How To Discover And Cultivate Your Photographic Style

The journey to finding your photographic style is different for everyone. For some it comes easily and they fall into it naturally. For others it takes longer and is more of a struggle. I was one of the photographers who struggled. My style did not come naturally and it was a source of frustration for a long time. I was trying too hard to be like everyone else, I wasn’t paying attention to who I was as a photographer. Once I let go of the idea of fitting myself into someone else’s style, I was able to really look at who I was as an artist and what I truly love.  Only then did my style truly develop.

Over the past couple of years I have served as a mentor to several up and coming photographers, helping them create a brand and a business they can be proud of. During these mentoring sessions we cover several topics, however, one we spend quite a bit of time on is defining our own style. I walk them through some of the steps I took that helped me find my style, and today I am going to share a few of them with you.

Photo by Kendra Swalls
Photo by Kendra Swalls

1. Take a Look at Yourself

What are the things you love? What are you drawn to in the world around you? Look through design magazines, fashion magazines, food magazines, and Pinterest boards. Create a style board where you collect all the things you love, then look for a theme that connects them all together.

I am a hands on person so Pinterest didn’t work for me here. When I was developing my style I decided to go old-school. So, I headed down to Wal-Mart and bought a giant poster board. I flipped through magazine after magazine looking for things that caught my attention: home designs, fashion ads, foods, colors, shapes, etc.  I cut out all the things I loved and glued them to my poster board. From this hodge-podge of images I was able to start noticing themes and color palettes–these were the beginning stages of my personal style.

The same idea can be done in a digital format. Pinterest is a great place to start. Create a new board and start pinning things that catch your eye. It might be images from another photographer, but try to limit the number of professional images you pin. Look for other areas of inspiration. Your style is an extension of you, so being confident in who you and are what you love is the first step to defining your photographic style.

Photo by Kendra Swalls
Photo by Kendra Swalls

2. Don’t Play The Comparison Game

I’m not going to lie, this one is hard! I still struggle with this from time to time. I used to have a list a mile long of photography blogs and Facebook pages I followed. I’d spend hours gushing over the work of other photographers only to end up feeling frustrated and discouraged because my work wasn’t like theirs.

Once I realized how much this was hurting my style and my journey, I stopped! I un-subscribed from all those blogs and I un-followed all those photographers. It was like a huge de-cluttering of my life. Finally, I was able to stop worrying about what everyone else was doing and focus on what I was doing.

It’s hard to find your own path when you’re busy strolling down everyone else’s.

Please take note that in no way am I saying you should avoid looking at other photographer’s work all together. I still follow several amazing photographers on social media and encourage you to do the same.

However, there’s a big difference between being inspired by someone else’s work, and letting their work cause you to doubt your own. Which leads me to the next section…

Photo by Kendra Swalls
Photo by Kendra Swalls

3. Don’t Copy

The popular saying, “Imitation is the best form of flattery”, isn’t always the case when it comes to creating art. While Pinterest and other photography websites can be a great source of inspiration, please do not try to copy what someone else has created. (We have all seen the Pinterest Fails, we know it doesn’t turn out well.)

Trying to be something you are not, or trying to fit yourself into a photography style that isn’t really you, will only leave you frustrated and disappointed. Instead of trying to copy what someone else has done, ask yourself what it is about the image that makes you love it. Is it the mood, the colors, the lighting? Take those aspects of their work and incorporate them into your own photography.

For example, I recently attended a workshop with a popular boudoir photographer. During the workshop she shared a photo I fell in love with. It was a beautiful image of a woman sitting in a chair with the light from a nearby window streaming through the blinds and casting stunning shadows.

Instead of taking her work and copying it, I was able to use the inspiration I found in her work to create something completely my own. I started looking at the way the light in my own studio comes through the windows at different times of the day. I watched for shadows and started taking notice of how they could impact my images.

photographic style of kendra swalls
Photo by Kendra Swalls

4. Ask for Help

Do you have a photography tribe? These are the people that understand the photography world and are a sounding board for your thoughts, questions, and ideas. If so, don’t be afraid to ask them for help. If you don’t have a group, I highly recommend you find or create one. Photography can be a lonely business so it’s important to have people you can go to when you need it. Look for photography clubs in your area, connect with people in our forums, and meet new photographers on PhotoBlog you can share with.

Once you have your tribe in place, ask them for help in defining your style. Sometimes we are too close to our own work to really see it. Have a friend look at your portfolio and give you feedback. Ask them to describe your work in three words. You might be surprised at what you learn about yourself.

A few years ago I attended a photography conference that I refer to as the Tipping Point in my photographic style, and my business. At that point I had been shooting a little bit of everything and wasn’t really sure what my style was.

I signed up for a portfolio review with an amazing photographer out of California. She looked at my work and could immediately tell me which type of images I preferred to shoot. She saw something in my photos that I was too close to see. She was able to identify my passions and aspects of my style and my weaknesses. All things I had not noticed before.  Had I not signed up for that class, and had she not taken the time to really walk me through my work, I may not be where I am today.

Photo by Kendra Swalls
Photo by Kendra Swalls

5. Shoot…A Lot

Practice makes perfect and the more you shoot, the more clear your style will become. Start a daily or weekly project.  If you need help thinking of what to shoot, join the Weekly Theme challenges on PhotoBlog. This is a great way to practice different techniques and styles until you find the one that feels the best for you.

Step out of your comfort zone and try new things. My typical workflow during a client session is to get all the “safe” shots first. These are the shots I feel confident in. The ones that I know the client will like and are going to be good enough for the sale. Then I give myself permission to try something new.

Sometimes it means trying out a new lens or a changing up my settings. Other times it’s composition or lighting. One of my favorite things do to is look for new ways to compose an image.  I challenge myself at each session to find a new way to frame my subjects. I look for reflections, leading lines, and architectural designs. These compositions are now part of my photographic style, but never would have been had I not pushed myself to try something new.

Portrait photographer Kendra Swalls style
Photo by Kendra Swalls

6. Be True to You

When it comes down to it, your work is a representation of you. It should reflect your personality and personal style. I have a very close photographer friend, and we get together often to have coffee and chat or set up fun styled sessions to shoot together. We have similar visions for our photography businesses, but we are very different people when it comes to style, both personal and professional.

She is the quiet type who loves to curl up on the couch and read a book while drinking tea. She and her husband spend their weekends at wineries and hosting dinner parties. Her clothing style is more natural and classic with lots of earth tones and simple accessories, and her photographic style reflects her personality. It’s light, airy, timeless and elegant. I used to find myself trying to be more like her, but it just wasn’t me!

My style is more bold and fun. I prefer a dinner out with my friends with lots of laughter and good food. My husband and I spend our weekends outdoors at the lake or sitting around a campfire. My clothing style is a mix of classic and trendy pieces. I like neutral tones with pops of color and fun accessories, and my photographic style reflects that. It’s bright and fun with a touch of class and elegance. I am confident in who I am and what my style is, but it took me a while to get here.

Kendra Swalls photographic style depicted in this image of a bride.
Photo by Kendra Swalls

Homework

The teacher side of me is coming out. I’m going to give you all a little homework assignment to get you started on the path to defining, or refining, your photographic style. Don’t worry, it’s an simple assignment. All you have to do it…

  1. Choose 10 of your favorite images (these can be your own images or a mix of images from other photographers)
  2. Write down 3 words that describe the collection of images as a whole
  3. Use those 3 words as a starting point for your style

Discovering your personal photographic style isn’t as complex as it sounds, you may just have needed a little direction and good place to start. Now that you have that, get out there and start shooting!

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About the author

Kendra Swalls

Kendra Swalls is the owner of Paisley Layne Photography, a premier boutique portrait and wedding studio in the Dallas/Ft Worth area. With a background in education, Kendra incorporates her love for photography with her passion for teaching others through workshops, e-books and tutorials.

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