How Important is Style in Photography?
First, I’d like to start this article off with a little bit of a warning. This post is primarily aimed at people just starting to get into photography or people just beginning to make the jump from hobbyist to professional. That said, hopefully there’s something below that can be appreciated by photographers of all levels.
Now, lets talk about style a little bit.
Years ago, when I was first starting to get into photography, one of the first questions I posed to myself was, “what style should my photos have?” I never stopped to think if my photos should have a particular style, just what it should be.
You see, at the time, it seemed very important that my photos be instantly recognizable as my own. As has become a popular trend in all things creative these days, it wasn’t so much about the proper aesthetic, it was about building a brand. My brand.
Also, I had a lot of friends that were starting to get into photography at the same time, or had gotten into it a little bit before me, and a lot of their photos seemed to have a particular style to them, so why not mine?
After experimenting a little bit — and by experimenting I mean desaturating the heck out of everything or filtering through any Lightroom preset I could find (yes, I was young, dumb, and very naive) — I wasn’t pleased with my results. Simply put, nothing felt right.
So I went back to the source of my desire to choose a style: my friend’s photos.
One of the first people I looked at was my friend Gracie, of Gracie Blue Photography, who specializes in wedding and lifestyle photography and boudoir sessions. Her photos were glowing portraits of love captured with natural light and very pure color schemes that really emphasized the innocence and purity on display.
Simply put, her photos were as gorgeous as the subject matter at hand.
Then I moved on to another photographer I’m friends with, but who has a vastly different style, Darius Soodmand. His portraits were filled with stark contrasts and a heavy use of shadows, cascading each face with a somber mood.
Meanwhile, his street photography was slightly desaturated, yet not overdone, to emphasize textures and give every moment he captured a “classic” feel. Noticing that the two different genres of photography he worked in didn’t share the exact same style delivered the first blow to my naive way of thinking.
Then I got to the photography of Dustin Chambers, one of my best friends and true inspirations when it comes to photography.
When I got to his photography, I noticed that almost none of his photos had a consistent “style” to them, and yet, they were all beautiful and all clearly came from his unique view of the world.
It was while looking through Dustin’s photos that I finally realized style wasn’t really important. Looking back at my other friends it now seemed obvious: they hadn’t chosen their style, their style had chosen them. Through their subject matter, they had naturally arrived at an appropriate style that emphasized all the strengths of their photography and their themes.
Gracie was fond of portraying beauty and love, and thus she used natural light for its flattering properties on skin tones. Additionally, using natural light freed her from messing with lots of lights and gear and allowed her to be in the moment, soaking in her subject’s world and capturing something real that was unfolding in front of her.
She didn’t avoid studio lighting because it wasn’t her style, she avoided it because it wasn’t the appropriate method for what she was trying to do. In other words, the style I saw in her photos had formed itself from her methods she used to take the best photo she could.
Similarly, Darius also liked to capture a mood, and so he used dark shadows and sharp contrasts to imbue his subjects with such. But he only did so when it was appropriate, never forcing it if the situation dictated otherwise.
Dustin liked to tell stories by capturing pure and real moments, close up, as they were happening, and thus let the situation dictate any perceived style in his photos. This lead to a consistency in his photos without relying on a specific type of lighting, tone, or color scheme. He simply edited and enhanced them to display the best picture possible.
After this breakthrough I finally felt free to simply focus on whatever I wanted and let the photos guide me to any potential style I may find in the process. While going through said process I came up with three simple questions to ask when editing photos and creating a potential “style.”
First, does it fit the subject matter?
You probably don’t want moody and brooding wedding photos, nor do you want HDR portraits. And if for some reason you do, then why? If you have a good explanation or goal in applying an effect then you’re at least making purposeful changes. Starting with your subject matter and your intent for said subject matter is the first step.
Second, does it fit your personality?
While I don’t want to advocate the idea of “building yourself as a brand” (not because branding you and your photography is bad but because thinking this way often leads you to make decisions for all the wrong reasons, like it did for me in the above story) we do have to be honest about the fact that photography can be as much about the person behind the camera and their view of the world as it is about what’s in front of the camera.
At the end of the day photography is an art, and art is all about the artist’s interpretation of the world. Thus, your photos should reflect your view and properly convey the way you see the world.
And third, does it enhance the photo?
This last question, to me, holds all the veto power. No matter your view or the subject matter, if the changes you’re making to your photos are just for the sake of change, why even do them? I’ve certainly encountered this when importing a photo that I already love as it was shot in-camera, but feel uneasy calling it “finished” without editing it at all.
While it’s true that almost all photos can benefit from editing, that doesn’t mean you should just start making changes because you feel guilty about leaving it as-is. Again, everything you do should have an intent behind it. If there’s one thing you walk away with after reading this, it’s that.
Re-reading the above story is incredibly embarrassing for me. It’s filled with the young naiveté most of us would like to bury and pretend we never went through. I’ve put it up on display here for you so that it will hopefully save you some time and energy, freeing you up to let your photos find their own style — that is, if they even need one.
Image credits: Lauren & Jonathan 24, Lauren & Jonathan 66, Lauren & Jonathan 16, and Lauren & Jonathan 58 by Gracie Dinwiddie and used with permission. Self Portrait, Justin Wagner, Man in Field, and Field by Darius Soodmand and used with permission. Rush Hour at the 9/11 Memorial, Bleachers at Turner Field, Forte Bowie, and Downtown Atlanta by Dustin Chambers and used with permission.