As a photographer of people it can be difficult to develop your own style. It’s one of the questions I see often on the various groups or forums that I visit. It’s something that I’ve thought a lot about and I’ve actually come up with a way that works for me and I’ve implemented it. Keep in mind that it’s simply just my opinion. Though I’m primarily a people photographer I don’t see why it wouldn’t work in some other genres. Though it’s something that I think has worked for me, your mileage may vary. Also keep in mind that I’m coming from the perspective of an artistic people photographer. Sure, if your gig is pumping out hundreds of corporate headshots there are certainly conventions you’re going to need to adhere to. But that’s different. If someone is striving for their “own style” photographing people, they’re not hanging out a corporate headshot shingle.
Don’t listen to aesthetic opinions of other photographers
I know that it’s anathema to not reach out for criticism or “help” from other photographers, but I really think it’s the worst thing to do when it comes to aesthetic. One of the things that new photographers are told that they need to do to “get better” is to seek the aesthetic advice of other photographers. It’s an example of conventional wisdom that is just wrong. Don’t put up a photo in a public space and ask for criticisms or advice. Also, unfortunately, the world of photography is full of people who are more than happy to take it upon themselves to give you their unsolicited aesthetic opinions; something that has always baffled me.
Aesthetic–indeed art–is entirely subjective. Yes, I know there are those who have wasted a lot of money on an art degree of one kind or another who will argue with that, but it’s the truth. What may be visually appealing to one person can be trash to another.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t reach out to other photographers for technical advice. New photographers should definitely do that. For example instead of just posting a photo and asking for blanket advice, you’re far better off, say, posting it and stating what your goal was; lighting, editing, etc. and asking for advice on where it was missed and how to achieve it. But in order to do that you need to first know what your goal is.
How you edit does not determine photographic style
This is a common trap that many new photographers fall into. They try to achieve a personal style through editing. Some will spend money on Lightroom presets with that goal in mind and there are a lot of people out there that are willing to oblige them. One’s personal style is mostly created with how they take a photo. How they edit it has little if any bearing on the style. It’s why you can look at a Peter Lindbergh photo that is black and white and look at another that is color and you can tell that both are a Peter Lindbergh photo. Sure, a photographer may have an editing style that they have a propensity to use, but that is not what identifies their style.
Some photographers who are well known for their style don’t even edit their own photos. They hire it out. The editing styles of their photos may have changed over the years, but their style is still evident.
Don’t get hung up on rules
As an artistic people photographer there are no rules. This kind of goes back to the don’t listen to other photographers point I mentioned above. Some of the most annoying rules to me are the compositional rules or the cropping rules. Nothing gets ravaged more in a public forum than a photo that is cropped in the middle of an arm or leg, or at the top of the head. People hung up on these things are just silly.
Some of the most iconic artistic people photos violate all kinds of rules and would be savaged on your typical photographer’s forum. Some of the most amazing fashion photos have crops that would make a rules centric photographer loose their minds.
Again, don’t worry about rules. At all. Focus on making photos that YOU love and ignore the opinions of other photographers.
Step by step
OK, I’ve bloviated on my opinion on various things, but how exactly do you go about working on developing your own personal photographic style?
Here is my approach:
Create a folder on your computer and name it whatever you want. This folder is going to be with you forever. As you peruse the internet in your everyday life, anytime you come across a photo that you love, simply save it to that folder. Don’t think about it too much. If you dig the photo, save it. It doesn’t matter where you find it; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, fashion website, news website, forum, etc. It doesn’t matter where you come across the photos. If you really like it, just save it to that folder. But it’s important that you only save the photos that you really like; that really hit a nerve.
After some time–days, weeks, months–you will accumulate a lot of photos in the folder. When you open the folder you will see many photos that you’ve accumulated that you love. There will likely be a variety of different photos consisting of different types of people and editing, styles. It doesn’t matter. Though you may not be able to identify it at first, there will be a common thread throughout all of the photos. It may take some time to actually identify it. But trust me, there is a common thread. There has to be because all of the photos in the folder are there as a result of your personal aesthetic. There is only one you on a planet of 8 billion people. If all 8 billion people created their own folder of their favorite images there would be 8 billion distinctly different folders.
You will need to spend a fair amount of time in the folder looking at the images that you love. Eventually you’re going to realize the common thread. You may not be able to verbalize it, but you’ll know it when you see it. And when you create your own photos you’ll think of it. Make the photos that YOU love for your own reasons.
In time take some of your favorite photos that you’ve made and stick them in the folder. How do they hold up? It’s likely that initially, they won’t hold up in comparison to the other photos. If they don’t, then remove them. But it’s good to see how they stand up amidst all of the other photos that you love.
Eventually you will make some photos that absolutely hold their own according to your aesthetic. Even though they may look wildly different than many if not most of the photos in the folder, they will still ride on that common thread that runs through all of them. That thread is YOUR style.
I started this approach a few years ago and my folder contains many hundreds of images and I’m still adding to it.