What’s your Photographic Style?

What’s your Photographic Style?

Today I want to talk a little about style. Periodically I poke around the web and have a look at what other people (both pros and amateurs) are doing in regards to portraits and I’ve been seeing something that has me feeling a little disappointed. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m seeing a lot of technically fantastic portraits that don’t seem to have any soul to them. I’m not going to point to any examples, but those of us in the business who look at a lot of images all the time, sometimes the images that are lacking can stick out in a way that is more glaring than it might be to the (for lack of a better word) uneducated.

Style. I’m not talking about clothes, or fashion, or what’s popular. I’m talking about finding the essence of the subject  which many of the images I’m seeing lately are lacking. You can have perfect focus on the upper eyelid, perfect light metering, and incredible depth of field and still have a portrait fall flat. It doesn’t embody a certain mood. It doesn’t evoke a feeling, possibly from a personal experience. It doesn’t have that special sauce.

If you don’t bring that special sauce to your portraiture, then you’ve failed, and no amount of  “likes” or Facebook praise will fix it.

How do you add style, you ask? That’s entirely up to the photographer. Everyone is a little different from the next. Every photographer has his or her story as an individual, and the way I look at portraiture – the image is as much about the subject of the portrait as it is about one who is making it. That is why photography is an art, and not merely a recipe. Take a dozen experienced shooters and one model, you will undoubtedly get a dozen very different final images. On the technical side, it all starts with equipment choice (i.e.. camera type, lens choice, maybe filters, etc), followed by choice of aperture, focus and exposure, and finally – editing.

All too often I’m seeing this as the whole process, but it’s really only a part of it. The other half is supremely important: get the personality. This means talking, joking, telling a story or asking questions to get the subject to relax, open up, and become expressive. This is where the personality will come out of your subject – when a connection is made and it becomes personal to you – the photographer. You aren’t trying to make a 2D image of Homo sapiens, you are trying to portray who that person is as an individual, unique in the world. If done right, there should be a twinkle in the eye, and completely open expression (if desired), and an honesty that radiates from the image itself.

We aren’t done – yet.

The final part on the one-two punch is editing. This too is vastly different from shooter to shooter, and is an extension of actually taking the photo. These days we are the creator and developer – not just the camera operator, and in my opinion it is the very best thing about the digital age. It enables us to go to places never dreamed possible in the days of shooting film. A good editor can take the mood and feeling of the portrait and enhance it in any way he or she wants. A great editor can make a fantastic portrait even better. Again, the editing can be technically brilliant in regards to level, curves, histogram reading, etc. – but if it doesn’t further improve the image’s impact, then it lessens its worth and detracts from the original endeavor to make a great portrait.

Rich Leighton
April 6, 2012

About The Author

Pro photographer, writer, master naturalist, Florida native in the PNW, lucky husband, father of two boys, big hockey and soccer fan, and native orchid hunter.

Comments (5)

  • Robert

    The one thing that really
    bothers me about the style of ‘professional photography’ now is how people that
    take flat, bland, lifeless photos of people/subjects seem to be the ones that
    get all the praise and attention and the work and those that’ break all the
    rules’ and create photos that have artistic quality to them get ‘tossed aside’.
    I feel the biggest thing that has caused this ‘just good enough is the best’
    mentality is the digital camera. Digital cameras have destroyed photography,
    and I do not see how anyone that uses one as their main tool can call
    themselves a “professional photographer”, digital camera’s are for armatures.
    The only exception to this, where digital has a quality that gives it a desirable
    purpose, is photojournalism. Digital cameras don’t take photographs, they
    capture images. They are the modern Polaroid, you get a crappy photo now
    instead of a good one tomorrow (or in a few hours). And you don’t have to know
    what your doing because you can just change things until it looks like what you
    want and the Photoshop it to death to ‘tune it in’. I do think pro
    photographers should have a digital camera, there are times when one will be
    needed, but I think true professional photographers have a ‘film first, digital
    only when necessary’ mentality.

    So how to develop a
    ‘style’? There are three things one should do to develop a style of photography
    that captures a subject in ways that are as unique as the situation allows and
    that separates them from what everyone else is doing. The first is everything
    you’ve learned from others, whether in school or reading books or articles, are
    things you should never do. The second is to shoot film. The third is use
    filters. Filters are more relevant to thing photography than people
    photography, but can be used with people too.

    These three things will get
    someone back to the root of photography, capturing the power of light on a two
    dimensional substrate. Most important is they will make you think about what you’re
    doing when you do it, not think ‘I’ll make it look right with photoshop’. And
    the use of filters is very important, the right filter used properly can make
    dramatic changes to a photograph. And with the less latitude than positive film
    characteristics of digital camera’ they can be even more important in digital
    work than film.

  • Robyn Hughey Wing

    i love every word!! 

  • Brian

    Great post Richard.  You’re absolutely right that most people miss the emotional connection that the photographer and the subject/model make at the moment you decide to press the shutter.  The  technical side of things is important but the emotion is what takes a good picture to great!  I wrote similar post abut a year ago on the same subject.  If you don’t mind I’d like to post the link to it: http://goo.gl/LXkOq  It is relevant to your post.

    Keep up the amazing work.

  • Ineta

    Love
    the post and the photo of your son is made for perfection. Love his expression and mood in the picture!
    In fashion world, I see much of essence of models missing. The model can wear the most beautiful clothes, but if there is a blank stare, there is no life in the photo, making all unappealing. Photographers do not realize that a person makes a dress, not dress makes a person. Capturing that special essence, a photographer gives something to that person and world to see: a spark, a moment in time, contemplation, a certain emotion. The photo is not about pressing a button and go. It is about understanding the subject and revealing something about that person that only you, as a photographer sees, and the person feels.

  • RichLeighton

    You are exactly right Ineta, and you expressed it perfectly!

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