A quick glance on any photography forum and you will soon realize that while there are a few photographers who have a clear identifiable style, most photographs are very similar as if cooked in the same pot. As in every discipline, most enthusiasts start out by trying to emulate the work of the great masters. That often translates into copying the style, the compositions even the locations (ever heard the expression “tripod holes”?) that these masters have, well, mastered. However, as you delve deeper into your art, you start wondering where you should go with your photography after you have photographed your favourite icons and followed the footsteps of the Muenchs, Wolfes or Rowells of this world. Even from a professional standpoint, given the intense competition in the field, how do you set yourself apart from the next photographer? So how do you develop your own, unique style? While there is no magic solution or standard answer, here is a little food for thought to help point you in the right direction.
1- Study the work of other artists
You are probably, wondering what on earth I am talking about since I have just said that you have to try and develop your own style. First, when I talk about artists, I mean it in a general sense, not just photographers, but painters, architects and designers. Painters can teach you how they handle light, what makes a good composition. Architects will show you the power of curves, lines and patterns. In the work of designers you can learn how to combine colours to convey your message. By getting acquainted with the work of other artists, you will seamlessly incorporate some of the elements that they use into your own photographs and have a more deliberate and controlled approach to your art.
2- Get off the beaten path
As a landscape photographer, I often find myself drawn to the so-called “photographic icon”. Who hasn’t dreamt of shooting Mesa Arch, Antelope Canyon or Horseshoe bend? While these icons for obvious reasons, our planet has no shortage of stunning, photogenic locations. While most photographers are content with “roadside” photo opportunities, the most rewarding locations are those that are seldom visited or secluded. In addition to coming out with some unique shots, you also get to experience nature at its best. There is nothing more rewarding than waking up in the middle of nowhere, knowing that there is just you and Mother Nature around.
3- Try something different
When I first dabbled into photography all I cared about was landscape, all I shot was landscape. Since I don’t live in photo icon hotzone, I quickly spent the photogenic potential of my area and found myself out of new things to photograph. My next decision proved to be instrumental in developing my skills. As I have better access to urban zones, I thought that I could shoot buildings and urban areas in a self-imposed assignment to improve my eye for lines and patterns. Not only have I discovered an exciting area of photography, but the skills I learned photographing buildings have been central to my landscape/nature photography as well. As I become more apt at capturing patterns in buildings, it became easier to see and frame photo opportunities in nature. That said, you don’t have to change disciplines to “try something different”. All you need to do is get slightly out of your comfort zone, and learn to see the world differently. If you shoot wide-angle scenics exclusively, trade your wide-angle lens for your telephoto or macro lenses and aim for more intimate nature photography. Inversely, if you are more at ease with a telephoto, trade it for a wide-angle.
4- Break the rules
One of the main drivers of uniformity in photographs is our tendency to want to follow rules. Obviously, these rules exist for a reason and do come in handy at times. That said, you have to learn to think outside of the box if you want to take your photography to another level. Your gut tells you to use the rule of thirds? Don’t listen and put your horizon right in the middle. The magic hour only happens at dawn and dusk, right? Does that mean you can’t take amazing shots during the remaining 23 hours of the day? Certainly not! I have seen amazing pictures taken right at noon, others, in the middle of the night. Basically, just keep your mind open for possibilities and don’t restrict yourself simply because it is a “rule”.
5- Take photography workshops
I have been very fortunate to attend an Art Wolfe workshop a few months ago and I have to admit that it has had a tremendous impact on my approach to photography. Again, the idea here is not to go out there and replicate everything your instructor does or tells you. Instead, you should watch and listen carefully to the way he or she approaches their art. It can be really an eye-opening experience when you are looking at a scene that inspires you nothing, and have someone come in and show you five or six different ways to look at it! You may not like everything you are told; in fact, you could even dismiss some of it. However, back on the field, once on your own, you can surprise yourself identifying photo opportunities that you wouldn’t have noticed before.
While I hope these pointers may have been of some help, there is one last element I would like to stress: just remember why you are into this in the first place and make sure you enjoy what you do. Keep the passion alive, and you are sure to succeed in whatever you set your mind to!