Don’t Chase Style

A personal style is like a signature for any photographer. As we at a young age set out on our photographic endeavour this easily becomes a major mantra, and we start searching for our own style. We think we can skew the horizon, and that becomes our style. We think we can make dark and mysterious pictures, and that becomes our style. We think we can increase the colour saturation or do some other post production trick and that becomes our style.

I remember at one point I became very good with my handheld flash, I would even say I became an expert getting the most out of this devise that many photographers otherwise struggle with. Particularly I got very enthusiastic about the result from using open flash. In the end all my picture ended up being shot with open flash. Open flash became my style – or so I thought back then. But I was only fooling myself. I finally realized that style is not something we force our pictures through, like a filter or some magic transformation, in order for it to become «our» signature. Instead of becoming a signature, it becomes a limitation. When my mantra was open flash, I stop looking for other qualities of light that could be used – and better used in many occasions – in my pictures. My craving for a personal style turned in to a self-inflicted inhibition.

Yes, we can impose various styles on our pictures, and should do so to enhance whatever we try to tell with the pictures. But that isn’t the same as a personal style. It’s just using tools we have to our disposal. Chasing style in one way or another is never going to give us a personal signature. There isn’t any quick-fix to the outcome. Style comes with time, and it comes from within. When we stay honest, authentic and true to ourselves in the way we photograph, over time our style will crystallize and become apparent. We get a signature that is not depending on various tricks and enhancements, but is by character a reflection of ourselves. With time we develop our vision – we look for certain aspects of life and emotions and graphical qualities that we related to, and this vision again will develop our personal style. The more conscious we become about our vision, the more clearly our personal style will develop. Style is – put simple – an outcome of becoming aware of our vision.

As for me, open flash has long time ago ceased to be the all-encompassed answer to my lighting needs. As a matter of fact I hardly use flash any more. Today I prefer available light, which is so much more varied and full of depth and tonality than anything I could do with a flash. Still, available light hasn’t become «my» signature, I still use flash when I think it’s appreciate or when it will enhance the visual expression in my pictures.


28 thoughts on “Don’t Chase Style

  1. Very good article. I myself was not chasing style, but worrying about what my style is. I have heard it over and over, that it will come so I know this is true. I thought more about style in other aspects of my life like style is my home. It is a combination of country and contemporary, due to the fact that I now live in Belgium where previous it was always just country or early American. So I am sure my photography style will change as my life changes.
    Great subject

  2. Yes, a personal style is not a static characteristic of the artist we are, it changes as we get more experienced, as we learn more about our profession, as our vision broadens, simply as our lives changes – as you say. And that is just very exciting, I think. It means we develop and grow. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and thanks for stopping by my blog.

  3. I learned so much today by simply reading your post. Full of wisdom from a person who’s lens captures life and people in a realistic and moving way, such as the photo in this post. I didn’t even know there is a signiture and that blew me away! For me, I just want to capture the most of the moment, to have fun with colors, to present what I thought is beautiful. I used to paint before, as a hobby but then my mojo just died and now I’m hook on writing and taking photos. I guess people change.. Everyday! Cool post. Very enjoyable.

    1. I think your approach to photography is great. It’s all about that, capturing the moments that somehow engage and having fun during the process. Thank you for the wonderful words

  4. This was so nice to read. I agree with you, about style. But I noticed that I haven’t thought this before, I mean, do I have a style in my photography… To be honest, I just live with my camera as if, and I try to take moments of my life… What I like and what I want not to be forgotten, and I find myself to take their pictures… I don’t think how or what should be… I just live at that moment with the subject or with the event… As if they are being my guide for my camera… But I should add this too, I am not a professional photographer. But photography is not new for me, in all my life there was! But with my new camera everything changed… It is something help me to write my daily touches, and sometimes as if I write my poem with my camera, I feel like that. Anyway, this was so nice article. Made me to think about myself too. And yes, Thank you for visiting my blog, it is so nice to have a nice comment from such a nice photographer. I am so glad to meet with you. With my love, nia

    1. Like other people who have responded to this posting, I think your photographic approach is fantastic. I love the way you just “live with your camera”. That’s the way to do it! And it’s great that you are able to write poems with the camera. Just that little comment shows that you already have a strong personal style (as I have seen on your blog as well). As I believe and have said, style comes from within. Thanks for all the wonderful comments throughout my blog. Indeed great to have met.

  5. Interesting article. Sometimes you look at a photo and you soon know who the photographer is and recognize his/her style. Like Sarah Moon or Sally Mann. For other photographers it is different, you perceive a style in their photographs sometimes due to the technique they use, like the large format from Alec Soth. Or others are able to change their style depending on what they shoot. I’m not sure if one day I’ll have a my own style. Being an amateur I like to experience various way to photograph which at the end means not a proper style or signature. I have not yet decided if this is better or worse than having a personal style. Or maybe my style can be called …no specific style !

    1. I think we all have a personal style, just in the way we see the world and how we shoot it. But it’s not always as obvious as with Sarah Moon or Sally Mann. Even regarding Alec Soth, his style – at least to me – is less about format than the way he frames and captures his pictures, although the large format obviously has an impact on the final result. I think it’s great that you experiment with different ways to express your vision. It’s a way to understand how we can create pictures according to how we see and react to the world.

  6. Beautifully stated philosophy. I have always struggled with this when in consultation with potential agents/galleries/publishers and so forth (ending up always on my own) because my personal style has proven to be a characteristic point of view rather than trademark and easy-to-identify media, techniques, subjects and so forth. I’m always told I’m “too hard to package” because I don’t fit into any neat five-word box. So I guess my Style, if I have one, is to be too hard to package! I’m starting to realize what a compliment that is, even if it’s a marketing handicap. I’m delighted to hear your version of this issue!

    1. I think it’s good to stick with what you believe in and to your own vision, instead of trying to cater to agents, galleries, publishers or whatever. If you do so, you lose yourself, your perspective and your originality. And I firmly believe that in the end you will win by pursuing your own vision even if it’s “hard to package”. So just keep doing what you do – and you really do have a great vision.

  7. I really know nothing about style in photography, but I know, as a visual artist and writer, that any attempt to pursue style for style’s sake is a mistake.

    I also wanted to thank you for stopping by my blog today–and taking the time to leave a comment, as well. It was great having you! Hope to see you again soon!


  8. This is one varied and must-read post! Very true & valuable thoughts and information.
    Photographers sometimes stick (sometimes unknowingly stick) to a particular style and that can harm creative & artful thinking. Sometimes versatility of a photographer can go astray!

  9. A really interesting article as well as all these contributions from other artists. Over recent years I have won a couple of art awards in the UK for 2 of my photos. When I showed them to a magazine editor her first coment was that they were so different. This sort of stuck in my head as I wondered what, if any, my style is and whether my photos look as if they are taken by different people, i.e. me trying to be someone else. I’ve never thought in these terms and I’ve set to looking at my photos as a whole as well as asking others what they think. The view I’ve got to so far is that I take a lot of photos and just throw them out there. I don’t focus on specific projects or bodies of work with an instrinsic coherence. I’m a happy-snapping amateur – friends and family, street, landscapes, seascapes, etc etc. Different cameras – rolleiflex, holga, nikon d90. Yes, I think I’m influenced by other photographers but looking at pictures that mean something to me I find that I do have a style and certain motifs that keep appearing. It’s quite a strage feeling when you have this realisation as what I can then see is reflections of me as a person. Thanks for this article, it has helped my rather muddy thoughts develop!

    1. I think it’s actually a complement when somebody says your pictures are so different. It means you have your own way of seeing with the camera – you own style. It doesn’t matter if you use one camera or another, or don’t necessarily work with coherence. That’s not what determines the personal style. For me it’s clear that you have your vision and thus your own personal style too.

  10. Hi Otto,
    First of all, thanks for stopping by on my blog…
    This really is an inspirational article.. I have never read anything similar in the past 2 years…
    Thanks for sharing..

    PS , If you come back tomorrow to my blog, there’ll be another story waiting 😉

  11. I have given quite a bit of thought to this topic since starting up my blog and re-establishing my commitment to the the camera. I have been wondering which way I am heading, but then I’ve come to the conclusion that it is what happens along the way which is important. I love the contemplative mood I enter when I go off somewhere, camera in hand – how my focus really sharpens and I am really truly a part of the here and now. This means of course that my “style” becomes dictated by what my heart sees, resulting as someone said “a photographer which is hard to package” and a blog which doesn’t have a particular theme.

    Thank you Otto for your wise words and for stopping by my blog. I am looking froward to more articles from you!

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