“Photographic style” is an expression that gets tossed around quite often in blogs and videos. Many talk about the importance of style and many more are on a quest to define theirs.
But what, exactly, is photographic style?
What Is Style?
The modernistic, social media driven concept of style tends to revolve around branding. All the big names in global commerce have an Instagram presence and it’s vital for them (their products) to stand out.
Ironically, uniformity is used as a method of standing out. Any given brand wants all their imagery to look the same so when viewers (potential customers) see it, they know immediately what they’re looking at.
Individual photographers have adopted this same tactic. Surely you’ve been admonished once or twice concerning the look of your Instagram gallery — it should be built around a certain theme, you should decide on a particular visual aesthetic and stick to it.
Some take the advice literally. Every image on their page is of their Corgi draped in the Gingham filter. Of course, if this approach serves you well, by all means keep at it.
What Style Isn't
But let’s not be overly simplistic about what style is. It’s not the use a certain preset or a particular film stock that defines one’s style. Style is ultimately a manifestation of all the creative decisions you make in a split second. From framing and composition to depth-of-field and motion effects to subject placement and your singular interpretation of the decisive moment — these are all components of your style.
I’ll admit I have no easily digestible, one sentence definition of what photography style is. I don’t believe it’s a concept that can be so easily defined…or confined. When you read through the multitude of articles written about how to discover your personal photographic style, bear in mind that they are not step-by-step tutorials. There’s far too much “personal” in personal photographic style to be synthesized by any one article or collection of articles.
Defining Your Own Style
Your photographic style is the manner in which you communicate visually with your audience. Style doesn’t mean that all your photos have to look alike or that you have to choose between either black and white or color or that you have to photograph the same subjects all the time. You can deviate from some element or another and still maintain your style.
Legendary Chinese photographer Fan Ho produced a body of work in which his most iconic images were captured on black and white film. But, yes, he did shoot color film and made photos that are arguably just as impactful as anything he did in black and white. In either case, you know a Fan Ho photo when you see one. This is the effect of style.
Indeed color and contrast, light and geometry, texture and form all contribute to defining photographic style. But there’s something more elusive, something less tangible that really pins down one’s style. The series of decisions and compromises you make in order to immortalize one moment in a life or one perspective of a landscape, when done well, will allow you to share a mental space with everyone who views your work.
Not everyone will love your style, but at least you’ll have one. Whatever that means.