This is one elusive topic. I’ve written about it several times. It’s one of those things like trying to describe how a strawberry ice cream sundae tastes. You just have to go for it.
As I have been judging the Emerging Photographer of the Year contest, I’ve noticed that there are two camps that emerge. The photographers who have developed their own style and the photographers who have not.
There are far fewer photographers in the “own style” camp.
Let’s break down a few elements of photographic style.
Looking at the work of Paul Strand, Ansel Adams and Ernst Haas, you will immediately notice that they are reliable in their consistency. Chances are that you will see one of their images and immediately recognize it as their own. Consistency builds trust. Trust leads to response. Once you find something that is working for you, don’t be too quick to abandon it for that siren called “something new.” I’ll say it until I die. Don’t try for something new, try for something YOU!
The photographers who have developed a style have certainly mastered their craft. They haven’t relied on gear or gimmicks. They simply know everything they need to know to create an image that tells a story. The cameras used by people like Strand, Adams and Haas were very rudimentary by today’s standards. Yet the images made by these photographers live on – even though the photographers have passed away. It takes patience, practice and time to learn how to properly make photographs that move people. While everyone wants to be an overnight success, it generally doesn’t work that way. I spent 20 years making photographs before “making it.” Learn your craft. Put your time in. There’s no substitute for doing it well.
Nexus is a fancy word for connection – tie or link. If your photography gets to the core of something, it connects with the viewer. If your images tell stories, then you have developed a key component of photographic style. In biology this is called adhesion. A special area of the cell membrane involved in intercellular communication is the nexus. I like thinking about photography on the cellular level. It slows everything down. It makes the difference between snapshooting and picture making. Think about connecting with your audience. Show them a photograph that will move them. How do you do that? By starting with a photograph that moves you.
A complete and encyclopedic knowledge of your favorite subject matter will help you develop a style. Only photographers who really, really, really know their subject develop the confidence to take that subject head on and make photographs that demonstrate such knowledge. By learning all you can about your subject, you set yourself apart and start to make images that have a quality others (with less knowledge) can’t compete with. When I started photographing race cars decades ago I knew nothing about cars. But I spent six years hanging out with race car owners, drivers, team managers and mechanics. I spent time tinkering with engines and racing myself. I developed a new awareness of the subject because I understood it better. I had subject knowledge that caused my photos to stand out. I repeated that process when I started photographing birds. I took college-level ornithology courses, went to bird-watching seminars, went on bird identification field trips and even memorized (thanks to my car’s CD player) bird songs. Subject knowledge is a powerful tool for those who want to develop a style.
5. Be Yourself
No post I write on this subject can be published without this advice. The whole point of developing a photographic style is so that we can recognize YOU through YOUR work. Everyone and anyone can buy the same camera you shoot with, the same computer you edit with and the same printer you print with. But nobody else, anywhere on this planet can be you — but you.