With so many photographers all hustling for the same jobs, it’s essential that you stand out by offering something different. For this reason, developing a unique photographic style is one of the most important steps in the early stages of a photographer’s career.
Knowing this is one thing; achieving it another. Where does a photographer’s style come from? How can you establish a photographic look that is all your own?
The process is actually a lot less mysterious than you might think. In fact the beginnings of a personal photographic approach may be staring you in the face already. Read on to discover how you can develop the seeds of style already buried in your photography into a fully-grown photographic identity.
As a fashion photographer, it goes without saying that you are expected to be on top of current trends. So you certainly need to be aware of what other photographers are doing.
However, there’s a big difference between being aware of what’s fashionable in photography, and slavishly following it.
If you see lots of people doing something, it’s a sure sign that you shouldn’t. You need to be at the forefront of trends – bringing something that others will want to copy – not riding the back-end of a spent wave.
With so many photographers out there, only those who have something truly special to offer will rise to the top. Why should a client go with you over all the other options?
Long before a client, agency, or art director even starts looking for specific photographers for a project, they will often already have a clear idea in mind of the kind of treatment they want for the brief. If the art direction coincides with the kind of work that you are known for shooting, you’ll likely be one of the first to get that call.
Conversely, if you’re not known for shooting anything in particular – but just try to be a jack of all trades – you probably won’t be in the running for the job at all. Or indeed many others for that matter. People want to have a clear idea of the style of work a certain photographer does, without ever being too surprised (i.e. disappointed) by a major change in direction.
Clearly then, you need to establish a distinct area of photographic territory as your own. That way, when the right project comes up, it’s yours and nobody else’s.
Although our culture often celebrates the cult of genius, the fact is that nobody originates anything entirely on their own, just out of nowhere. Whether it’s a guitarist coming up with a new riff by playing along with their favorite track, or a painter taking inspiration from the great masters; the “spark” of invention can usually be traced back to clear origins.
The key word here though is origins – plural. Copy one photographer, and you’ll end up as their clone; copy many, and you’re more likely to look like yourself.
The more diverse your influences, the less predicable the result. It’s hard to say what the trash-camp of David LaChapelle would look like if combined with the muted neoclassicism of Paolo Roversi. But if you could pull it off, it would likely look like nothing else that currently exists in photography.
Some people make good photographers within a specific genre – say documentary, still life, or fashion – and will gain the respect of their peers within that genre. But truly great photographers also gain the respect of photographers operating in totally different areas of photography to their own. This is what you should be aiming for.
Even if you can only ever imagine yourself shooting fashion and no other style of photography, if you are serious about your career as a photographer you will be knowledgeable about photography well beyond the confines of the fashion world.
Good photography is good photography, without the need to specify a niche. And there’s always something to be learned from good photography, whatever style it may be, and no matter how long ago it may have been produced.
Someone who sets out to be a fashion photographer, studies fashion photography, assists a fashion photographer, and then starts shooting fashion photography may well produce good quality work, but that work is unlikely to be especially innovative. After all, all they know is fashion photography.
Instead, imagine someone who grew up in a family of theater-buffs, loves literature, studied botany, and worked as a cinema attendant to pay for college. That’s a whole lot of diverse influences to draw upon. If this person then tries their hand at shooting fashion photography, the results may or may not be amazing; but either way they are unlikely to be just your ordinary run of the mill fashion photography.
Look outside of photography. Study other creative forms: music, literature, poetry, movies, video, sculpture, graphic design, architecture, dance, installations. Feed on these art forms for ideas. But also move beyond art altogether, and draw inspiration from science, sociology, psychology, museum exhibits, games, martial arts – whatever excites you.
In the 1970s, as an aid to creativity, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt developed a set of cards called Oblique Stategies. The idea behind Oblique Strategies was that any time you might come up against a creative block, you could randomly draw one of these cards and follow the ambiguous prompt that was written on it – thus helping you to escape from your rut. One of the most famous of these cards read “honour thy error as a hidden intention.”
Mistakes are good. Indeed some of the most important photographic discoveries come about by mistake. Listen to your mistakes. Study them.
And remember, when you repeat a mistake on purpose, it is no longer a mistake; but a style.
Although taking inspiration from other photographers and artists is inevitable – indeed essential – only by balancing these external influences with more personal sources of stimulus will you be able to create a photographic style that is truly original and unique to yourself. This means looking deep inside yourself and pursuing your interests and obsessions to the full. Explore your idiosyncrasies and indulge your perversions: after all, it’s these character “imperfections” that make you special.
You’ll need to dig deep though. There are very few people who don’t enjoy good food, coffee, or sex. Consequently these are not particularly fruitful avenues for exploration. Instead you need to look beyond such banal “obsessions” of this kind that are common to most of us, and instead develop more idiosyncratic fetishes. A fascination with the cracks in walls; bad taste and kitsch; or discarded socks (here and here), are all examples of the kind of quirky character trait that could be investigated in photographic form.
Your obsessions needn’t be weird or perverse in any way though. Always had a thing for nature and biology? Previously studied architecture? Worked as a professional dancer before taking up photography? Anything you can bring into your photography from outside is a potential asset. Look for concrete ways to incorporate these interests and areas of specialist knowledge into your photographic work.
Aesthetic and merely formal interests should be encouraged too. So, for example, if you frequently find yourself noticing the way that shadows fall across different textures and surfaces, or perhaps have a longterm fixation with reflections in glass, or with brightly colored electrical tape, these are all potentially interesting leads. Or perhaps you’ve got a thing for certain colors while hating some others: go for it, limit your color palette to those you like and exclude the rest as much as possible.
As with most things in this world though, you can’t expect to come up with anything startlingly original just by casually touching upon the subject in a superficial manner. A unique style emerges from prolonged research and lots of hard work.
So if, as an example, you love the way that a naked studio flash casts hard shadows on the curves, pleats, and folds of fabric, then you’ll need to go deep into this; not just with one shoot, but time and time again. Pushing it further and harder; taking it all the way to its logical extreme. Move the lights to exaggerate the effect even more; deliberately crumple the fabric; work with textiles such as linen that wrinkle easily; choose to photograph designers whose clothes are highly structural or textured. Own this obsession, so that it’s yours, and nobody else can touch it.
This whole process needs to be done authentically though. It can be tempting to identify the obsessions in another photographer’s work and try to do something similar in your own. But if you don’t intimately know, or genuinely feel, the subject matter you explore in your photography, it will come across as unconvincing and vacuous.
Of course, as a fashion photographer, you are unlikely to forge much of a career for yourself by, say, specializing in only photographing old socks. But we’re not suggesting that you pick just one of your personal quirks or infatuations and pursue it relentlessly – we’re sure that you are a more interesting and multidimensional person than that. Instead you will likely develop a unique photographic “universe” all of your own by investigating a fairly wide range of your personal character traits and obsessions, and mixing these up with techniques learned from others.
Logically though, in order to be able to feed and develop your personal foibles, you’ll first need to have some kind of vague idea of what these might be. Clearly this means knowing yourself fairly well, being conscious of your habits and obsessions.
This might make it sound like you need to be a highly self-aware, all-knowing, and fully “resolved” person before you can even start developing an authentic photographic voice. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, photography in itself is an amazing tool for developing greater self-knowledge. And in fact the processes of refining a photographic vision and learning to better understand your own personality go hand in hand, evolving simultaneously as you progress as a photographer and grow as a person.
Examine yourself through your photography, and your photography will reflect your self.
In reality then, although you may feel that you are still a long way from establishing a unique photographic style of your own, the first place to look for that style is in your own photography. Even if your photographic voice is still very far from developed, there are likely to be numerous clues and leads already present in your photographs: threads that you can follow towards something deeper and more refined.
Look at your past work, selecting a handful of your favorite shots. Now try to identify what it is about each of these images that particularly resonates with you. Is it the lighting? The mood? The colors? Something else?
Write down everything that excites or intrigues you about these photos. How might you push these elements of your work further? Transforming them from minor, incidental, and perhaps even quite unintentional features, so that they instead become well-developed, distinct, and entirely deliberate characteristics that are central to your photography.
That’s your photographic style right there.