How do you know when you have a style?

I showed this image a couple of weeks ago but it kept calling out and begging me to make it black and white.  That's part of my style.

One of the questions I always had, as a struggling, beginning photographer was, "How do you create your own style?"  And no matter which grizzled, old photographer I asked the answer was always the same...
"Just shoot what you love the way you love to shoot it and you'll eventually have a style."  Being in a smaller market, in many ways, made the process a lot longer for me.  With a smaller market we always felt as though we needed to be prepared to shoot anything that came along and we generally reflected that in our portfolios.  I spent the first ten years of my career locked in a conflict which was basically a schism between:  "I'd love to have a personal style that people reconize."  And, "I need to be able to show proficiency in everything from commercial portraits to large format product shots if I'm going to make enough money to survive.."

But all through this time of indecision and ambiguity in my commercial work I was shooting portraits of friends.  I didn't consciously think of this work as "building a style."  That was something I thought I should be doing in my "paid" work.  Because I compartmentalized it this way I didn't approach my personal work with any sort of intention or grand plan.  I just shot what I liked, when I liked and with whatever camera I happened to have at hand.  There was no goal other than to make images that pleased me.  

When I went into the studio and worked on trying to build a style in my commercial work it always came out in one of two ways:  A train wreck.  Or, A dweeby copy of someone else's interpretation of whatever subject I was photographing.  While I usually, through entropy or laziness, light all my personal portraits with one big soft light when I walked into the studio and started shooting work for corporate clients it all seemed to match the stuff I saw in the portrait "how to" books of the time. I worked hard to emulate the styles of the "real pros."   Or it would be like the work I'd see in photo magazines because they always told you how to do it and even showed you were to put the lights, with little diagrams and behind the scenes shots.......

Honestly,  I despaired of ever having my own style, much less having anyone recognize that I was even close to establishing a unique way of looking at stuff.  And I more or less stopped caring about it.  But every week or even every day I'd find some gloriously hot, or quietly sophisticated beauty that I'd finagle into the studio to photograph.

One day I made this image:

The model was my assistant, Anne.  I was playing around with my usual "lazy man's lighting" scheme which meant:  Big, big softbox to one side.  Just inches from the camera and as close as I could get it to the subject.  And I put a few lights on the background.  It was an image I was making just because I wanted to see how much I could fine tune the lighting I usually used to make portraits of my own friends.  It was nothing I would really do for a client.  Anyway, we spent an hour and three or four rolls of medium format film and we came up with this.

I made a print because I liked the quiet and calm look of the image.  I made the print the way I made all my personal prints.  I let the shadows go deep black because my wife, the graphic designer, liked the way that looked in my images (helped along by using very little fill light...).  I stuck the resulting print up over my desk in my east Austin studio so I could study it.  It was so different from the overly lit images I thought the market demanded (a cautionary tale from those who would learn from the "experts" on the web and in books.  Sometimes the "education" we're getting in print and online is more of a history lesson.....).  I'd been churning out the standard three light portraits for years.  One main light.  One fill light, two stops down from the main light.  One background light.  The crappiest portraits were the ones in which I used four lights....adding one in as a back light.  It never looked right and I never liked the look.  In my portraits or anyone elses.

Anyway, a friend came over to shoot a small product oriented catalog and she remarked about how much she loved the image of Anne.  She asked if I had any more images in that style and I brought out an 11x14 inch print box with hundreds of prints of friends, acquaintances and random strangers whom I had asked in to the studio to sit for me, just for fun.  

My friend almost came unglued.  

"Why aren't you showing these to clients?"  She demanded.  "This is a wonderful style.  This is your style.  This is what you should be showing."  Now I'm older and I always want to be right.  But back then I was smart enough or flexible enough to take advice so I put together a whole series of portfolios that were mostly these black and white images I'd been making.  And the amazing thing was that it didn't matter what kind of camera or what format I'd made them in, when I started printing them and sticking them in the portfolios they started looking more and more uniform.

I showed these books exclusively for the next few years, always adding new and interesting work.  And a funny thing happened:  People started asking for work "in my style."  At first I had to ask them what they meant and they'd say:  "You know. That classical black and white stuff where everyone looks quiet and calm.  With the soft light and the nice shadows."  And it because a reinforcing cycle.  A circular process of paring images down to my barest and laziest lighting.

And now, when I show portfolios, or even when I write things here on the blog people refer to my style.  And they tell me that they can see the same style no matter what camera I use to shoot the images with.  The Nikon images look different but the same as the Olympus Pen images which look different but the same as the old Hasselblad images...

And I realize now how automatic it's become.  And how much I hate my own portraits when the shadows are over filled.  Or when there are gratuitous lights.  Or when I ask my subjects to do silly and unnatural things.  

My realization was the my style had to sneak up on me from behind and ambush me.  Because the harder I looked for it and the more hypervigilant I became in my search the further the style would recede from me.  I was doing it all along but I wasn't able to recognize it.  I thought of myself as a failure of a commercial photographer until I replaced what I "thought I should be doing" with what I thought was wonderful to me.  

And when I embraced my style people became much more interested in hiring me and using me.  People even volunteered to model for me.  And it was totally different than the stuff I was putting in my earlier promotional work because I realized that the only thing I could be good at, at all, was the stuff I was doing just for myself.  

Here are a few things I've found that kill a personal style:

1.  Embracing formulas from magazines, web sites and famous photographers.  You might be able to learn something by copying technique but it only helps your  style if you are finally able to discard the styles you've aped that come along with the techniques.

2.  If I spend time looking at everyone else's work and comparing mine to it then I diminish my confidence in my own vision and start, subconsciously, to give power to other people's vision and try to "absorb" some of their magic.  Always to my long term detriment.

3.  I think subject matter is vital.  I am only interested in faces and people.  I'll shoot urban landscapes when nobody is around to play with but I really only show people and I really only want to shoot people.  That's what's right for me.  And I think the further you distill your selection of subject matter the more and more fluid and conversant you become in photographing it.  To go from still life to food to landscapes to street photography to fashion to portraits is a sure recipe to never become truly conversant in any of it.  In the beginning we shoot everything because we are so in love with the process and in how things looked once they've been squeezed through a lens and reconstructed from electrons or silver grains.  It's like going from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to Snoop Doggy Dog to Madonna in the space of five minutes.  A jarring experience.  But while you might learn that you love the craftwork it's not a way to learn a focused style.

4.  Nothing destroys style quicker than well meaning "experts."  My funny story about this all has to do with detail in shadows.  Everything I read, from Ansel Adams to Pop Photo emphasized that a good print (image) has detail in the brightest highlights and in the deepest shadows.  When I would show my neophyte prints to established pros in Austin the standard critique started with the assertion that I needed to add a fill light to my portraits so we could see detail in the shadow areas.  The mark of a "professional" image.  But interestingly, the graphic designers at the hippest (and most successful) agencies as well as the art directors for magazines like Texas Monthly and Elle told me exactly the opposite!!!!  One of the things they all liked was the "rich, black shadows."  They thought it added a "wonderful contrast" to the prints.  My lesson?  Experts=status quo.

5.  Finally, the most common way to kill style is entropy and laziness.  Art ain't for the complacent.  I'm lucky.  Even though I may not have the native talent of someone like Richard Avedon or Irving Penn or Josef Koudelka,  I am interested enough and motivated enough to practice on a regular basis.  I kid that when I finish with a big photo assignment I like to relax with a little......photography.  If you ask my friends they'll confirm that I take a camera with me everywhere.....and use it.  The people who don't evolve a style are the ones who do too much brain work and too little camera work.  All the theory in the world is meaningless in developing rapport, empathy, excitement and a comfort in moving through a shoot.

I firmly believe that the evolution of a style comes from making the journey and it's all part of the same happy process.  When I shoot portraits for myself I enjoy the process entirely.  I love looking at the clothes the person brings to the studio.  I love setting up the lights and I love to watch the play of light across my friends' faces.  I love coaxing just the right expression from them and we share in the joy of reviewing the images.  If someone gave me a magic machine that I could use to automatically do all this and just get the same results I'd smash the machine and sell the scrap.  The process of having fun is also part of the process of building a style.

While I believe that purely technical workshops can be a benefit I advise everyone who asks to just take the same amount of money, read the instructions and then set off on their own adventure.  The iterative nature of the craft should soon make it invisible and automatic which frees you up to see.  And when you have automatic craft and clear seeing.....well......then you have a fighting chance of developing a look and style.

There's just one more thing that will kill a style.  The relentless pursuit of a style.....


Unknown said...

A timely post for me, as this is something I have been struggling with myself. Your insight is wise, though I suspect agreeing and putting it to action are two different things. I do enjoy your style, both the portraits and the writing.

Jan Klier said...

Terrific post, and important read.

For a style to work, it has to be authentic, and an authentic style comes from doing it the way you feel it, not the way your brain tells you to do it.

I do think there is a way of looking at the work of others as part of understanding your style. But don't look at specific people, or specific brands. Just look at the images - if it speaks to you, save it. If it doesn't, move on. I've found that the field of images that inspire me is getting progressively narrower, as they align better with what is emerging as my style.

I do think looking at other work is important, because it's one way of broadening your horizon, and stretching yourself. If you're just content with the way you do things with a little experimentation here or there, things will evolve much more slowly.

And its important to hear what others think. But it's best not to get a professional critique that is meant to be helpful, but much rather a yeah/nay and what specifically they like/dislike. Then decide whether to give that any credence.

The other day I had an interesting experience: I had taken a portrait of someone for a newsletter a few months back. The person was happy and used the image as FB avatar and even commented on how pretty it made her look. Then last week we had an opportunity where we could have used that image in a more prominent way. Since that was a different usage, I called her up and inquired if that was ok - she told me that this wasn't the best of her images, and that she would send me another one she used on her website which was 'professionally done'. After a bit more conversation it came out that she felt my image was 'too photoshopped' because I had removed some of the wrinkles in the neck - part of my retouching style (keep original skin texture, but remove visible blemishes). Yet, when I got a copy of her other photo, it had skin blemishes and poorly done make-up that were unacceptable for use in a full-page ad, and we passed. You always have to take people's opinion with a grain of salt.

Don said...

I don't think that style is created, I think it is revealed. I think that most photographers never achieve a 'style' because they are actively looking for it in the work of others. I don't have any problem with imitation, but if it never evolves to innovation and personal delivery, then it stays a simple mockery of the imitated.

"Experts=status quo."

I disagree. You asked the experts and got the right answer. You asked art directors and editors, who are indeed experts. Asking other photographers may or may not be the best thing to do, but I have always asked the users what they want. Experts are among us, make sure you ask the right questions.

"I think subject matter is vital."

Again I disagree.

A style can be quite apart from the subject matter. When I think of Penn's amazing still life and portraiture and fashion, I see a great deal of difference in subject matter, but a wonderfully cohesive style. The same for Nadav Kander, Albert Watson and Arthur Elgort. It may not necessarily be WHAT you shoot, but HOW you shoot what you shoot.

And being able to photograph food and fashion or portraits and still life is not necessarily an evil, nor would it be out of consideration for a photographer to have two distinctly different styles for each - and have those styles be quite unique.

Comparing one's own work to another photographer's work is a time worn part of how artists grow. It can also be the most detrimental aspect of growing as an artist. Too much and there is a loss of self, and a divided spirit of self-awareness. It also can be blinding to letting one's own style be revealed. Trying too hard to be 'like him' means that there are opportunities to be 'like me' going by unnoticed.

However, understanding the discipline of the craft, and what is expected must somehow be learned in this era of no assistantship ladder, few mentors, ubiquitous internet shit, and a corrosive element of cultish hacks. Learning about the quality that must be delivered can sometimes only be done with comparison to others who are delivering it now.

It is much easier these days to simply copy, or steal, or totally rip off a technique, or POV or other sliver of image creation and make work that resembles, at least on the surface, another photographers work. It takes very little, and provides one with an instant following of people who also want to do only what is necessary to be mediocre.

And while mediocrity may not be what most artists say they want to achieve, it certainly has become a business model to a great many 'stars' of this, and many other artistic endeavors.

I used to think that was sad. Now I simply don't care. Heh.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

I agree with a lot of what Don has written but I strongly disagree with one point. I am certain that the affinity for subject IS the difference between finding your style and applying a style to all subjects. Avedon may have done good still life but it didn't make the cut. Likewise Penn may have done some fun lifestyle work but that didn't make the cut either.

I think the love of a subject informs the growth of style over time.

Stealing a style. Agreed, it generally results in mediocre crap.

Phil Service said...


Thanks. Absolutely on the mark. If I have a style, which is certainly debatable, it can only be seen when I am working with my favorite subject matter, which is people and faces -- usually in black and white. Do what you love, and the rest will follow. Keep writing, please.

Shadowfixer said...

Do you have a portrait of your father lit that way?

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Just thinking about it a little bit more and I can't think of a single image by Albert Watson or Arthur Elgort that I like which isn't of a person. Not a one. And I know their work very, very well.

Just mulling it over.

Shadowfixer: Yes.

Neil Partridge said...

Great post, thank you.

I'm only a hobbyist, but I have made several, brief, amateurish attempts to "be" a certain flavour of photographer (wedding, portrait, childrens, strobist, etc). All felt forced and unnatural and left me feeling very low.

Now, it's just me, a Panasonic GF1 and 20mm lens, shooting B&W (utilising the great B&W live view option). My style is gradually emerging and I've never been happier.

Jan Klier said...

Don - I agree with much of what you say. But I suggest a few tweaks:

You are right that style isn't created, it has to be found and developed. But I wouldn't say that it's 'revealed', because that sounds to me too passive and too static. Like it was there, it just had to come out. And any good artist will evolve his/her style over a lifetime of work. If it were only revealed, then what happens once the curtain is up?

I do think looking at other artists work is what helps in finding and developing that style. But the key is not to copy what others have done, but to deconstruct what they've done, and then take the ingredients and see what happens if you use them in your work.

When I see a fashion photo that inspires me, and lets say I'm fascinated by the quality of the light - I will figure out what it is about the light that makes it work, and then I might push myself with my own way of lighting to achieve something that has the same intent. At no time do I care what modifier the original image used, even if I could find out.

Or I might find an interesting way of lighting something in a fashion photograph, and then see how that might work in a food image.

And over time I find things I like and I keep doing them, and in the process my style is evolving.

So having said this - I'm somewhere in between your and Kirk's take on the subject - I'm a bit more proactive, in experimenting, but I also think that it's not just revealed.

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Very good and interesting and informative article, and even with an also interesting following discussion. Plus one thing first, Kirk: you definitely *will* be remembered later, for just the way you love to shoot people, I'm quite sure about that. So don't make yourself smaller than Avedon, Penn, and others who did great stuff when we weren't even born or too young to understand.

I'm also only a hobbyist, but I study much more than the usual other photographers who are successful right now. I love some paintings for their "lighting", or even some films or TV series. And so while I still use the 45 degree up and left (or right) formula, I'm currently doing some entirely different things. Heck, I even removed my softboxes, folded my umbrellas, and use the whole room as reflectors again, and sometimes add some very directed light.

I'm still to find my own personal style, if a thing like that will ever happen. But it's sure fun to play around, and to explore. You? You definitely have one, and I love it. Thanks for exploring how it all came, and how you (or your wise friend) discovered it.

Alf said...

You know, I came here looking for technical info, but I really liked the writing and went on reading since.
And most important, always nice pics to look at.

Frank Grygier said...

The true gentleness of your nature is revealed in your portraits. I know your style by the way your subjects see you.

Don said...

"But I wouldn't say that it's 'revealed', because that sounds to me too passive and too static."

Very much depends on what one's definition of revealed is, and the context that it is used.

When I use it here, I am not suggesting that it 'comes to you" by some sort of osmosis or new age 'awakening', but that it is slowly and painstakingly revealed as one would reveal the ancient artifacts by carefully, and and with great care, 'reveal' them from the surrounding rock or dirt.

I am a musician, and as such, I understand how a musician develops a style. Clark Terry said it best: "Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate."

After the years and years it takes to master the instrument, a jazz musician will begin to imitate a certain style or player... to get the feel of impovisation. Play that Miles lick over and over until it becomes second nature to you. Then you assimilate what Miles was doing... why he did what he did, how it felt over the chord, where it led to. The innovation comes when the comfort of doing it like Miles did becomes a discomfort and the player begins to make choices based on a more personal view of how the music should sound.

Same way with photography. And I am sure there are some incredible 'naturals' out there who found their voice immediately.

I didn't/haven't but I keep on shooting with whatever style I think I have.

Personally I love to look at other photographers work, but haven't wanted to copy anyone for nearly 30 years. I admire other peoples work, even if it is something I would NEVER want to shoot.

Keeps me thinking and rolling photography around in my head. I love it.

I certainly don't want anyone to think that I am passive... about anything. This stuff is hardass work, and if it isn't... you aren't doing it right.

Shootr said...

I never really pursued portrait photography as I didn't consider myself a "people person", but something really touched me when I saw Kirks personal portrait work. I came here to read reviews on some piece of gear (Olympus m43) but stayed for the wonderful portraits(and writing).
So now I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to reinvent myself as a more sociable and outgoing person in order to pursue this new passion. Not easy after all these years!
One persons "style" can have quite an effect. I think why it connected so well with me is that I like the same type of lighting even in my landscapes- and have been criticized for it. But the areas that are dark without detail add a sense of mystery and ambiguity.

donjagoe said...

How very true this rings within me. I do wedding work, and lord knows this is a genre marked by trends, "stars" and in-vogue looks. I struggled with finding or developing a style and eventually realized that I did have one--my clients told me. Lots of candid portraiture of the important people in their wedding, frequently rendered in B&W. They love it, and it was something I did without even thinking about it, because it gives me such pleasure. The people who are your audience have much to say about your style, if you will listen and believe. Great article, as always. Thanks.

Nicholas Condon said...

This is wonderful, and timely for me. As someone who has recently spent a lot of time thinking about whether I should change up my subjects or style to make more people interested in my work, this reminded me that I will never make photos that anyone else loves unless I'm making photos that I love. My style (insamuch as someone at my level can be said to have a style) is appearing to me slowly, and I think I just need to let that process continue rather than pushing it onto rails suggested by someone else.

Mark n Manna said...

This is a great post,Kirk. Extremely inspiring.... and since it comes from the voice of experience, it's pure gold.
Thanks for your wisdom.

Spiney said...

When ever I went to photo seminars about portrait or wedding work one of the things that always drove me nuts was watching people take pictures of other peoples work. That and them asking which camera, F=stop, which lights. They wanted to totally mimmick the speaker's work, instead of being inspired and learning, but using that for their own creative work.

theaterculture said...

Thanks for this post, Kirk - great perspectives and great writing.

I understand that it's the "gear gear gear" posts that bring in all he traffic and the gear books that keep the bills paid, but I hope there's a book about this side of things brewing up in the future.