What is photographic style
The latest piece from Jerome Arfouche, this time talking about photographic style and how to define yours. Please comment and share your thoughts.
Today I would like to talk about style. It is my objective this year, as I gradually mastered my camera and abstracted away from technicalities, to develop my own visual style and I would like to share what I have so far on the
Let’s start with generalities, what is style ? A stylish person is generally someone who stands out from the crowd, someone who you can recognize and identify right away because of how they look. So style is a form of identity, or rather an expression of identity. Some people for example feel very comfortable in the spotlight, they like to be noticed and are outwardly driven towards people, so to show that, or maybe as a result of that they dress a little more daringly, brighter colors, unconventional look, accessories etc.
Same for photography which is another form of expression. Through photographs we show others how we look at the world, and how we look at the world is a part of who we are.
When I first started shooting I was very often frustrated with the results and I didn’t know why, now I understand that it is because I feel it’s as if those photographs didn’t somehow belong to me, it’s as if they were made by someone else, they felt foreign even to me, the person who made them !
We can identify the author of some photographs immediately without needing a caption, think of Bruce Gilden’s infamous flash-in-your-face style, or Steve McCurry’s very unique colors, others we have to pause and think, who could it possibly be ? You have to make your photographs leave no doubt to your viewers as to who made them.
“Saul Leiter’s unmistakable style is all about subtlety, soft colors and distance”
So the first step in getting to identify your style is to try to make your photographs more like yourself. Who are you really, what do you like, what don’t you like? How do you see the world in general, do you like to connect with people, are you a bit more withdrawn, are you a pessimist, an optimist? Are you passionate or more rational? Do you like cheerful bright colors or dark moody black and whites? Today with social media I feel there is some sort of pressure to shoot like each other and to regroup in communities, which is fun in a way because we learn a lot that way, but ultimately you have to shoot what you like. who cares really if that still life picture you liked so much got no comments on flickr?
Of course people have to somehow connect with what you are saying, maybe few people are going to connect with your abstract urban experimentation but the idea is not to suppress what feels natural for you to shoot, it will always find a way back into your photographs anyway :)
Next item I want to talk about is consistency, technical and aesthetic consistency.
Photography is a very technical art, so mastering your technique is very important, but at one point as you get better and better, you have to abstract away from technique and use it to serve you share your vision, rather than make your vision dependent on your tools. Think about this, if you switched cameras for a month, would your pictures look any different as a result ?
Choose fewer tools and master them completely. Experiment and branch out, but ultimately settle on a few formulas that work for you. Very often I see streams of photographers who mix digital, 35mm and medium format (in an easily distinguishable way, if you are good your shots will have a similar feeling), 10 types of lenses, different techniques etc. What this tells me is that this person doesn’t really know what he/she is doing. Again we all pass through this I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-shooting phase and experimentation is important in helping you understand what you want and like to do, but it is important to progress and move past these stages. Two years ago I sold all my cameras and lenses, bought one body and one 35mm lens, for 2 years I’ve been shooting the same focal length, the same medium, the same camera. And only now am I starting to understand properly how to get my tools to work for me like I want. Once you get used to the field of view on your lens, you will know how your picture will look like before taking it, you will know what will be in and out of frame before putting the camera to your eye. You will know what your camera can and cannot do, this will free your mind to focus on what’s important.
“Bruce Gilden mastered his flash in many ways before he was able to produce any consistent work with it”
Aesthetic consistency is, well, consistency in how things look. Again, if you like both color and BW, separate your work. Choose one post-processing method and stick to it, whether in development or in photoshop. Think of Paolo Pellegrin’s dark and gritty looking pictures for example. For him to get that look, he has to consistently develop his work in the same way every time, otherwise every picture will look different and he will have no visual coherence to speak of. We as photographers are also editors, and being able to sort out what doesn’t fit in further reinforces our photographic vision and style. You have a color series shot in the subway, what is that odd BW portrait doing in the middle of it ? Choose your frames, your compositions. Often some patterns will give you a framework, a skeleton for you to work on. Choice of subject will also greatly determine your style, is there a recurrent theme to your photographs ?
“Diane Arbus was fascinated with strange looking individuals, whom she called “freaks””
This brings me to repetition. Consistency is not repetition, consistency is coherence. Try not to repeat yourself, fix yourself a goal of not shooting more than 2-3 times the same scene, or maybe the same type of scene, for example the type where a random walking person comes in your frame in front of a nondescript urban background. Shoot this and move on. Don’t copy others, or rather, if you feel inspired by someone, copy them but add your own twist to it, improvise on it like a jazzman improvises on famous themes composed by others.
Consistency, coherence, repetition. There is also originality. We are all different, we each do and see things no one else sees, why should your photography look like a million other photographs ? Photography after all is, if you don’t like the word art, a creative form of expression, so be creative then. See what others do and do it better, or differently. See what most people are doing and don’t do it, you will stand out (or forever remain in darkness, no guarantees!). Try to see the things that few people have done before. A simple example, website or blog names. Do we really need yet another “the world through my lens” blog, or a variation on the word pixel like “pixel light color photography” ? Be aware of what’s out there already before you jump in the waters.
Identify your influences, you will better understand what motivates you. Very often we are attracted, interested or moved by certain things or people before we are rationally aware as to why and this unconscious interest is a very direct and uninhibited link into yourself
“Paolo Pellegrin’s work is often dark, blurry with tilted framing or exaggerated drama”
Wait. The most important thing to note is that it takes a lot of time for a certain style to emerge from your photograph, so you need to shoot often and be patient. You also need to let your photographs “decant” or mature before you edit through them. For example, it can take me anywhere between one to six weeks between the time I shoot and develop my pictures. What this gives me is some sort of objectivity with regards to my own photographs, I often forget what I’ve shot so I almost rediscover them anew and that will help remove the indecisiveness as to whether or not I feel a picture belongs to my “style” or not. Style or not
These were some of my notes about style, I’m just starting to apply these principles to myself so I don’t pretend to be an expert on the topic but I thought I’d share it with everyone.