It’s a common belief that any accomplished artist has their own unique signature style, instantly recognisable at a glance.
Think about your favourite writers, poets, singers or painters. They likely have a strong, personal and distinctive voice throughout their work.
But what about photographers? Is it something we should strive for too?
Put another way, should all your photographs look the same?
This is something I’m been considering the last few months, and have split into three main areas.
We all have favourite subjects to shoot, be it people, flowers, cats, cars, trees or gravestones. Is their any advantage to sticking to one specific subject, or small range of subjects?
You might argue that yes, this would allow you to master one subject and improve your photography.
But then a certain variety might keep your photography more fresh and challenging. How much of a photographer’s overall recognisable look comes from the subjects they choose to shoot?
Personally I think that even if you chose exactly the same subjects for every photograph, this wouldn’t be enough on its own to give your work a distinct style. It might be a factor but only after others.
This is the probably the most elusive and difficult to grasp of the three here. Style for me would mean the type of compositions – how the elements are arranged, how near or far they are, the angles of shooting, the surroundings, what you put in the centre of the image and at the edges, what you leave partially outside.
In this category too is just the emotion or the feel or the atmosphere of the photographs, something that’s as difficult to describe as it is to create.
I think this factor style is more influential in the overall recognisability of your images than your subject choice, but probably not quite as dramatic as the final of the three I’ve identified.
How your photographs look is of course partly defined by the subjects you choose, and your style.
But another significant factor – and perhaps the greatest of all three here – is the combination of aesthetic options you choose.
For example, do you shoot colour or black and white?
If you choose colour, is it vibrant, popping colour – even shifted or cross processed ? Do you prefer keeping it as natural to life as possible? Or muted, bleak and industrial?
If you go with black and white, is it a contrasty look with deep inky blacks and clean sharp whites. Or is ever image a graduation of infinite shades of mid grey? Maybe you use sepia or some other colour tint to your b/w images?
Then there’s the cleanness of the image. Do you like pure crisp images shot at low ISO, or favour a subtle grainy/noisy look at a faster speed? Or super gritty and gnarly high ISO shots that almost become abstract?
Also consider depth of field (DOF).
Do you always shoot with wide angle lenses at small apertures so most of the composition is in sharp focus? Do you often use wide apertures and longer lenses to create razor slice focus planes with everything else disappearing into a smoothly graduated blur?
What about the edges of the photo? Do you like vignetted corners, do you add a Polaroid style frame or border? Or just leave it as it came out of camera?
Any one of these aesthetics elements we’ve considered can drastically alter your overall images. In combination they can be ever more powerful and influential.
Add this to your personal choice of subject and style and the permutation and infinite.
So back to the question we asked at the beginning – should all of your photographs look the same?
If I look back over my best images (ie the ones I felt were good enough to want to archive and share via Flickr), I see quite a lot of similarity between what I’m shooting now and what I was six or eight years ago. You can, I think, clearly see the images were made by the same photographer.
However, in between, I have experimented quite significantly with different cameras, lenses, film, and treatments like redscale, cross processing, using expired film, and playing with LightRoom presets.
I do believe a certain amount of experimentation is healthy and keeps us exploring what we’re capable of, and what we like the look of most.
On the flip side, it is pleasing if someone says they can notice a photograph as yours because of a certain style you’ve developed. It feels like progress, and affirmation that I’m achieving something by making all these hundreds and thousands of images.
It makes me feel more like I’m at the artistic end of photography rather than the camera collector end.
This is one of those questions with no right or wrong answer.
So, fellow photographer, I’m very curious to hear your thoughts. Do you think all of your photographs should look the same? If so, why? If not, why not?
Please share your views in the comments below.
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