Many people stumble into photography but have trouble finding a personal and unique photography style that sets them apart from other photographers; and finding that style is by no means an unimportant matter…at the end of the day anyone who educates themselves should be able to pick up a camera and take a basic, well exposed image. But creating and interjecting a consistent sense of unique purpose, cohesion, vision, and “feeling” into images is what elevates “just an image” into something more and is a key factor that influences success in the business of photography. Once your personal style becomes distinguished, clients will come to you for that style; if no one else sees the world like you do and sees your clients as you do, and if your clients want the vision, perspective, and feeling that you provide there’s simply no where else to go for that vision, perspective, and style because that is unique to you. So defining a personal style is most definitely something to strive for.
So firstly we should probably take a minute to think about what “personal style” is exactly…for me, there are (at least) two levels of style:
- Surface-level style: your processing, framing, composition, angles/perspectives, depth of field, subject matter, etc. When most people talk about style–this is what they’re referring to
- Base-level style: an often overlooked level of style that goes much deeper than…it’s what drives why you love photography and how you view the world; that base-level style often influences those more upper-level stylistic features. Upper-level stylistic elements are fairly changeable–especially as we learn and grow–but I don’t think our base-level style changes (or if it does, it changes very, very slowly). I think it’s our base-level style that makes each of us unique. It’s the feeling or the je ‘ne sais quoi in our photos that you can’t quite put your finger on that’s either there right from the very beginning of our photographic journey…or not…because I do feel as though when I view some photos though they may be technically proficient, they lack that je ‘ne sais quoi–at least for me (though maybe each person “feels” things differently). And I’m not really talking about “feeling” a particular emotion–different times call for different emotions–but rather about that feeling that you just can’t quite put your finger on.
So with this definition in mind, Leah Remillet recently posted a video interview discussing finding a personal style. Ultimately this video results in two conclusions:
You should look within for your own personal style…you should not look to other photographers
It takes about 2 years to find your own personal style
I whole heartedly agree with this first conclusion…but I’m not 100% sure I agree with the second. We’ll get back to how and where to find your style shortly…but first let’s address the second. One thing I think it important to clarify is the difference between having a personal style, allowing that personal style to be interjected into your photography, and identifying that personal style.
Seth Godin–one of my all time favorite business writers (I consume massive amounts of information at a massive rate from tons of super-smart business people…yet it’s his emails that I just can’t wait to open when they land in my inbox…totally geeky, I know!)–recently posted about the past being neat and the future being messy and I think there’s a ton of truth to that…when we look back from where we are currently at in our lives it’s easy to see connections, links, and pathways because we can survey multiple pieces of information at once from a less emotional and more distant standpoint; these two things allow us to evaluate and connect pieces of information better than we could ever do “in the moment.” So while the je ne ‘sais quoi that is your personal style might be present from the beginning of your photographic journey that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can identify it. I think it takes a lot of personal reflection from a distant stand point before you can identify what that je ne ‘sais quoi is…but once you start being able to put your finger on that personal style you can draw it out, emphasize it, and really center your business and photography around it. I feel like it’s now–a few months shy of 3 years since I bought my first DSL-R–that I’m able to do that…but I’m only able to do that because I first and foremost trusted in myself and my intuition and let that style out right from the beginning of my photographic journey…even if I couldn’t identify or make sense of it at first.
I feel as though my own personal style was always present in my photos. I can look at this set of images:
And I can see that these images celebrate first and foremost on two principles I consider important to my base-leve style:
- The connection, emotions and love between the people in the photo…not a connection with the camera/the person looking at the photo. They’re snuggly, love-y, intimate feeling, and when I look at them I hear the laughs, feel the love, and feel the enjoyment that these families have with each-other.
- Acceptance and celebration of people for who they are (especially kiddos…and if I put together images of just kiddos rather than focusing on families this would become more apparent). Are they a hot mess? Love it–let’s bring that out; are they high energy? Perfect–you can bet you’ll get a lot of action shots; is your one year old obsessed with sticks? let’s create a little pile of them or stick a flag on one; My clients-how they sit, how they stand, how they interact, what their style is, what they love, random things they tell me on their Client Information Form–are my biggest source of inspiration; I create the best sessions when I understand who they are. THE best “poses” are the ones that are variations of how they already sit, snuggle or stand which is why there can sometimes be value in vagueness (perhaps a topic for another blog post, lol!) I don’t want to change people–I want to celebrate the perfectly imperfect–I believe that accepting people as they are is central to creating beautiful images.
These are the two things that I want to show to you and to your family and friends and that I want to capture and preserve for your kiddos and their kiddos to follow. I can link these two base level stylistic elements back to childhood experiences–or rather a lack thereof–and I can link them to other paths I’ve considered taking in my life (a love of psychology, an interest in figuring out who people are and why they do what they do, the study of psychopaths–people seemingly without the ability to love).
There are other features that I might consider part of my style:
- a preference for movement in my images–a swinging skirt, mid laugh, the moment after the kiss
- a love of natural, raw, un-manicured settings
- backlight, golden light, sun flare, and lens flare oh my!
- storytelling–lots of variation and lots of little details that combine and draw you through a story in the way a single image may not
- client inspired styled sessions–especially for kid only session–I believe most kids do best with something to interact with and props that allow a story to be told can help bring out who a person is
- editorial/magazine-ish/artsy photos
- crazy creative and unpredictable ideas (my clients know what I’m talking about)
But ultimately these aspects of my style are secondary to the importance of the connection between families, and acceptance of people for who they are.
I spent most of my life with next to no interest in photography. It wasn’t until I had my own little kiddo and found Michele at Pinkle Toes that any sort of photography really resonated with me at all…we had a photographer at our wedding (who we paid a pittance I now realize!) and I knew I preferred a more documentary type style but I just didn’t really find much value in photographs of myself…but once little Miss L came around *everything* changed including how I valued photography–I mean seriously…who wouldn’t want to photograph her cute little face– but it wasn’t really until I found Michele’s work that I really found something special…I didn’t know why at the time…but I knew it was; it is undoubtedly the reason why I started actively playing around with taking photos and purchased my first DSLR so you all can go bug and blame her that I’m around
I honestly don’t think I would be a photographer today if I hadn’t stumbled on her work when I did; I now know that it was her focus on the connection and emotion within families that really drew me to her work–before I saw it I just didn’t realize that photography could really capture those things within families and I knew that I absolutely had to have that captured for my little girly…I’d skip my daily Sbux coffee for it if I had to–and those who know me know that would be one SERIOUS sacrificeReally I’d do anything to have that love and emotion properly preserved for Miss L.
The style of those images above is starkly different from the style of the images below…and some would argue I probably should even show them:
while I appreciate them from an objective standpoint…and enjoy the challenge getting these “perfect” Christmas card-y images presents they don’t really speak to me. Can I get them? Yes…usually…especially a client has mentioned or I think that it’s important to them. As I grow as a photographer I can get them more cleanly and efficiently with more and more families…but just don’t make my heart sing like the others do and in some instances they oppose the “acceptance” aspect of my style if you’ve got kiddos for whom this type of a photo is a struggle. So I usually only strive for one or two of these types of images (because everyone does need at least one or two or two of these images and there is a time and place for them…even if just for grandparents and Christmas cards). This is not to say that these type of images are not objectively valuable… If a client wants primarily these type of images I am not the right photographer for them.
So how can you find your personal style? Here are a few actionable steps to finding your style:
- Let it out-I think when it comes down to it, your best bet for finding that je ‘ne sais quoi in your photos comes from trusting your gut and your intuition and setting yourself free from worry and constraints about who you’re trying to please, what you’re trying to do, and over thinking when you’re in the moment…just let it flow organically (pshaw…that sure sounds easy, doesn’t it? But it’s totally not!), try things out, keep doing what works and what intuitively feels good to you and skip what doesn’t. You may not know why you’re drawn to something or why it keeps showing up in your work just yet but you need to trust in yourself and your intuition until it makes sense to youIn order to do this the single best thing you can do as a new photographer might be NOT getting paid…don’t undercharge until you find your style, don’t muddle through it until you find that purpose and cohesion, take money out of the equation entirely and set yourself free. If you can begin by shooting solely and exclusively for yourself you’re free to explore your style and I believe for most people this means they’re going to find their style faster and more efficiently than those weighed down by the expectations that come with being paid. And once you find that style that becomes the single strongest platform for your business and your clients will come to you for your unique style and vision and it will grow more quickly and become a stronger business that it otherwise would. It takes a particular brand of fearlessness to really find your style even while you’re getting paid
- Reflect on your work (and yourself!) often so you can begin to identify your style–which images make your heart sing? Can you link them to events in your life that drive why they make your heart sing? What keeps showing up in your work even when you’re not purposefully striving for it? If you do happen to look to other photographers for inspiration ask yourself why the images you love resonate with you…what do they have in common with your own images that make your heart sing? I believe that in order to really find your style you first need to know who you are–it’s no small task…but it’s so essential to not only finding your style, but I believe to finding happiness (in your life and your business) as well.
- Emphasize it–once you start seeing themes and figuring out what resonates with you then you can focus on that, bring it out even more, and make sure that it’s present in as many images as possible. Let it drive not just how you shoot a session…but also what happens before and after the session; let it drive *everything* about your business. This is–in some ways–the easiest step…but it’s the hardest step to get to.
FOLLOW YOUR HEART
It sometimes knows things that you aren’t aware of yet
Whimsy & Style: Contemporary College Station photographer; Infant photography, children’s photography, toddler photography, baby portraits, Senior photographer, modern photography, candid photography, creative portrait photography, in the Bryan/College Station area.
Click here: College Station photography to learn more about my approach to photography, find photography prices, and start planning your session; photography packages are available.