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. In this article, we will explore the topic of personal style and how you can find it in your photography.
This article delves into all the complexities of personal style. I chose to divide them in three sections 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 are 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.
Stars raining over the Southern Alps, New Zealand
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 86mm, ISO 100, 136 seconds, f/5.6
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.
A glacial lagoon during the Summer Solstice
NIKON D800E + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 100, 1/3, f/7.1
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 crucial 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 section, 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.
A cold, windy sunrise at Stokksnes
NIKON D800E + 24mm f/1.4 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 8/1, f/16.0
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.
Blue hour, Glacier National Park
NIKON D800E + 20mm f/1.8 @ 20mm, ISO 100, 8/1, f/11.0
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 page. 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.
A melting iceberg at Jökulsárlón
NIKON D800E + 24mm f/1.4 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 6/10, f/16.0
If someone is very familiar with your style of photography, it’s not outlandish to think that they could pick out one of your photos in a crowd — even if, for example, you’re a macro photographer, and the crowd includes nothing but macro photos. I’ll frequently see a shot on Instagram or 500px and recognize who took it, even before I see their name appear; that’s the power of personal style. At the same time, when I try to do this, I’m often wrong. It seems that certain “styles” are adopted by more than just one photographer, often very convincingly. In this section, I’ll try to pinpoint the ways in which someone’s style can arise, as well as the problems with replicating another photographer’s personal style.
NIKON D810 + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 70mm, ISO 160, 1/500, f/11.0
3) A Case Study
Last time, I listed five elements that combine to form a photographer’s personal style:
- Subject Matter
- Color palette (or tonality)
- Quality of light
- Camera settings and equipment
As I mentioned, though, personal style is made up of much more than just this. Let’s take a look at an example where these five elements may not be enough to define a photographer’s style convincingly.
It involves the photographer Lewis Baltz, who, mainly during the 1970s and 80s, photographed semi-abstract photos of buildings in black and white. Here’s a list, following these same five elements, that attempts to pinpoint his style:
- Subject Matter: Outdoor walls of concrete, industrial buildings; often run-down or unkempt
- Color palette (or tonality): Black and white photos, with a relatively high degree of contrast and deep shadows, but a bit of a “faded” look
- Quality of light: Relatively soft light, without harsh edges or bright, specular highlights, though sometimes shot at midday
- Composition: Head-on, at eye level, flat, balanced, often symmetrical compositions, with strong geometric shapes and straight lines
- Camera settings and equipment: No dramatic perspectives (i.e., ultra-wide or supertelephoto); medium lens; sharp photos; taken with black and white film.
Does this sound like enough information to pinpoint Baltz’s work?
It’s not a trick question, and the demonstration below — with five photos taken by Baltz, and one that wasn’t — isn’t meant as a trick, either. Instead, it’s intended to demonstrate the extreme subtlety of personal style. Even though all five of these attributes remain relatively constant across all six photos below (except that the one outlier was captured digitally rather than on film), most people are able to tell which image does not belong in the set below. If you want to guess, don’t scroll to the paragraph after this comparison until you’re ready:
These photos are clearly quite similar; they all have shared elements and features. However, many people can see that the fourth photograph is a bit different from the others, even if it may be difficult to define exactly why.
Indeed, that is the one that Baltz did not take.
Does the fourth photo stand out due to its range of tones and contrast, which seem to be a bit different from some of the others? Is the graffiti on the side of the wall— an element unique to that image — to blame? Or, are the real differences more subtle?
Other viewers may not have realized that the fourth photo is by a different photographer, which is an equally interesting outcome. That shows it is possible to imitate the style of another photographer simply by copying some fundamental elements — subject matter, composition, and so on — that the photographer tends to use.
This brings up an important point: There are two separate ways to take photos that have a well-defined style. The first is to follow, essentially, a checklist, methodically making sure that every aspect of your photo fits into a particular mold. The other is more spontaneous, where your personal style emerges from the photos that you naturally happen to take. This is the difference between method and personality. Both have a place in today’s world of photography.
NIKON D810 + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 95mm, ISO 140, 1/500, f/10.0
4) Method Versus Personality
If you want your photos to have a clearer personal style, and you don’t think that your portfolio looks interconnected enough as it is, it can be encouraging to know that a five-item checklist will get you pretty far. Personal style is a nebulous concept, and a few concrete steps make it much easier to put things into practice.
At the same time, this leads to a disconcerting possibility: With a good enough checklist in hand, other people can copy an artist’s personal style robotically, thoughtlessly, and convincingly.
Without a doubt, this is something that happens in the art world. Even outside of photography, there are several examples of personal style that have been copied convincingly in the form of forgeries. To name just one example, Otto Wacker — one of history’s most infamous Van Gogh forgers — created imitations that were convincing enough to fool a contemporary computer analysis of his brushstrokes. That’s pretty disconcerting.
Many people will take issue with the fact that an artist like van Gogh can have his work imitated so well that even a computer can be fooled (as well as, for many years, art historians). If van Gogh’s art is so spectacular, does that mean that forgers who recreate his personal style convincingly are equally great artists?
To me, this question hits at the heart of personal style, which is summed up well by poet Frank O’Hara:
“Style at its lowest ebb is method. Style at its highest ebb is personality.”
Yes, at times, it is possible to copy someone’s personal style convincingly. That rarely occurs naturally, though, or by happenstance. Instead, realistic forgeries — particularly in arts like painting, but also in photography — tend to be very deliberate, even more so than the original work. By copying the exact method that an artist uses, carefully running through a checklist of elements to include along the way, it is possible to create a realistic imitation. But that doesn’t mean that the initiation is inherently as successful as the original.
However, I mentioned above that there is still a place for the “method” method in photography today, and I do believe that is true. When is it a good idea to follow a checklist while you’re taking pictures?
As one example, I would argue that corporate photographers — those commissioned by large brands like Nike or REI — often need to follow the “method” method of personal style simply to produce work that the company requests. That’s because the brands themselves have a personal style to convey in their advertisements, and, to some degree, the photographer must be able to match that aesthetic in order to get the job done.
The same can be said of a photographer whose primary goal is to capture high-popularity photos, or work that appeals to a particular audience. If the public is interested in vivid photos of dramatic landscapes at sunset, and they reward such photos with popularity and sales, it’s reasonable to expect photographers to copy that style whenever possible, particularly if their livelihoods depend upon it. This is precisely why the Orton effect has gained so much popularity as a post-processing method these days; it’s just what sells. Good or bad, I believe that it’s justifiable to follow the checklist method if that’s simply how you make a living.
Yet, for many photographers, that’s not the type of photography that appeals to them. Instead, they want their personal style to reflect their personality. As we all know, van Gogh wasn’t universally adored during his lifetime, since he didn’t use his talents to match the prevailing tastes of the public; he just painted how he liked. This is the epitome of the personality method.
Your personality shows through a photograph, ironically, when you don’t really do anything. It’s your default state — the photos that most closely mirror the way you actually see the world.
I’ll dive more into this idea next time, because it’s pretty important. But the takeaway message is that, by default, you’re already shooting with your personal style. Although it’s something you can change, cultivate, and perfect over time, it’s also something that happens, in a broad sense, accidentally.
So, if you’ve never even thought of the “method” of personal style before — meticulously copying a look that you think other people will like — you’re actually pretty far along on the personality method. The two are mutually exclusive.
NIKON D810 + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 70mm, ISO 140, 1/500, f/9.0
Hopefully, this section raised some questions about personal style, along with the way you implement it in your own photography.
First, as the Lewis Baltz example demonstrates, personal style is full of subtleties that cannot always be put to words. However, it is also clear that the checklist method has the potential to let you copy someone else’s style convincingly (or let someone else copy yours).
That’s a worrying thought. No matter how much time and work you put into your unique method of photography, someone who is determined will almost always be able to imitate that style. But there’s also a reason why hundreds of millions of people know of Vincent van Gogh, and far, far fewer have heard of Otto Wacker — in the long run, forgeries aren’t worth much of anything.
In the final section of this article, I’ll go into the positives and negatives associated with developing your own personal style, along with the risks of over-analyzing your work. Personal style can seem like an imprecise, abstract concept, but it’s also the best way to get your work to reflect your unique vision of the world. In that sense, it’s one of the most important topics in photography.
NIKON D810 + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 95mm, ISO 250, 1/500, f/14.0
In this section, I will 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.
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 70mm, ISO 100, 6/10, f/16.0
5) 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.
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 100mm, ISO 100, 1/100, f/8.0
6) 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 the previous sections 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.
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 130mm, ISO 100, 1/2, f/16.0
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.
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 130mm, ISO 100, 1/10, f/11.0
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.
NIKON D800E + 20mm f/1.8 @ 20mm, ISO 100, 4/10, f/11.0
#Creativity #Visualization #Composition #Light #Style