When we talk about an x or y photographer’s style, we refer to his unique approach to his photography. That is similar to any artist’s style, or signature style, as you might have heard it. We know for example Picasso’s style with his cubist paintings, Van Gogh’s style with his impressionist approach, and Dali for his out-of-this-world surrealist paintings. You hear it for sculptors, for example, Giacometti or Rodin, musicians, film directors, or novelists and poets.
What is it that defines artistic style?
Simply put, artistic style refers to all those aspects of an artwork that make it, at first reading, to be easily attributed by its receiver, to a specific artist.
Coming back to the specifics of photography, let’s discuss all the aspects that define a photographic style. Since we know now that the two main elements for a successful photograph are its subject and composition, we can analyse the qualities of each one of them to understand what suggests the style of the photographic work.
The work that has a unique style, explores a uniform subject all across. However, this is not always at the top superficial level, when comparing different projects by the same photographer. For example, if you see the complete body of work by Josef Koudelka or Sebastião Salgado, you will find out that their different projects explore different notions and subjects each time. They both worked in documentary or even reportage projects, in the case of Koudelka, but later on, Salgado worked with nature in his Genesis project, whereas Koudelka worked with panoramic landscapes (see the project: Desolate Beauty). Nevertheless, if you dive deeper into their whole body of work, you will find that there is a common denominator somewhere. You will hopefully be able to identify the obsessions that urge them to work on these kinds of subjects. Koudelka likes to live as a nomad, so this way of life is identifiable throughout his body of work. Similarly, Salgado likes to travel and be by himself for long periods. Thus, no matter how different their subject matter might initially look, there is always a common ground regarding aspects of their personality that are apparent in each of their works.
Of course, there are other photographers whose obsessions are more evident in their body of work. For example, Martin Parr is obsessed with anything kitsch. This fact is easily identifiable throughout the whole body of his work. From the Last Resort to Toilet Paper, to Real Food, you can always see a common, visual denominator in his work, that is even evident at the top, superficial level.
Moving on to the composition of the different frames throughout a body of work, many consider this aspect to be the strongest suggestion of the stylistic approach. That is because it is usually easier to identify a common denominator when looking at the way the images of a certain photographer are composed.
Composition, as it will be explained in more detail in this article, has mainly to do with the lighting scheme of the frame, as well as the geometry and the way that shapes and subjects are placed within the four corners of the photographic frame.
We come across compositions that complement the chosen photographer’s subject, such as the work of Antoine d’Agata (see the work in Lilith as an example), where his composition walks hand-in-hand with his subject and the situation, as well as the work of Michael Kenna (see the work in his monograph book), where the serenity of the compositions matches the subject matter.
However, we also may come across compositions that are completely separate from the photographer’s subject and may be chosen for the beauty of the final result. Examples of that can be found in the beautiful compositions of Alex Webb (see the book: The suffering of light), where he is interested in composition for the sake of composition, as well as the work by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who famously said that:
“Basically, it's not the photo itself that interests me. What I want is to capture a fraction of a second of the real.”
He would try to find the beauty in composition in simple situations and create a work of art at exactly the right moment, which he named “The Decisive Moment” (see the book: The Decisive Moment, considered by many as the Bible of photography).
Finding your style.
You have to realise that you cannot adopt a certain photographic style overnight. This is a process that requires a lot of work and the result might come either quickly, such as in a few months, late, i.e. in a few years, or unfortunately, never.
But do not get disappointed. There are a few strategies that might help you on this path. First of all, try to take some solace in that it is a good thing to let your style develop slowly and not try to rush it. It is something that will follow you for a long time and it can only work if this style is something that resonates with you so that you have enough passion to keep developing it. That is because although the style might characterise your work overall, this too is also evolving, together with your personality (compare the early work of Costa Manos’ A Greek Portfolio, to his later work American Colour).
I usually give my students the analogy of flour dough. When you start making the dough you get the ingredients, flour and water and maybe salt, sugar and yeast. At this time you have something incoherent and all over the place. With time, you start creating a dough which starts to feel like a coherent object, as gluten molecules get longer and start binding together. This is now your style. The “style” can now be developed by changing the dough’s shape or baking it in different ways. You can decide to make bread, doughnuts, cake, muffins, or anything that dough can make. You cannot however make an omelette out of it. Deciding to start over and create an omelette, would require you to change your “style”.
Let us now discuss a strategy to be able to understand what your style might be, and how to go about developing it. We have already discussed finding your subject in this article, so we will assume that you have found a subject that resonates with yourself, and you have developed a passion, or even better, an obsession with it. So let's focus on finding a compositional style to go with that.
I have found the best way to deal with this is to apply restrictions on yourself. Think about it. Today, we have so many technical options for our photography, so almost anything can be created, even by just using your phone’s camera. You can now easily choose between colour or black and white, different lenses, different sensors, or even film photography as well as different filters to apply, or more accurately, different post-processing for your images.
What we are trying to achieve here, is to be able to master our means (equipment), so that essentially the camera is an invisible tool between your vision and the final result. To achieve that, we must start limiting these options. That is because when you have just a few options to work with, you can better master each one of them. If you have already gone through the process of exploring the work of your favourite master photographer, you might have already realised this fact. Most photographers that are well known and whose work is broadly admired, have only used a few options in their photography. Take Henri Cartier-Bresson for example. Throughout his photographic career, he chose to use only one camera and one lens. The 50mm.
To better understand this, think of an analogy to a painter. Consider a painter who chooses to work with different means all the time. He goes from oil to acrylic and then tries pencil, water colours and charcoal. Compare this photographer with one that only uses oil colour throughout his career. It is common sense that the latter will develop a much deeper understanding of his tools, and thus will be able to master them.
What I suggest is to apply the same principle in your photography. Do not try however to apply this by just thinking about it. Results, as always, come with work. During your work, try to understand which aspects work better for you. Find the right tools and methods that feel more natural and stick to them.
Black & White vs. Colour
Do not mix and match those two. Both black and white, as well as colour photography, have yielded great images throughout the history of photography, and still do. However, there is a different approach to photography for each one of them, when it comes to the composition of the frame. There have been photographers in the past that have done significant work that used both methods, but not simultaneously. They started by working in one of them for several years and then switched to the other. Or at least they never worked on the same project, using both methods. Take the work of Saul Leiter for example. He was working as a photojournalist and was taking black and white images (see the book: In my room), but later on, he explored colour and created some nice work with that (see this monograph book).
Try to understand which method feels natural to you the most. See your images after a few months and count your black and white ones versus the colour ones. Which are the most? This might give you a hint. When you do that, stick with this method. Never allow yourself to deviate. You can decide to change that at some point, but at least stick with it for a couple of months, or even better years and see where that takes you. Use just one when working on the same project.
Film vs. Digital camera
If you follow the photographic discussion, you might have come across a rather strong debate on whether film photography is “better” than digital. To me, that is complete and utter bullshit. No method or equipment is better than another. The only variable in photography is the photographer. We have so far talked about Henri Cartier-Bresson and Josef Koudelka, being two master photographers. Your phone’s camera today, is probably better than theirs, technically. Do you think that matters? It doesn’t.
When it comes to cameras, the aspect that makes a difference to the stylistic approach is the size of the sensor for digital or the size of the film for analogue. This is the plane inside the camera that records the light coming from the lens, to provide the final image. There is no better or worse option here, you only need to find the one that you will be working with. Different size of recording medium means different proportions, thus different resulting geometry and perspective. You have to choose whether you are going to use a full-frame camera (or 35mm for film), medium format (or 6x6 / 6x9 for film) and so on. Since different cameras and different technology - film or digital - might also yield a slightly different feel to your images, try to stick with just one camera for a long period.
Choosing a camera lens
Different lenses make for completely different resulting images. I am not talking here about the speed - or brightness - of the lens, which is commonly referred to as aperture size or the f stop. Many novice photographers think that the brighter the lens is, the better the images it creates. That is because many photographers enjoy seeing the bokeh effect in images shot with a wide aperture. Bokeh is the effect where you see the main subject sharp and focused and the rest of the image blurred, as it is out-of-focus. If you are one of them, I think you should try to see more images and cultivate your aesthetic view. Bokeh is a “cheating” method to create depth in a photograph and usually means that the photographer knows too little about composition.
Do not be one of the people who spend thousands to buy a lens to have a wider aperture, only to find out later that this didn’t help make their photographs better at all.
Instead, focus on selecting the appropriate focal length of the lens that feels more natural to you and stick with it. Depending on the focal length, a lens fits into one of the three main categories. Wide-angle, normal, or telephoto. There are also two auxiliary sub-categories, fish-eye and super telephoto, that fit either side of the spectrum.
The difference in focal length represents an image with a different perspective. Telephoto lenses compress perspective whereas wide-angle ones decompress it.
As a side note, 50mm lenses are considered to be normal lenses, as they similarly represent the frame to the way our eyes see. If the focal length is smaller than 50mm, then you have a wide-angle lens, which sees the frame at a wider angle than our eyes and if greater than 50mm, then the lens is a telephoto, seeing at a narrower angle than our eyes.
A secondary note would be that, historically, there is only a tiny number of iconic photographs shot on a telephoto. That doesn’t mean of course that there are none, or that there is no chance that great photos can be produced in the future, using one.
Try to find a lens, whose focal length feels natural to you, or it is more appropriate for your project. If you are often shooting in tight spaces, maybe you want to try a wide-angle lens. If you are shooting in open spaces from a distance, try a normal or even telephoto lens. When you choose your lens, you will see that your photography starts to become better, because it is easier for you to master this lens. You will even be able to start framing your photograph without looking inside the viewfinder, as you will know exactly your lens’s boundaries.
Other restrictions to apply
You can apply restrictions to yourself regarding any aspect of your photography. The more the merrier. Choose between horizontal or vertical framing. Choose to never crop your images. This will help you be less lazy and try to move to the appropriate place to create your photograph. It might also make you request appropriate permissions from models, or to enter spaces and that will help you achieve overcoming obstacles. Choose your image proportions. Decide whether you want 2:3 images, square or panoramic. Choose your go-to lighting conditions. Do you prefer natural light? Studio light? Less or more contrast? Side or straight-on light? We will talk more about lighting in this article.
By being consistent with your restrictions, your photography will greatly improve, since you will be able to work undistracted from the technical aspects of photography, thus you will be able to communicate your thoughts directly. Furthermore, your body of work will start looking more consistent throughout, because you have now limited the aesthetic result of each image, at least from a technical point of view.
Last but not least, I would like to address the subject of placing watermarks on photos. Many novice photographers use a watermark on their images because they are worried that someone might use their photograph without a license. So the solution is to write your name on the image. STOP doing that right now. If someone brings me a photograph to review that has a watermark on it, I would never even look at it, but throw it in the bin straight away. The work of an artist cannot be stolen by anyone else, because you can understand that this image belongs to them by its style. If that is not the case, then the image is just garbage. So who would want to steal garbage? And if they did, who cares?