So you’ve mastered the fundamentals of photography. The principles of shutter speed, aperture and ISO are ingrained in your brain. You’ve developed an eye for composition and understand the essentials of light and lighting. You’re comfortable and skilled with using your equipment and got your timing down. Perhaps you want to step up your skills to the next level or maybe even become a professional. So what’s next? You have to develop your own style.
Style is an amorphous and elusive thing. It’s like that old saying: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” Unfortunately creating your own style isn’t something you can learn from a book, Web site or smartphone app. It takes a lot of introspection (though not self-centeredness), You need to be able to honestly assess your own capabilities both technically and artistically. From there it’s up to you to take those skills and insight and mold them into a style of your own. The paths to “style” are many and diverse it’s up to you to pick the one that’s best suited for you and how long the journey will be. For some it can happen relatively “overnight” for others it may take a lifetime.
When I was a photo student one of my assignments wasn’t to take a picture at all. It was to clip out several photos from different sources (newspapers, magazines, etc.) and write a little something about why I liked or didn’t like them. I though it was kind of a lame assignment because I wanted to be out taking pictures not writing about someone else’s work. But afterwards I understood the value of the exercise. By carefully analyzing the pictures, from composition to lighting to subject matter, I could figure out how they were taken. By seeing what I liked or disliked about them it could help me to develop a sense of style.
One of my favorite pictures by my late photo instructor Andy Delucia’s hung on the wall of his office. It was of two Sacramento Police officers and they were using a gas can to fill up their patrol car that had run out of fuel. It was shot from the back the officers’ heads down, their faces unseen. It was a strong, clean and simple image but with humor given by its out of the ordinary subject matter. It made me chuckle and I thought to myself: “I wish I took that picture.”
Years later, even after I had become a working photographer that photo stayed with me. I would keep my eyes out for the same shot to imitate it for my own. A few times while listening to the police scanner I would hear of a police vehicle that had run out of gas or had a flat tire but I always arrived on the scene too late and they were gone.
But after several years it dawned on me that the picture was Delucia’s shot not mine. No matter how much I liked the photo, I shouldn’t be trying to replicate it. It would be a copy of something that someone had already done and probably a pale one at that. No, what I needed to do was analyze what attracted me to the photo and try to use its spirit to make photos that had my own signature.
I thought about it and what drew me to the photo was its serendipitous and humorous nature. And that’s what I needed to be looking for not an exact recreation of someone else’s photo. I gave up on finding a doppleganger to Delucia’s shot and looked for different situations that tickled my fancy in a similar manner but without being the same exact photo.
Over the years there have been numerous examples: A teen playing the guitar while skateboarding, a clown hitchhiking on the freeway, a man walking 6 pitbulls at the same time and more. I began building a repertoire of my own images. I combined these with an esthetic sensibility of finding beauty in the everyday world to come up with a sense of style that’s my own, but I’m always looking for ways to evolve and improve my work. The process of developing your style is an ongoing thing and one should never consider oneself as being “done.”
So as a novice photographer you should study the masters and others whose work you admire. But if you want to seriously pursue the art of photography or even become a professional, there’ll be a point where you have to venture out from those examples and seek out your own style to stand out from everyone else.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but to grow and reach the next level of photography you have to find a voice of your own to make your pictures sing.