tips on photographic methodology. In my opinion there’s no such thing as knowing too much about making photos and I urge you to learn all you can from as many places as you can about the technical side of photography. Still, there are a few points about the craft of photo making which tend to be less discussed than others and when they are talked about often they are not evenly keeled conversations.
Perhaps nothing is as elusive nor enigmatic that the topic of style in photography. More specifically, how to find your own unique style of shooting. The idea of style is somewhat of a paradox due to the very definition of the word itself which literally means that you model something based on the characteristics of something else. How can you carve our something unique to you if it’s very core is fashioned on the work of someone else? How do you develop your own style of shooting? The short answer: stop thinking so much.
The Misconception About Style
You will not wake up one day and say “Oh, that’s my style.” The fault lies not in the pursuit of a particular style but rather in our own misunderstanding. Our own personal way of photographing comes about organically, gradually, and with great fluidity. Style is not something that we work to achieve, but rather it is something that festers from our creative subconscious as a direct result of practice and patience.
It is not a destination to be reached but rather a journey of creative expression. Don’t obsess over being different at the beginning. That comes later.
The Three Stages of Style Development
I’ve philosophized(at times too much) on the processes behind the development of personal photographic style and have come to the conclusion that three stages are involved as we progress to our own uniqueness as photographers. These stages are hazy and unfixed, but seem to be commonly shared by the majority of us camera jockeys.
Stage 1: Emulation
This is where most of us start. We find the work of other photographers and discover in their photographs characteristics that we connect with on some level. This connection leads to a desire to replicate those characteristics with our own work. We essentially attempt to “figure out” how their photographs were made or why they have a certain appeal to us.
The more we expose ourselves to the work of others the more we come to understand what type of photos we do and do not like. Photographic emulation is the influential cornerstone that helps us understand ourselves and what we enjoy shooting. This leads us to….
Stage 2: Self-Realization
Once we have spent time discovering what type of photography appeals to us an extraordinary thing begins to happen; self-realization. Self-realization begins to manifest itself after the photographer has seen the type of work he or she enjoys and wants to pursue. This is a very important step on the path of developing your own identity in the world of photography.
You realize that your own photographs can be something completely un-ordinary even though they were initially nurtured beneath the shade of influence from other photographers.
Stage 3: Self-Projection
This is the last but most actionable stage in the development of your own style of shooting. Self-projection happens only after you have learned and experienced the craft of photography to the point where you begin producing work than can truly be considered your own creation.
Sure, it may have impressions of all the stepping stones of influence you’ve absorbed along the way but the end result is something exclusive to your own creative vision. You will have produced something that carries with it a part of yourself, in your own distinct way.
Final Thoughts on Style
As we’ve said, your personal style of shooting will find you if you have the patience and persistence to simply allow it to occur naturally. You will constantly evolve as a photographer and perhaps go through the three steps of style development multiple times over your lifetime. Keep in mind also that style is not finite. It’s not a destination to be reached. It’s a journey.
The important thing to remember is that each of us, at one time or another, were all beginners. We all searched for the same fire.