Approaching the Problem of Style


To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art.

~ Charles Bukowski

Easier said than done, I think. Good, actionable advice on how to develop your photographic style is hard to find. Clichés, on the other hand, sprout like lawn weeds everywhere: “Style develops over time; you can’t rush it!”, “Confidence creates style!”, “Imitate other people’s work and put a twist on it!”, “Here are 3 ways/8 ways/10 tips to creating style!”

To make matters worse, some of the top photographers in the industry have been teaching that the endless repetition of an observable technique equals style. To me, that qualifies as fashion.

Kitsch is the inability to admit that s*** exists.

~ Milan Kundera

To a certain extent the clichés are true; style isn’t possible until you’ve mastered the basics. We’re all still learning. Even the most accomplished photographers push themselves to create images they haven’t done before. The basics are easy. The intermediate skills are just that — more difficult than beginning ones.

When it comes to style, people often try to link the strengthening of technique to the creation of style — you read about ridiculous exercises to improve one’s “vision” by “spending the day photographing things that are purple.” Like that’s going to be a big help on a professional shoot. But since there are elements and principles of photography and form, it can be useful to practice identifying them in the real world.

  • Line
  • Shape
  • Form
  • Texture
  • Color
  • Pattern

Hurricane Images Inc Personal Photography

These are broad concepts and as one student-of-photography to another I can assure you that they aren’t much use until you learn to break them down into smaller elements. Spend the day looking for one sub-element at a time. You don’t need to drag your camera with you; use your cell phone. Observe reflections. Identify complimentary colors. Spot intersecting lines and curves. Locate a spot where one texture becomes another. I’ll tell you a secret: None of the exercises will build or improve your personal style. But they will strengthen the muscles you need to create it.

If you’re a working photographer the number one dictate is that you give your client the product they want. Always remember that. But once that’s on the memory card, you have latitude to explore. So how do we develop style?

Examine the basic ingredients. Style appears in the use of photographic elements and principles mentioned above. It’s also in the shape and texture of light. Style isn’t static; it evolves. Here are the most useful tips I’ve found to speed the development of personal style:

#1: Style doesn’t develop on its own

Yes, that’s right: you can take boring pictures from now until the day you die if you don’t actively pursue its development. Time may improve your basic skills, but you’ll have to apply yourself to create an artistic vision.

#2: Strengthen your muscles and be attentive to what excites you

Whether it’s practice or performance (work) pay attention to your interests. It’s not just about identifying images that work — a workable image may have no attraction to you. Find what excites you.

#3: When you’re shooting for a client, take a few for yourself

Once you’ve met their expectations, ask to do something unusual — new lighting, new location, new pose. Keep your request reasonable, but ask.

Hurricane Images Fashion

The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.

~ Henry Green

#4: Pick five words that describe your favorite images

These should be pictures you’ve already taken. I often ask my clients for three words that describe the image they want me to create; that way I know what I’m working towards. This is the same principle. Now go into your image library and pick 10 of your favorite images. Do they fulfill your five words? Do you need to pick new ones?

#5: Pick three words you don’t want people to use when describing your images

That sounds too easy, doesn’t it? Here’s the catch: They should be positive words. They can’t be “boring,” or “plastic.” They have to be three words that someone might say they want in their picture. Is “fun” a word you don’t want attributed to your work? Bright? You can’t use gloomy (that’s a negative word), but what about dark or moody? These three “not-words” should guide you as firmly as your five positive words. And remember, you don’t have to never create images that have those attributes — you’re pointing your feet in a direction, not cementing them to a spot.

#6: Postmortem to death

This goes back to my first point — style doesn’t happen by itself. Review your images; review your process for taking them. Evaluation is constant; it should be as addictive as taking images. In my business, I constantly dig back into old images, re-edit them, play, and re-invent.

About the author: Robin Walker runs Hurricane Images Inc, a San Francisco/Bay Area photography studio that specializing in portrait, event, and wedding photography. With a 20-year history in theatre and music production, he specializes in working with actors, musicians, designers, and models. You can follow him on Twitter. This article originally appeared here.

  • Brennus

    Out of curiosity, what are your five words?

  • Vin Weathermon

    I see the irony in “finding a style” and “keeping it fresh, pushing boundaries”.

  • Facebook User

    I think a lot of photographers wiegh in to much on words like style and vision. Style is something that evolves, and will continue to evolve throughout you photographic journey. As long as you actively pursue your passions and interests, and keep the learning process going, your style will take shape. I don’t think there’s some magical formula for it. My opinion of course.

  • bob cooley

    In my experience (about 30 years of it) the exact opposite is true. You don’t actively ‘develop’ a style; you look back after a number of years and you will notice that your work has a specific style to it. A combination of the way you approach subjects, light,process, and make the choices that you favor time and time again (often without even knowing it) that distinguishes your images from others.

    Trying to actively develop a ‘style’ is usually what becomes a barrier for photographers trying to go from being adequate to very good (or even great). What you end up with when you try to develop a style is a formula that isn’t necessarily true to who you are, but rather who you ‘think’ you are.

    In short, you don’t define your style, your style defines your work.

  • Brennus

    I agree. I mean, I am just some kid who started shooting less than an year ago. Though I kinda plan my shots, I don’t deliberately push any sort of framework onto them, I just do what feels right in the moment. When I look back, though, I notice that many of my pics have these recurring themes, like lone subjects against monumental architecture, harsh shadows, straight lines and such. I don’t think I do any of that conciously, it’s just what I personally think is visually interesting.

  • Ivo Kwee

    Style ultimately reflects your personality. If you’re funny, your pics will show humor. If you are tidy, your composition is tidy. Etc. So first of all you need to know yourself. Also your preference of equipment will determine a great part of your style.

  • Robin Walker

    I appreciate the discussion; thanks for chiming in. For some people, I think time– aided by a natural inclination to learn and explore– helps create their personal style; for others, I don’t believe this to be true. Even when time works for you, I think there’s another element at play. When you look back at the images you’ve taken over the years, you’re only reviewing a small proportion of them. They are the images you held onto because they convey a certain quality. They are embodiments of your style. The better you understand “why” they work, the better your ability to re-create and innovate. After “practice-practice-practice,” my advice here is to look first at your own images and define what qualities you like in them. You can look at other people’s pics, too, but I believe your own contain much more information. I wrote that style shouldn’t be static; it should evolve. It’s not an endless repetition of a technique. For me personally, style is a conversation where I understand that I am still searching for the best way to express myself and the subject at the other end of the camera.

  • Aezreth

    Aaahh, the internet, where even the worst amateur can pretend to be an expert and “teach” others.

  • bob cooley

    Exactly – and as you continue to shoot, elements will be added and change over time; but that equation of unconscious decisions will inform your style. You’ll be able to go back and dissect (just as you are starting to do) what some of elements are, and you’ll be able to further define your strengths.

    And because you will have awareness of the elements of your style, will be able to pre-envision how you create your images, and will be able to create results closer to your vision (or a client’s vision), which is a critical tool if you are doing this for a living.

  • Dmitrijs

    I wonder what went into the choice of photography in this post…that’s probably the worst examples I’ve seen North of DPS blog

  • ms

    while you at it, maybe you can pay for an Eric Kim photo class…

  • Mr Hogwallop

    Interesting topic, Many people do not have much of a style, they roll with whatever way the wind blows. Copy something that is hot like desaturation, flare, shallow focus. Others have a definite look or style, but usually that shows through the variations of come and go fads. Or it could be they shoot one style and go back the tried and true setups time and time again.
    Style comes from inside, not by looking at others work and copying it, and hopefully the style is a common thread through all your work. While not impossible it’s hard to creat a style, I think the style finds each person differently.
    While the article is well written I too wonder about the photos used to illustrate it, If the petapixel guys chose some RF stock photos that’s one thing but if these are supposed to show a style of a single photographer..I missed it. But it’s impossible to see anyones style in three sort of unrelated pictures.