If you have begun to experiment with post-production and image editing, you may be excited (or overwhelmed) by the limitless options that exist for image adjustment. Contrast, curves, colour adjustments and filters are just some of the tools that exist to help you enhance your photographs.
With so many choices, it can be hard to know where to begin, or which 'looks' to explore. This can sometimes lead new photographers to use post-production like a buffet; trying a little bit of everything or overly editing their images, rather than sticking with one option or 'look.' If you are guilty of having mismatched aesthetics in your "Edited" folder, then you are probably yet to discover your visual style.
What is style?
Your style helps to define your photography, and helps others to recognise your work. You could think of style as your visual signature, and for this reason, consistency is important. Think of some well-known photographers and their work. How can you tell, instantly, that an image was taken by Ansel Adams, or Jill Greenberg? Both photographers have a very distinct style, in terms of shooting, lighting and editing. Ansel’s strong, sharp, black and white photos and Jill’s heavily manipulated, high contrast portraits can easily be identified from a selection of images, even if their names are not attached. This is because their aesthetics have been refined over time, to produce their signature looks that they are known for.
Having a style helps people to identify your work, and sets you apart from other photographers. Your style will most likely be influenced by the type of photography you do, your subject matter, and your post-processing. If you sell your work (either as art, or commercial commissions), then potential clients may choose you over another photographer because of the style shown in your portfolio. For example, a family looking to book you as a portrait photographer might love your vintage, film-like finish, or a fashion label might be drawn to your saturated, punchy colours. This is why consistency is important, because clients who hire you because of a certain style or aesthetic will expect you to provide them with images with the same look.
Image taken by Teresa Micheile Henderson
How to develop a 'style'
Do you know what your visual style is? If you are a new photographer, you may not have one yet, and this is fine. As you continue to shoot and edit, you will discover what aesthetics suit your work best, and your style will develop naturally.
If you aren't sure where to begin, look at the work of some of your favourite photographers and take note of the aspects of their style that you admire. Are you drawn to the light, airy feel and pastel colours of their images? Or is it the bold contrast and black and white treatment that makes their photographs striking? Consider how you could start to apply similar treatments to your own photos. The key here is to use your favourite photographers as a source of inspiration, rather than creating an exact replica of their work. Start by incorporating one element of their work into your own, and then creating a point of difference by experimenting. If you use multiple photographers as inspiration, and combine various aspects or aesthetics from each one, you’ll be be able to start developing your own unique look.
Another way to begin to develop your style is to start with presets and actions. Presets and actions are a collection of pre-determined settings that can give your image a certain look or feel. Think of them like 'instant filters,' similar to those on social media sites like Instagram. They are a great way to quickly see what your photos will look like with different treatments, and can be a fantastic starting point if you have no idea which direction you want to take your work. But don't be tempted to just apply a preset to your image and be done with it; make some adjustments to the preset to tailor it to suit your images. For example, you might really like the desaturation and centre-weighted vignetting of one preset, but find that the contrast levels are too harsh. In this instance, you could use the preset as a starting point, and adjust the contrast to better suit your desired outcome.
It's important not to live in a bubble when developing your own style; you should constantly be researching the work of other photographers, and surrounding yourself with visual stimulation. This way, you’ll remain inspired, and your style won't become stale. While you do want to keep consistency in your work, it's always a good idea to be open to new techniques or influences. As photographers, we are very close to our work, and it’s sometimes hard to look at it objectively. Receiving feedback from peers, clients and friends will help you to accelerate the development of your aesthetic.
Image taken by Media Novak
Why is style important?
So why is it important to keep your style consistent? As we discussed, consistency helps to "build your brand," and develop your individual aesthetic. A mismatch of editing styles, particularly within the same shoot, can may you look indecisive and unprofessional. For example, having a portrait session with an erratic collection of colour, black and white, sepia, cross-processed, and pastel-toned images will likely confuse the client, as the images are not visually cohesive. Trying to explore too many options within the same shoot results in inconsistency. Try to develop one aesthetic per shoot and stick to it, to make the images flow and look like they belong together. The same goes for cropping and aspect ratios. Try to stick to one or two different 'crops' (eg: 5x4 and a panoramic ratio) to avoid your series looking disjointed.
Of course, it’s completely normal (and expected!) for your style to change over time. If it didn't you wouldn't be learning or growing as a photographer. Your aesthetic will constantly develop and adapt as you refine your technique and creative eye. Have fun experimenting, and don't feel pressured to define your style too quickly - let yourself explore and develop organically, and you’ll attract clients who truly appreciate your aesthetic.