Finding your Own Photographic Style
As photographers, we’re largely a product of those who have influenced us. Whether it’s from mentors or friends, workshops or workbooks, when we open our heart and mind to the thoughts of others, they shape us a little (and sometimes a lot). In the process, we learn what we like and what we don’t like. From artistic style to specific skills, we’re enriched by the input of others, enlarged by multiple dimensions and perspectives. This process is important. Not only is it beneficial to learn from the successes and mistakes of someone who has gone before us, but if we think we’re above learning from others; we’ll remain narrow, limited and one-dimensional. The catch, however, is to find your own groove, to nurture your own style. Let’s have a look at the importance of being you in finding your own photographic style.
Finding your Own Photographic Style
My family loves Dr. Seuss. You might recall the story of King Looie Katz, who made another cat named Fooie Katz carry his long, proud royal tail around. In return, Fooie stuck his nose in the air and made another cat carry his tail. Soon all the cats in Katzenstein walk around carrying the tail of the cat in front of them … except the very last cat who, of course, doesn’t have anyone to carry his tail. Indignant, this little cat yelled, “I quit!” and dropped the tail he had been carrying. In turn, every cat followed suit. The story concludes: “And since that day in Katzen-stein, all cats have been more grown-up. They’re all more demo-catic because each cat holds his own up.” Why be a copy (cat) when you can be an original, right?
Every photographer has their own unique style just as every author has their own voice. And just as it takes time and hard work for an author to groom his or her voice, it takes time and graft to iron out your own photographic style. Initially, your style may lack distinctiveness, layered by the influence of others. But don’t fret if you sense someone else’s style overshadowing you for a while. Let it inform you and spur you on. The key is self-awareness, to be conscious of the influence of others but not subject or slave to it. Think of their shadow as a ‘safe place’ from which you can reach further. And here lies the secret. It’s in this reaching further—stretching yourself, taking calculated risks to be yourself, asking for constructive criticism (and responding to it with grace and resolve)—that you discover the unmistakable substance of your own unique photographic style. In those moments, you feel something dynamic awaken within and say, “Yes. That’s me!”
Finding and developing my own artistic style as a newborn photographer has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. As one mentor said, “Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. It’s where the fruit is.”
Photography Passion and Opinions Aplenty
Our photography style is born in the furnace of our passion. Photography is a hobby to some, and a career to others. Either way, it is seldom a venture one enters into dispassionately. For one, it’s not exactly a cheap hobby, and more to the point; photography is an art, and in any art form, we invest a little bit of ourselves into our creation. (Make that “a whole lot,” if the truth be told.) Whether we’re a painter, a photographer or a writer, we open ourselves up to critique by putting our soul into our painting, image or novel. For this reason, picking up a camera with intent means one starts with a healthy dose of photography passion and, more than likely, opinions aplenty. The trick is to allow opinions to fuel your own passion rather than being flooded by them.
Consider these varying opinions on the subject by people with, shall we say, an overdose of photography passion:
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera,” opined Dorothea Lange. Susan Sontag spelt it out in no uncertain terms: “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” For the record, “memento mori” is Latin for “remember that you will die.” This is passionate talk this.
Ansel Adams, the American photographer and environmentalist, was more serene in his philosophy—yet suffered from no shortage of photography passion—when he said: “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” That he was the master of majestic landscape photography perhaps contextualises his approach.
Robert Frank said it best, once and for all: “Above all, life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference.” Like all artists, photographers approach their art fervently. In contrast to other artistic genres, however, a photographer’s passion is channelled into laser-sharp moments of intensity. While Salman Rushdie might have overstated the point, he makes a point nonetheless: “A photograph is a moral decision taken in one-eighth of a second.”
Of course, Mahatma Gandhi’s infamous quip, “I believe in equality for everyone, except reporters and photographers,” pokes at a whole different sort of photography passion. And let’s not go there, shall we.
Like all art forms, photography is enriched by varying and even contradictory opinions. One man’s Picasso is another man’s Van Gogh. But make no mistake, without photography passion, photographs turn out lifeless and dull.
Photographic Style & Perspective
Photographic style is a matter of perspective. Every photographer worth their weight in camera equipment knows the importance of perspective in photography; you know, as Jason Row explains it so well in his insightful article: “Perspective is the way our eye relates to special separation and the relationship between the size of objects within that special separation.” In other words, an object seems smaller the farther away it is. That’s not the kind of perspective I’m referring to even though Row’s article is worth perusing if you are looking for the technical term in photography.
The perspective I’m referring to here relates to one’s viewpoint to life, and specifically, to developing your own style. If, as one wit said, “We see things not as they are, but as we are,” then it is important to build a positive outlook, keep our vision clear and our skills sharp, and wisely invest in ourselves.
I once heard a tale about the first shoe surveyors sent to Africa to assess the potential market for shoes. On arrival, the first surveyor noticed that the large majority of people preferred to remain barefoot (or wear traditional sandals), and despondent he returned saying, “Don’t send any shoes, no one there wears shoes.”
A second surveyor visited the sun-baked continent and witnessed the same facts but came to a vastly different conclusion. Ecstatic, he returned to his headquarters with an urgent request: “Send 1000 salesmen, no one there wears shoes!”
Whether this really happened, I cannot say, but the moral of the story is telling. One man’s meat is another man’s poison; one photographer’s crisis is another photographer’s advantage. It all depends on our viewpoint, our ability to see things from a broad, positive and realistic frame of reference, to perceive how things are inter-connected and judge them on both their merits and their opportunity.
It’s interesting that in terms of perspective in photography itself, perspective cannot be changed by a different or better lens; it can only be changed by physically changing one’s position. It requires that we actually move to change the angle from which we view an object. Likewise, if our viewpoint to life and business is downbeat, only a change in attitudinal position will correct our perspective and create an upbeat future. So, step back, and ask yourself: “How can I view this challenge from a different angle?”