Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Developing Style

A question commonly asked on the internets is "How can I develop my own style?" or something similar. This post is an effort to answer that question in a more useful way than is frequently done.

First, I've talked about style in this post which might be worth reviewing. In brief, I consider a style to be a set of photographic choices that are made the same way, repeatedly. Photographic choices cover a lot of ground. Essentially, everything that goes into a photograph is a choice made by the photographer. Photography is the fine art with almost no physical skills: making a photograph consists almost entirely of simply making choices. A style is a set of those choices made in advance, and made the same way for each photograph.

In order for a style to work, it must be applied consistently across a body of work. A small portfolio, or everything you make, or anything in between. The style must also be visible, the choices must be obvious enough to the viewer to create a visual coherence within the body of work. Finally, the style should support the subject and the ideas. Visually dramatic choices for visually dramatic subjects -- or to emphasize and underscore the banality of the subject, for example.

So how do you develop a style? You do not simply go out and shoot a lot, and wait for your own unique style to emerge. We have many photo sharing sites that provide ample evidence that this does not work. Shooting a lot is probably necessary, but not sufficient.

You need to look at photographs, you need to make photographs, and you need to look at your own photographs.

What do you like, and what don't you like? More generally, what elements of the photographs (yours and others) do you wish to keep and emphasize, and what elements don't you? If your goal is commercial success, you might well develop one or more styles that you quite dislike, but which are marketable. At this point you're thinking purely in terms of final results - do you like the color palette? The way the light wraps? The way the subjects look?

If you have any photographic sensibility, the effects you're finding desirable will support the subjects, they will "work" for the photographs you want to make. Still, this is a good time to double-check that, and discard any effects that you just love for their own sake. Stick to effects that "work" with the image.

Convert these desirable effects into photographic choices. Color rendering might be reduced to an approach to color in post-processing. Light wrap probably reduces to placement of strobes or reflectors. The way the subject looks might be reduced to a camera angle, or a camera height, that produces the effect that you like. Perhaps you simply like a certain type of subject. Perhaps you're looking for a certain way skin tones textures are rendered.

This doesn't have to be all conscious. Some things probably will evolve organically, without you being aware of them. Your mind may well absorb things you're seeing, and you may well unconsciously use those visual ideas. That's ok too. The main thing is to be looking and absorbing and thinking.

This process goes around and around, your style or styles being refined and evolving. You might refine a single style to a razor edge, and work entirely within it. The process might also spin off alternate styles, especially if you are working commercially. You might develop a portfolio of quite different and distinct styles. Nobody says you have to have 1 or 10 or 100.

It's not a process which stops. You don't develop a style, boil it down to a set of 4 photoshop actions, and stop. Well, you could. You'd probably get bored, and your commercial success would probably dry up. I don't recommend it. I recommend continuing to look at other people's photographs, and at your own, "borrowing" new ideas constantly, and trying to integrate them in to your own work.

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