I always wanted to find my “style” in photography, and I think I’ve found it.
I. Your style will always be in flux.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice.” – Heraclitus
First of all, know that your style is constantly in flux. Constantly changing and evolving. Just like animal species, trees, and nature.
For example, a tree never stays the same. It twists, turns, digs its roots deeper, and extends its arms wherever the light is. A tree that isn’t constantly growing is dying.
You are the tree. You are constantly gaining nutrition from the soil, and growing and twisting your branches in different ways.
Your soil is art. You can learn from the masters of photography, cubist painters, hip hop artists, poets, and philosophers.
Your growth as a photographer and artist is steady, and might take you decades, or centuries.
II. Evolve or die.
For example, the photographer I was ten years ago is very different from the photographer I am today.
If you want to have one style for your entire life, you will die.
For example, Henri Cartier-Bresson just kept doing his black and white “decisive moment” street photography for over 20 years, and I think he just got bored. He picked up painting and drawing instead.
Rather, Josef Koudelka kept evolving. He put away his 25mm lens after his “Gypsies” project, and started to shoot 35mm and 50mm for his “Exiles” book. And now, he put away the Leica, and shoots panoramic photos.
Martin Parr started off black and white photography, but evolved to color.
If you constantly grow, evolve, and change, realize you’re going to contradict yourself. You’re gonna “flip flop” on certain beliefs, like Eric Kim. But that’s what is gonna help you constantly grow.
III. Evolve to become stronger.
An animal species according to Charles Darwin would die off if it didn’t constantly evolve. We need to grow stronger, faster, and smarter. Humans took over the world, because we got lucky– we evolved our brains and hands, until we could build tools, and overtake the tyranny of nature.
IV. Follow your gut.
To evolve as a photographer, follow your gut and intuition. Try to experiment with different lenses, tools, cameras, formats, and approaches.
For me, I started off shooting candid street photography and then evolved to shooting close up street portraits. I shot film, 35mm and medium format, and smartphone photography. I shot black and white and color. I just follow my gut– whenever I get bored with a certain type of photography, I just move on.
So the lesson is this:
When you’re bored of photography, just try something new.
V. Try shooting film.
This is why I’m so excited for FILM NOTES: a lot of us are sick and tired of more megapixels, and more problems. Film photography has actually re-invigorated my passion for digital photography. As I write these lines, I’m shooting with a digital Ricoh GR II camera, with my film Leica MP enjoying company back in Los Angeles at Cindy’s family’s house. Shooting film has helped me appreciate the difficulty of photography more, the value of an image, and the empowering ability of photography. I genuinely believe that the digital Ricoh GR is the best digital camera ever made. Then the iPhone.
VI. Practical photography assignments.
If you’re bored in photography, trying out assignments is a good way to break out of your rut. For example, some assignments from STREET NOTES:
- Creative constraint: only shoot with an iPhone or phone for a month.
- Creative constraint 2: only shoot photos in your home for a week.
- Creative constraint 3: only shoot a block from your house for a month, and publish your best 10 photos.
From FILM NOTES, some assignments:
- Shoot 1 roll of film a day, everyday, for 7 days straight. Then publish your favorite 7 photos.
- Experiment pushing your film to ISO 1600.
- Try out medium-format film for a month, and publish your favorite 3 photos.
There is no right or wrong in photography in finding your own style– it is all about experimenting, and avoiding boredom.
VII. You are a movie director
See yourself as a movie director. Your core philosophy stays the same, like Quentin Terentino’s cynical style, but your aesthetics, and plots might change.
For example, I’m always interested in human faces and emotions. But the aesthetics often changes– sometimes I shoot black and white and sometimes in color. Sometimes with a flash and sometimes without.
VIII. How to create a signature style
The two things you want to pay attention to, to create a “signature” style is:
- Aesthetic consistency: how your photos look (all your photos within a single project are all black and white or color, or all digital or all film)
- Subject-matter consistency: if you’re doing a project on suits, only include men in suits or women in suits in your project.
Also a practical tip: balance consistency and variety.
For example, you might stay consistent with the subject matter you photograph (men in suits), but add variety in the types of photos you make.
For example in my “Suits” project, I only photograph men in suits. But some of them are shot close some far. Some with flash, some without. A variety of facial expressions, and body language.
The secret to success as a photographer: avoid boring your viewer, and avoid boring yourself.
To sum up, style is overrated in photography. To be honest, just avoid boredom. Be like a big ass kid, with your visual jungle gym and your camera is your toy.
Study children. If they’re bored with a game or a toy, they just move on.
A child doesn’t care about their “style” in their water color paintings, or their drawings. They just follow their own curiosity, and do it for “autotelic” reasons (they don’t seek to impress others, they just do it for themselves).
Just have fun.