Glimpses: What Is Style?

In talking with a lot of newer photographers over the years, the question of style has come up over and over.  What is their style?  How will they recognize it?  How will they know when they've spent enough time copying what other people have already done, and when it's time to take that foundation and build in novel directions?

I imagine that the answers that I and others have offered haven't ever felt particularly satisfying: You'll know it when you see it.  Eventually, something will call to you in a way that feels different from anything else you might have experienced recently.  At some point, you might find yourself drawn to create something in the world that seems obvious, but that you haven't seen others do quite how you wish it were done.

Follow that urge!  Sometimes, style is making the decisions that seem obvious to you, even if other people don't see in the same way.

For me, I like putting things in boxes.  Or really, in a frame of any kind of shape.  I don't know why.  I just know that when I see the perfect subject in the perfect frame, I have to take a picture.

And sometimes when I have the perfect subject, I try to find the perfect frame for it.  Maybe the frame is only two lines?  Still feels right for me.

And sometimes when the subject feels extra tiny, the shot feels extra right.

When I look at this picture, I just want to give it a big hug.  Again, I don't know why; I just answer to what calls to me.

A challenge that I struggle with is that often, what calls to you isn't exactly what makes sense for other people, or in other contexts.  And it usually feels unclear exactly how to balance stylistic choices with pragmatic ones.  How far does it make sense to compromise, and when does it stop feeling like my own work and vision?  Where's the line between "my work" and just "work that I've done"?

For instance, I love relatively small subjects in wide open vistas.  But those don't work well on Instagram.  So by and large, I crop way more than I'd like, and/or the posts that feel more like what I'd prefer don't do so well.

What to do?  I don't know.  I mean, I don't have all the answers.  But style can be difficult sometimes, and it's not always easy to know when the style should evolve, versus when it's time to find a different audience.

Another common refrain is that, in many cases, execution lags behind vision.

Sometimes it can take months or years of uninspiring pictures to get to the point of being proud of one's own work, and even then, it can feel like something that's "solid," but not "special."  Like, "this makes sense and I did a good job," but not "I feel in love with this work that I did."

And then, there's a while feeling… stuck… and unsure what to do about it.  Of being bored of what you're shooting, and not sure how to change that.  There can be a lot of existential frustration about, like, why it even makes any sense to put so much time and effort into an activity that doesn't feel particularly rewarding.

For me, that point is its own milestone.  Because that's when it's easiest to notice the glimpses of color amidst the seemingly endless gray clouds.  The flashes of brilliance in the darkness.  The sometimes-distant peaks that somehow make the time and effort feel worthwhile again.

Of course, usually those distant peaks are still distant.  But at least there's some direction now.  It might take some time to figure out how to capture a hummingbird in the perfect frame, but you can get there.  And the feeling of finally creating something that you love is… amazing.  And even then, it might not be perfect.  But photography is a journey, not a destination.

Actually, look.  What I'm trying to tell you is that style is joy.  Style is joy.

And when you find that same joy in new places, pay attention.



Hey, it's me! I’ve been a documentary photographer for 17 yrs, software engineer for even longer, and plenty of other things in between.