I’m sure you have seen lots of articles advising you to find your photographic. These same articles probably also frequently encourage you not to copy other photographers. In fact, I’ve even shared videos and other articles on this website of this nature.
But there is a danger in trying to find your photography style too soon. And there’s also a temptation to try to rush the process, perhaps before you’re ready. In this article, I want to explain why I think that trying to find your photography style too soon may be bad advice for many people and could be holding you back.
The Learning Process
Stop thinking about photography for a moment and think about how we learn as human beings.
When young, we typically learn by watching and imitating those around us like our parents. Even when we go to school, although teachers teach us, we tend to mimic the behaviour of others. This even carries on into later life, which is important, because it’s a natural learning process.
Now think about photography and how we typically learn. You may start by reading books and magazines about the technical aspects of the camera. Perhaps you them experiment and learn through trial and error. Maybe you watch a video two on YouTube (I hope so).
This is all great, but what’s missing is the important process of imitating others. This is an essential step in developing your own photographic style and you shouldn’t ignore it.
The Case for Copying
So, what can we do to mimic other photographers to learn and improve our photography? Well, there are a couple of things.
First, we can review the work of other photographers who were better than we are.
Now the way to work out if another photographer is better than we are is not by their popularity, or some arbitrary judge tells us they are the best. No, what we need to find are images by photographers that we naturally aspire to copy. These are the images that we should learn from. It doesn’t matter is who took them, just that we think there is something special about them that we want to reproduce for ourselves.
The next step is to review these images. Not by thinking wow I would love to have taken that shot. Or even worse, perhaps if I go to that location, I can shoot the same shot. No, what you need to do is analyse the image to understand what it is that makes it so good in our opinion.
As part of this process, think about how the photographer might have captured that image. Did they use a wide-angle lens or a telephoto? Did they use a long shutter speed or a fast shutter speed? How have the range the elements of the frame into a strong composition? How have they used colour and light?
These are all questions we should try to answer when reviewing the images that inspire us most. Even if we don’t know the answer to these questions, considering them helps to develop our own photography.
The second thing to consider goes beyond the technical aspects of taking the photograph. By reviewing a large volume of work that we hold in high regard, we develop our own artistic eye and style. We can even extend our reviewing two genres of photography outside our regular interest. For example, I have an interest in fine art architectural and urban photography even though I shoot landscapes. Over the years I’ve seen many great examples of images in different genres. What often struck me is the way these images use light and it’s that use of light that I try to emulate in my landscape work.
Steal Like an Artist
I’m sure you have heard the phrase “steal like an artist”; there’s even a book with the title. The reason the phrases so popular is because it’s true. Artists throughout the ages have copied from each other.
Think about the impressionist art movement and many of those famous painters like Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, and Cézanne. The work of these painters is now held in exceptionally high regard yet that wasn’t always the case. In fact, they were often criticised in the media of the time for their new impressionist style.
If you now look back at their paintings of that time, you find that they also share something other than what we know as an impressionist style. Many of them depict similar or even the same scenes. The reason is that many of these great artists knew and were friends with each other. Often, they even painted together in the same locations. Despite this, their paintings are all highly regarded, even when they show the same scene.
These artists learned by emulating what they liked about each other’s styles. They even worked together to develop their skills.
Once the impressionist movement caught on, it spread quickly to artists beyond the Paris scene. But had those artists instead applied today’s popular wisdom of “develop your own style”, we wouldn’t have Impressionism in art. Artists would instead have tried to develop different styles rather than creating impressionism.
Remember, it’s extremely hard to develop a completely new style and it happens very infrequently. Worse still, it may not even become a recognised style until after you are long gone.
It’s much better to stand on the shoulders of giants and refine what you learn from them. This is possibly the best advice for someone relatively new to photography.
Learn what you like to photograph. Research the existing photography and photographers in those genres. Analyse and appreciate their approach and then try to incorporate some of that into your own work. You will never be able to copy what they do but you can allow it to influence your own style. This is how you find your photographic style.
Now read this article if you want to improve your landscape photography.
About the Author
Robin Whalley is a UK-based landscape photographer, writer, and educator. He is the founder of Lenscraft.co.uk, a website with free learning resources for photographers. But you’ll also find his work on YouTube, read his thoughts on The Lightweight Photographer Blog, and view his videos on Lenscraft online training. This article was also published here and shared with permission.