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A question often seen in photography groups and forums is, “How do I develop a photographic style?” or, “How do I know what my style is?”
What they are really asking about is more to do with the aesthetic look of their images. How can they create images that look uniquely theirs and are identifiable as such? How do they get consistency in the way their images look?
Style and aesthetics are two sides of the same coin, similar but different.
Photographic style relates to the way you physically create your images – the mechanics behind how you shoot and the way you physically set up to shoot.
Aesthetics encompasses the way your images look and how they make the viewer feel.
According to Britannica, aesthetics is the philosophical study of beauty and taste. It is closely related to the philosophy of art, which is concerned with the nature of art and the concepts in terms of which individual works of art are interpreted and evaluated.
This matters to us as photographers because we want our images to be judged as visually appealing. We want them to be seen as beautiful. How that expresses itself in our digital world is usually in likes, and sometimes comments.
But most of all, in a world that is saturated with millions of images posted every day (Instagram alone has over 95 million images uploaded daily) it can be a struggle to even get your image seen, let alone commented on.
It almost becomes a competition, the most extreme location, the most stunning sunrise, the most colorful sunset, the most adorable kids, the cutest puppy or kitten, the most romantic wedding shot. Fads come and go as a particular image or look becomes popular, people rush to emulate it.
Yet the question then becomes – do you want your images to look like yours? Or do you only want the attention that comes from copying a style or look that is momentarily popular?
There are many articles on this subject you can read, many are full of vague advice, some are more specific and more helpful – and of course, different people learn in different ways. It’s my opinion that you can have a style but not necessarily an aesthetic, and quite possibly the reverse as well.
Say you are a landscape photographer – you have loads of landscapes shots – often shoot wide-angle, and get low to the ground to add some intimate foreground interest. Lots of mountains, lakes with pretty rocks, sunrise and sunsets, the occasional selfie in your tramping gear for a change. Yet how do they all look?
If you line up all your favorite or best shots do they all look similar? Are they composed consistently? Is the lighting tone and angle usually the same? Are the colors of similar saturation or vibrancy?
Of course, as you proceed along your own personal photography journey you will learn new things and incorporate them into your techniques. Accounting for that growth, are they a group of images that look and feel like they were created by the same person?
Perhaps the physical elements of the image and the way they were composed and shot are consistent. A tendency to set up your tripod in a certain way, a specific lens choice, a commonly used focal length, a preference to shoot at a certain time of day or in defined lighting conditions – that is your style.
The way that they look in relation to color, light, tone, intensity, clarity, subject, etc. How the view is made to feel when they look at your image – that is your aesthetic.
When you shoot, what is your approach? Do you have an idea how you will compose the image in your head already? Is there a certain kind of light you want? Are you traveling on a limited timeline and can only snap and go?
If you have time, depending on what you shoot, is there a concept already in mind? Do you know what you want to shoot, how you might shoot it, and what the final image should look like?
When you have that final image in your mind, do you then set out to shoot to achieve it specifically? Or perhaps you aim for it but come away with something different, which is okay because it is still a good image.
Do you compose your images consistently? Are you thinking about how elements in the image interact with each other, what the light is like and how it will affect your image? If the situation isn’t perfect can you adapt or will you shoot regardless?
When you copy a style from someone else, or if your editing consists solely of adding a filter and posting online – how are you making the image yours? Where is your voice visible in the image? What about the image ties it to other images you have created?
When people see your work, does it remind them of other images of yours, or of someone else’s?
How comfortable are you trying to create an image using someone else’s style or method? Does it have the soul and the spark that you want it to?
When you start out on your photography journey it’s common to try shooting images similar to those that inspire you. It gives you an objective, an obvious goal to aim for. As your skills develop, and you start to produce work consistently, you will then have the knowledge and ability to be more creative.
One thing I’m pretty certain of is that you cannot produce amazing images unless you are truly connecting with your subject (if it’s landscape, travel or street photography this may encompass the greater environment). You can be technically very competent with a camera, but unless your image has true soul embedded within it, people will struggle to connect to it, as a result.
Putting that soul into your images requires you to create with your voice, your vision, your unique view on whatever that image is about. The more you tune into that creative voice in your head, the closer you will come to your personal style and aesthetic.
Are there images that you’ve seen online that particularly appeal to you with regards to how they look? Do they resonate with you and inspire you to create your own variation? Put together a collection of those images and analyze them for both style and aesthetic.
What visually pleases you in an image? What do you find beautiful? How do you express that in your own work?
Pick out some particular favorites of yours, then compare them to other images of yours that people like. Something I find frustrating is the images I like the most are not the ones other people like. It’s possible we get too emotionally attached to some images for external reasons.
When you do the comparison and look at what you like and what other people like in your work – is there a pattern? Can you see visually what works and what doesn’t? Is there variation across your different styles?
If you have undertaken the exercise above, the next stage is to assess your images for their aesthetic look. Are you happy with it? Do they have the feeling that you want them to have? If now, what is missing?
When you compare your images to that of some you admire, are you happy with the comparison? Is what you see a representative of your creative choices?
It can be difficult to see our own work objectively, so maybe find a friend and ask for their opinion. I find the viewpoints from non-photographers as powerful as they see the world very differently than I do. It’s a great learning opportunity.
Changing or tweaking your aesthetic might be as simple as changing your editing process. You may opt for a very different look for a certain group of images as an experiment. What you shoot and the way you shoot it in your style may not vary at all, and it all changes in editing.
Or you may decide to have some goals to shoot more consistently, perhaps the quality and tone of light, your subject matter, and the way you frame it.
There are a lot of dark moody food photography images that I love and I’ve spent around a year trying to figure out how to shoot in that style. The way I would set up and stage a shot isn’t any different from a standard or a high key image, it’s the same studio, camera, tripod, lens, aperture, and focal length combination. So my style is pretty consistent.
Where it differs relates to the way the image is lit and exposed and how I edit it. It’s deliberately done for a dark intense mood with rich colors and lots of shadows. My aesthetic in lighting and editing these images is very different as I want a specific style, and I can replicate it consistently too.
Doing some fine art self-portraits, inspired by Brooke Shaden, has been a great learning experience as everything about them entirely relates to the aesthetic. Using color, light, and shadows deliberately to create a specific feeling or emotion in an image is challenging.
Eventually, I found that the aesthetic that worked best for me is a very high-key bright white image that still has enough contrast and detail to have depth and interest. A particular aesthetic choice is to use mainly black and white tones with subtle splashes of another color, usually red. But the way I shoot these images is no different from a properly exposed image. The way I compose them, and set up the camera to shoot is the same.
Figuring out the difference between how you shoot something and the way you make it look is a pretty subtle difference (I expect many comments telling me there is no difference at all). However, given that I have shot landscapes, birds, wildlife, macro, still life, food, and fine art self-portraits, you can look at my catalog and identify the style elements pretty clearly. As my skill and experience grew and began to try different things and be more creative, it becomes easy to identify my specific aesthetic choices too.
Yet if you combine a bunch of different images together, there are still the common style threads linking them visually. They feel like a group of shots from the same person, with the same eye. It’s taken me about 10 years, and it feels like my style is finally beginning to be its own thing.
Many photographers shoot lots of different subjects. A landscape photographer might also do macro shots of flowers, with the occasional bird and wildlife images captured while on location. A wedding photographer has all the people shots as well as churches, gardens, interior event shots, and close-up details. Sometimes different subjects require you to shoot technically in different or certain ways.
Despite the differences required, if your aesthetic is actively engaged, the images will still be uniquely and identifiably yours.
In the rush to make everything the same as what is popular, don’t forget that unique has its own appeal as well. That there are many millions of people viewing your photos and the way you specifically create your images is special for some of them.
Maybe for commercial reasons you can’t always go in a particular direction for everything. But try and make time to explore a project and try that thing you have had tucked away in the back of your mind for ages (as I know you do!).
Embrace your vision, your voice, and your unique way of seeing the world, whatever that looks like. Stylistically and aesthetically.