There is a precious commodity in photography that many strive for and yet it seems only a handful of lucky folk obtain: the skill of having a unique photographic style. Despite the apparent scarcity of this ability, I’m certain that anyone can bring their own individual voice to the table provided you apply a little discipline to your image-making. It is therefore the aim of this blog to give some pointers to help you cultivate your personal flair and make your images stand out from the crowd.
1. What do you want to say?
What are the distinctive characteristics of your take on life? Essentially what makes you, you? Do you want to bring humour / pathos / humanity to your images? Do you want a straight-up documentary style or execute an abstract aesthetic, or somewhere in-between. Pick a stance that sits comfortably with your ego and go forth, hand in hand when framing the world.
2. Shoot for a while with one prime lens
Not only will you learn to ‘see’ in that focal length but your images will have a continuity as well. If you don’t have any primes, just keep the zoom at a set focal length that you prefer… you can even stick a bit of tape on it to keep it set there. If you are uncertain of what your favoured focal length is, if you are a Lightroom user help is at hand. Enter the Library Module select ‘All Photographs’ from the Catalogue panel on the left, then do a Library Filter with the focal length metadata to see which one you use most commonly. Easy.
3. Notice repeating themes in your work
When my style was forming, I noticed a leading diagonal line in the foreground of several images I liked. Once I’d clocked this, I actively sought to add these to the composition when framing the world. This led to a subtle continuity between one image and the next. A piece of advice I gleaned from one of my favourite photographers, Todd Hido, is to “…find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.” This quote is apparently from a list of ‘rules’ pinned up in his office, written by Sister Corita Kent. Repetition is part of the creative process, as well as reviewing and ruminating over past work that resonates with you.
4. Shoot exclusively in colour or B&W for a while
Totally self explanatory but also a fundamental in my opinion. Remember, I’m only suggesting you do this whilst your approach evolves in order to speed up the process.
5. Find a project
What better way to uncover a cohesion to your work than by declaring a unifying theme to your excursions. It doesn’t have to be highfalutin or conceptual, just shoot a series with the colour red as a subject, do a street photography project with people wearing hats, look for visual optical illusions (hard!) when you shoot… basically whatever will inspire you to get out of the house at 0500 on a Sunday morning when it’s pouring with rain!
6. Stick to an aspect ratio
For about a year I shot almost exclusively in square format and the acceleration I felt in my development was exhilarating. By solely shooting 1x1 I believe I learnt what works and what doesn’t at a quicker rate than if I’d been chopping and changing aspect ratios. Recently, I’ve mainly been shooting 3 x 2 but what I find really interesting is that most my current work would still look fine if cropped square. The foundations I laid back then have evidently stood firm. I’ve also seen photographers shoot exclusively in portrait orientation and when you look at their portfolio this lends a characteristic harmony to their work.
7. Find a ‘look’ and stick with it
By that I mean get a fairly standard post processing workflow… don’t saturate one image then leave the next one neutral. Always apply a vignette… or not. Do you like your images to be low contrast or high? Presets can help hugely with this. Once you’ve worked out your sharpening techniques and application of contrast, etc. standardise this and save it as a preset you apply to every image. If you add a border around your photos, stick with the same dimensions and specifications each time… it’ll make an image look like YOUR image.
8. If it ain’t ‘you’, don’t show it!
If you’ve religiously followed steps 1 - 7 you will hopefully be well on your way to cultivating a characteristic approach to your image-making. Now your job is to be ruthless and unyielding with your style. I take (or at least pre-visualise) shots all the time that I feel are ‘interesting’ but they just don’t fit with my aesthetic. They just are not ‘me’… so either the files sit on my hard drive or I don’t press the shutter in the first place. It’s that simple.
Which leads us perfectly to step nine…
9. Only ever show your best work
This has to be one of the most important bits of advice that I can impart… (that, and this game is all about the *LIGHT*). If it isn’t up to scratch then leave it on the hard drive. When I go out on a photowalk I’d estimate that I come back with something worth posting on Flickr about 50% of the time. Yes, it’s frustrating sometimes but when I do come back with a good shot it’s an even bigger thrill. And looking back over a years work, I’ll have maybe nine or ten images that I am truly happy with. That’ll be from 10 000+ shutter actuations. Ansel was right; it’s not easy to get a compelling shot.
10. Be disciplined with the above
Once you feel that your characteristic approach has crystallised then you can start ignoring one /some / all of the above as you’ll have hard-wired your modus operandi into each shutter count. But you need to give yourself a fighting chance of reaching Nirvana by applying some discipline on the way.
Thankfully the above 10 steps aren't as challenging as perhaps they sound simply because the photographic journey is as equally satisfying as the destination.
All thats left is for me to wish you luck achieving your goal and I look forward to seeing your personal take on this wonderful world sometime soon.