How To Develop Your Personal Photography Style

Portfolio of KevinLJ © Kevin Landwer-Johan Pwo Karen Couple
by
Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Personal photography style is how you choose to treat the subjects you photograph. Developing your personal photography style is more than what you photograph and the techniques you use. It goes deeper into how you ‘see’ the world around you and how you express this with your photographs.

We all have a unique worldview. We all see the world a little different than the person standing next to us. Our upbringing, education, culture and social standing shapes the way we perceive what we see. To develop your own personal photography style you must be aware of how unique your perspective on life is.

“For many, understanding the imagery is the new literacy and, if you already know the vocabulary and grammar of putting images together, the next step is to develop a style.” Michael Freeman, The Photographer’s Mind.

Develop Your Personal Photography Style​ © Kevin Landwer-Johan Market Porter Thailand
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 35mm, Settings: f5.6, 1/80 sec, ISO 400

How Do You Identify Personal Photography Style?

The more decisions you make about how your photos will look, the more identifiable your style is. Knowing how you want your photographs to look will define your identifiable personal style.

Make clear choices about the elements that make a good photograph such as:

  • Subject
  • Timing
  • Composition
  • Color
  • Tone
  • Light
  • Exposure
  • Relationship

Combine these well with camera techniques including:

  • Aperture choice
  • Shutter speed
  • ISO setting
  • Metering Mode
  • Focus selection

Style, in photography or any other form of creative expression, is identifiable. If it’s not, then it’s not style. Consistently making the same choices about the photos you take will help you develop your personal photography style.

Develop Your Personal Photography Style​ © Kevin Landwer-Johan

How Important Is Relationship In Photographic Style?

Relationship is the most important item from the two lists above. To truly develop your personal photography style must relate well with your subject. This is true for anything you chose to photograph. Whether you photograph landscapes, flowers, buildings or your partner, how you relate shapes your photos.

Photograph a person you have no relationship with and photograph someone you know well. Each portrait will look quite different. Even if they are taken in the same location with the same lighting. How you relate to your subject is reflected by them into your camera lens.

The more you know your subject and the more you know about it, determines a lot about how you view it. If you like photographing dogs, becoming a dog expert will help you take better photos. If you have your own dog, you’ll build up a relationship with it. Then you can become skilled at knowing when and how it’s best to photograph it.

Any top photographer knows their subject material intimately. The best sports photographers know their game. The know the players and how the teams work together. Landscape photographers understand when light will illuminate locations in the most interesting way. Photographers who like to take pictures of people will be comfortable to communicate. They will get to know their subjects, even a little. They understand how vital it is to connect with their subjects to be able to make a pleasing portrait.

Develop Your Personal Photography Style​ Portfolio of KevinLJ © Kevin Landwer-Johan
David Hockney inspired photomontage.

What Do You Find Meaningful?

Choosing to photograph things you find meaningful will help you to develop your personal photography style. Subjects you enjoy will hold your interest and attention longer. Picking a topic to photograph often you need to have a good feeling about it.

You might choose something you like the look of and then really build an interest in. If you find you are not able to do this, it may be best to pick something else to take pictures of. Feeling good when you are using your camera will develop your style.

Meaningful subjects will draw you in. They will entice you to want to learn more about them so you can make more interesting photos. Think about your favorite photography subjects frequently. It will become clear how you can photograph them in different, dynamic ways.

Develop Your Personal Photography Style​ Portfolio of KevinLJ © Kevin Landwer-Johan

What’s Your Purpose? Why Do You Photograph?

Ask yourself what purpose you have taking photos before each time you push the shutter release. Understanding why you take photos will influence your photography style. Having a clear purpose shapes the way you photographs look.

What makes a particular subject interesting to you? What attracts you to compose it and capture an image of it? Or a series of images of it? Thinking about why you are taking photos helps you to build your understanding of what you are doing and why you are doing it.

Consider why you find your photos interesting. What is it about them that keeps you wanting to stay focused on the same type of subject? Build this depth of understanding in to your photography and you will find it influencing how your photos look. You will notice this mostly when you work on projects over a long period of time.

End purpose for your photography is good to keep in mind. How will you share or display the photos you take? This can have an influence on the style of images you produce.

Develop Your Personal Photography Style​ © Kevin Landwer-Johan Karen Men Portrait Thailand
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 105mm, Settings: f6.3, 1/200 sec, ISO 400

Does Your Photography Express Who You Are?

Gravitate towards photographing subjects you feel good about. Doing this will help you see how your personal photography style develops. The things you enjoy in life help shape who you are. We make creative choices based on feelings. What we like, what we don’t like, are often emotionally motivated decisions.

What you photograph and how you photograph these things will be influenced by how you feel. Be conscious that what you feel affects your personal photography style. Being aware of how you are feeling when you are taking photos will help shape the way your images look. The more appreciative you are of the effect of your feelings in your photography, the more you’ll begin to shape your personal style.

Experiment with various techniques to discover which ones you like the most. Be mindful of your emotions and how you feel looking at photos you’ve made using different techniques. This will also help develop your personal photography style.  

Seek to understand what makes photographs interesting to you. Do you like happy, light photos? Are darker, more moody images your preference? Some people appreciate technical qualities more than others. Others love to see a sense of mystery in a photo and have little interest in technical perfection. Being aware of what you like and what you don’t like in pictures will help shape the way you take them.

Portfolio of KevinLJ © Kevin Landwer-Johan Lahu Smoker
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 105mm, Settings: f5.6, 1/200 sec, ISO 400

Do You Combine Subject, Technique and Intuition?

So much of what’s taught as photography is mostly camera technique and composition. Photography is so much more.

Combine your chosen subject with your favorite camera techniques. Create strong compositions and use a good dose of intuition. This way you will truly be developing your personal photography style. Concentrating too much on camera technique creates photos lacking creative flare. Don’t lean too much on your feelings only. Disregarding technical standards usually results in lots of blurriness.

Discovering a subject you are excited to photograph is wonderful. Knowing how to control your camera to take sharp, well exposed and composed photos is important. Knowledge of your subject and an intimate connection with it will enable you to take more meaningful photos. No matter what your subject is.

Portfolio of KevinLJ © Kevin Landwer-Johan Akha Friends
Camera: Nikon D700, Lens: 105mm, Settings: f5.6, 1/200 sec, ISO 400

Subject

In my previous article, ‘How To Know What To Take Photos Of’, I wrote extensively about the subject of your photos. I gave some direction and guidance about how to discover subjects you’d enjoy photographing over time.

Your subject material is personal. Figure out what you enjoy photographing the most. Make a habit of it. This is a starting point for developing personal photography style. If you don’t know what to photograph you are a long way from style.

Stick with a few subjects you love to photograph and do so more than occasionally. Build up experience and you’ll begin to experiment. This will lead to more innovative techniques as you become more familiar with what you’re taking pictures of.

If you haven’t read ‘How To Know What To Take Photos Of’, I recommend you do. It will help you find subjects that you can build ongoing photography projects on.

Tuktuk Montage Portfolio of KevinLJ © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Technique

Good camera technique comes through study and practice. Not many photographers seem to practice.

It’s easy to sit down to read a book or watch some videos about photography. Next time you’re out with your camera you might think to use some new techniques you learned. Do you get a good grasp of a new idea if you use it just once or twice? Not really.

Practicing what you learn requires repetition and concentration. Doing the same action over and over will cement it into your subconscious. Eventually you will not need to focus much of your attention on that thing. Someone learning to play piano must play scales over and over again to become proficient. A photographer also must practice the essentials of camera craft.

Beauty Mirror Montage Portfolio of KevinLJ © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Intuition

Once you’ve found a subject you love to photograph and are confident using your camera, intuition will be more prominent in your photography. While you’re still unsure about your subject and your camera, this is where your mind will focus. Once you’re comfortable with these things your mind is more open to creative thoughts.

There are many ways to stimulate intuition and creative thinking. Most of them have nothing to do directly with photography. For that reason you don’t see much teaching about them in photography books, courses or videos.

  • Prayer
  • Meditation
  • Long walks alone
  • Cycling
  • Gardening
  • Music
  • Photographs
  • Other art forms

These are some things that can stimulate intuition. Seek it, in a relaxed manner, and you will find it. We are all creative. I believe we are created to be creative. It’s in each one of us. Too often we’re too busy and too distracted in life to discover it.

Learn to concentrate on what you are photographing. Combine good camera skills, dedication and patience. The more you can do this, the more creative your photography will become.

Portfolio of KevinLJ © Kevin Landwer-Johan Night Tricycle Taxi Chiang Mai Thailand
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 35mm, Settings: f9, 4 sec, ISO 100

Experimentation Is Key

You need to step outside your comfort zone to develop your personal photograph style. You must experiment with new ideas and techniques to discover more of what you like and what you are good at.

I never liked to photograph people when I started taking photos. I was not at all comfortable pointing my camera at people, even when I knew them. Now, when I am asked what type of photography I enjoy the most, I say ‘people’. I had to step outside my comfort zone to find what I love to photograph. It was a long journey, but it’s been incredible. So much so I am writing a book about the experience and encouraging other shy photographers how to photograph people.

Push yourself beyond what you would normally do. Not too far or too fast, but in a planned and determined manner. Experimentation with different camera gear and techniques can help you discover new ways of seeing your subject.

Portfolio of KevinLJ © Kevin Landwer-Johan Monk in a Saamlor
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 35mm, Settings: f4.5, 1/200 sec, ISO 400

Here are a few photography ideas for you to experiment with:

  • Different perspectives
  • Vertical and Horizontal
  • Black and White
  • Slow and fast shutter speeds
  • Wide and narrow apertures
  • Different lighting conditions
  • High and low contrast
  • Minimalist compositions
  • Indoors, outdoors
  • Use flash or a reflector
  • Use film
Portfolio of KevinLJ © Kevin Landwer-Johan Cycle Taxi Shadow
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 35mm, Settings: f4, 1/320 sec, ISO 100

You Can’t Copy Style – You Have To Steal It

“Good artists copy; great artists steal.” This quote has been ascribed to Pablo Picasso, one of the most innovative artists of all time.

You can’t copy style. You must ‘steal’ it and make it your own. Those things which inspire you in the work of other photographers are made more real in your own work when they become yours.

Think of the photographers work you admire the most. Learn about them and how they produce their photos. Understand what drives them and what makes them successful. You’ll probably find they have drawn inspiration and influence from others along the way. Most artists do. According to Picasso, the best ones take it seriously.

If all you ever do is seek to imitate a photographer, method or style, it will never be unique. Having style is very personal. It’s style because it’s an expression of who you are and how you photograph the world around you.

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