Defining style, and finding your own

Introduction: This has been one of, if perhaps not the most difficult essay to write so far: it concerns a topic that’s fundamentally important for all serious photographers, yet is extremely difficult to define in a strict technical sense due to its very nature. It’s the only essay I’ve had to stop and start writing several times because I penned myself into a corner. What you read is the culmination of many sessions and days of work. I hope you find it useful.

What is style? Dictionary.com gives a lot of options – 16 to be exact – but I think perhaps the most appropriate definition of style from a photography perspective is best described as:

A particular, distinctive characteristic mode or form of execution, construction, appearance of a visual work which can be associate with a particular person or group of people.

Let’s think about this for a moment. It probably isn’t an exhaustive definition, however, it captures the essence: style is distinctive. It’s individual, or belonging to a group of individuals, associated with them because they created it or they promote and propagate its use. What are the distinctive visual elements or combinations of visual elements that define a style, specific to photography?

1. Color (or lack of it)
2. Tonality
3. Perspective
4. Lighting
5. Focal point/ depth of field
6. Fidelity
7. Quirks, the personality of the photographer, or perhaps the X factor

Let’s examine each one individually.

Color
This one is fairly simple: is there color or not? Is it black and white? Is the color saturated, bright and punchy (think happy commercial product shot) or is it monochrome and gritty (think classical photojournalism and war photography)? Consistent use of color is one of the fundamental things that defines a style – but it isn’t exhaustive on its own. Similarly, consistent use of filters or digital gradients to apply a consistent hue shift to a set of images can also define a style; for example, I personally associate that warm, golden light with California; I have no idea why, perhaps it’s the pollution of LA or a fetish of the Hollywood directors.

Tonality
This splits out into a few options: neutral, high key, low key, low contrast and high contrast. The former three options can be combined with the latter two options; you can have something that’s neutrally biased but high contrast, or neutrally biased but low contrast. In digital terms, think of the former as where the majority of the histogram is bunched: neutral would be evenly spread, high key would be towards the highlight end, and low key towards the shadows. Contrast then becomes the bunching: if you’ve got strong gradients in the histogram at any particular point, that’s high contrast. Low contrast images don’t show this. A good example of distinctive tonality would be the works of Sebastiao Salgado: you always know it’s a Salgado because of the tonality of the image, before you even see the subject. It’s a distinctive signature that’s there in his corporate work covering the Channel Tunnel and his humanitarian work in Africa.

Perspective
This one is a highly technical characteristic, and linked to the focal length of the lens used – only. If a set is shot predominantly with a wide angle lens – modern photojournalism tends to do this a lot, with the subject placed center or near-center foreground and the environment in the background around it to give context – then that’s gives a distinct exaggerated perspective. Similarly, sport and wildlife almost always employ compressed (telephoto) perspectives due to inability to get close to the subject.

Ligthing
Lighting is linked to tonality and contrast: direct lighting produces harsh shadows and flat images for subjects in the frame that are perpendicular to the camera; diffuse lighting produces nice textures and gentle gradients. If you’re not shooting with studio lights, you might not always be able to control this; but you do have control over when and where you shoot, which of course affects the quality of the lighting. Some photographers are nocturnal, for instance. Others choose to always use direct flash in daylight – Bruce Gilden, for example.

Focal point/ depth of field
How much of the image is in focus? Granted, sometimes this is linked to the perspective because of optical limitations, but there are ways around that – fast ultrawides for DSLRs give a telephoto-like separation of subject from background, but with exaggerated perspective; similarly, small sensor super zoom cameras will let you achieve compression but also short hyperfocal distances.

Fidelity
This is a tricky one to define: how close is the image to reality? Is it a feasible scene, which you could happen upon with your naked eyes, or is it something that’s been so heavily photoshopped that you can’t tell between what was shot with a camera or created with a Wacom tablet? I’d put HDR imaging somewhere on this spectrum, too. It isn’t reality, but HDR can be used properly to actually create more natural looking results (to be the subject of a future article).

Quirks
We end with the broadest possibility of all: anything open to the creativity of the photographer. Some photographers leave a little in-joke in frame; others have a particularly distinctive way of retouching; others may only shoot one particular subject. I deliberately haven’t put subject in as a component of style, because it’s possible to shoot the same subject in many different styles – and this wouldn’t be consistent.

Now that we have some idea of how to define style, how do you define your own? Firstly, it must be consistent: you need to be shooting and finishing images in this style consistently, without having to think about it. There may be more than one style you do routinely; I have three which I’m aware of. Using my work as an example, I do three things:

_7037081bw copy
Classical Photojournalist.

1. Classical photojournalist. High contrast black and white, with almost everything in focus, finessed tonal transitions in the subject – I expose and process for the the subject and let everything else fall wherever on the tonal scale it may – and mostly wide angle, mostly 28mm but with some ventures as wide as 24mm or as long as 50mm, but no longer. I’d describe it as as mix of Salgado and HC-B.

_7034062 copy
Cinematic.

2. Cinematic. This is perhaps the style that defines me the most: shallow depth of field, mostly long perspectives (85mm) with some wide, dramatic shots; strongly dynamic lighting, with heavy manipulation of color and tonality to affect atmosphere. (Color will be the subject of several future article). Heavy focus on the subject and just enough background to give context, but no more.

_7050700 copy
Commercial.

3. Commercial. Although there are elements of the previous two styles in here, I prefer to think of this as the clean, perfectly-lit product shot: it’s what I do with the majority of my watch photography.

At this point, I should take a step back: how do you even find your style, before you define it? Simple: look at what’s out there, and experiment. For the first few years – hell, it might be a lot of years – you will probably be following other people’s work. You might not even be able to consistently reproduce a style that isn’t your own. Don’t worry – that’s not the point. Your own style should evolve naturally after sufficient experimentation. I know that I didn’t really have a distinct style until 2009 – though I dabbled in many up to that point – which was the classical photojournalist. Cinematic developed at the end of 2010. Commercial has been continuously in refinement as I improve my lighting skills. Other than proving I’m nothing if not a schizophrenic photographer, it shows that even if you can define your style, you may not necessarily have found the one that works best for you: I can shoot in any one of these three, and often have trouble deciding which one would look best.

_0012575 copy
Natural.

And you know what? I’d be very disappointed if I stopped developing here. I think there’s a midpoint between all of these three styles – something I’ll tentatively call ‘natural’ – which seems to be the direction in which my work is going now, be it available light or studio. The characteristic of this style seems to be perfect color, with a little cinematic hue shift where required; a mix between dynamic and natural lighting, with an emphasis on the subject; and an overall natural perspective to the images – as though you could have seen them with your own eyes, without much artificial intervention (think monochrome, or long exposure, etc.). I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes in the future. MT

____________

Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!

appstorebadge

Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Luis CS, Lisbon, Portugal says:

    Ming, I again congratulate you for your articles.
    Technical mastery in art is not an end in itself, but a necessary step for being able to really express what you want to say or show. But of course it is much easier to explain apertures and speeds than aesthetics or style. For that, subjects such as art history or the philosophy of art are probably more relevant.
    On the subject of exaggerated perspective with wide-angle lenses. A cursory look at National Geography articles immediately gives you the wide-angle feeling: you are near the action. Although exaggerated, the perspective is processed by your brain, giving you the correct 3D feeling you would have if you were near the subject. Painters did it with perspective: you do not routinely see buildings as trapezes (as the optic system of the camera, or your eyes for that matter, see them), but as rectangles, because your brain automatically corrects your vision. You do not see with your eyes, you see with your brain – that is why you do not normally have double vision, and optical illusions do their tricks.
    Incidentally: when I point my camera at a tall building, and look through the viewfinder, I see the sides of the viewfinder leaning out, and the sides of the building parallel to each other – which is how I see the building when I look at it directly, without a camera. I cannot help it. Is it just me?

    • Thanks Luis. I’m glad somebody reads these things…my stats tell me that the equipment reviews are far and away the most popular thing I write, sadly it seems not that many people actually care about the pictures and how one makes them.

      Completely agree on art history; I include in my influences many painters who did particular things with light or composition – Da Vinci and his 3/4 portrait poses; the Dutch masters and their lighting; Magritte and his clouds and palette; Hiroshige and Hokusai with their layering and cleanliness.

      As for the buildings – I can’t say the viewfinder takes on a trapezoid aspect for me personally, but there’s definitely the feeling of the output being a lot more distorted than I recall seeing in the finder. Photography is as much about fooling our brains into looking at certain parts of the scene first – preferably the subject – as it is about capturing an image.

      • Luis CS, Lisbon, Portugal says:

        I confess that I also sometimes succumb to the so-called GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), and that I also enjoy reading equipment tests. Most males do, females know better than us. The artistry part makes for much more interesting reading.
        And I happen to have a wealthy friend who has got some eight very very expensive cameras, yet went from Portugal to Beijing for a couple of months, and came without any photos…

        • I don’t know why, but that doesn’t surprise me. I know plenty of people like that. They just want to own the equipment to say they won it and pretend they are pros, but in reality I get phone calls asking ‘what does this button do?’ It frustrates and annoys me – but at the same time I suppose we have to remember that the reason serious users have choices is because the market exists, and the majority of buyers aren’t serious.

  2. Vitali Shkaruba says:

    In my view this is probably your best essay and I find it very useful.

    I agree with Luis CS that technical mastery is a necessary step. Knowing your craft is what makes it so you can actually improvise.

    As for personal style, I feel that it should have a way of constant development. Sometimes we move on, but our creations don’t. So we start to evolve in new directions or add layers of experimentation and interpretation to what and how we did before.
    So could it be that our own style develops from layers of your own improvisation that we are able to repeat from image to image?

    I hope this kind of essays will add to The Style of your blog separating it from others. Maybe after a bit of time the right audience will discover it and you’ll have more visitors who are interested not only in camera specs.

    • Thank you. Style is definitely iterative – but it would develop very differently in the absence of external influences (i.e. other people’s work). You can see that with some very introverted photographers, for example Miroslav Tichy – I doubt he saw that much other work, which made his body of work unique and develop off at a tangent from other contemporary photography at the time.

      I’ve got plenty of essays like this, but the question then becomes how do we find the right audience…in some ways, it’s a metaphor for both professional work and the blog.

  3. For what it’s worth, I do enjoy these kinds of posts and I particularly liked this one.

    I think one of the problems with writing about personal style in the context of a craft is that there is no one defined path to finding it. I think you’ve done a marvelous job of breaking photographic style into building blocks we can use to discuss and work on, but in the end no matter how we try to pin art down, it will always exist as a nebulous mess with one more different way of looking at it.

    Style without technique is fluff. Technique without style is lifeless. As an ex-designer and now writer, one of the best ways I’ve found to accelerate style is to accumulate the styles of different designers and writers. Try to create in their voice and learn from their techniques. But you have to recognize that you’re always two steps behind when doing this and have the awareness to shift out of parroting and go your own way when the time is right, otherwise you end up in creative crevices. How to know when to do this…there’s the rub.

    Perhaps we could re-define style when it comes to this fork in the path as personal expression. Before you become able in your own ability to express yourself as honestly as possible in your craft, you simply mimic style – not recognizing yet the technique behind the style. The moment you can grasp the fundamentals of techniques through the mimicking of others’, you start to improvise – this is the first step to personal expression. The more you strive to express yourself as honestly as possible, the more your own personal style evolves, naturally. This is how, perhaps, the ‘x-factor’ comes about, when you can sincerely feel another human being through the expression of his or her work.

    • Thanks Alvin. There is definitely no defined path to finding it – I think if anything, one of the defining characteristics of style is the fact that it has to look natural and spontaneous; if it’s forced then it’s definitely not your own style. The objective of the essay wasn’t so much to pin down art into a box, but rather to make one a bit more aware of the concept of style, viewing images, and developing one’s own eye further. Putting yourself in uncomfortable or difficult creative situations is one good way to accomplish this, because you are forced to find your own way out. I think you’ve hit a bullseye in the last paragraph, though: you need to understand the building blocks, and how other artists have used them in the past, in order to be able to use them effectively yourself.

  4. Can style be defining (at least in part) through the equipment you choose to use? For example, I seem to pick smaller cameras. The Panasonic small sensor LX5 for example, the GH2 and now the Olympus E-M5. I find (for me and my quite non-confrontational personality) that this helps me move quietly among people when people shooting, and allows me to take a “good” camera with me to more places. I think I get shots I would not get if I only had a FF camera. I also rarely use a tripod, instead just allowing ISO to bump up to give me an appropriate shutter speed.

    • Interesting question. Alex Majoli defined his own style early on by only using compacts. Ansel is known for large format, HC-B for his Leicas. I don’t think it’s the equipment per se that defines your style, but the imposed limitations (you won’t be doing super tele work with a Leica M, for instance) and their impact on how you interact with your subjects – smaller cameras being less intimidating, etc.

  5. Brilliant blog! This is a subject that hardly anyone mentions, but is actually crucial if anyone wants to succeed as a photographer. It took me nearly 4 years before I discovered my style and I found, much to my annoyance, that trying really hard to develop one doesn’t actually help, a style just evolves over time.

    • Thank you. I think the reason nobody talks about it much is because few people have gone through the entire process in enough conscious detail to think about it and break it down into components. Even if you have your own style, it isn’t so easy to convince people that it’s what they want to pay for – or to find the people who like your work.

      • Agreed, it’s far too easy to copy. I ended up sitting down and looking at all my images to see which I liked and consciously figure out why. I then re-edited a back catalogue so it matched the new work as well. It took 3 months, but was definitely worth it!

        In the wedding industry the current ‘trend’ is ‘vintage wedding photography’ – largely made up of awful (in my opinion) photoshop actions that some copy and some photographers even sell. The whole trend was plugged by wedding blogs and suddenly ‘vintage’ became the overnight style of a quarter of the industry. It’s taken nearly three years for there to be signs of it ending.

        I’m also learning not to worry about the clients who don’t get my style, but that’s an ongoing process!

        • I think the only way to avoid getting wrapped up in this is to pick a style that is very difficult to replicate. It’s crap for workflow purposes, but I know for sure there is no way to replicate what I do with an action (I tried to automate some of it to improve my workflow) because a lot of it is in how I shoot, not just the processing. Relying on photoshop actions as a crutch to mask bad shooting or composition habits is frankly dishonest.

          • Agreed.

            I feel most sorry for the few brilliant documentary/photojournalist wedding photographers – you have to be a real connoisseur to appreciate their skill in framing with wide angle lenses and ability to be in the right place at the perfect moment. I imagine 80% of their clients have no idea how good their photographer is.

            • That’s normal, I think. There are plenty of wedding photographers who charge five figure USD sums in this country, and frankly couldn’t shoot their way out of a paper bag. Even harder is to shoot cinematic style…very tight framing, wide open, and atmospheric lighting.

  6. Great read, thanks for putting the time into these

  7. A colleague of mine bought a p+s for a safari trip to africa, and asked me for some advice. I demonstrated the basics of using the camera, but deliberately mentioned nothing about composition.

    If we all use the same rules of thumb as famous photographers, and try to mimic them, how are we to develop our own style? HCB would be the first person to say that you shouldn’t copy him, but develop your own style instead. I’d recommend that people new to photography begin by simply enjoying and critiquing their own work for a year or so before studying famous shooters.

    We shouldn’t label and limit ourselves by the type of subject we photograph, but instead shoot anything that catches our eye and takes our interest.

    Thanks again for your great blog, Ming.

    • Understand the rules and how they made their shots, then you can start developing your own style. You need to have the toolkit before you can have enough control to create what you see in your mind’s eye…

  8. William Jusuf says:

    good thinking and nice analysis , Ming..

    as a beginner .. I myself are questing for my own style..

    Reading your articles… makes me easier to start to define my own style… looking at all of the pictures I made.
    Since I start shooting from watch / horology photo (of course just a fun shot with P S )

    Regards
    William

  9. By far the best attempt I’ve encountered at defining style. Particularly because it’s an actionable definition that allows me (the reader) to approach the subject in a way that I can influence it and do something with it. Very much appreciate it!

    • Thanks Martin! Like a lot of these things…it’s not an easy question to answer or topic to define. Try doing one on what makes a good photograph – I just finished it for a future post; it was so long I had to break it into two, and it took a whole day to write. :P

  10. Interesting. For the last few days, I’ve encountered some new flickr contacts that have only one clear, consistent style. Which led me to question myself. Did I not have a style? Was I being too inconsistent with my own stuff? Should I just pick one thing (only B&W, only color, …) and focus on it in order to get better? It’s good to see that there are more people out here that consciously classify themselves in multiple categories, and that that’s ok (after all, why wouldn’t it be).

    One thing I’d like to add, for what it’s worth, is that sometimes you’re not aware of your own quirks and idiosyncrasies. I was once asked to bring a selection of 10 photos that I made and considered good to a teacher. So I picked the ones I liked, but it bothered me that I couldn’t find any consistency between the shots I selected. However, that teacher said that he could definitely see that these photos were made by the same person. Which also goes to show that it’s probably pointless to wake up one day and decide to go out there and create your own style… I guess everyone that’s dedicated enough will evolve a style sooner or later, whether they’re aware of it or not.

    • I think you actually need to try lots of things in order to find what works for you – certainly something I’ve consciously done; I did B&W classical photojournalist, B&W Salgado; B&W Ansel; Disneyland color; natural color; cinematic…the list goes on. And I think even though you by and large settle on one style, you’ll (hopefully) never stay static. As you grow, as your experience grows, as your vision changes…your style will, too. It’s a bit like how Monet’s color palette became increasingly biased towards warm colors as he got older and his vision deteriorated.

  11. Hi Ming. Can you describe/define what you mean by “a little cinematic hue shift where required” in more detail? Thanks!

  12. Thanks for this review although I always struggle with what my “style is”. You’d think after many years one would come to a conclusion. Maybe it’s just all of the above?

    • Yes and no – I think there’s a LOT of experimentation required, and if you can’t find something that feels instinctive, then perhaps you just haven’t found it yet – sometimes it’s something you evolve into rather than just ‘discover’.

  13. Excellent article. Very insightful. I hope you continue to write these style related articles. You have a talent for helping us better contemplate these most important elements of the craft. Gear alone is an empty prospect, although I still enjoy and learn much from your reviews.

    • That’s the plan, though you do need to have the hardware to do the job. Plus people in general seem to be more inclined to read about gear rather than technique…it’s much easier to blame one’s equipment than one’s skills.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] background-position: 50% 0px ; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } blog.mingthein.com – Today, 8:02 [...]

  2. URL says:

    … [Trackback]…

    [...] Read More: blog.mingthein.com/2012/05/13/defining-style-and-finding-your-own/ [...]…

  3. [...] it (and if you even bother with street photography or reporting on life) is very much a function of personal style – something you will have to discover and define for yourself, if you haven’t already [...]

  4. [...] or games in one very specific niche; a slightly less intense variant of this is the development of personal style. Discovery and adoption of a personal style, in a way, is the development of and obsession with a [...]

  5. [...] consistent and reflective of the personality of the photographer. (And of course the latter exploration and understanding of one’s personal style is important because following what comes naturally to you makes it much easier to develop and [...]

  6. […] we’ve previously discussed, style is a both a very important thing to be consciously aware of, and perhaps the most difficult of all […]

  7. […] Processing treatment and technical considerations I think this one is fairly obvious: even if shot from the same vantage point with the same focal length on the same format, something with shallow depth of field and cinematic color treatment is going to have a very different impact to black and white, high contrast and pan-focus. In essence, this is a question of style. […]

  8. […] said, I believe that mimicry is an important step along the road to developing your own style; it requires both technical mastery and the ability to consistently apply a certain creative bias […]

Thoughts? Leave a comment here and I'll get back to you.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 23,850 other followers

%d bloggers like this: