Along your journey as a photographer you have a lot to figure out — camera settings, principles of exposure and composition, where to find good deals on gear. Then you’ll progress to a stage where you begin to ask yourself more abstract, open-ended questions like, “How do I improve my photography?” and perhaps even more pressing, “How do I discover my photography style?”
These two questions aren’t unassociated. Indeed, it takes more than a modicum of time and effort to get better at photography and become, at the very least, a competent photographer. But competency is attainable for most who set down that path and it’s a path that might very well lead to the discovery of your own style.
But that’s no guarantee.
Being able to discover and extract your unique personal aesthetic is a decidedly more difficult endeavor, but it’s hiding out somewhere inside of you. So how do you figure out what your “look” is?
Here are six steps you can take to discover your hidden photography style.
Look At What Others Are Doing
This sounds counterintuitive on the surface but bear with me.
Look at the work of other photographers. I don’t mean the random shots that populate your Instagram feed. I mean the work of photographers you admire and who consistently put out really good images. You’d do well to also look at the masters of photography.
What you will notice is that certain elements are always present in their work. Everyone has their own “thing.” For some, it’s subtle. For others it visually dominates their photos. In either case, it is how you identify their work as uniquely theirs.
Stop Looking At What Others Are Doing
The exercise above is intended to be a temporary one. Once you’ve engaged in some pattern recognition for a select few photographers, you’ve got the point. There’s no additional benefit to lingering too long.
One of the drawbacks of obsessing over the work of others is that you fail to find real world inspiration. Yes, there is inspiration to be found in other photographs, but in order to move on to the next stage of this process of finding your own style, you have to find your own inspiration.
Whether this comes from the people in your life, the place in which you live, your interpretation of the “rules” of photographic composition or the culture with which you identify, you must learn to recognize and own these sources of inspiration and use them creatively.
Don’t Mimic The Work Of Others
I’m not suggesting that the things you admire in other photographers won’t creep into your work in some small way, but the bottom line is that it’s all been done before.
Use the work of others as an initial point of reference, not as a stencil for your own work. Copying others won’t do you any good creatively and you’ll just end up feeling bad about your own photography.
Don’t Try To Reinvent The Wheel
This is an idea that’s worth repeating — it’s all been done before.
You don’t need to set yourself on a mission to do something that no photographer before you has ever done. Even if you were to stumble into such an anomaly of a situation, it would probably be a one-off sort of thing. And that’s not what style is about.
Your personal style is about consistency and repeatability. Don’t put undue pressure on yourself to create something that will be subsequently inaccessible to you.
Don’t Confuse Mistakes For Style
Mistakes happen because you don’t know what you’re doing. Or because you get careless with your technique. Or…just because mistakes happen. Ever accidentally changed a setting right before taking a shot?
Sometimes mistakes lead to interesting results that could potentially be purposefully incorporated into your style. But you won’t be able to replicate those results if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Once you’ve figured out how to replicate those results, it’s no longer a mistake and might be considered part of your personal aesthetic.
Blur, unorthodox crops, and other peculiar traits can legitimately be the result of intent. But you have to know and understand the rules before you can break them in such a way that doesn’t belie your competence.
Do What You Want
The simplest point is also the most important. This is about your photographic style, your creative vision, your plan for your work.
Thus, the only person you need to worry about pleasing is yourself.
Of course, you have to know that not everyone will like your style and you always have to be prepared accept (or ignore) criticism. But what’s the point of doing something simply for the sake of having other people like it?
Your audience will find you.
Discovering your hidden photography style probably isn’t going to happen quickly, and it will definitely involve more than the six points addressed here. Stay focused on your work, be patient with yourself and dare to try new things — with persistence, all these things will serve as the foundation of an aesthetic that you can be proud of and that others can identify you by.