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.
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.
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.