I woke up one morning to realize I had a personal style

by Dec 5, 2019

There are very few guarantees in life, but if you’re a photographer, I can guarantee this: you are going to hear variations of this a lot as you learn your craft:

To grow as a photographer, you have to stop imitating others and develop your own personal style.

And there’s a second thing I can guarantee. Every photographer at some point or another has responded to that with:

How the [REDACTED] do I do that?

And the answer to that, from what I can tell, is generally some variation of a shoulder shrug and an encouragement to keep taking images and learn what you like, and then do more of that.

I know I — and a lot of photographers I know — went through a phase of trying to make that personal style happen, and failing miserably. I know, because I still find images in my Lightroom catalog from those days, and I invariably cringe and hit the reset button on them and re-process away all history of that look.

At some point I more or less stopped thinking about it, realizing that attempts to force this to happen were only frustrating me and in most cases, making really crappy photos as I tried to force them into a look they didn’t really want to be part of.

So imagine my surprise when recently I was going through my 2019 images for my end of year projects, and I looked at some of the work I did during the Art Wolfe workshop and went “oh, huh. I see what I did there.”.

Sol Duc River, Art Wolfe Lake Quintalt Lodge Workshop

Sol Duc River, Art Wolfe Lake Quintalt Lodge Workshop

I sent looking into my work from before the workshop, and sure enough, I found images where I had started building out that look as well.

Butchart Gardens, British Columbia

Happy Bees and Flowers, Butchart Gardens, British Columbia

It is even a part of my bird photography:

Dunlin, Merced National Wildlife Refuge

The dunlin shot is interesting because I’ve found myself working towards that look on images for a while, although to my eye now, there’s a bit of a vignette halo around the tail of the bird that needs fixing. And I will — down the road — but for the purposes of this piece I wanted to leave it alone.

I found a number of instances of this type of styling in my collection going back about 18 months. It seems it has been organically becoming part of my processing style for a while, although not consciously or consistently implemented. It finally emerged to my consciousness, I think, after the Wolfe workshop because I brought back some new lightroom techniques that allowed me to consistently do things that I had been trying to accomplish but struggling to do well. Now, it feels like what I learned from Art there synced up perfectly with what I was trying to create, leading me to a consistent ability to layer it onto an image.

Layer it onto many images, I should note. It’s not a universal look (what is?) in that it depends on a strong central subject. A typical wide angle vista landscape would die horrible deaths trying to layer this look onto it, and I’m hopefully smart enough not to try and prove that to be correct.

How would I define this look? It reminds me in many ways of a lighting style painters call the Rembrandt light; strong angled light coming in on the primary subject, and pushing the background more into darker tones with less detail. As I said above, especially for some of the bird images, the idea is to take a naturally lit subject and almsot make it look studio lit, with good detail and even lighting — without making the lighting look overly artificial .

To validate my thoughts on this look, I went and grabbed some older images to reprocess, all from 2-3 years ago. I’m including the “before” version for your amusement, even though to me today, some (maybe all) are almost cringeworthy; the idea isn’t to chastise older me for what I used to think was pretty good as much as recognize just how much different I see my images today.

That, of course, makes me want to go hide for a while and edit/reprocess my entire collection to do away with all the cringeworthy images — and I will — over time, as I see them and want to make use of them. It is kind of eye opening just how different my images today are than two years ago overall.

So here are a few images that I’ve reprocessed attempting to capture this new look consciously. Below them are the older versions of same. I do find I really like the results I’m seeing, although some of these are easier to make happen than others, of course, and I’m not necessarily feeling like these are near perfect. The Peregrine below, for instance, has a halo around the head that as far as I can tell is in the actual image from some backlighting, and I haven’t yet decided how I want to try to fix that (short of major surgery in Photoshop), or if it’s worth doing — but it does annoy me somewhat.

My advice to photographers in search of a personal style

Since I now have a personal style, I feel qualified to give advice to all other photographers who haven’t developed one yet, of course. Here it is:

Stop worrying about developing a personal style. Making that a conscious goal is more likely to stress you out and frustrate you than it is to get your style developed. Focus on doing photos you like, and as you evalute why you like them, try to understand the compositional and processing techniques you’re using that make you like those images. Just focus on good images, and your style will evolve and one of these days, you’ll wake up and realize you understand what it is. Until that happens, don’t worry about it. I do think it’s important to spend some time not just thinking “I like this”, but on “I like this… because…”, to help you start to understand consciously what you’re already likely doing sub-consciously. Nigel Danson just did an interesting YouTube video where he talks about how he dissects his images to better understand what is making them work — or not — and I recommend it to you as an interesting practical exercise that might lead to a better understanding of what makes images tickle your toes.

And until then, focus on the images and on improving your ability to work on them, not on this mythical style. It’ll show up when it’s ready, not before.

Yellow-billed Magpie, Coyote Valley OSP, Santa Clara County, California

Western Grebe, San Joaquin Reserve, Irvine, California. These two are in the early stages of the “hey, you’re kinda cute” interactions.

Peregrine Falcon, Merced National Wildlife Refuge, California

California Quail, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, California

Northern Elephant Seal, Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

Previous Versions

Peregrine Falcon, Merced National Wildlife Refuge, California

Northern Elephant Seal, Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

California Quail, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, California

Yellow-billed Magpie, Coyote Valley OSP, Santa Clara County, California

Western Grebe, San Joaquin Reserve, Irvine, California. These two are in the early stages of the “hey, you’re kinda cute” interactions.