Regardless of the subject matter you’re passionate about, another common thread linking great master photographers together is their ability to communicate their own unique personal vision to viewers of their photographs.
In my role as workshop leader and teacher, I’m often treated to visual surprises when students apply unique personal visions to the same subject matter. It often amazes me just how different they see and photograph things from each other and from myself. The obsession with developing a style is something that need not be a source of concern, because style will often reveal itself in retrospect, after a volume of work is taken.
And don’t confuse style with technique, even though the two are sometimes inexorably tied. Richard Avedon’s technique was often photograph his subject with a large-format camera on a white background. He was not the first to do so, but Avedon knew what he wanted when his subject stepped in front of his camera and he would never end the session before he got it. The technique may have been similar to what others had done before, but his style—reflected in the images he captured—was unique.
Everyone has a different timeline, and all your life’s experience can be infused in your personal vision if you let it. But you must be patient and persevere. After getting through the volume, you will find yourself at a place where you’re happier and more satisfied with the work you produce. It’s a bit magical, so the trick is to learn what you can, seek out constructive criticism, and shoot, shoot, shoot—and you will find yourself in this good photographic place.
The mystery of and obsession for harnessing your personal photographic style is not so mysterious really, as longtime wildlife and bird photographer Scott Bourne describes.
“What is a photographic style? For me, it’s simply a consistent way of seeing that ties directly to who I am, what I like, and what I want to express about myself and my feelings. It is not simply shooting the same subject over and over. It’s how you shoot that subject that defines your style. Your style should fit your personality. I have a big personality. Consequently, I tend to go for the big, bold photos with lots of pop and enthusiasm.”
Personal style means defining your own way of shooting. It’s a combination of what you focus your camera on and the techniques you use—from equipment to lens to subject distances. We all borrow from the photographers we admire, but after a volume of work, we leave their path and pave a new one of our own. When you see a group of photographers all shooting from the same vantage point, shoot quick and then run the other way and find your own camera position.
In a previous post I asked you to think about “what you must photograph”, and to that end I how you found a project or a theme you are excited about pursuing, which will go a long way to developing and showcasing your style. Let others talk about your style; you just keep shooting.
Gregory Heisler, a colleague and mentor is one of the most articulate photographers I have ever met, not to mention a master of portraits and lighting. If you every get a chance to see him lecture or teach, don’t hesitate.
“I can have aspirations or ambitions or ideas or goals for my work, but in a sense, the only purpose those goals serve is to get me to take the pictures and only through the taking of the pictures will I find out who I am or what my pictures look like. In the end, often times the pictures that I think I’m going to take aren’t the pictures I take and the direction I’m headed isn’t the direction I think I’m headed.”