Repost: Defining style, and finding your own

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I think of this image as being very characteristic of the way I shoot these days – and you can probably guess that it was one of mine, even without the frame. But what does that mean? Why and what is it that makes it so – and more importantly, how do you consciously add your own visual signature to an image?

Introduction: This was an earlier essay written on a tough topic: something that is fundamentally important for all serious photographers, yet is extremely difficult to define in a strict technical sense due to its very nature.

In hindsight, I realized that it might not be something that a lot of photographers consciously consider at the time of capture; it might come up come post processing time, but you really need to have it in mind before you even hit the shutter. There is of course far more detail than I can possibly cover in a single post – we tried to put everything into a single 2h video, but we landed up needing 6 hours in total to be comprehensive. I probably should have reposted this as an introduction to the latest two videos, but better late than never! Think of it as context, preface and explanation for Making Outstanding Images series: Exploring and Processing for Style.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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