In photography, few questions have the power to trip people up as those which seek answers to the concepts of “style” and “specialty”.
Student: “What is my style? What is your style? Should I specialize? Should I specialize in a style? I would like to style my specialty according to the specialization of the prevalent style, how do I do that?”
Instructor: “Ummm… Green?”
Style and specialty are frequent topics I’m asked about while teaching photography, and some of the hardest areas to give easy answers. While I have always taken these questions seriously, answering them feels like tap-dancing through a minefield. Specialty and style are uniquely personal to each artist; concepts that emerge through an individual’s interests, personality, and experiences. Trying to offer constructive criticism while not discouraging the work and personality of the artist is a true challenge.
So buckle in, I’m going to plunge into this murky realm and help you answer those questions, whether it’s about yourself or in response to other photographers.
Speciality vs. Style
In photography, like most art forms, style and specialty are closely tied, but not necessarily the same thing.
Specialty is what you shoot and the in-depth knowledge you have about it. These are the subjects and techniques that you know at an expert level through long-term study and experience.
Style is how you shoot it, the choices you make to create your artwork. Your style comes from the decisions you make as an artist to create and present your unique interpretation of your subject.
As an example, you may specialize in landscapes, but your style is dramatic and bold, using harsh light to show the ruggedness of places. Or, you may specialize in landscapes, but your style is quiet and contemplative, using long exposures and soft lighting to create dreamy scenes. In either situation, you make artistic choices on how you want the scene to appear. You use your knowledge about landscape photography to be in the right place at the right time, and pick the right settings to capture what you have envisioned.
What Should I Specialize in?
I’ll answer that question with a question! What do you want to invest every moment in learning about, being around, and taking photos of, over a long time?
If you break down a specialty into its simplest form, it’s learning how to do something well by learning a lot about it, and then doing it over and over to become the best you can at it. I learned to be a wildlife photographer by learning as much as I could about animals, including their behavior, environment, and place within their ecosystem. Then I photographed them over and over for years, expanding on my knowledge and refining my style with every moment out there. Specializing in something is a major investment in time and energy. This was a task I happily undertook as I am endlessly fascinated with wild animals and the natural world, and deeply concerned about their conservation and protection.
To specialize in something, you need to love it!
What is my Style?
Photography is both art and science, but is not formulaic. Rote repetition of what someone else has done to create a picture doesn’t show creativity, it shows skill with operating a camera. This is why style is so important; we use our knowledge of settings and equipment to achieve our personal creative vision. Anyone can swipe a paint brush across a canvas. It takes an artist to organize those swipes, transforming them into something recognizable that stirs emotions within a viewer.
Not to say following a recipe can’t produce satisfying results. Every chef learns recipes, but most take those recipes and transform them into their own creations, via their style. Given eggs, flour, and butter, the talented chef can add a few other ingredients and present to you anything from biscuits to brownies to béchamel sauce. Or, if things go horribly wrong, paper mache.
Continuing with the chef analogy, your style is those extra ingredients which make the recipe uniquely yours.
How do I Discover my Style?
To figure out your style, look at the qualities of the photos you like most and least.
- What things do you add to the photography recipe when creating the image in the camera, or processing it in your digital darkroom?
- What makes you hit the like button when you are surfing the web?
- When you are behind the camera, what makes you want to push the shutter button?
- What qualities of form, composition, light, color, etc. do you find you like best when you review your work or the work of others?
- Sit down with a thesaurus and a few friends and find adjectives for your favorite photos. What words appear most often?
Start identifying these things, and then start actively looking for opportunities to shoot them. From this you will see your style steadily emerge.
How do I Change my Style or Specialty?
I’ll counter that with, “Why do you need or want to?” and “As long as you are alive and shooting, your style and specialties are constantly changing.”
I think the most important part of the photographic process is shoot what you love. The first and only person you have to make happy with your photography is yourself. Is your desire to change due to the feedback of other photographers, or a personal quest for growth?
Critiquing vs. Being Critical
As well-intentioned as fellow photographers can be, they are people, and make critiques based on their own personal opinions, likes, and dislikes. Feedback is vital, and it’s important to appreciate and acknowledge when people take time to do so. But it’s also good to trust your instincts when it comes to creativity.
Some critics will try to transform your photo into what they would have shot (their style), not analyze the image for what may have given it more impact. Faced with this sort of criticism, some photographers then try to take on the style of the person who critiqued their work. Don’t try to force your images to look like someone else’s. Shoot what you love and allow your own style to emerge. Feedback is a gift, use it to refine, not replace, your style.
Not only should you have your work critiqued by a variety of photographers and other people, but you should also critique other people’s work as this can be just as great of a learning experience. Your style will evolve and emerge much more clearly than trying to force it by worrying over it!
Don’t Fight It, Guide It
Specialities and styles aren’t written on your forehead in permanent marker. Don’t let them become a label that limits you! They do not define you, you use them to define your approach to photography. They are not set, rather they change as we encounter or learn new things.
The better way to look at it is not “how to change,” but “how to guide that change”. The simplest way is just try something new. Like I did in my article “A Nature Photographer Wanders into a Studio“. Remember, nothing takes away the knowledge you already have. It’s not that you have to replace one with the other. You are just putting another tool in your photography toolbox.
To Sum it All Up
Your specialty is what you know and your style is the choices you make to create your unique artwork. Enjoy what you do, shoot what you love, and your specialty and style will emerge.
Three different areas of specialty, and three different styles. But, across all three specialties, my unique style can still be seen.