How to develop your own distinctive style
At first, clients will pay you to replicate others’ work. With time, you’ll attract clients who want you to create images in your own style. But how do you develop a distinctive style in the first place?
Can you imagine someone recognising a photograph as yours, purely based on its style? When you’re just starting out, the achievement of a unique and distinctive style can feel as elusive as the finding The One.
Where does your style come from? How do you develop it? And is it even possible for every photographer to invent something totally new, anyway?
I think the answer to these three questions is in your individual recipe mix of influences, capability, experience and creativity:
We’d all love to be genuine free thinkers who invent something entirely new on a regular basis. But these people are rare indeed and not all of us can be Mario Testino or Annie Leibovitz. The rest of us are heavily influenced by what we’ve seen.
Of course, that includes other photographers’ work. But it also includes paintings, posters, magazines, Instagram posts and movies, for example. One of my influences has been the pencil drawings of E. H. Shepherd in early editions of Winnie the Pooh.
But we’re also influenced by things we can’t remember seeing. Every image feeds into the visual bank in your head, and next time you set up a shot, they cumulatively provide a filter through which you assess the scene.
The bigger and wider the variety of influences that you feed from, the better. This stops you plagiarising too heavily from one source. But you need to enjoy it, too. Be inspired by art, film or music because you love one of these things, not because it’s another chore on your long to-do list. The more interested you are in the world around you, the more interesting your images will be.
All of us look at pictures we’d like to be able to shoot but we don’t have access to what it would take to create them.
So to some extent your style is boxed in by what you can do, with the skills, spaces and equipment you have access to. If you have a studio, you are likely to create studio-style images. If you shoot in an all-white space lit by natural light, your style will feature that light and bright environment. If you work predominantly outdoors, you’ll create images that reflect the locations you work in.
But then one day you might take part in some training, change your kit or work in a different environment. Alternatively, a client could request a type of image that you don’t normally create, pushing you out of your normal repertoire. All of these give you the opportunity to evolve in a new direction, which may eventually become part of the style you are known for.
On an engagement shoot in the historic town of Oxford a few years ago, my client requested that I include the famous Bridge of Sighs in one of the portraits. Pleased with how the image came out, I included it in my portfolio. Subsequent clients saw it and requested something similar. Now scenic portraits that include an element of architecture are part of my style; a new dish added to my menu.
The longer you shoot and the more shoots you do, the more situations you encounter. This trickles into a pool of experience that you can draw from in each future shoot.
Ten years ago I was exploring the photographic opportunities of our local street, my new studio and the nearby gardens for the first time. I was just playing with the camera, shooting unpaid out of sheer love for photography, and I was at my most creative.
I was still influenced by things I’d seen, of course, but I was putting my own spin on the execution of each image. I was experiencing each situation for the first time and responding with fresh eyes and ideas.
Now people book me because they want the kind of images they’ve seen on my portfolio. They want me to recreate what they’ve seen me create for others. In a way, that’s very cool: you become your own influencer, and plagiarise yourself.
Replicating your own work can become a trap, however, if you find yourself routinely repeating your past images again and again. It gets boring quickly. That’s why it’s useful to keep forcing yourself to shoot something different, or in a different way, so that you have to think creatively.
We don’t expect a classically trained piano player to light up the jazz club on a Friday night. The former delivers a rehearsed and prepared performance, while the latter doesn’t know what will come off the keys until she starts playing.
Similarly, your heart and soul have to be engaged in your work, too, otherwise your style will never be more than an echo of what you’ve seen others do. Push down the paths that call out to you. Follow your interests, explore and experiment. Notice what makes you come alive and do more of it.
Because when you’re enthusiastic about what you do, your clients will pick up on it. They’ll feel excited, and be more likely to trust you when you want to try something new. That something new might become the thing you want to shoot in a similar way again. And that’s how your style develops.