I was online just the other day and I saw someone pose a question in a photography group: "How do I find my style?"
This is a question that not only have I asked in one point in time, but it's a question that I often hear asked by newer photographers. The problem with this question is that there really *isn't* a straightforward answer to it, and the response given to those asking is usually found to be unsatisfactory. The only real valid answer to the question of "how do I find my style" is: Hard work and time. That's the long and short of it. It's as simple as that.
That being said, there *are* things that you can do to help get you to your end goal of finally nailing down *your* style, and that's what I'd like to go over today.
Is having a style important?
The answer to this question is "yes". Your style defines who you are as an artist. It distinguishes your work from other's work, and it allows your target market to find you more easily and vice versa. It shows consistency that allows your clients to know what they're going to get from you before they even hire you, and it ensures that your clients are happy with the delivered results. I have a few favorite photographers that all have a very distinct style, so much so when I see their work without their name attached to it, 9 times out of 10 I can tell it's theirs.
Will that happen for you in the beginning? Absolutely not. It won't even happen for you once you are deep enough to realize that you *need* a style and decide to search looking for it. Why? Because...
Style is not something you can just "find"
The thing that I find most amusing about the question, "How do I find my style" is that people think it's something you wake up and decide to just do one day. *I too* thought that's how it worked. Everyone does, when they first start out.
I remember being a young photographer and thinking, "I don't have a style. I need to find a style. WHAT is my style? What do I want my style to BE?" I went into a handful of photography forums and asked people how they found *their* style. I got varying answers, but the most credible photographers that responded to me all seemed to have the same thing to say: "Stop looking for your style. Just let it happen."
THAT is just the MOST frustrating thing a young photographer can hear. I totally get that. I was there with you. But the fact of the matter is that it's TRUE.
Photography is an art, and art is not a quick-fix kind of deal. You can't get better overnight (well, most of us can't, anyway...), and it takes a lot of perseverance and work. Hearing people tell you that you need to stop trying to find your style and just keep working until it comes to you is frustrating because you want it NOW. You want to be good NOW. You want to be consistent NOW. You want to make recognizable work NOW. But none of those things can happen without you putting in the time and sweat into it.
The beginning of your photography career is going to be a hodgepodge of bad ideas, messy editing, inconsistent work, lucky discoveries and... a few intentionally brilliant pieces. But for the most part you're stumbling around trying to catch your footing, doing whatever feels right until suddenly, one day, you realize that you've found your rhythm. Without actively *looking* for it, you will have found your style. And you'll know that you have because people will tell you.
They'll say things like, "I love your style" (It seems too obvious, but it's true). And then they'll go on to describe your style. They'll say things like, "It's so clean and airy", or "It looks like it belongs in a magazine", or "It's gritty and emotional", or "It's artsy and majestic" or "It's crisp and vibrant", or a billion other combinations of a million other adjectives. But whatever your words are, you'll start to hear them, over and over and you'll know: You have found your style.
Your style is not found in a pre-set or action
The worst mistake that people make is thinking that in order to find their style, they just need to figure out who *else's* work they like, and then go find their pre-sets for sale, or find out which pre-sets their favorite photographer is using, and then go purchase them.
There are a couple issues with this:
1. If you're purchasing pre-sets and applying them to everything you do, then it's not really *your* style, is it? It's VSCO's style, or Mastin's style, or Mary Sue Bob's style, or whoever's style it is that created the presets that you're buying. But whatever the case may be, buying a preset is not finding *your* style.
Presets are just a tool in your bag of tricks. There's nothing INHERENTLY wrong with using presets. We all have ways to make our workflows go faster, but what I personally take issue with is the current trend of photographers seeking out the same presets as everyone else, applying them to all their images and calling it "their style", without ever really know HOW those presets work. When you seek out that popular filter or preset and apply it to all of your work, you can't really call that *yours*. Even if you "tweak" the settings (as you should... please tell me you're at least making adjustments to all those presets you're applying after you buy them...), it's still not your style because you're just making minor adjustments to whatever preset you applied, in order to make it work with the lighting and color tone of your particular image.
2. What happens when "your style" goes OUT of style? When the muted, moody, dark-toned VSCO filters go out of style, what then? Well, I guess you have to go out and buy *new* pre-sets, don't you? Well that's just kind of a pain in the ass. You spent all this time, heartache and money to find "your style", only for it to go out in a few years, and you find yourself lost all over again, because you never really learned what made those filters "tick". And now you're in an identity crisis once more, because you never really sought out *your* style to begin with.
That is the whole purpose for my creating this blog and the videos I have created and will create in the future. I want to be able to give people the tools they need to start creating their own style. I don't want to teach you how to do the things I do, so you can become *me*... I want to teach you how to do the things I do, so you can take those concepts and become *you*.
Keep shooting, keep learning, keep playing
The only REAL way to find your style is to keep shooting, keep learning, and keep playing with different techniques. It's okay to emulate different looks that you see at first. It's okay to want to reverse engineer presets and filters. It's how you start to figure out what you like and don't like. And from there you start to spawn your own ideas and your own taste for your work. The important thing is to keep shooting and keep experimenting until you stumble on something that feels right. Something that feels like YOU.
My attempts at "finding my style" from back in the day.
My "style" as it currently exists.
And as I mentioned earlier, a lot of times you don't even realize when it is happening. You're so caught up in just creating, rather than focusing on "finding" your style, that it develops on it's own. Most importantly though, even when you *have* found your style, it's important to keep on learning.
You don't want to be that guy in his 60's who has created images the same way since he was 25. Things change. Client demands change. Styles change. You want to stay relevant, so don't be too proud to keep learning, and especially don't be too proud to learn from those younger than you. Art is ever evolving. Don't let yourself or your style get stale.
As a result...
Your style may change
And that's totally fine. That's the great thing about finding your style for yourself, rather than letting a preset dictate it for you. You will know the ground concepts of the lighting, editing, and retouching techniques that you need to know in order to keep growing and evolving. You will stand out from the rest because you aren't doing the same things as everyone else.
It's a harder, longer, and more frustrating road than a lot of your peers will take. But in the end YOU are going to understand the hows and whys behind the presets that they're using. You'll be able to create whatever you imagine in your head, while they'll be left spending more money on presets once the winds change and the preset game shifts to a different style.
So, wait... HOW do I find my style?
You find it by creating and gaining experience. You find it by not taking the easy way out. You find it by putting in the hours that you need to understand why you're doing the things that you do, and HOW to make what you see in your mind happen.
YOU don't find your style. Your style finds you.
Emily McGonigle Photography is a Franklin and Nashville based retoucher, and can be contacted for booking inquiries here.