The concept of personal style is a fundamental topic in all art, not just photography. Everyone has their own way of seeing the world, and everything that people create is based upon this underlying uniqueness. In terms of photography, though, even mentioning personal style can seem strange — since our work is inherently based upon the real world, is it even possible to have a unique style? This question is especially relevant for fields like landscape and wildlife photography, which often rely 100% on the scene that nature presents to you, rather than any elements you add yourself. How can you insert your own personality into an image that mirrors the way the world actually looked at one point in time? It’s a complex question. Things get even trickier if you look into all the features that must be copied perfectly in order to produce a convincing forgery (or a benign imitation) of another photographer’s personal style — and, even further, the implications of analyzing and imitating your own personal style.
This article is the first of three that delve into all the complexities of personal style. Individually, they won’t be especially long articles; I chose to divide them simply because I think this topic is best approached in chunks, with time to think in between, rather than all at once.
Here’s how the three parts will be divided:
- Defining personal style and the elements that combine to form one.
- Discussing the differences between method and personality in your style.
- Explaining the reasons to seek out a personal style, or avoid one.
1) What is Personal Style?
Everyone sees the world in a unique way, and that’s the simple foundation of personal style.
When several people look at the same scene, different elements will stand out more prominently to each of them. In a grand landscape, perhaps the first thing that catches my eye is a dramatic waterfall in the distance. Someone else could pay attention to the spectacular clouds overhead, and other people may notice a bird sitting on a tree branch. If all of us are photographers, our photos from the scene, naturally, will look quite different.
Personal style extends beyond a single photo that you take, though. It’s something that bubbles to the surface out of a larger body of work — multiple pieces of art that all have the same unifying vision. If Jackson Pollock had thrown paint onto a canvas just once in his life, it certainly couldn’t be considered an integral part of his body of work. But he did hundreds of paintings like that, which is why it counts as a personal style.
It is true that photography makes things more complicated. Photographers do not have the ability to throw paint on a canvas or render images that are created totally from their imagination. To some degree, even in studio photography, everything depends upon the real world.
That’s not to say photography cannot appear to deviate from reality. Microscopes can be used to capture alien-looking scenes, and photographers can even shine a flashlight at their camera (either in a dark room or at night) to “paint” a scene that didn’t actually exist. But, in both of these examples, another photographer could put their camera in the same place and capture an identical result. That can’t really be done with painting, or sculpture, or singing.
At the same time, it is clear that photographers can have a personal style just as much as any other artist, in the sense that their work can be truly recognizable by their audience. I don’t need to see a signature or a copyright symbol to recognize photos taken by some of my favorite photographers, or, at least, a photo taken “in their style” (maliciously or as a practice exercise). Something about their work has a uniqueness to it.
So, I see personal style as, essentially, a nameless signature that is inseparable from an artist’s work. Even though photography is based upon the real world, certain photographers still have a quality to their work that makes it, or imitations of it, inseparably linked to them.
2) Which Elements Form a Personal Style?
There are countless elements, large and small, that make up the overarching personal style of a photographer. It would be impossible to list them all; there are just too many subtle influences at play. At the same time, it should be possible to hit some of the highlights. The list below offers an overview, ranked, very roughly, from most to least influential on personal style:
- Subject Matter
- Color (if in color) or tonality (if in black and white)
- Camera settings and equipment
Some of these elements can be changed, slightly or vastly, in post-production (such as the color palette of a particular image). Others, barring the most extreme post-processing, are confined to the scene that a photographer actually captured (such as subject matter).
An interesting thing about personal style is that even one of these elements is enough to singlehandedly define a photographer’s style — or clearly separate two photos from different photographers. Even the the “less important” variables, such as your camera equipment, can serve as a centerpiece for your style. If, for instance, you were to shoot all your landscape photos with a 600mm lens, your photos would have a sense of uniformity that would make them stand out clearly.
2.1) Subject Matter
If you analyze a photographer’s personal style, the first thing that will jump out is the type of subject that they capture.
At the broadest level, this can include their genre of photography: portrait, landscape, wildlife, macro, and so on. However, subject matter is much more specific than that. One photographer may spend their free time photographing the mountains of Northern Canada; another may focus on the peaks of Patagonia. The different shapes that these mountains have is enough to result in personal styles that are totally unique.
The examples extend to famous photographers, too. If a photographer captures a series of spiral shells and peppers against a black background, it is likely that they were influenced by Edward Weston. Since these subjects are synonymous with one of the most famous photographers of all time, anyone who copies these elements is inherently harkening back to his personal style (consciously or not — at the very least, other viewers will notice the similarities).
2.2) Color or Tonality
Color and tonality are often inseparable from a photographer’s personal style. The color palette that you use is something that can extend across time and subject matter. If all your photos have the same pink hues and soft contrast, those elements become inseparable elements of your personal style.
Color and tonality partly depend upon the scene in front of the camera, but they also depend upon a photographer’s post-processing decisions, as well as decisions in the field on which scenes to photograph in the first place. Personally, if conditions are right, I like capturing high-contrast images with dark blue tones throughout the photo. If I chose to display several photos with this palette in a row, as I’m doing in this article, I could give the appearance of the color blue as an inescapable part of my style.
For what it’s worth, black and white photography also falls under this category — on one hand, are all of a photographer’s photos monochromatic? And, if so, what are the tones and contrast levels that they tend to shoot? Even if you don’t work in color, your personal style will be pretty clear if all your photos are high-key, high-contrast images, no matter what subjects you shoot.
2.3) Character of Light
Although lighting is, in some sense, an extension of your subject, it is so important that it merits its own section. The type of light that you tend to photograph is inseparable from your personal style.
For example, maybe you always photograph landscapes under cloudy skies, showing them with low contrast and gentle shadows. Or, if you photograph the same scenes under dramatic sunset light, with strong directionality and harsh shadows, that would be a crucial part of your personal style.
Most likely, you’ll periodically recognize photos by famous landscape photographers simply by the light in the photo. Ansel Adams is an obvious example. He sought out specific lighting and weather conditions — specifically, dark skies and patchy sunlight — to capture many of his images, making it a signature part of his work. It’s not as though all his photos were captured under the same light, but that he frequently tried to capture a sense of drama that defines his work as his own.
When capturing a photo, every photographer must make a decision on how to arrange the elements within their frame. I see composition as one of the most crucial parts of creating a good photo, and, although not all photographers have a unifying compositional style, it is still an important part of this discussion.
For example, if two photographers arrive at the same location at the same time of day, they will compose their photographs differently. This is due to their unique ways of looking at the world. One may move closer or farther away from her subject, while the other changes his camera position to be higher or lower, showcasing a different angle.
Whether you like his work or not, street photographer Bruce Gilden made a name for himself due, in part, to his unique style of composition. Gilden captures people’s portraits in New York City by placing his camera just a few inches away from his subject, composing their face directly in the center of the image, showcasing their features up-and-center. This method of taking pictures is far from universally adored, to say the least, but it’s clear that this type of composition is fundamental to his personal style.
2.5) Camera Settings and Equipment
Photographers like to say that the camera doesn’t matter; a good photo is a result of the photographer’s hard work rather than the purchase of expensive gear. To a large degree, this is certainly true. However, in terms of personal style, camera equipment and technique still play a significant role.
In terms of camera settings, imagine what would happen if you took all your photos handheld at a shutter speed of three seconds; unsurprisingly, your photos would be blurry. Still, this could be intentional — you might want to take pictures at the “wrong” settings because they match the way you see and interpret the world. Although other photographers could replicate these settings without much difficulty, it still says something important that a fundamental part of your style could depend upon the values in your camera’s viewfinder.
And, although this is a more controversial argument, I also believe it is true that your camera equipment can contribute to the personal style of your work. Consider the example of Henri Cartier-Bresson. He, of course, was known for using a “medium” 50mm lens for his famous street photos. This angle of view suited the way that he saw the world, and it has become synonymous with his work.
It’s not as though the 50mm focal length is, itself, enough to pick Cartier-Bresson’s work out from a crowd — it is obviously a popular focal length for many photographers — but it’s still an intrinsic part of his work. If you see street photos taken with a telephoto lens, even if the tonality/subject/composition reminds you of Cartier-Bresson, you can be certain that they are the work of another photographer.
3) To Be Continued
There are many more elements that make up a photographer’s personal style, as I’ll show in part two of this article tomorrow. But, for now, it should be easy to see the importance of these five elements, and how they combine to make a photographer’s work stand out from the crowd.
Personal style is an amazingly complex topic, though, and this only touches on the surface. If you’re starting to wonder about the problem of imitating other people’s work by copying these five elements, you’re on the right track for the next article in this series. In it, I’ll talk about the two different approaches to personal style — method and personality — and when you want (or don’t want) your true self to show through in a photo.
Hopefully, this introduction gave you a good primer on the basics of personal style. For now, think about how it applies to your own work. Do all your photos follow a similar, underlying style? Do various subsets of your photos — say, all your event photos — have a style that ties them together, even if the rest of your photos do not? Or, is all of this a foreign concept that applies only somewhat, or not at all, to the photos you take? Personal style is abstract and multifaceted, but it is also an important topic to understand if you want your photos to reflect the unique way you see the world.