The Rough Guide to Developing Your Own Photographic Style

When you first start getting serious about your photography, one of the most common pieces of advice you're given is to "develop your own style". And as tips goes, this is about as useful as advising a novice surgeon to only take out the bad bits. It's advice so vague and pointless that it renders the sentiment meaningless. So I thought I'd look at why developing your own style is a good thing, how you might go about developing your own style and, more importantly, how to recognise it when the bloody thing eventually arrives.

If you're a painter it's almost impossible not to develop your own style. The nature of painting, the media, the subjects, the process, the paints, the brushes and the skills (or otherwise) of the artist in question mean you instantly get your own style whether you want it or not. It might not necessarily be a good style, but it's still yours. In fact the only artists who don't have their own style are world-class forgers, and the kind of high-brow art sleuths who work for auction houses will tell you that even they have 'tells' that give them away.

But photography offers far more definite outcomes than painting because there's a precise mechanical device in the space between the photographer and the photograph, rather than a brush. And the thing with mechanical devices is that they are purposefully designed to function in a consistent manner. So if two photographers photographing the same scene, have the same camera, with the same settings and the same lens they will produce a near identical photograph.

Consistency Deconstructed

This consistency in camera technology is important if you are a professional photographer because you need to know that if you use that camera, with that lens, with those settings in that environment then you will take a correctly exposed image.

So the most popular equipment in a photographer's life, apart from the camera itself, are accessories and add-ons that can alter that consistency.

We use ND filters to reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor because we want to take a longer exposure than the camera will allow on its own. Or we use flash to artificially light a scene because the camera wouldn't be able to make a correctly exposed image on its own. Or we might even dig right into the camera's guts, take it to pieces and switch out the infrared blocking filter for an infrared amplifier.

Shoalhaven Heads print stock licence license
Location: Shoalhaven Heads

In other words, we use an array of techniques combined with specialised equipment to make our photos look different to anyone else's. And so logically, the further you get from that baseline consistent straight-out-camera look, the more obvious your style will be.

Developing your own style as a photographer is not as simple as choosing one, like you'd take a tin of beans off the supermarket shelf. It is not usually something that materialises the first day you pick up a camera - it might takes years to evolve - but sometimes it does occur during a blinding flash of inspiration or a eureka moment.

It also bears pointing out that developing your own style is not something you can rush or even force. You simply have to put in the hours and use your camera as often as you can.

So let's talk specifics.

Once you have built up a sufficient body of work in your photography you will start to pick up on certain themes. You will be able to identify photos you've taken that have a specific look, which were taken in a certain way, which feature a certain location.

Whether you were conscious of it or not, this is your creative brain leading you in a specific direction.

If you've never done it before go back through all of your old photographs and, as you flick through them you will start picking up on these regularly occurring themes. All of the other photographs, no matter how good they are, are almost like the static on a TV screen and the other shots - the ones that share some relationship with each other - they're your vision - the television picture emerging from that static.

As you build up your photographic muscles, the themes in your photographs will be indistinct, and out of focus (metaphorically speaking). However once you recognise those photographs you are more naturally inclined to take, once you begin understanding where your creativity is taking you, you can start to focus (metaphorically speaking) down onto it. And that's when it starts getting really exciting because once you became creatively self-aware, you can showcase how you see the world through your photography.

So let's talk more about the kind of themes that might develop into your style
and which you should keep an eye out for in your photographic portfolio. This is by no means a definitive list, but a sample of possibilities which may or may not apply to you.

The Subject

Firstly and most obviously there's the subject of your photographs - the hashtags that you might attach to that photograph.

For instance there's a photographer called Seth Casteel who went viral a decade ago with his amazing photographs of underwater dogs. Seth specialises in taking highly distinctive portraits of dogs by throwing a ball into a swimming pool and capturing the dogs from underwater as they jump in to grab the ball.

Seth recognised his niche, he honed in on it and made it his thing. And he discovered his style in a eureka moment when a dog he was photographing kept jumping into the swimming pool and he wondered what he'd look like from in the pool.

Photo by Anthony Duran

Another example of a photographer whose style is built on the subject-matter of his photographs is Alexey Kljatov from Moscow. Sorry if I've butchered your name Alexey.

In 2016 Alexey came to world attention thanks to his incredible photographs of snowflakes which he took with his own homemade camera system frankensteined out of various cameras and lenses.

Alexy was inspired to take snowflake photographs after he saw the work of Kenneth G. Libbrecht, a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology. And of course living in Moscow he was ideally placed to have plenty of material lying around on the ground for his photographs.

Incidentally, this is a classic example of working with what you've got. There aren't many snowflake photographers here in Australia but I suspect that they're fairly light on surf photographers in Russia.

Postprocessing

Some photographers bring their vision of the world to light by means of post-processing. This is one of those niches that tends to rub some people up the wrong way, but it's a simple fact that some photographers became well known through a highly specific post-processing style.

The very fact that some post-processing techniques popularised by certain photographers pisses certain people off is proof positive that they are distinctive styles. And anyway, wouldn't it be a really boring world if we all liked the same thing?

Anyway - the photographer who immediately popped into my head when I thought of this was Trey Ratcliff. Trey became famous as the guy that popularised HDR photography. He discovered this technique very early on in its history, wrote a famous blog post explaining how to do it and from those humble beginnings rode a wave to photographic stardom. He travels all over the world and has accumulated a massive online following of people who love his distinctive HDR processed images. His style is immediately recognisable and he has persevered with it despite regularly getting it in the neck from so-called purists.

The perseverance displayed by Trey is a key element of developing your style - you stick with it, you tweak it, you improve upon it but you persist because it's what turns you on… photographically speaking.

© Trey Ratcliff

Another example of someone who found their niche in post-processing is Dylan Furst - more usually known as Fursty. His highly stylised images, processed with a specific blue palette proved to be a popular look and he's built up a following of over one million on Instagram.

I should add that a photographic style should not be considered somehow 'better' or more worthy because the photographer has amassed a massive following on social media, but nevertheless, it is partly because their images stand out that they do build up those followings. Or to put it another way - the style came first - the followers came second.

Techniques

Leaving aside post-processing wizardry, other photographers find their style using specific photographs techniques. There are all sorts of cool methods that can be applied to photography and this may be where your style lies too.

So for instance, there's a style of photography called intentional camera movement (ICM). This is actually a fairly old technique (as most of them are) but it was was recently re-popularised by the British photographer Andy Gray. This technique involves deliberately moving the camera during a long exposure such that the subject matter becomes blurred and abstract. Andy has likened his images to the paintings of JW Turner and I can certainly see that vibe in his photographs.

Other camera techniques include deliberate over-exposure (high key), under-exposure (low key) and long exposure zooms.

Location Location Location

Sometimes it's a specific geographic location and the documentation of that location, that becomes a photographer's theme. There are myriad examples of this, but one that sprung to mind for me is an Australian photographer local to me by the name of Eugene Tan.

Eugene, better known as Aquabumps, began a photographic email blog based on his images taken around Bondi Beach in Sydney. The blog proved to be a big hit and his style of photography translated well to social media where he picked up a big following. He does travel abroad and photograph other locations, but the core theme of his photography is Bondi and, in particular, the historic surfing culture of that location.

Of course some locations, such as Bondi, lend themselves well to this kind of photography. In the UK the @camdiary feed features photographs taken by the pseudonymous Sir Cam featuring the beautiful medieval university city of Cambridge in the UK. There's a huge variety of photographic styles in Sir Cam's portfolio from portraits to landscape photography but the city of Cambridge links everything together and is Sir Cam's inspiration and central theme.

All the Gear - No Idea

Sometimes it takes a specific piece of equipment to lead you to a specific photographic style. For instance ocean photography using waterproof housings has become increasingly popular over the years and it's this ability to use good cameras in a hostile saltwater environment that inspires many photographers.

Clark Little is a Hawaiian photographer who made his name taking incredible photographs of waves from the inside of the tube. He found his inspiration when his wife asked for a picture of a wave to decorate their bedroom wall. Unsatisfied with the prints he found for sale he thought he could do better. He went out, bought a waterproof camera, took the photograph and changed the entire direction of his life. Clark leverages his impressive skills in big surf, to capture the close-up interiors of waves that most sane humans would never deliberately swim into. His style of photography is a natural extension of his passion for the ocean, but it would also not have been possible without the development of waterproof camera technology.

Ten years ago there was no such thing as drone photography, but now it's one of the most popular niches. Being able to control a flying camera is a huge benefit to any photographer, but especially so if you suffer from mobility issues. It was this ability to position a flying camera anywhere in the sky that lead Jamien Hudson to develop his style.

Jamien's a young photographer who has made a name for himself taking photographs of marine wildlife near his home in Perth. He also happens to be a quadriplegic and he began using a drone to photograph the ocean because he missed being able to swim and surf in it. He found he had an aptitude for capturing the the marine wildlife and pretty soon his amazing photographs of dolphins and whales began getting attention online.

It's evident that some photographic styles are not just reliant on equipment, but simply could not exist without them. Who knows what technology will evolve the coming years and what kinds of photography will evolve from them.

What's the Context?

One of the most popular styles of photography is to use a consistent contextual link between your photographs. You can find many examples of this on Instagram, but the most famous is probably Murad Osmann who popularised the 'follow me' style of photograph.

Murad's idea was to photograph his wife leading him towards some scenic location by the hand. He's not visible in the photographs - well, apart from the hand his wife's holding - which greatly contributes to the feel of the photographs. Murad's style of first-person photography lets you feel like you're being lead to a beautiful location, which in turn gives the photos an empathetic vibe that's seen him accrue 3.6m followers on Insta.

The contextual link that defines a style doesn't have to be physical - it can be thematic too. Brandon Stanton is the brains behind the Humans of New York Instagram account and his idea was to interview random strangers on the streets of New York and then include that interview with a portrait of them. Brandon's got 11.5m followers so there's little doubt that his style of highly personalised photography is a popular niche.

Hannes Becker is another landscape photographer with a distinctive style that has proved to be a big hit. His landscape photographs are post-processed using a dark colour palette and often include him as a tiny figure in a dramatic landscape in order to better accentuate scale. On the face of it there's nothing massively different about his landscape photography from a technical perspective, but his work stands out thanks to this link (namely him) in many of his shots.

Style Icon

Alright, so those are examples of photographic styles and the photographers who've become famous for popularising them - what about your friendly neighbourhood photographers? Folks like, ermm, me for example.

Now the truth of this is that I never really cared what my photographic style was.

Many years ago, during the first big Instagram boom, I was paid to attend an Instameet in my capacity as a vaguely well known local photographer - a local liaison if you will. The local tourism agency had hired some big-name Instagrammers to attend and the public were invited along to hang out and take photographs.

It was a grim experience for someone like me with autism who's terrible at that whole social chit-chat glad-handing mingling thing and I knew with absolute crystalline certainty that was to be my first and last Instameet ever.

Anyway, towards the end of the event when the punters had all gone home, I did get chatting to one of the hired celebrities and she asked to see my Instagram feed. She flicked through it and then told me that I had some really great images in there but that my feed was all over the place and that I would never build up decent follower numbers while it was so chaotic. She advised me to concentrate on one style of image and just fill my feed with that.

After the Instameet I said my goodbyes and resolved immediately to completely ignore all of her advice. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't bad advice if all I had wanted was an increased follower count on Instagram, but I couldn't have given a fuck about that then and I couldn't give a fuck about it now.

I take photographs because I enjoy photography, not because I have some burning desire to be an influencer. Also I could never restrict myself to one specific style of photo - it would be extremely boring.

That being said, I do have a signature photographic style which has emerged despite my belligerent efforts to embrace all styles of photography and not be pigeon-holed. Actually I have a couple of styles that are evident if you flick through the 250,000 images in my Lightroom catalog, but one is my favourite and would be the theme of a gallery exhibition if I ever put one on.

My signature style of photograph is a silhouetted beach sunset shot. I chanced on this style of image down at my local beach. I spotted a family out enjoying the warm evening and I switched out my usual wide angle for a telephoto and, shooting directly into the sun, photographed them as they crossed a sandbank. When I got home I was immediately struck by this image and the mood it conveyed to me and I resolved to try it again the first chance I got. The thing is prior to then I was going to extreme lengths not to include people in my shots and so this was a real step into unknown for me.

Well, that was 14 years ago now and I'm still taking those silhouetted beach sunset shots to this day. Here's what they look like.

Going for Gold

For me these photographs, taken over the course of many, many sunsets during those 14 years, have a distinct and almost illustrative feel to them which I really like. To me they represent how summertime feels in coastal Australia. I also think that they have a kind of street photography vibe to them in the sense that they are candid shots of complete strangers taken in a specific environment - it's just a beach that serves as the backdrop, rather than the city.

So there we have it guys. I developed a style despite actively trying not to and if you've been taking photographs for any length of time, you've probably developed one too - whether you're aware of it or not.

So dig out the archive, flick through the images and see if you can spot trends, themes or other photographic links that tie your shots together.

Alright - that's it for this video guys. Hope it has been thought-provoking and if it has and you'd like to see more of this type of content - you know the drill - hit that subscribe button and smash the living shit out of the like button.

For the last 16 years I’ve been photographing, blogging (and more recently vlogging) about everything I find, see and enjoy here in South Coast, New South Wales. This is my blogging site focused on my hobby (and part-time job) of photography. Please enjoy my little writing and my photography and I’d love to hear your feedback.
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