By Gavin Seim, Updated 10/11
Something one often hears tossed around in this industry is the word ‘style.’ “It’s my style” or “love your style.” Sometime it can get pretty funny: “My style is, uh, everything.” Now, this is not a bash session. We’re all at different levels, and that’s OK. This is just another post to get us thinking, something to get us all to raise the bar. I think the idea of style bears consideration and refinement. So let’s start where I often start, with the word, itself.
Webster’s Dictionary – Style.
1. a distinctive manner of expression (as in writing or speech)
2. a distinctive manner or custom of behaving or conducting oneself
3. a particular manner or technique by which something is done, created, or performed.
SO perhaps a photography style is just what you thought it was. But look carefully. “Distinctive, distinctive, particular.” I see photographers (especially new ones) frantically trying to define their style. But they don’t. It may change from week to week and month to month. If you go to their site right now, that high contrast, over saturated look is their style. But really, it’s probably because they know nothing else or saw someone else doing it. Your style is a big part of your brand. But developing it is not quick or easy. It’s a process.
NEXT let’s get one thing out of the way. Just because you do something does not make it your style. The most common “style” I see is “high contrast” or “edgy” or “bold” or “fun”. Now all those things can be a style, but they’re generally non-distinctive and used by people who don’t really know their style. Sometimes these vague styles are used by photographers who are inexperienced and use “art” or “style” as an excuse for their work. (I.e. “The high contrast look is my style” or “The flat light is my style” or “The blown out highlights are part of my style”)
NO. Those are not your style. You just don’t know what you’re doing. The first step in developing your style is to STOP trying to be something you’re not. It takes years and years to become a good craftsman. If you’re a new photographer, stop trying to fake a style that you don’t really have or convince people that that thing you do (because you don’t know any better) is your style. Don’t do it. Using style as an excuse just slows your career because it allows you to make excuses and avoid learning to things properly.
BUT can’t high contrast, blown out, journalistic, be a style? Sure. But often it’s not, because people who are comfortable, experienced, and have really found a style generally know better than to take the cliches and call them a style, because the result tends to appear like a generic copy of everyone else.
SO WHAT makes a style? Sure, it can be somewhat subjective, but let’s go back to the dictionary for the facts. A style is “distinctive.” It’s “particular.” That means it has the ability to stand out on its own. So based on that, if your style looks like 80% of the rest of the world’s photographers, it’s not much of a style. That is, not unless you call your style generic, which does not sound too appealing.
Now, I’m not saying a style can’t be inspired by the work of another photographer. In fact, it’s almost impossible to do something completely new. But there’s inspiration, and there’s outright copying. Most photographers don’t have a style because they have not yet taken enough time to refine their craft and develop that style. This can apply to a newbie as easily as to a 25 year veteran.
A STYLE is not simply taking photos. It takes something more. It requires thought, planning, and skill. But even further, a style is your brand. It can be combined with your personalty, the products you make from your photos, and the way you present them on your website. It does not mean being in a rut or always being the same or applying a particular technique to everything. It’s a process.
WHAT is my style? I’ve been making photos for over 14 years now, and in just the past few, I’ve started feeling I understand my style. It took me that long. I know what I do, and I know how to make it come out nearly every time. I feel I have a style, but I’m still improving on it.
If you were to go to my portrait or wedding site, you might see me describe my work as “A natural cinematic style inspired by the masters and tempered with modern flair.” But the text is merely the beginning. I have an visual in my mind of the kind of image I make, and while every one is different, I have a focus. Also, the way I display my final prints as carefully crafted wall portraits is a very relevant part of my style. It’s taken me about 13 years to pin myself down this much. And I’m still discovering and refining my style.
WHAT does all this this mean? Well, my goal here today is not to say you can’t have a look, or that you can’t describe your work. It’s not to make this style thing abstract and confusing. Maybe you’ve truly found your style, maybe not. But my intent is to get us all thinking. To raise the bar on our style, study, and practice, and become such proficient craftsman that we truly understand our medium and our style. Maybe you’ll be faster than I was, maybe not. But either way, it’s a process. A valuable one.
SO, STYLE is important. But it’s not something you can simply make up. Before you can really define your style, you have to know your craft well enough to understand what you’re doing with it. You have to have worked enough to find that distinctive consistency in your images. Imagine a singer. A singer does not have a style until they learn to sing and perform. It takes time. They have to work it out. Photography is no different.
WHY do most NOT have a style? Because they’ve not refined their craft . It does not mean they’re all bad photographers. But in truth a lot of photography today lacks distinction. Admittedly, it’s hard. Finding your style take more than just doing a wedding every weekend. It takes more than copying the latest trend you see your friends using.
I often see photographers who are really busy with jobs, but it’s all they can do just to keep up and get the jobs out. They’re generic. If you’re paying the bills that way then fair enough. If volume is your business approach, it may work for you. But it’s not usually distinctive. Rushing offers too little time to experiment and define your work. You probably want something more. To define a unique style, you have to take your extra time to study and refine what you’re doing until you draw out something unique about it. Until there’s a pattern. Until it becomes a style, not just the latest fad.
How to Find Your Style. A style is images, personalty, presentation, branding, and more. Really finding it takes enough experience to know what you do and how you make it unique. I think the way to find your style is to stop looking so hard. Stop trying to rush to having it all figured out, and spend more time figuring. Study your craft and be content with the fact that you’re making good images and improving. Forget about your style for a while and learn how to style better. In time, you’ll find your own unique approach. You’ll find your STYLE naturally.
WHAT AM I GETTING AT? Stop having confidence? Stop charging for quality? Heavens, no! I’m not even saying at what point you have a style. I’m just saying slow down and think about it. Take the time to make images just for the joy of it. Explore ideas and techniques, read books, go to workshops. Do that, and your style will blossom, as will the quality of your work. Photography is not a quick journey. It’s a long one. It’s OK to be starting out. Just be honest with yourself. Keep working on your craft and always raise the bar.
A bit of Gavin’s work below. You can see more on his website, seimstudios.com…