On Achieving a Personal Style in Photography

by Dr. Robert. Berdan


Style is a way in which something is said, done, expressed, or performed and it distinguishes one artist’s work from another. Often style becomes recognized as belonging to a particular individual. Developing a unique style is a goal of many ambitious artists whether they are photographers, painters, writers or musicians.  How does one go about creating a style?  I believe if an artist works hard at their craft and narrows down their choices a style will develop naturally out of their preferences. 

Grizzly bear and cub Mussel inlet BC by Robert Berdan ©

Grizzly bears, Mussel Inlet, BC

By preferences I am referring to your passion for a particular subject, the equipment you choose, your film choice, and your approach to photography. Let’s consider some of the options.  The first thing a new photographer has to do is decide which type of camera and format they would like to use or buy. The number of choices in photography today is enormous – you can shoot with a compact camera, single lens reflex (SLR), medium format, or large format camera. Next you will need to decide on whether you want to shoot primarily in black and white or color, or perhaps you may even prefer to combine the two digitally.  Elliot Porter shot both black and white and color, but he is best known for his color work. Then you need to ask yourself do you prefer film where the grain is nearly invisible or do you feel the grain adds mood to your images? If you choose to shoot in color do you prefer vivid saturated colors or more muted color? My own preference is for vivid color that dramatic. I also prefer fine grain most of the time and I like my images to be sharp– thus I usually shoot with a tripod and usually try to shoot with the lowest ISO setting possible. Some photographers prefer to use certain types of filters frequently (e.g. Blue-gold polarizer) and I believe it’s great to experiment with them. However, my current choice of filters is now narrowed down to a circular polarizer and a few neutral density grads (2 stop and 3 stop). I find the use of other filter types to no longer be necessary as I can modify filtration using the computer and an image-editing program with far greater control.

Hidden Lake Glacier National Park - Blue Gold polarizer by Robert Berdan ©

Hidden Lake, Glacier National Park, MT - a blue-gold polarizer was used to turn the reflected light off the lake into a gold color and I desaturated the clouds in Photoshop to remove any hint of color (DM)

Style can also be developed (pun intended) in a darkroom, working on your computer, or in the presentation of your work.  Some photographers prefer to use certain types of photographic paper or toners when printing – again adding to their unique style.  Other artists may choose certain types of frames and matting, other may use the computer to add edge effects. Presentation may be the least important aspect of developing a style, but it is a component. This brings me to the most important element of developing a style – seeing. How and what we see is influenced by our memory, past experience and what we are looking for. This is probably the most challenging aspect of photography to develop. Seeing is not something we do just with our eyes, but with our minds. Numerous photography books discuss exercises that can be used to improve our seeing. I believe the most important elements are passion for your subject and time.  If you enjoy photographing  nature – you need to spend time surrounded by it. If you can’t get out into the field at the moment – look at photographs and paintings by other artists, read books and magazines on photography and on your subject matter.  Also don’t overlook the Internet, you can view thousands of photographer’s portfolios, ask them questions and even discover new locations to shoot.  Finally, know your equipment inside and out – like a musician – the instrument must become an extension of your personality. If you are not confident in using your camera – practice with your camera in your backyard or community and review your camera manual.  Today even professional photographers sometimes carry their camera manuals with them because the number of options and buttons can be overwhelming.  Ultimately, when you are shooting you want to concentrate on seeing, not on operating your camera. 

Great horned owl in front of grain elevator by  Robert Berdan ©

Great Horned Owl in front of Grain Elevator, Mossleigh, AB

Another component of style is the perspective and angle a photographer takes when photographing their subject.  Ask yourself, do you like to shoot your subjects from shoulder level, from the ground looking up, or perhaps you like to shoot pointing down on your subject. Shooting down from a high angle is often effective in commercial work since it duplicates a readers’ perspective. Another technique to draw the viewer into a photograph is to construct each image so that it flows from the bottom to the top or vice versa.  One of the most important elements of a photograph is light. Look at your images and ask whether or not you preferentially take photographs under specific lighting conditions. For photographing with a 4 x 5 camera I prefer soft overcast light especially after a rainfall.  Large format photography also emphasizes texture and detail not apparent when shooting with small formats. View and zoom into the large format images below.

Use the zoomify controls to zoom in on the photograph taken with a large format camera, notice the water droplets
on the leaves and flowers. A 21 Megapixel digital camera can not match a 4 x 5 camera for detail - not yet anyway.

To find out if you have preferences or are on your way to developing a style, pull out your best work and examine it – what do your images have in common?  Do your compositions frequently incorporate square, circular or triangular arrangements?  Is your subject material focused on a few topics or do you photograph many different subjects?  When you begin to identify common elements and strong preferences – you are on your way to developing a personal style.  If you don’t see common elements in your own work – don’t be concerned it takes years of photographing and hard work to develop a style others begin to recognize.  Here are a few suggestions to get you started in developing your own style.

  1. First remember to shoot for yourself – don’t shoot to get someone else’s approval. Camera clubs are great in that they can expose you to many different styles of photography and often offer valuable suggestions to improve the technical qualities of your pictures, but if you want develop a style that is different be selective in what comments you pay attention too.

  2. Try to narrow down your choice of camera equipment, film type and subject matter  - find a few subjects you are really passionate about and concentrate on them for a while and then examine the common elements you applied.

  3. Finally, be open to new ideas, techniques, camera equipment, software – and experiment until you find something that really suits your personality and makes you successful.

A number of artists and photographes have influenced my style. A Canadian landscape photographer from my home town, Midlanc, Ontario named Bud Watson first served as my inspiration. Many other photographers and artists have also influenced me. My favorite artist is Robert Bateman - I love his work and I often try to capture a similar mood in my photographs.

Winter scene with fence and flying snowy owl by Robert Berdan ©

Winter day near Mossleigh, AB (DM)

Most of all  - do as much photography as you can. Style isn’t something you can develop over night; it requires making thousands of images and often takes many years.  If you want to develop a unique style do something that is very different or more simply put Try to drink upstream from the herd “.


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