This is the final article in our “personal style” series, which, so far, has introduced personal style and covered the two different ways to form one. Here, I’ll cover a slightly different topic — the pros and cons of seeking out a personal style in your own photography, including how to do so without compromising your unique vision on the world.
1) Why have a personal style?
Your personal style is like a brand. It makes your work stand out, and it gives people an intimate view into the unique way you look at the world.
Large companies have “personal styles” because they want you to have a clear picture of who they are. Most of us can envision the different commercials that various companies tend to create for their products: Coca-Cola, Doritos, Nike, Apple, and so on. The companies behind these advertisements are trying to give their products a personality that stands out in the market, because personality translates directly to sales.
The photography industry isn’t immune to this effect. If your photos have a cohesive appearance, your name will be attached to it. It gives your photos a visual signature that makes them stand out more, which is beneficial for many photographers.
However, it’s also possible that you wouldn’t want an organic personal style to show through, particularly if your work is for clients who have their own particular vision in mind. The reason why Coca-Cola, Doritos, Nike, and Apple all have such recognizable brands is precisely because they hire photographers who are adaptable. The same is true for events or weddings that have a particular “look” in mind ahead of time. If your photos are solely a reflection of your own personality, you won’t be hired by people who want a totally different look.
This goes back to the difference between method and personality that I covered last time. You can follow a checklist of steps to create a “style,” or you can let your work evolve naturally, almost by accident, and watch a “personal style” appear along the way.
2) The Paradox of Personal Style
It is somewhat ironic that personal style is, in the best of cases, inherently unintentional. If you’ve read through these recent articles and tried to pin down your own personal style — the lenses you use, the color palettes you prefer, the subjects you like to shoot — you might be doing more harm than good.
If I, for example, look back on my old photos and realize that my best images often have a low-angle perspective — even if I didn’t do so intentionally at first — I would lose the spontaneity and originality of my work by actively defaulting to that style in the future.
Analyzing your own personal style can be a dangerous game, making it easy to lose what made your photos unique in the first place. Rather than naturally capturing photos without external influences, you’ll end up robotically copying the elements that are present in photos that you took in the past. The result will be a static portfolio — one that stays the same even as you change.
There is a reason why famous artists have different styles over time: They, as people, are changing, so why wouldn’t their work also progress? I mentioned the example of van Gogh earlier, and his paintings are an equally good example here.
Many people don’t realize that van Gogh’s earlier paintings were much more realistic, not necessarily in keeping with his later work. As his tastes changed over time, though, his style ebbed and flowed. In fact, our general conception of van Gogh as an artist — someone who paints impressionistically, with large, swirling brushstrokes and vivid colors — is more like a caricature of his later work, and certainly does not hold true across his entire lifetime.
That leads to another crucial point: If you’ve ever tried to copy a photographer’s personal style, you probably didn’t do it accurately. The elements that we associate with a particular photographer are almost always exaggerated, drawn out from their most famous work and mashed together into a strange beast we call their “style.”
If you think of Ansel Adams as a photographer who captured beautiful, monochromatic landscapes with dramatic light and tones, take a look at some of his lesser-known work — portraits, documentary photos, landscapes at midday, and even color images. The same is true for almost any other photographer, too; our concept of their personal style may be so narrow and over-the-top that it captures only the barest hint at their actual work.
When you photograph a scene, you will always capture some hint of how you felt at the exact moment you clicked the shutter. So, it is impossible for all of your photos to be a product of the same mentality; instead, each one showcases a tiny facet of how you felt at a specific second of your life. Only by looking at all of them holistically can your audience form an accurate picture of you.
It isn’t always desirable that people see your personality in the photos you take. It isn’t even always possible.
If you’ve been hired by a client who has a specific “look” in mind for their photos, personal style only loosely applies. Instead, it tends to be much more relevant to work that you do solely for yourself — photos that you take for your personal enjoyment.
That’s what makes personal style such a complex topic. It impacts all your photographs tremendously; it’s the lens through which you see the world. Yet, if you aren’t careful, you may end up working too hard to create a personal style (a “brand”) and end up with none at all.
Any time that you follow a checklist — even a checklist that resembles photos you’ve already taken — you’re losing the spontaneity that makes your work such a careful reflection of who you are. Even if it’s possible to copy someone’s personal style convincingly, truly successful works of art have a much more organic origin, and they lead to more subtle, more effective results.
Personal style is at its best when it embodies an artist’s unique way of looking at the world. If you take care to let it exist naturally, your photos will reflect your vision as clearly as possible.