Some photographers, either consciously or otherwise, have a very definite style. On seeing one of their images you instinctively know it is by that photographer even if their name is not attributed to the image. The photographer and blogger Ming Thein has recently written an excellent post on defining style and finding your own where he identifies the elements of style that photographers can tune to make something distinctive to themselves. He identifies
- Color, amount of saturation or whether the image is black and white.
- Tonality, neutral, high key, low key, low contrast or high contrast.
- Perspective, field of view (dependent on the focal length of the lens used).
- Lighting, amount, direction and type of lighting (i.e. natural, studio or camera flash).
- Focal point/ depth of field, depth of field, dependent on the focal length of the lens and the aperture used.
- Fidelity, how close is the image to reality.
- “Quirks”, the personality of the photographer, or perhaps the “X factor”, basically the creativity of the photographer.
I would argue that the first five of these are largely down to the type of equipment and the (creative) way you use it. They are all things that can be measured (amount of saturation and contrast, focal length being used, f-stop number, lighting type and position etc) and, in theory, if you ‘dialed in’ the same settings on five different photographers cameras and asked them to point their camera at the same scene the photographs would all look fairly similar and it would be pretty hard to decide who took what. The creative element of these first five comes, of course, from the fact that left to their own devices each photographer would use different settings so the photographs would all be different as well. Further, each photographer may have a preferred combination of these settings which help define their particular style. Some may shoot wide-open in black and white using only natural light whereas others prefer highly saturated colour using studio flash and smaller apertures. Thinking of how you can vary these five elements can certainly help define your own style.
Where it gets really interesting however is with the last two of Ming’s elements. These are far harder to quantify and really down to the photographers own creativity. I would like to think it’s these that distinguish the artistic from the mundane and are not only harder to measure (actually, probably impossible) but much more difficult to acquire as skills. As our cameras computers get ever more intelligent you can easily foresee the day when you dial in the ‘Ansel Adams’ or the ‘Norman Parkinson’ or even the ‘Ming Thein’ setting on your camera and out pops an image in their style. Indeed the art filters on cameras like the Olympus OM-D’s and PEN’s go some way toward doing just that.
Developing your own photographic style is linked quite closely to your level of maturity as a photographer. I don’t mean by this just how old you are (sadly) but how capable you are in applying what you know to improve your work, something that can be done reasonably quickly or which you may never accomplish. I suspect that really mastering the last two elements of the above list does not happen until you are at least at the level of the ‘The Conscious Photographer’ in the maturity levels.
To illustrate this, and put my own style to the test, here are three photographs taken over the last year or two which I have purposely selected and post-processed to be of a particular style. A style which is black and white, high-key, moderately high contrast taken with a standard perspective lens at a middle of the aperture (f/5.6 – f/9) range using studio lighting. Whilst they are all reasonably technically accomplished photographs, even I would agree they lack the creative element which makes them stand out from anything else taken with similar settings. In other words although I have used elements 1 – 5 of the above list they lack the fidelity and quirks of 6 & 7 to really make them a style that is unique to me!
To see some images which are really reflecting a style that is unique to the person creating them check out the work of three of my favourite photographic artists: John Colson at burnoutbright.co.uk, Alex Lee Johnson and the model Jen Brook. All are developing a unique style which is very much their own and which shows a mastery of more than just technique.