How to Find your Personal Photographic Style

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Finding your personal photographic style is something of a holy grail to photographers, yet seldom an overnight occurrence. Nor would you want it to be, as developing a style that is uniquely yours is one of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of photography. For a lot of photographers, it is an ongoing, ever-evolving process, influenced by many factors. Some photographers find a single style that works for them, which they stick to and hone, while others might develop two or more dominant styles.

image showing personal photographic style

The beach and water feature in many of my images

What defines a photographic style?

Personal style can be defined by any number of things. It can be your choice of subject matter, the way you light or style your subjects, your shooting angle, cropping, a particular colour or tonal range you’re drawn to, your post-processing style, or any combination of these and more.

Consider those photographers, whose work is instantly recognizable. Some of the greats such as Annie Leibovitz, Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson – their styles are so distinctive that the viewer is left in no doubt as to whose work they are viewing. Adams is probably best known for his iconic black-and-white images of the American West, and his renowned technical perfectionism. Cartier-Bresson is considered by many to be the father of modern photojournalism. His style was humane and spontaneous, and he broke many rules in order to capture the decisive moment. Leibovitz developed her trademark style, involving the use of bold primary colours and unexpected poses, while working at Rolling Stone magazine. Her highly styled fashion and celebrity portraits bear her signature in every detail.

There are many photographers with unique styles, who may not yet have reached such heights of fame. The photographs below are the work of  Australian-based photographer Juanita Haslett (Little Forest Photography). Juanita’s style is distinguishable by her unposed approach to her subjects, the subjects themselves (usually young children), the wild, natural settings, and her distinctive editing style.

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Photo credit: Juanita Haslett, Little Forest Photography

image showing personal photographic style

Photo credit: Juanita Haslett, Little Forest Photography

image showing personal photographic style

Photo credit: Juanita Haslett, Little Forest Photography.

Forget what everyone else is doing

When I was finding my feet as a portrait photographer, I was thrown off course time and time again by what other people in my industry were doing. Everywhere I looked were posed newborns – Photoshopped composites of babies in baskets, bowls and nests, babies in froggy pose, babies hanging in dreamcatchers, and swaddled in an assortment of wraps, headbands and hats with ears. Alongside the posed newborn images were photos of small children in forests and fields, bathed in an otherworldly golden light and sun flare – always the sun flare!

I figured that since everyone seemed to be photographing this way, it was what clients wanted. As I tried to recreate what they were doing (and had been doing long before I came along) their images populated my news feed every time I went online, serving as visual reminders of what I was failing at. In trying to do what everyone else was doing, I found myself lost in a sea of sameness.

image showing personal photographic style

My daughter chose to learn the bassoon rather than the piano. Her choice to do something different has helped her stand out from the pack, and has opened many doors for her.

The thing about stand-out photographers is that they stand out precisely because they are not doing what everyone else is doing. Your style is what sets you apart from everyone else. Sometimes, this means being brave and following a less popular path. So, be inspired by others, but don’t compare yourself. Admire their work, but don’t try to emulate it, because you will only end up looking like a poor imitation of something great.

The examples below are the work of Steve Scalone, a Melbourne-based photographer whose clean, graphic composition and unusual shooting angles are his trademark. Steve specializes in a very different genre to mine, but I follow his work, and admire it because it reminds me of the importance of being brave and different.

Image showing finding your personal photographic style

Photo credit: Steve Scalone

Image showing finding your personal photographic style

Photo credit: Steve Scalone

Image showing finding your personal photographic style

Photo credit: Steve Scalone

Figure out what inspires you

It’s helpful to understand how your passion was born. Keeping this at the forefront of your mind will help keep those doubts in check when they come creeping in, as they inevitably will. While you shouldn’t try to copy anyone else’s style, there is nothing wrong with being inspired by others. For many of us, another photographer’s work is what ignites that first spark in us, urging us to explore this medium further.

Who or what made you first fall in love with photography? Was there a family member whose photos struck a chord?  A photo you saw in the newspaper, or an exhibition you attended? Sometimes it’s a combination of many things, and it can be hard to pinpoint the one thing that’s had the greatest impact.

For a long time, I thought my first photographic love was Cartier-Bresson, evidenced by my love affair with black-and-white and candid photography. However, I was only introduced to Cartier-Bresson’s work when I already owned an SLR, by which stage the stable door had long been left open, and the horse had well and truly bolted.

image showing personal photographic style

My admiration for Cartier-Bresson is evident in my love of black-and-white street photography.

image showing personal photographic style

My first real engagement with photography was through my father. He documented our childhood growing up in South Africa in the 1970s, with a Minolta SLR and slide film. He had no formal training, just an eye for light and composition. Dad regularly treated us to slide shows, and none of us complained because his photos were so beautiful. There wasn’t a dull or dreary image among them, since Dad’s most active shooting season was during our summer holidays, in the mountains and on the coast.

image showing personal photographic style

My father documented our childhood in South Africa on slide film. Photo credit: Erik Holmgren

After we immigrated to Australia, the slides became even more important to us. Projected life-size on the wall, they allowed us to re-live all those happy memories, and kept our birth country alive for us when we were desperately homesick.

It was only recently that I realized just how much of an impact my father’s photography has had on my style. First, I favour natural over heavily edited. With so many editing tools at our disposal, there is the temptation to fiddle and alter until we end up with an image that is nothing like what we set out to capture. Dad’s photos have a beautiful rawness about them; they tell it as it really was.

Second, I am drawn to water and other natural environments, particularly when photographing children.

Third, I love big, beautiful photographic wall art, and I’m sure it harks back to those slideshows! I love how you can see all the detail of expressions and connections within a photograph when it is projected large on the wall.

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My father’s photography has had a huge influence on my style. Photo credit: Erik Holmgren

Develop your style

Spend an afternoon looking back over the photographs you’ve taken. It’s a rewarding rainy day activity! Create a collection of your favourites, but don’t overthink it. Be spontaneous, and you’ll gravitate to those images that make your heart skip a beat.

Now take a good look at them. Do you notice a pattern? It may be subtle, and it may take a while to see it, but here are some things to consider:

What do you like to photograph? Let’s say it’s children. Are they young children or teens? What are they doing when you photograph them? Do you like to catch them in action, or quiet reflection? Candid or styled? Are they indoors or out? What do their surroundings look like?

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Warm colours of early morning or late afternoon light contribute to style.

What about focal length? Do you photograph close up, or do you like to include some background to help tell the story? Do you favour the compression of a zoom lens or do you prefer a wider angle lens? Do you like to keep some background detail, or do you shoot with a wide aperture to keep it soft? Do you shoot from above, below, behind, in profile? Do you compose your images with lots of foreground, lots of sky, or do you frame your subjects with things like trees?

Now think about the lighting. What time of day have you taken your favourite photos? Are they brightly lit or full of shadows? High key, deliberately underexposed, or somewhere in between?

Is there a colour or tonal range that dominates your photos? There will be evidence of this in your choice of subjects, locations and your editing style. You might find the majority of your favourites are black and white, or maybe you’re drawn to warm reds and golds, or even neutrals. Do you prefer to edit for crisp colours and sharp images, or do you favour the softer outlines and colours that are reminiscent of film?

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Black and white is one of my two dominant styles

All of these elements contribute to your photographic style. Once you identify them, you can start honing in on your style by emphasising the things that move you, and then watch your style grow.

So, how has your style developed? Have you noticed a big difference in the way you shoot or edit now, compared to where you were say, three years ago or even six months ago? Share your before and after photos in the comments section below, and any tips you might have for developing a personal photographic style.


Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of articles this week that are Open for Discussion. We want to get the conversation going, hear your voice and opinions, and talk about some possibly controversial topics in photography.

Let’s get it started here – do you agree or disagree with the points in the article above? Do you have any others to add? Give us your thoughts below, and watch for more discussion topics each day this week.

See all the recent discussion topics here:

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Karen Quist is a writer and photographer, specialising in documentary-style portraiture. Originally from South Africa, she now lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her husband, two teenage daughters, a neurotic dog and two spoilt rabbits. When she’s not taking photos, you’ll find her working on her first novel, drinking strong coffee, and finding new ways to avoid doing the laundry. You can visit Karen at her website Karen Quist Photography or connect with her on Facebook or Instagram.

  • PiotrekKulczycki

    It’s so true! The most important thing is to be unique! 🙂

  • Wiebke

    Not copying other photographer’s styles just because they seem to have some success with it, is truly a good advise. The chance that you will ever get as good as they are is slim, but by following your own path and style you will create something that tells the tale about yourself as a photographer. After all your customers come to you because they like your photography and not because they like (or rather want, as they might still like both) what that photographer three blocks further down the street does. So if you stay true to yourself not only will your photography get better but you will also not have to compete with that other photographer (and loose competition because he’s been following his style for years while you just started copying his style…)

    As for my own style…good question. Considering these photos: http://www.lilleulven.com/Portfolios/Favorites/
    I would think the clarity of not only the “not so cluttered” subject but of the “air” too and the bright yet natural colors describe best what I do.

  • Karen Quist

    I had a look at your web page, Lille – your photos are just stunning! Really beautiful.

  • Wiebke

    Thank you very much for your nice comment, Karen Quist

  • Aperture Of My Soul

    Encouraging article! I grew up with a photographer dad and slideshows of our previous travels. I’m still finding my style, but I seem to gravitate to black and white… No surprise, my camera at age 10 only took B/W photos. Thank you!

  • Karen Quist

    So glad you enjoyed the article ?

  • Ron Godbey

    Great article! I think finding your style is an evolutionary process, and may not only change over time, but can change depending on your subject, mood or requirements of your shoot. However, finding your baseline style is what makes you unique as an individual. And, once you are comfortable with your style, shake things up now and again so you don’t allow that to pigeon-hole you into a rut. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Karen Quist

    Ron I absolutely agree – style is some thing that is constantly evolving. There are no limits to what you can explore and the boundaries you can push. As I wrote this article, I was preparing to launch myself in a new direction with my professional shooting style, which is not always the same as my personal work. Photography is such a wonderful medium. I never stop being excited by photography or the passion and enthusiasm of the photographic community.

  • Avena Clarke

    Great read! I have been fighting with myself for a while trying to figure out why I can’t see a style yet. I feel all over the place. I can now relax and ponder my past to find my future. I don’t have a distinct moment in time I got into photography as I have had a camera in my hands since I was about 10 (more than 30 yrs ago). While growing up my dad also had a film camera and 8mm video all the time, never thought this might be my backbone. It has been a gradual increase in attention to this hobby. The past 2 years I have finally taken some basic photography courses and learning here of the basics that I feel has started to get me to where I can now look at maybe a style coming. Nice to learn I am not alone in this quest. I recently had an instructor tell me I have an eye for the abstract, and I should focus on that route, surprisingly I do love abstract and I find it effortless. Maybe thats me! Thank you!

  • Terri Valkyrie

    “Finding your style” seems to be a topic du jour and I’ve noticed several beginner and novice photographers stressing over it. I also have many friends whose photos I could spot/sort out of a pile because I know they are theirs. Perhaps I’m odd because I have absolutely no desire to “find a style” and if that damns me to never having any “success” then I really couldn’t care less. I have a small craft business, normally I go to craft fairs and that’s my only sales venue (aside from word of mouth) and every year I have something different – embroidered bags one year, paper mache piggy banks the next, the year after acrylic paintings, etc. I get way too bored doing the same thing over all the time and when I see a canvas or material of any sort I tend to ask it what it wants to become and let that guide me – what style suits my subject! I do this out in the world and in Photoshop too – what I wear and how I cut my hair changes all the time too. Whenever I see someone stressing about not having a style, I tell them I don’t have one and never will, and I’m happy that way, because variety is the spice of life, after all. Those people who want to pay me are happy that I will try to realize their vision, rather than stamping ME all over their photos.

  • Nicole Manley Gallaher

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this article!! I don’t know how many articles I have read about finding your style or finding your brand, blah blah blah… None of them broke it down, and simplified it like you did! These are easy steps to do to help me find out what my specific style is. I cannot thank you enough!

  • Mac MacEwan

    Forget about style for at least a year, then go back and see what you’ve shot.

  • Don DeFeo

    I could not agree more with what you have written, Nicole! I, too, have read seemingly MANY articles about “Finding Yourself/Style” as a photographer over the years. This is one of the best I have read primarily because Karen is breaking it down to practical photographic steps and observational questions concerning our own CURRENT photography, going back to REALLY look at our photos and then to decide what we like most about our favorite photos. From there we can discern patterns of style, imagery, light, etc. etc. that we are drawn to and can continue to be incorporated into our own future, evolving photography. Perhaps even taking elements we like about our current subjects and applying those to different subjects.

  • Karen Quist

    Thank you so much, Nicole.I’m so glad you found it helpful.

  • Karen Quist

    Don, I’m so pleased to hear you found my article practical. I really value your feedback.

  • Karen Quist

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Avena, and I’m happy to hear you enjoyed the read.

  • nikonnut

    Very interesting article Karen and your photos are very evocative. I don’t disagree with anything you have written but, like Terri below, I also challenge the concept that everyone should “find a style” and then try to reproduce that style in all their photos. In my experience every situation calls for a different photographic approach where the prime objective should always be to take the best photo possible at the time; sometimes in contradiction to your preferred “style”. Photographing to a style agenda doesn’t even enter my mind at the times when I want to take a photo. By the way I love your photo of the Asian man looking out the window; a fantastic and very powerful photograph that one.

  • Thank You! I don’t know what my style is so this helps a lot.

  • Marg Taylor

    Love the article. Simple but speaks volumes as to how I need to look at things when I think about the style of photography I like to do. Thanks for the comprehensive breakdown!!

  • Karen Quist

    Thank you, Marg.

  • Karen Quist

    Thank you, nikonnut! The photo you’re referring to was shot in Hoi An, Vietnam, on a recent trip. I love it also. The streets were full of all the pretty stuff, all the things the tourists love to see. When I sat quietly and looked up, there was another world going on out of sight of most of the pedestrians.

    As to the style issue, I agree – not everyone needs to find a style, and not everyone who finds a style needs to stick to that style. As I wrote this article, I was about to launch myself in a very different direction from my usual style(s), which is probably why the topic was at the forefront of my mind. There are many photographers who never develop a trademark style, and they manage to have very successful careers or satisfying hobbies doing it their way. For me personally, I lose focus unless I channel my energy into a smaller number of areas. This article was written really for those who DO want to develop a particular style. I’m really pleased you enjoyed the article, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Karen Quist

    Hi Terri, thank you for commenting. Plenty of photographers find success shooting a wide variety of styles. That’s great – I really admire people who can do that! My intention was not to alienate or shame those who don’t seek to narrow their style down; rather it was to offer some practical guidelines for those who do.

  • Terri Valkyrie

    I wasn’t insinuating that you were – simply letting people know that “your own style” is not a necessary piece of gear like a nifty fifty or a sturdy tripod. I personally think it’s best not to worry about it, I see too many people feeling that they’re inadequate because they don’t have a recognizable look. I find that to be a strength rather than a weakness. Trying different things and never settling on one allows a lot more creative growth, in my opinion, and I think people are really thinking about it wrong. Instead of worrying that they don’t have a style, they should celebrate the fact that they are versatile and diverse and on a journey of discovery. While I have several friends whose photos I could pick out of a pile and identify as theirs, and are also magnificent at what they do, they’re missing all the fun of doing new and interesting things and the growth that results from pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. Novices and beginners should never worry about this – professionals, well, there are arguments as to why someone who gets paid for taking photos would want a recognizable style, but by that point in someone’s creative experience, they ought to have enough experience to know what’s going to sell.

  • Ceci

    I’ve been a photographer for two+ decades and have never really defined my ‘style’ (bad me!). But, your article and suggestions have inspired me to ‘get it together’ and really have a good look at my portfolio to really ‘see’ the patterns. Thanks for a great article.

  • Karen Quist

    Hi Ceci, thanks for stopping by to comment, and I’m so glad you found the article inspiring. Something else I did about a year ago was to ask all of my friends and page followers to describe my style using 3 adjectives. It really helped my figure out if others perceived my style as I did, and the way I wanted to project it. Good luck. I love your horse photos 🙂

  • Libn Dhiin

    Thank you Karen Quist, I’m currently reading your article in a remote village in Horn of Africa. I have just read Ansel Adam’s inspiring photography tips and I am so glad to find your article so intriguing. I am beginner in photograph and I’m looking forward to find my personal photographic style- I totally appreciate you! Please, you may give me so advise on how to become a professional photographer.

    Thank you,

    Libin

  • Karen Quist

    Hi Libn, that sounds so interesting. Do you live in Africa or just visiting? If you are a beginner photographer and hope to turn professional one day, my advice would be to practice as much as you can in the genre you want to work in (portrait, landscape etc) and start building a portfolio. There are loads of useful articles on this site to help you on your journey, but nothing beats picking up your camera and shooting. Maybe join our DPS Facebook group, so you can share your photos with like-minded people and get constructive feedback and help. What kind of photos do you like taking?

  • Laura Rupp

    Karen, I absolutely love this article. I have been interested and played with photography growing up, but just recently decided to make an investment for a camera of my own to pursue my passion into possibly a career form. I appreciate how simple, yet challenging and inspiring this article was as a pursue photography further and develop my own style and how important it is to be a confident photographer in knowing what your style has to offer. Thank you!

  • Karen Quist

    Thank you, Laura. I’m glad you were inspired by my article.
    Once you fall in love with photography, it is a life-long love. I’ll be a photographer until my eyes fail me completely!
    There are so many articles on this site to help you with every aspect of your craft. Wishing you all the best on your journey.

  • Laurie Pohl

    Thank you for this article, Karen. It got me thinking about my style, or what I sometimes think of as my preferences. One question I have is how you keep your style fresh. If we have preferences or strengths, might we get stale? My preferred preference is for landscape/streetscape photography, and my style, such as it is, is based in perspective and mixed-messages, e.g., juxtaposing old and new, grunge and beauty, etc. But I feel that I am in a rut. What do you do to keep experimenting while continuing to be true to your style?

  • Karen Quist

    Hi Laurie, that’s an interesting question. I really had to give it some thought! I think it is a particularly difficult balance when you become a professional photographer, because you develop a style that you become known for and that attracts people to your brand, but then how to keep it fresh, as you say, when you’re pigeonholed into a certain style. It’s important for me to take time out from my professional shooting style. Away from my paid work, which is portraiture, I shoot still-lifes, landscapes, macro – anything that takes my fancy and I experiment with angles, lighting and editing styles. I also shoot portraits (of my children and friends) in a different style to that which I produce for clients. Sometimes I find something that resonates, and I’ll incorporate it into my next paid session with a ‘let’s just see how this goes’ caveat. If it works, I’ll use it more often until it becomes part of my style.

    I also follow a handful of photographers who shoot different styles to mine. I mention a couple of them in the article. If I see something I like, I’ll figure out how they did it (or I just ask) and then try to interpret it into my own style rather than outright copying it. Does that make sense?

  • Rob March

    This article caught my eye a day ago and happy I read it today. I’ve been taking photos for about 7-8 years, and now not being in school or around other photographers too much I’m kind of grasping to try and find a style for my photos. 5 or so years ago I knew I was into sports photography, but it gets tough when you lose the easy access that schools offer for photographers. I’m now trying to look and try all different styles to see what works for me!

  • Karen Quist

    Hey, Rob. If you love sports photography, you could offer to take photos for local sports clubs. A lot of local clubs don’t have the budget to pay for photography, but it would be a great opportunity for you to develop your style and, at the same time, give something back to your community. You might offer them free lo-res, watermarked copies to distribute to their members or in their newsletters or website, with an offer to sell hi-res files if someone wants to buy them for printing. Just a thought. Good luck!

  • Donna J

    Great article, thank you! I tend to look at other photographers work online and feel like a failure also. I love to photograph so many things and get discouraged when I edit and can’t get my photos to look the way I want. I’m still trying to find what my own style is.
    I really enjoyed reading this, you are a good writer as well as a good photographer.

  • wwfpandagirl

    hi @karenquist:disqus ! i still don’t know my style.. would you be able to tell through the photos i have on my Instagram account? it’s @wwfpandagirl

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