This is one of the most recurrent topics I mull over on a regular basis - how important is having a personal style tona photographer? Do I need to establish my own style? How do I do that? Do I need a "niche" or is that just something for pros? Is being a photography generalist such a bad thing?
Any opinions? You'll have to bear with me, today's post is a lot of thinking out loud and I would really value your feedback.
For the first few years in the early period of my courtship with photography I didn't settle down or go steady with any particular genre. I was free to take any photo I wanted, shoot any subject and I experimented, a lot. I learned a huge amount and it was among the more productive periods of my career. Internet pundits are adamant though, to make it in this industry you need a personal style & vision to set yourself apart from the crowd, whether you're a pro or hobbyist is irrelevant. You need a style & a niche to “make it”.
I think, conceptually, I understand the idea. There are very, very few photographers who are instantly recognisable who also have a broad range of work. Household name photographers are famous for one or two genres. David Bailey, Steve McCurry, Robert Capa, Ansel Adams - names from history but all are identified for bodies of work in specific fields. Portrait photographer, war photographer, landscape photographer, wedding photographer. I can't think of anyone who is famous outside of photography circles for simply being a photographer. There's always a specialisation, and layered on top of that, a style.
What I'm mulling over is whether or not I want my photography to fit into this kind of pattern. I think it goes without saying that I don’t have to, but does doing so offer any advantages? Typically, I've broken the question down into the question of recgnisable style as one aspect, and favoured genre(s) as another. While the two are going to be closely interrelated, it's easier to think about them one at a time.
Is style just the way I process my images? Can I settle on "my style" just by creating a few lightroom presets & photoshop actions then blanket apply to every image? I'm guessing the answer is a big fat no for someone shooting a diverse range of subjects but if focused on one topic - say portraiture - then I could very quickly produce a signature, recognisable style using the exact same treatment on every photo. I could produce bland, grayscale images of driftwood and call myself a fine-art photographer or eye-watering HDR landscapes inspired by Peter Lik and be known as a lanscape pro but I'm just not sure I see the point. I guarantee that if I did produce a signature style I'd be able to find any number of photographers who already used a similar, maybe indistinguishable approach to processing photos.
Style is more than just a specific "look". Photography is an expressive, creative art and I think style encompasses the photographer AND their work, not just the legacy they leave behind. Your style is what you shoot, why you shoot it, how you choose to present it. It’s how you choose to present yourself too, or even choosing not to. When all these are combined your style starts to come through. I don’t yet know what my style is but I’m getting an idea what it isn’t – I’m not a slow, measured, methodical shooter who finds the technical side as appealing as the artistic expression, for example. I also know it’s not all about the gear, though for a while I think it probably was a huge distraction. Just take a look at my catalogue of reviews to show how much time & energy I invested in writing about gear!
What about genre? Would specialising in specific genres help focus & improve my photography if I’m not a pro? Would it help me turn pro, or maybe at least sell more images, if I did specialise in key genres? I think the answer to this is currently a hand-wavey “yes and no”. For example, I don’t think realistically that dropping everything and only shooting landscapes would mean I’d increase my chances of turning pro. I’d probably be able to improve my recognition among landscape photographers and maybe improve the odds of winning a major award but I’d say it’s far from guaranteed. I think genre specialisation is pretty obviously important for carving a professional niche in the market; a wedding photographer will win more wedding business than a generalist, even if they are both equally capable because people buy into the perception of specialisation = excellence.
Turn to the pros and they will all say the same thing - style is essential to set yourself apart in the world of photography & you won’t succeed if you don’t specialise, and don’t have your own style/brand. The Chase Jarvis’ of the world was lyrical about how it’s critical to have style but I’m not convinced style and speciality make me a better photographer, or make me enjoy it more. So while I listen and hear what they have to say, ultimately I remain unconvinced I need it.
That’s a lot of waffling and I’m still not sure I have an answer! If you’ve read through this waiting for a profound conclusion or answer then I’m afraid I’ll be disappointing you.
What I do know is that I want to spend more time shooting things I find hard to technically master, such as landscapes & studio lighting. Both require an investment in time & effort which I’ve only scratched the surface of. I want to do things that challenge and scare me. Above all though I want my photography to tell more stories. Pretty pictures are fine, learning the craft is laudable but what I really want to focus on is storytelling through my photography. I want my work to stand out and be recognised because of what it says and how it makes people feel, not because I’ve spent hours tweaking my style.
Maybe if I focus on the pictures and the stories I’ll stumble across a style I can call my own.