We all talk about the importance of finding your visual style, but do you really know why you need one? It's more than just being unique; a visual style is key to shooting photos with interest. And it's that interest that keeps people coming back.
Photographers talk about style like Jedi talk about The Force; luckily, it's a lot simpler than that. It's how a photographer uses their subject, composition, lighting, and technical skills in their photography. It takes most years to find their style, but some never really catch onto it. You know, just like The Force.
Usually, this is where the conversation on style ends; people will say just keep shooting what you love, and eventually, you will understand the elements that come together for your unique visual style. But is that all there is? For the last year, I've felt close to feeling fulfilled with my work, but never happy. It wasn't until I questioned where my style was evolving that I understood why the way I was shooting before would never be great.
The problem is your style is more than just your unique identifier; it's also how you tell your story and emphasize your subjects. Without those, your work falls flat. In this article, I'm going to talk about what style adds to a photo and how it's more than just color-grading.
Photos With Little Interest Isolate the Subject, Making You Inherently More Critical of Everything About Them
This was the main reason I switched my work around; I love clean work that's bright and contrasting. The problem is the way I was shooting before I made the switch, the only time my work was really executed properly was when the model had a perfect pose, the model herself was perfect, or the composition was creative.
Whenever I was shooting comp cards for models, the work just never landed, because the models were developmental or the photos were too basic. Being a new model, it can be tough to take over a photo with just your face and shoulders. By shooting basic images, that's exactly what I was asking them to do.
Here are two photos. The lighting on them is exactly the same; the only differences are the composition, background color, and pose. You start to notice the person more on the left. There's no mood really being set, and the color-grading, composition, and pose don't add to the photo at all. Now on the right, the composition is creative, it takes your attention, she has a really nice smile, and she doesn't look as bored. The problem is the composition on the right isn't possible without a talented model who is confident in the posing they are doing.
When you're shooting clean, commercial images, that isolation is an important part of making the product stand out and gives you the ability to change elements of the photo with ease. This doesn't work as well in portraiture when the subject isn't a product you're selling. When you're trying to enhance the look of someone, you need to do more than just stick them on a clean, white background.
Your job as a photographer is to complement the model and make them look as good as possible. When your style isn't adding interest, you're basically ignoring 50% of what makes a photo good. For a really long time, that isolation was what I was going for. Make it all about the model, isolate them, and use a creative composition. But all I did was put more of a burden on their looks and pose. Every little thing about the model becomes immediately more scrutinized, something I didn't realize until I took a step back and looked at what I could do better.
Adding More Interest to Your Style Takes Heavy Lifting off the Subject
One day, I decided to try to make two simple changes. I went down to one light and moved the background closer. These changes made a serious difference. The added shadow on the background gave the model a sense of environment that contextualized them more, and moving to one light added an extra punch of contrast. Here are two photos that show the difference from one to the other.
The editing and color-grading for these two photos are the same; the only differences are the pose, lighting, and position of the background. One objectively has more interest than the other. The photo with a shadow puts the model into an environment; it helps set a mood. She's not cut out of an image and placed in some type of purgatory.
Now, these decisions seem minor, but these two comparisons show just how important adding interest is. Of course, what I'm doing and my philosophies won't always match every single type of photography, but I'm trying to show you my process of understanding where I'm going, so you can do the same. Everything I'm talking about is how I'm taking the favorite parts of my work and finding ways to keep those while also complementing my subjects.
Now, you'll notice all of my examples come from studio photography; that's because that's my background as a photographer. But the ideas behind this are universal. Here's a side-by-side of two outdoor portraits I took. Which one sets a mood and which one falls flat?
The photo on the left just exists, whereas in the photo on the right, there's something there that keeps your interest. The angle, pose, and grading make you feel something. It might not make you feel much, but compared to the photo on the left, there's more going for it. And you can see how in the photo on the right, you're not critiquing the model as much as on the left. You're letting her exist, and any flaws you see are hidden behind the rest of the photo.
Having an Attractive Style Gives You More Freedom
When you're setting a mood, you're allowed to push boundaries of what works. Whether it's a goofy face or messy hair, it can work when you're setting a mood that allows for that. When you're shooting clean and commercial, you lose that freedom.
See how in the photo on the left, you notice the stray hairs under her chin more? That's because this photo doesn't set a mood. She's smiling and she's happy, but she's so isolated that you're looking at everything more on a technical level. Luckily, the point of these were isolation and focus on the hair.
People Are Attracted to Style, Not Technical Abilities
Your technical abilities are the foundation of any photograph, but being technically correct doesn't make a great photo. When it comes to the end product, time and time again, we see that photos with perfect histograms, realistic colors, and classic composition are not what the majority of people are looking for.
Just look at how movies are processed. Everything is styled and edited to make you feel something; get rid of that, and you're losing part of the movie. This goes for photography as well; some of my favorite photographers do things that are technically wrong.
Beauty is Boring is one of the best beauty photographers, because her work is so consistent, yet unique every time. But the way she sets the mood is by overexposing the photos a little.
This Doesn't Mean You Need to Break the Rules to Have an Appealing Style
I'm not trying to say that every photographer needs to shoot their images with a flash firing right in the subject's face. You can have technically perfect images, but your style needs to add to that. What you're doing with the composition, color grading, and even location need to add interest to the photo and complement the subject. Clean, commercial images shot straight on just don't do that.
Jenn Collins is a master at making super clean images interesting. For anyone looking at what they can do with clean work, check out Jenn. Her composition and posing are next level.
Having a style that's clean is great for isolation, but by doing very little on your end of the photo, you're putting more of a burden on the subject. That means more scrutiny on their looks, pose, and retouching. By adding more interest and substance, you're making it less about the subject and more about the photo as a whole.
This is mostly informative for portrait photographers, but can be incorporated in other styles as well. No style of photography is immune to being boring. It's up to you to find new ways to make your work stand out in your own ways.