Don’t Chase Style

Gatelivet i San Querico går i et langsomt tempo

A personal style is like a signature for any photographer – any artist for that matter. 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 signature – 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 our an artistic voice. 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 or an artistic voice. There isn’t any quick-fix to the outcome. The artistic voice 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 voice 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 voice. 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. Nevertheless, available light hasn’t become «my» signature, I still use flash when I think it’s appropriate or when it will enhance the visual expression in my pictures.

101 thoughts on “Don’t Chase Style

  1. Thank you for your advice. I had often wondered about personal style and just gave up and just took pictures that interest me and maybe hopefully they told their own story. BE ENCOURAGED ! BE BLESSED!

  2. An interesting article as always Otto. Coming to photography the way I did, not joining clubs or reading the magazines, I’ve been blissfully unaware of terms like ‘photographic voice’ and the pursuit of a personal style until fairly recently so I’ve definitely not been chasing one. I don’t think I’m about to start. I’ll just keep taking the pictures I love to take. 🙂

  3. I’m convinced that artistic voice is as individual as our physical voices. We’re born with a voice that resonates a certain way, that has a certain pitch and timbre. Just as we can recognize an individual in a crowded room by the sound of their voice, there are photographers, painters and writers whose voices we recognize immediately. Even in the case of fiction writers, where the development of voice for characters is so important, each author has a distinct way of approaching the task.

    Given all that, it seems to me we’re called not to adopt a voice or style, like shopping for the latest fashion, but to express the personal, artistic voice we already have, strengthening and shaping it in the process.

    When I began writing, my primary goal was to ensure that every word I put on paper or the screen was true: an honest expression of who I am as a person. At the time, I didn’t have a clue what that meant. I only knew it was important. About three or four years ago, I was standing in line at a Starbucks, chatting wth the fellow in front of me about the western U.S. He suddenly looked at me and asked, “Are you a poet?” I about dropped dead, but I said, “Well, I’m not a poet, but I do write poetry from time to time.” “Funny,” he said. “You sound like a poet.”

    That’s when I knew I was on the right track. Thanks for a great post, and for surfacing that great memory.

    1. And thank you for sharing that lovely memory with us, Linda. We are very much in agreement, it seems like. The only thing is I don’t believe we are born with a voice, in a sense that it’s given right there and then – like probably you don’t mean either. Like everything else about our persona and character we develop throughout life. Thus – for me – the artistic voice is both a result of heritage and environment. 🙂

  4. I really enjoyed reading your post this morning. Thoughts that I have felt but perhaps could not have put them into words. Thanks for speaking them so eloquently. I am not a photographer, but the words ring true for me in my journey as a painter. ~Rita

  5. When I was young I fretted a lot about my style because I didn’t think I had one. I felt my work was too traditional and envied the things my peers did. I kept trying to be more like them, and was very unhappy doing it. It wasn’t until someone said that my style was whatever came easiest to me that I started appreciating my own work more. That didn’t mean that it was actually easy, but I quit wasting time trying to be someone else and discovered myself. Good post!

    1. What Linda says, says it all for me too. It’s quite overwhelming how much post I receive about learning to present the own photographic work in a certain way, mostly a WOW-way of course, way beyond my own. Great post and very interesting exchange of views and ideas in the comments!
      Ha en fin helg! 🙂
      Beste hilsener fra oss fire,

  6. I look at others’ photos to try and figure out how they did it and a lot of times I will try it but then I hope I can add my own flare to it. It took me so long to figure out what I liked to photograph and how to process since I’m self taught in everything. Once I started learning more and more techniques, I could then put the techniques together to create an image. In fact, I think all that has just started coming together for me more recently. I work on it all the time and that’s the part I find so fun. The challenge!

    1. There is absolutely nothing wrong with learning from others. In fact we all steal and copy from each other until we find our own way (this is something I will write more about in a later post). But as soon as we start to put the pieces together, we also start to develop our own unique voice. Like you are doing. Thank you for the comment, Laura.

  7. I understand why people get caught up in some of the amazing work that photographers create out there, and try to emulate their style and effects. I’m still finding my own style, but I do know that I like a simple, soft look. We’ll see if I stick with it! Have a wonderful Monday.

    1. As I said in another comment, think it’s quite OK to learn and copy from others as a way of learning. But your own voice comes from the inside – as you have discovered. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Elisa.

  8. I don’t know a thing about photographic style, but as an artist I can say that style is something that comes to you over time and can’t be forced. Eventually you will look at your work and see that your style has emerged all by itself.

  9. I’m in total agreement. Natural light is certainly a strong pull for me. But I’m still searching for a style. Currently, the commonality is Mother Nature. But that pull (including natural light) is also in a more simplistic approach to the visual world. I see my style as anchored and evergreen.

  10. Very well said. It’s so tempting to try and do what you see selling for another artist. But you have to do what is right for yourself.

  11. I like the way you’ve expressed these thoughts, Otto. Some friends and I have been revisiting the question of our photographic “eye” recently and this feels very relevant. I’m going to share your post with them.

  12. Another great post, Otto. I’m very much a point and shoot photographer, but with my art, I’m finding that I take a lot more time to get the picture just right and to my own liking.

  13. Interesting post Otto, thank you. I spent some time mulling over the subject of style but it seemed to me that it was too easy to fall into the trap of copying someone else’s or it being too forced and lacking depth. I soon decided it wasn’t for me and that I’d rather enjoy photographing whatever gave me greatest pleasure – if I end up with a style that’ll be great and if not, at least I’m enjoying myself!

    1. You approach is really the only way to develop your own distinctive voice or style – as ironic as it might seem. Just keep enjoying your photography. Everything comes from that sentiment.

  14. As always, dear Otto, I have the impression of learning from you something about life itself! To find our own way how to take pictures is like taking our own road of life. Many thanks for your words. Have a nice evening. Martina

  15. Sempre interessante leggerti, sapere delle tue esperienze e di come con il tempo hai affinato la tua arte fotografica. Grazie caro Otto.
    Ciao, Patrizia

  16. I don’t chase style, I like my pictures the way I take them 🙂
    Sometimes I see something on another blog and say to myself, I should give that a try. If it doesn’t work I leave it. But I sure want my pictures to be honest. If someone asks me show me your beach I don’t wait for a day when there is much water and a perfect sky, I go there and take the picture of how it is at that moment. And if that person comes to see by itself, it won’t be surprised if there isn’t any water.
    I might clone things out of my pictures. Like a piece of bright blue plastic under the rusty barrel, I couldn’t get it out from there. Or one day I took a picture of the cliff, I knew there were people walking but I clicked anyway. At home I found out that one of them was wearing a very yellow jacket, she is gone now 🙂 I don’t know why I should treat my pictures in any other way.
    No, I don’t call that style. Style is, when I look at a picture and can say for sure who took it.
    Maybe some day people might say: That’s Knipsa’s work! 😀 But I still have a long way to go 😉

    1. We all have a long way, because style or this personal voice is being built and changes throughout our lives. But I think your approach is indeed the honest way – honest to yourself and honest to your viewers. Thank you for sharing your perspective, Knipsa.

  17. You always have very good points to bring up for photography. I guess we should always keep open minded and learning. I think it is hard though to get out of our comfort zone.

    1. Yes, to both. I believe on life long learning. The day I stop learning will be the day I stop living. And, yes, it is hard to get out of our comfort zone, but we need to if we want to keep developing as artists or creative beings.

  18. No doubt that over time and with perseverance an artistic voice will emerge. I do, however, find it extremely difficult to identify and see my own. Is it important to be able to see one’s own style? Another good one, Otto!

    1. I think it’s often hard to see one’s own style – while other might find it easier to define what you are. Just by what interests us, will be part of what defines our personal voice.

  19. So true, and so beautifully put, Otto. As you say, to be an authentic style, it has to come from within. It has to come from personal experience, it has to be lived through. It’s quite zen like…

  20. well, i was thinking about the last article you wrote and how those pictures were SOC…. i don’t understand that and i would LOVE a camera i could use pictures from SOC…. i used to have a nikon D70 and i put in a camera curve that often made me satisfied with SOC pics…. i would just like to be apart from processing you know? and have a wifi SD card and a perfect camera and just shoot my pics straight to my blog after i see something interesting…. that’s really the personal style isn’t it? what your eyes rest on and consider worth framing into a shot…. love the article!

    1. Many excellent photographers make their images in camera. We all did – bad or good – who used slide film in the old analogue days, simply because you couldn’t do much afterwards. Still others, make their images come through in the post-processing. Personally I don’t care whichever way, for me, it’s the final result that matters.

      1. yes i took a 3 year full time photography course in the analogue days, i remember them well… kinda miss those days at times, but there is no going back for me. now i’m sooo lazy i want in camera niceness and a wifi SD card 🙂

  21. I enjoyed reading your thoughts, Otto, and you’ve given me something to think about. I know my style in other things…but I haven’t really contemplated my photography as personal style. I might learn more about where I want to go by thinking about this. Thank you for the gentle challenge!

  22. There is value in imitating the style of others to understand more fully how a particular effect has been achieved. But the ability to achieve similar results should be merely another accessory to be assimilated and drawn upon only when appropriate. It becomes another component in the toolbox of expression and contributes to the development of a personal style.

  23. “My craving for a personal style turned in to a self-inflicted inhibition.” <– love this line! The entire post is so thought-provoking. It's hitting me a little differently because, well, I never cared so much for my own personal style — I just assumed I had none (which is so funny to think now), but my craving for other things has turned into a self-inflicted inhibition…. so interesting.

    So glad I found your blog Otto… It's been very enlightening for me lately… I always find myself thinking deeper…

    If I haven't said it before, thank you… your writing, your point of view has been encouraging and so helpful.

    1. I think we often do more harm to ourselves than not when we desperately crave something of ourselves, whether in photography or some other field or achievement. I am very happy you find my posts somewhat enlightening. Thank you for the nice words, Carmen.

  24. This sentence from your thoughts above is spot on in my humble opinion. “We get a signature that is not depending on various tricks and enhancements, but is by character a reflection of ourselves” I truly think a photograph is as much a window into the soul of the photographer as it is into the subject. And your reference to tricks and enhancements really hits home with me. I know it’s a skill in itself to master some post processing techniques, lord knows Photoshop can be daunting I’m told but I just find so many rely on tricks and now photo apps to try and make a good photo rather than learning the art of photography. All the best to you today Otto

    1. I believe much the same as you, that photography is as much a reflection of our soul as a window into the subject. As for tricks, I actually don’t think they are bad – as long as they don’t become tricks for the trick itself. If they serve a purpose for the expression or the intent of the photograph, they are just parts of the visual vocabulary.

  25. More great advice. Thank you, Otto. 🙂
    I really like the image you put with this, too. The children are looking pretty intense.

  26. You posted an excellent discussion…one that has been going on ever since I can remember. Heck, and before that…. I really like the control I get when I use flash and for the last 30 years most of my images of people included flash. but I never thought of that flash was “my style” or “mantra” as you wrote, and more than my choice of lenses. I just like the effect….But I see your point. What you are really writing about is, and I’ll quote you, “The artistic voice comes with time, and it comes from within.” Well said.

  27. Your posts are always inspiring and open my eyes for seeing what I might have not noticed or learning something completely new. Well, I’m here right now because I want to learn from you, you all, the commentary is great. 🙂 Now and then I enjoy quickly going through the glossy magazines for ideas and also visiting other blogs. Steve McCurry is a role model for many, but still the photographers have a strong unique voice. Not everyone can say … *”Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso”, 😉 but your way of guiding us, the readers, inspire us to go for the own path. Thank you!

    * My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.”

    1. I agree not everyone can say as Picasso. But then I don’t think that’s necessarily the point. As long as we find our own way and don’t think in terms or better or worse in comparison with others – we do great. I think. Thank you for the lovely words, Dina, whichever it is of you… 🙂

  28. Thank you for visiting my site, and thus leading me to yours. I like it very much, and agree with you. My work has many times been compared to Monet, and I have tried to head that off by creating a signature style, but in the end I have decided to simply paint from my heart and if that reminds people of Monet, then so be it. Your work is lovely.

    1. I think imitating others are not good for anyone’s artistic voice, but I don’t think the opposite – as in your case – is good either. Stay true to yourself, as you have found out. Thank you for the lovely words, Melissa.

  29. Som vanligt tar du upp ett intressant ämne och sätter ord på och förklarar på ett enkelt och lätt sätt. I början funderade jag mycket på detta med en egen stil men det kändes så kravfyllt så jag beslöt mig för att försöka lära mig att använda kameran och bara fota. Lite då och då dyker tankar om en egen stil upp men jag försöker att inte fokusera på det så detta inlägg och alla kommetarer känns befriande att få ta del av.
    Stort TACK för allt du delar med dig av.
    Uppskattar och sätter stort värde på dina kommentarer på min blogg.
    Allt gott till dig Otto.

  30. Well, I can surely say that I do have these moments sometimes, looking at old pictures or scrolling through blog post and wondering if there is a certain style, something that makes this all recognizable is coming from me. Sometimes I would say ‘maybe’ but most of the time what I see is that things are changing and I find that I like that to happen. It’s only a few years of photography for me so I’m still experimenting, learning, trying to find out what I like best, what works best for me., what inspires me. I’m not sure if there is a style but there are certainly a few preferences like available light, a shallow depth of field and colours. Sometimes I’m also thinking if I have to pick just one topic/theme in my photographs, I’ll probably concentrate on macros. But to be honest, I don’t know and that’s fine. Why limit yourself when you can just let it flow? Or, as it goes in one of my favourite songs ‘Keep all the balls in the air, keep all the saucers spinning…’

    1. A personal voice is definitely not about limiting yourself. On the contrary. But have followed your blog for a while I certainly see a way of capturing and understanding the world around that shows a photographer’s personal style. And yes, of course, it changes with time as we as persons and photographers change. But it’s still you behind the camera with your world view and your interests and preferences.

  31. This is really a brilliant read Otto ~ you mention something here that makes so much intuitive sense: “Instead of becoming a signature, it becomes a limitation.” What is so intriguing about this statement is that it is true in almost every aspect of life. Trying to “be” a style you rob yourself of being. I like this philosophical bent quite a bit 🙂

    And again, this show how appropriate the title to your blog is: in flow.
    Just let is flow. Cheers to a great weekend and a great spring!

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