Most anyone with a small amount of training can successfully operate a camera and make technically proficient photographs. And now, more than anything before, digital cameras have reduced - if not eliminated - the technical barriers to producing high-quality imagery. Despite the ever-increasing popularity of our medium and despite the billions of new photographs created around our planet each year, few images reveal the unique personal style of the photographer. In a world overripe with vast quantities of imagery and image makers, the temptation to mimic and appropriate images is undoubtedly great. While many nature and landscape photographers are content to capture ‘me too’ images of grand vistas and scenic icons, unique photographic style remains elusive even to very experienced photographers.
Brace yourself: photographic style cannot be taught or learned. Your unique photographic voice is not going to be revealed or enhanced through reading this article, reading a particular book, or even attending a workshop. Photographic style is the byproduct of experience, intensive image-making, self expression, and much experimentation. It is a subconscious evolutionary process that cannot be forced. Do not fret: you already have a unique photographic voice! Your style is a component of your self. Revealing your unique qualities - the qualities that make you…you in your photographs might possibly be the most challenging aspect of photography. These are the strongest photographs you are likely to make.
So what exactly can you do to reveal your voice in your photographs? To express your inner self through your images? I offer ideas herein that have been and will continue to be useful to my own growth as a photographic artist:
Forget The Photographers You Admire, What They’ve Taught You, And The Images That They’ve Made
Most photographers spend their formative years studying the works of others. Virtually all photographers learn to create images this way. We see, we like, and we copy. It will be difficult to express your self in your photographs if you can’t learn to separate your own voice from that of your idols. In studying your own favorite photographs, whose vision do they really reveal? To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with having photographic idols and studying and honoring their work. Being inspired by another photographer’s works and using such inspiration in the process of learning and developing your skills and vision is a good thing; crafting your own photographs in their style is not.
Define Your Subject(s) And Passions
Rare is the photographer who is successful in many different genres of photography (you know the phrase: jack of all trades, master of none). It’s not easy to master your subject and style if you’re not really sure just what your subject is or why you photograph it. Similarly, you can’t convince others to appreciate the photographs you create if you’re not passionate about your photography yourself. Your love for your subjects will come through loud and clear in your photographs, and those who view your work will respect and appreciate your in-depth knowledge and understanding of them. For example: when exhibiting my photographs, I have been approached by people who have expressed their admiration for my work and told me that they could feel the connection I had made with my subject (some of these individuals were not previously in tune with these subjects and/or landscape photography). This is powerful stuff, and flies in the face of those who suggest that our medium is mere documentation.
Avoid The Predictable
Let’s face it; it’s nigh impossible to make unique and personal photographs from Yosemite’s Tunnel View. You also can’t tell me anything about you with a standard scenic photograph of Horseshoe Bend, Delicate Arch, or any other well-known (especially roadside) locations. In fact, I’ll suggest that your photographic voice is quite difficult to hear amongst the din of the grand scenic landscape. I am as awed by the grand landscape as any other photographer, but it is difficult to say anything new photographically with scenes that have been depicted in countless paintings and photographs for more than 150 years. Finding your voice in your photographs means avoiding the customary and the predictable. There is nothing very new or personal about repetition, and the commonality of well-established roadside icons and vistas virtually precludes them from the realm of self expression.
Break The Rules
Rules are necessary in your formative years (rule of thirds, forced near/far perspectives, symmetry, etc.), and these rules often help to create the kind of images that are easy on the eyes and the imagination of viewers. Yet the rules also force us into a limited way of seeing and designing images. Break them. You can’t make ground-breaking photographs by following convention.
You won’t know if asymmetry, centering your subject, unusual framing, and so on can successfully work unless you ignore the rules and experiment. Film is cheap, pixels are free. Experimentation is one of the keys to finding your personal photographic voice. Photograph in light that you usually shun; intentionally avoid approaching a potential scene as you always approach potential scenes. Dare to be different. Failure and success are both gained through experimentation. You cannot succeed without some failure along the way. This is never a bad thing – just a natural part of the process. For every negative that I print and attempt to sell, there are scores more in my files that are ‘failed’ experiments. To my surprise, I have often come to value and have a fondness for some of these photographs down the road.
Ruthlessly Edit Your Work
John Sexton once said that the most valuable tool in his darkroom is the trash can. You need to and should love your own photo-graphs more than anyone, but don’t let that love prevent you from using the circular file or DELETE key. Ruthless editing is essential to your growth as a photographic artist, so don’t be afraid to let go of the not-quite-there images. We all make them; consider them stepping stones or practice images for your best ones. You need to be the harshest critic of your own work, and your photographic growth cannot happen without your sincere criticism. Reject any photograph that you cannot honestly call your own.
Attend Exhibitions, View Prints, Study Photographs
I know what you’re thinking: “Wait a second; doesn’t this contradict what you said earlier about repressing my favorite photographers and their photographs?” You’re likely familiar with the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Similarly, we cannot achieve and surpass photographic greatness if we do not have a firm understanding of the history of our medium and if we do not know the Masters and the works they produced. Furthermore, there are many varied methods to print and present our work. How do we learn about these methods? What does a masterful print look like? What constitutes a strong series or body of work? How is a series best presented? My own growth as a photographer has occurred through a variety of schooling, book study, and practical experience. Yet for me some of the most consistently invaluable learning tools have been to study prints, attend exhibitions, and to view monographs to see how others approach their subjects, how they design their photographs, and how they present their work. Again, avoid modeling your own work or methods in the likeness of others. Digest and synthesize these invaluable teaching tools of the greats into the creation of your own unique works. Learn and be inspired – don’t imitate.
Remember, photographic style is a subconscious evolutionary process and is the byproduct of experience and intensive image making. Forcing any step of this process might very well doom it to failure. Don’t worry about whether you have a unique style, and don’t agonize over how to develop one. Enjoy the process of making photographs and let things flow naturally. The Masters of Photography didn’t become Masters by forcing their style, nor did they become Masters overnight. Discover your self, focus on your subjects and your intent, and your unique style will naturally find its way to the surface of your photographs.
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Michael Gordon is an award-winning fine-art photographer from Southern California. To see more of Michael's beautiful work, visit his website, www.michael-gordon.com.
Comment posted by Paul Breitkreuz on 12/04/08 at 12:28 pm
Michael, an excellent article. The article brings to light a lot of key points on the main subject of personal development & style. I also have found that my round file receives more images over the past few years then it surely did in the earlier years. There is real credence in that fact. Thanks for taking time to post this very informative perspective from our world of photography.
"Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care."
- Theodore Roosevelt -
Registered on 02/25/06, 283 Posts, 5512 Comments Comment posted by Stan Rose on 12/08/08 at 01:44 am
Thanks for an excellent and informative article. As someone who is constantly trying to develop a more cohesive, unique style i found these insights very helpful. I think your statement about shooting icons is a subject worthy of much discussion; I do not feel it is difficult to shoot iconic locations with a unique perspective or style, the problem is that people are used to seeing an icon in a particular way, so your way may not be well-received by the viewing public. I would also caution a general audiance about "rule-breaking", which is commonly cited as a strategy for developing a style. I've seen many "established" photographers blatantly break the rules because they think it is the way to go. Rules are there for a reason, and you have to be very cautious about breaking them, by breaking them for a reason and not simply for the sake of making a statement. That is where many people go wrong, IMHO.
Registered on 09/15/05, 791 Posts, 16206 Comments Comment posted by Dietrich Gloger on 12/08/08 at 12:20 pm
Interesting and very well thoughtout article. Personally I agree with most of it, but "forgetting" the masters is not a good idea in my opinion. Of course copying them neither, but trying to undertand why their images stand out and reading and learning about their philsophy is worth doing. I think learning and understanding why they made images, how they selected a certain scene/composition , why it motivated them to make a photograph is as - or maybe even more - important than studying their photographs. It's like getting into their minds and getting an understanding of their photography. These guys "knew it" and I think it helps to know it as well. And after all, a great photograph is the climax of a cummulative effort of many mental considerations - attitude, mindset, philosophy etc. About the rules: ALL images that appeal to me have rules in place(also the images in this article). They simply would not work without the rules. I cannot remember one photograph that I liked that did not had a rule in place. The same holds true for "classical" paintings. They work because the composition is good (among many other things).The problem is that compositions are often made by stubbornly looking and applying the rules to a scene. This leads to a biased "seeing". This prevents the photographer to see more and and find "different" compositions - but once found they have to be structured according to what is considered to be appealing - rules.
Dietrich ("Didl") Gloger, Linz-Vienna, Austria.
Canon EOS 5D,
EF 24-105mm; EF 70-200mm IS; TS-E 45mm;
“No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit” – Ansel Adams
Registered on 01/26/07, 341 Posts, 9500 Comments Comment posted by Michael E. Gordon on 12/10/08 at 3:25 pm
Thank you for your comments, gentlemen.
Stan: I'll never advocate breaking the 'rules' simply to make a statement. This contributes little towards development of style. I should also state that the "rules" (which should ideally be recognized as 'conventions') are merely general guidelines regarding visual perception and the preferences we humans have for image design.
To quote Edward Weston, "Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk." Most of us don't need to consult 'the rules' when designing our images, but photographers should resist the temptation to consciously conform their image design to a well-known standard. A common example on NPN's Earth, Sea, and Sky would be wide-angle/extreme wide-angle images with clearly defined foregrounds, midgrounds, and backgrounds). I know this design is well-liked on ESS, but it's also a technique that has been exploited (and perhaps overused) by landscape photographers for dedcades. If it works, it works, but to consciously apply this technique to every image....
Dietrich: the study of the masters is analagous to a young bird in a nest. At some point, the bird will fledge and begin a new life on its own. Similarly, once one is a competent intermediate photographer (or thereabouts), it's time to fledge from the mentors and Masters and strike out on your own. I admire and honor the Masters, and their work certainly informed mine as a beginning photographer, but as an experienced photographer I gain little today by 'studying' them. I read their books, I admire and honor their photographs, but finding my own photographic voice will require much more than simply studying their work.
Thank you for reading and your comments, gentlemen.
Registered on 11/01/03, 90 Posts, 2482 Comments Comment posted by Arnab Banerjee on 12/12/08 at 3:32 pm
Very interesting article, Michael. I loved your perspective and general discussion on how one can think of developing a style.
One thing that you could have added: a little personal description of your style with illustration of some of your photos (which are here, but I miss the linkage with the thoughts that you presented). In my opinion, that would be helpful to digest some of the concepts.
Overall, a great piece that I enjoyed reading
Arnab Banerjee - Fine Art Photography
http://www.ArnabBanerjee.com "You keep getting better or you are dead", Rafael Nadal, Sept 2010
Registered on 01/03/07, 313 Posts, 2270 Comments Comment posted by David Edwards on 12/14/08 at 3:59 pm
Thanks very much for writing this great article, Michael. I appreciate your the passion you are conveying in this article to inspire photographers to find their own unique style. I agree with the fact that when you are presented with a fabulous landscape scene, it's hard to find a unique angle that hasn't been done to death. Since I'm relatively inexperienced, I find myself taking shots in the "textbook" way without even realizing it, even though I am searching for something new. It's built into my learning and is hard to break out from this way of thinking. So, I feel this is part of the learning philosophy of first learning and knowing the rules before you can break them successfully. And it's articles like this that are a great help and inspiration in doing just that.
Registered on 12/06/08, 133 Posts, 2424 Comments Comment posted by Matthew Cromer on 12/28/08 at 7:50 pm
The article was nice, but I particularly enjoyed the photographs. Some of these I have seen before, but some were new and all definitely has your unique thumbprint. . .
Registered on 11/08/03, 42 Posts, 657 Comments Comment posted by Michael E. Gordon on 01/13/09 at 4:02 pm
THANK YOU for the comments, guys.
Arnab: your suggestion is a good one. Sounds like a follow-up article to me
Registered on 11/01/03, 90 Posts, 2482 Comments Comment posted by Paul Duval on 04/10/10 at 10:45 am
I know that you may not read this, but I'm going to put in my two cents anyway. Very well thought out and presented article. Style is a nebulous thing hard to attain and hard to describe. I've also noticed that when I'm showing my portfolio to people especially the BW conversions I commonly get the comment. " Oh that reminds me of an Ansel Adams photo." Now should I cringe or be honored. One thing that wasn't touched on was the importance of a personal style, it separates you from the herd. Were communicating visually with our own unique voice and it should represent us, our experience our feelings our vision. I'll take that photo of an icon because it's a challenge to make it my own and not just a record shot ( to show I was there ) or copy my fav image. Mt. Whitney is the perfect example, I have been there at dawn numerous times and probably shot close to a thousand images. Every single one is different in some way, I'm not sure if I have my own style that would be up to people who view the choicest images, but I definitely have the requisite passion for the subject, icon though it is.
Thanks for the article it obviously got me thinking about style and fired me up to got out shooting today.