Aesthetics and Photography
How to Establish a Personal Photographic Style
Part Nine of Ten
Article and Photographs by: Alain Briot
Style has no formula, but it has a secret key.
It is the extension of your personality.
Alain Briot is one of the most successful landscape photographers working
in the U.S. today. He was educated at the Ecole des Beaux Art in Paris,
has a Masters degree in Fine Art, and is currently working on his Phd.
1 - Introduction
Personal style. This term has meant different things to me over the years. When I studied at the Beaux Arts in Paris Personal Style had the feel of something unreachable, the feel of something one sees and finds in museums, the feel of something which others – those who have "made it" and who have been recognized as the masters – possessed. Personal style had the feel of something that students – those who have not made it, those who are studying, trying and working their way up – did not possess.
I was not the only one to think that way. Most Beaux Arts students felt the same. We all struggled with the concept of personal style as well as with the perceived necessity to somehow acquire a personal style. I remember the discussions we had among students first at the Beaux Arts, where I studied painting and drawing, then later at the American Center, also in Paris, where I studied photography. These discussions centered around how we were going to develop a personal style and how this was going to happen. At the time we could not visualize what that style was going to be nor if it was going to be. Our discussions regularly ended with the belief that personal style developed over time, that we had to wait, work at our current projects and expect a unique vision to emerge from our hard work at some point in the future.
Personal style at that time in our lives was a mystery. The masters had it but how they got it was unclear. We knew that time and work were involved. We knew that developing a personal style was important to make each of us unique, help us stand out and acquire a visual presence of our own. But whether that was going to happen or not was a mystery.
2 - Who are we?
During the discussions we had as students we forgot one crucial element: ourselves. We focused on others, on the Masters, on the recognized, the accepted, the artists whose work was collected by museums. What we needed to do was focus on ourselves. We needed to think about what motivated us to study the arts, be it painting, drawing or photography. We needed to focus on our personal history, on the path we wanted to follow. We needed to consider our family and our past and from there move on to consider our expectations and our future. We needed to carefully analyze what we liked and disliked. We needed to make a list, so to speak, of the subjects each of us enjoyed painting and photographing. We needed to become aware of which subjects we were ready to spend hours, days or years working on.
Those subjects were most likely different from those we were asked to work on at school. At the Beaux Arts subjects were used as teaching examples, as exercises designed to have us practice specific skills and understand specific concepts. Yet at the time, as is often the case in school, we couldn't quite separate the two. We were fascinated by our studies more than by our personalities. Our efforts and attention were oriented outwards rather than inwards. Certainly, studying the work of those who have been recognized as masters of their art is important. But when it comes to developing a personal style what matters most is finding out who we are, what we like and dislike and what we want to do with the time we can devote to our chosen medium.
Driftwood and Glowing Sandstone, Antelope Canyon
I love returning to the same locations time and over again to create images different from all those I previously created.
This image of Antelope Canyon was created during my most recent visit, in late Fall 2004.
I had not seen the light effect shown on this photograph prior to that day and had not tried this composition either.
3 - Who am I? I thought this series was about photography!
The questions I listed above are not easy to answer. To some they may appear as having little to do with becoming a better photographer because they are not related to equipment, technique or craft.
Do keep in mind that we are at part 9 of a 10 part article series (if we count "Being an Artist" which I will be writing next). In this series we looked at many aspects of photography in regards to equipment, technique and craft. We studied many ways you can become a better photographer. If you are starting the series with this article you may want to go back and read the 8 previous installments. If you have read the series so far I assume you are ready to learn how you can develop a personal style.
Again, the questions listed above are not easy to answer. This is because we are rarely asked to answer these questions in the context of learning how to improve our photography. In fact, I was not asked to answer these questions when I studied painting and photography in Paris, although my studies were conducted in world-class institutions. In regards to personal style I was asked to study the works of the masters and the history of art, that was all. Fortunately, I come from a city that fosters the arts, has numerous museums and holds world-class exhibitions year round. My studies in art history and my countless visits to museums and galleries have provided me with a broad understanding of art and have allowed me to compare the styles of many different artists. This knowledge has proven invaluable in terms of reflecting upon my own personal style.
However, at the time of my studies in Paris, not once was I asked to consider what I personally liked to paint or photograph, nor why I chose to become a painter or a photographer, nor "who I was" as a person. Why, I really don't know. I assume this is due to how art is taught. Somehow beginning artists are supposed to discover who they are and what they like to paint or photograph over time, through trial and error. This is fine when you have plenty of time on your hands and when the only thing you do is art. But when art is only one of the many aspects of your life, when your time is limited, when you are getting older, or when you need to learn how to develop a personal style, this approach does not work very well.
This article is about helping you develop a personal style. As we will see, there are a number of potential errors one can make when considering what is personal style. In what follows I will try to define personal style by describing what , in my opinion, personal style is and what personal style is not.
4 - A personal style is a unique and personal way of seeing
People don't watch enough. They think. It's not the same thing.
While visiting a street art show last year I was amazed at how many of the exhibiting photographers had merely copied the styles of famous photographers. I surmise they had done so in order to give a unique "quality" to their work and, perhaps, to allow them to stand out among the many other photographers who exhibit at art fairs. Among them I found several "Ansel Adams," several "David Muench," and at least one "Jerry Uelsmann." The show being held in the Southwest there was a large number of landscape photographs on display. But if the subject had been portraiture, wildlife, travel photography or other mainstay photographic subject I believe I would have found a similar attitude in regards to other famous photographers. I do understand that this approach is legitimate from a legal perspective. After all these artists all create original works of art and do not sell copies of images created by the originator of the style they emulate. However, it is difficult (if not impossible) for me to remember these artists for anything but a pale copy of the masters they copy.
At this point you may be wondering what is personal style. The above story is an introduction to a very important statement in regards to personal style, a statement that, for the purpose of this article, I will be using as a working definition for developing a personal style:
Developing a personal style is not copying someone else's style
Developing a personal style is finding who you are
and making your work be the extension of your personality.
Don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with being influenced by another artist's work or by trying to copy or duplicate this other artist's work as part of one's learning process. In fact, making copies of famous paintings was part of the training young painters had to go through. Before visiting art museums became a social activity, museums were mostly visited by art students who set up their easels in the museum’s aisles and proceeded to copy the paintings in front of them. They were not trying to become faussaires i.e. artists who make a living making fake duplicates of famous paintings. They were simply trying to understand how the master composed the piece, selected the colors and applied specific brushstrokes. They were learning by doing, by practicing the craft someone else had mastered before them.
However, there is a difference between making a copy as part of the learning process and making a career out of imitating another artist's work. I believe that personal style is the extension of your personality. In photography I believe that personal style is your personality presented though the photographs that you take. If one merely copies someone else's style one negates his or her own personality.
Linhof Technikardan 4x5, Schneider Super Angulon 75mm f.56, Fuji Provia 100F
I aim at conceiving my own compositions rather than duplicating those other photographers have created before me.
I thought of the composition above during my first visit to this location. While I have seen images of this location by other photographers,
I have not seen this composition done by anyone else as of January 2004.
5 – Choosing a subject is not developing a personal style
Every man's work is always a portrait of himself.
Ansel Adams, Carmel, California, 1979
As we will see later on in this article choosing a subject that you enjoy photographing is part of developing a personal style. For some this is the first step towards developing a personal style.
However choosing a subject that you like to photograph is not similar to developing a personal style. To verify this point one only needs to look at the work of photographers who photograph different subjects while maintain a coherent style across the various subjects they photograph, with allowance made for the specific requirements of each subject.
For example deciding to photograph landscapes is not enough to develop a personal style. Similarly, deciding to photograph Formula One races is not enough to develop a personal style. Just the same, deciding to photograph Alaskan Wildlife is not enough to develop a personal style. You get the idea. To develop a personal style one has to photograph his or her subject of choice in a style that is unlike anyone else, a style that anyone can recognize as being your personal style.
This brings us to the subject of style, and to the difference between subject and style:
Subject is what you photograph
Style is how you photograph it
You can photograph several subjects in the same style
Choosing a subject is answering the question “What do I want to photograph?” Subject choice is about what you photograph.
Choosing a personal style, or rather developing a personal style, is answering the question “How do I want to photograph my chosen subject?” Style is about how you photograph.
Developing a personal style is not the same as choosing a subject. These are two different choices. The former is easy, the later is difficult. If you have not chosen a subject yet I recommend you do so before considering what your personal style might be. Of course doing things in this order is not an absolute requirement. One can develop a personal style while shooting a variety of subjects, without having a particular predilection for any of them. However, if you want to set up a structured environment in which to develop your personal style, choosing a subject first will make things a lot easier.
As I said earlier, you can photograph different subjects with the same style. This means that potentially you can develop a personal style shooting a variety of different subjects at the same time. While this is feasible, and may result in success in terms of finding a personal style, it will also make things more complicated, because you will have to think about how you are going to photograph several entirely different subjects. I therefore also recommend that you work with only one subject while developing a personal style.
6 - Choosing a subject is not the same as choosing a genre
In the previous section we learned that subject is what you photograph and that style is how you photograph it.
One more concept needs to be introduced, and that is genre. Genre, in art, is another term for art movement. For example Impressionism is an art movement and therefore a genre. So is Surrealism, Dadaism, Cubism and any other art movement.
Genre defines how you look at your subject
from the perspective of the art movement you embrace
For example impressionism seeks to express how it feels to be at a specific location, or how it feels to be engaged in a specific activity. For a surrealist painter the goal is not to reproduce reality in its minute details. The goal is to bring forth that aspect of reality which will cause an emotional reaction in the audience when they look at the painting in front of them. Different techniques have been developed by surrealist painters to achieve this goal including pointillism, in which dots of colors rather than brushstrokes are used, expressive brushstrokes, which show as much the painter’s gestures as they show the subject depicted in the painting, and saturated colors juxtaposed in a calculated manner so as to create a different impression when the painting is viewed close by or from a distance.
How does this relate to photography and to landscape photography in particular? For one, genres – photographic movements in this instance – are part of photography just as much as they are part of painting and other visual arts. The f.64 group of photography is one of the most famous photographic movements. If you embrace this movement, this genre, you will seek to emulate its masters, be it Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Willard Van Dyke, Imogen Cunningham, Sonya Noskowiak, John Paul Edwards and others. The tenets of this movement, also known as Straight or Pure Photography, were defined as being the elimination of any "qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form." In practice f.64 photographs are characterized by lack of image manipulation, careful rendering of delicate tonalities and image details, extreme depth of field, and the refusal to use softening filters or lenses, heavily textured papers and printing or retouching processes which involved altering the overall appearance of the photographic image.
The decision not to use softening filters was one of the major tenets of f.64, which was created as a reaction towards the Pictorialist movement. The pictorialist genre endorsed the use of soft lenses and diffusing filters in order to give the image a soft, poetic look. The pictorialists also endorsed the use of veils, setups, props and other artifices, either in the studio or outdoors including in wilderness settings. f.64 endorsed photographing the subject in its natural state, as it was found, without altering it in any way.
Notice that a genre is subject independent. What is defined by it is an approach, a methodology, a way of seeing and representing the world. What is represented within this genre is up to the artist. In the case of f.64 the subjects chosen by the various members of the movement covered the gamut from landscapes to portraits to nudes to reportage to cityscapes and more. What brought all these subjects and artists together was that they adopted the same genre and thus were part of the same photographic movement.
Do you have to choose a genre? While this is certainly not an obligation your work will sooner or later fit into a specific genre, whether you choose to or not. This is because as we look at various photographs, as we decide which ones we like and don’t like and as we make choices for our own work, we slowly but surely start working within a specific genre. This process is sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious. I am sure that there are numerous black and white photographers out there who are not aware of the influence f.64 had on them nor that their work is really part of that genre.
Personally I do believe it is better to know which genre your work is moving towards or becoming part of. This knowledge will allow you to make informed decisions, including the decision that you do not want to be part of this genre, that you want to depart from it, or that you want to make changes to its set of tenets. For example, a number of contemporary color landscape photographers were originally influenced by f.64 but decided to work in color instead of in black and white. This simple change makes them less recognizable as embracing the f.64 genre. Yet, when one looks closely at their work, besides not working in black and white, every other tenet of f.64 is present: small apertures are used (the tenet behind the adoption of the name f.64), depth of field is carried throughout the image and softening or diffusing filters are not used. Notice that although created by a group of black and white photographers there is no statement that f.64’s Straight Photography approach has to be done in black and white.
Clearing Snow Storm over Spiderock, Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Hasselblad SWCM-CF, Zeiss Biogon 38mm f.3.5, Fuji Velvia 50
My first and foremost passion is the grand landscape and I seek to be out there when unique events take place so I can both experience and photograph them.
This photograph of Spiderock, taken just as a winter storm started to clear, represents such a moment.
7 - Personal discovery is not personal style
It is common for artists to discover new ways of creating images, new approaches and new techniques. Often these new approaches or techniques will lead to the creation of images that the artist had never seen or done before.
I have been there several times. First, during my studies at the Beaux Arts where I “discovered” painting techniques and styles which I considered to be breakthroughs in the world of art guaranteed to bring me fame and fortune. Second, when I purchased my first camera and experimented with various lenses, films and darkroom techniques, achieving results that I believed guaranteed me posterity and worldwide fame.
I was wrong in both instances, a fact I was promptly made aware of by my teachers. What I had just discovered had not only been previously discovered by other artists long before me, it had also been elevated to a level of perfection I could only dream of. My teachers recommended that I study the work of these other artists at length and that I not only become able to duplicate their art but also become the world’s expert on their work. Only then would I be able to go beyond what they had discovered and, perhaps, make discoveries of my own.
The same rule applies to any artist working in any medium. This process is part of the journey towards developing a personal style. It is not personal style.
8 - A personal style is a combination of choices
What you photograph, the genre you embrace and how you photograph your subject are part of developing a personal style. In this regard one can say that personal style is the combination of multiple choices made in regards to the equipment you use, the subject you photograph, your personal taste and countless other variables.
To better understand this point let us take a look at how the choices made by two specific photographers have helped define their style. I purposefully selected photographers whose style is fundamentally different to better illustrate my point. For simplicity's sake I divided the variables in five categories: equipment, background, approach, subject and quality of light. I did not include a section on genre as both of them follow a straight photography approach.
If we removed the names of the photographers below and showed the list to a photographer familiar with their work that person could easily guess who these two photographers are. Their personality is apparent in their choice of equipment, subject, approach and light.
Henri Cartier Bresson
- Small, lightweight camera (35mm Leica M)
- Normal or semi wide lens (35mm lens; he often used one lens)
- Black and white roll film – can shoot up to 36 images without reloading
Cartier Bresson was born in the Paris suburb of Pantin. His parents owned a factory and were financially successful. He did not need to work for a living and could focus on his passion for photography. At the same time he had direct contact with the life of the city through the workers who worked for his parents, through living in a working area and through his daily contact with the Parisian environment.
- Camera is used handheld
- His photography is spontaneous
- He moves around fast and works the subject from multiple angles
- He pays close attention to details when composing in the viewfinder because his goal is to create images which will be printed full frame, without any cropping.
- His goal is to capture the "decisive instant", the moment when disparate human and non-human elements in the scene that suddenly come together to form a coherent whole.
- He photographs only in black and white
- Moves around the scene continuously in search of the perfect moment when composition, point of view, people and other elements come together.
- People are present in each image
- He works where people are present, be it in cities, parks, the countryside or while traveling
Quality of light
- He uses the light present in the scenes he finds. While quality of light is important, it is secondary to his subject. In other words the situation comes before the quality of light. A decisive instant in poor light is better than a common instant (my expression) in ideal light.
- Heavy and cumbersome large format camera (4x5 Linhof Master Technika)
- Variety of lenses from wide to telephoto with a predilection for super wide angle lenses
- Color sheet film – can take only one photograph at a time
- Member of a family of landscape photographers. David is the son of Josef Muench and father of Marc Muench, both very successful landscape photographers in their own right. The Muench’s follow in each other’s footsteps, so to speak.
- Recognized for his work worldwide
- He is known for his near-far compositions using wide extreme wide angles
- He also uses a variety of recurring compositions
- He works almost only in color
- Careful planning is part of creating most of his photographs. This planning includes:
- researching hard to reach and never before photographed locations with photogenic qualities
- returning to the same location year after year
- being at a specific location at a specific time of the year
- Knowing when and where the sun or the moon will rise or set at a specific location
- Knowing when spring flowers and fall colors will be at their peak in a specific location
- Intimate knowledge of Northern American landscapes as well as their geology, botany, flora, fauna, etc.
- Stays in one place and waits for the perfect moment
- He photographs essentially Landscapes together with some historical sites
- He focuses on National Parks, Recreations areas, Wilderness Areas and other protected areas
- He keeps informed of the designation of newly protected areas
- He participates actively in protecting sensitive natural areas
- He is a member of several protection groups or associations
Quality of light
He carefully selects the best light for a specific subject. While the subject and composition are important. light quality comes first. In other words the perfect composition and scene will only reveal themselves in the ideal light. This means finding the subject and either waiting for the light or coming back when the light is at its best for this location.
Rue Cartier Bresson, Pantin, France
Old Factory, Pantin, France
Canon 300D, Canon 18-55 dedicated zoom
Big Sur Coastline, California
Olympus OM4T, Fuji Provia
Style is the extension of your personality and your personality is in part defined by your childhood.
Cartier Bresson grew up in Pantin, a suburb of Paris, where a street is now named after him.
His parents owned a factory, maybe the one above, located Rue Cartier Bresson
and today used as a city vehicles depot.
David Muench grew up in Santa Barbara with the Big Sur Coast, above, in his backyard.
After comparing the locations where both photographers grew up, is it really surprising
that one chose to photograph street scenes and the other grand landscapes?
9 - A personal style is fine tuning choices to fit your own personality
In many ways personal style is refining choices that can be made by other people. By refining your choices you end up creating something unique because of the time you spent considering all the issues, refining your approach and polishing your style. On the surface what you do may seem simple, easy and effortless. But underlying the polished and effortless impression your work projects are countless hours of research, months of trial and error and years spent testing, trying and attempting to succeed through various means.
In the comparison above I selected two photographers whose subject approach and style is so entirely different that one could say they are nearly opposite. Again, I have done so on purpose to better illustrate my point and to do so in a concise manner.
However, in practice, when one focuses upon a specific photographic subject, the style of individual photographers working with the same subject become increasingly similar. At that point the comparison above no longer works because one needs to compare artists who are using nearly similar equipment, approach, subjects and quality of light.
To remedy this situation, and to demonstrate how refinement actually results in creating different styles, I will now expand the comparison above by comparing the style of two large format landscape photographers: David Muench and Jack Dykinga. In this second comparison I will be using the same 4 categories I used above.
This comparison focuses on minute points that may or may not be noticeable by the casual onlooker or admirer of both photographers' work. In a way this comparison is closer to an exercise in comparative literature than to a visit to a photography exhibit. It is also a comparison that shows how important it is to fine tune personal choices.
- Linhof Master Technika 4x5 (folding flatbed 4x5 camera)
- See above
- Large format landscape photography nearly exclusively
- Almost all photographs done with a tripod
- Frequent thematic photographic organization by States (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, etc.)
- Nationwide coverage
- Strong affiliation and focus with National Parks, Recreation areas, wilderness areas, etc.
- A definite orientation towards images that are commercial in intent
- Market is stock photography and publishing first, fine art prints second.
Quality of light
- Wide diversity of light qualities. Light choices evolved during the course of his career. Backlight was favored earlier on
for its strong and bold quality. Later, softer and more subtle light qualities were selected. Dramatic light is still a favorite.
David favors storms and active weather. David said that "bad light means good photographs."
- Arguably the originator of near-far compositions in photography. Definitely one of the strongest advocates for this composition style. Near-far composition usually use a foreground element which is centered at the bottom of the image.
- The majority of Muench’s near -far composition are verticals ("portrait" orientation).
- Arca Swiss Monorail 4x5 and Deardoff 4x5 (folding flatbed 4x5 camera)
- Favors the latest Schneider lenses. Chooses lenses that have the largest covering power (image circle) and which have the latest design, such as allowing to shoot straight towards the sun, even including the sun in the image, without causing flare.
- His background in journalism shows in his current style which may be described as a more journalistic approach to l landscape photography. He is motivated to show facts rather than emotion in his landscape photographs.
- Received Pulitzer prize in photojournalism
- Will reconnoiter and select a place and go back day after day to get the shot
- His use of a monorail camera allows him to use more drastic camera movements than with a flatbed camera
- More verbal than Muench in regards to his technique. Published a book on 4x5 technique: Large Format Landscape Photography
Quality of light
- Uses a wide array of light qualities
- Favors what he calls "horizontal" light at sunrise and sunset.
- Muted and pastel color in comparison to Muench. Colors that please the eye more than shock and startle.
- Makes use of near-far compositions but does not necessarily center foreground images at the bottom of the frame.
Instead, nearby objects are often placed off-center, to the right or left side of the image, or across the entire width of the
bottom part of the image. Also, near-far compositions are often horizontal images ("landscape" orientation), with the
foreground object regularly placed off to the right or left side of the image.
- Use of compositions that are less "in your face than Muench, less "dramatic" perhaps. This is not a factor of the exact
focal length used, but more a factor of the photographer's intent.
Antelope Light Dance Vertical Panorama
Linhof Master Technika 4x5, Schneider Super Angulon 75mm f.56, Fuji Provia 100F
I like to try different compositions from the same photograph, as shown by this
vertical panoramic version of one of my most well known 4x5 photographs.
10 - A personal style is not just about capturing facts. It is also about expressing emotions.
To be able to really see, one must open not only one's eyes. One must above all, open one's heart.
Gaston Rébuffat, French Alpinist
The above study of the respective styles of David Muench and Jack Dykinga opens the door to two very interesting remarks.
The first remark addresses the concept of subjective versus objective and of emotion versus facts.
As we just saw Dykinga has a more "journalistic" approach to formal, large format landscape photography than Muench does. This is due to Dykinga's background in journalistic photography. Dykinga's work shows a desire to give a feel for the nature of the location, something achieved by a strong desire to recreate, by photographic means, the feel and ambiance of each location. Dykinga, in my estimate, does this in a factual rather than an emotional manner. The facts that in journalism would be found in the text are here found in the careful composition of each image, in the use of carefully chosen details to show the exact nature of each subject.
This approach is in contrast to Muench’s approach whose desire seem to be more about presenting us with scenes that, while real, seem impossible at first. To achieve this Muench is constantly on the lookout for natural events which have not been photographed yet: the sun or the moon rising or setting in locations we never thought they did rise. Incredible storm clouds. An interplay of light and shade upon a specific scene that we never would have guessed is part of the natural realm. Scenes so perfect, so stunning and so rare that we would never have thought they could exist without the skilled intervention of an experienced artist.
In comparison, Dykinga's style presents us with scenes that, although stunning on their own, are much easier to accept as "natural." Scenes that are more understandable, and that require less of a stretch in our conception of what is natural.
If we were to make a comparison with literature, or with writing, Dykinga’s photographic prose makes use of fewer adjectives than Muench’s does. Adjectives are words that indicate a subjective rather than an objective opinion. In journalism adjectives are often avoided, especially qualifying adjectives. Walter Cronkite for example said in a recent interview that when he was first hired his network asked him not to use adjectives. Journalism is about reporting facts and events. The reporter is there to give a factual description of the scene and of what happened. He is not there to reveal his or her emotional position. Again, Dykinga’s background as a journalistic photographer is reflected today in his landscape photography through his controlled use of photographic adjectives we might say.
The second remark addresses the fact that choices in equipment, approach, subject and light are only one aspect of personal style. Why? Because after all these variables are external to the photographer. As such they can be chosen – or imitated – by other photographers, as I show in my art fair narration in Section 4.
What cannot be imitated by other photographers is the personality of the artist. Not what the artist does but who the artist is. This statement does beg the question: how does this play out? Well, it plays out in the artist’s behavior, in what one likes and dislikes, in what inspires us and in how we respond and represent scenes they are seeing for the fist time. The best way to exemplify this is to use myself as an example. I will do so in the context of describing my personal style.
11 - My personal Style
You may be wondering how I see my own style and how I would describe it. Fair question. Here is my answer in terms of how I approach my subject, the choices I made, what I like and do not like to do when I photograph and what I consider to be meaningful characteristics of my personality and hence of my style:
- I have no interest in taking photographs that other photographers have taken before me. I can simply buy their prints.
When I visit a location my goal is to create my own images.
- I find that using 4x5 gives me the highest image quality and an enhanced state of creativity and reflection upon the scene
I intend to photograph
- I enjoy using smaller formats such as medium format and 35 mm, either jointly with 4x5 or by themselves.
- I believe that each camera type has advantages and disadvantages and that no single camera can do it all
- I use both film and digital cameras
- I like to photograph with several cameras at the same time, often setting up two of them on separate tripods to capture
several different shots at the same time in order to maximize the opportunities presented by a single sunset or sunrise.
- I always carry at least one medium format or 35mm camera, in addition to my mainstay 4x5 view camera, for those shots
where only the ability to photograph quickly and hand-held will allow me to capture the moment.
- I enjoy using a digital SLR as a light meter for the histogram function and LCD preview it gives me
- To make a personal comment about Section 11: I love adjectives. My goal is not to use them less but to use them better.
In my work this translates into photographs where capturing emotions comes before capturing facts.
- I favor living in the locations I photograph in order to develop a personal affinity with each place and have plenty of
time to explore them in depth and on my own time
- I enjoy waiting at a location until the light is at its best. I consider myself to be very patient when it comes to waiting for
- I enjoy being at a beautiful natural location and not photographing. I believe there are many different ways of experiencing a place and that photography is only one of them.
- I do not tire of returning to the same locations year after year, sometimes several times a year
- I make it a point to create a new image, one I have not created before, each time I return to a location I have previously visited.
- I adopt an opportunistic attitude when looking for photographic possibilities in a natural location. To use a metaphor based on the food gathering methods of prehistoric American cultures, I see myself more as a hunter and gatherer of light, of compositional elements, of photographs, than as an agriculturalist. I gather and find what nature offers me throughout the year, the seasons, the locations. I do not grow or affect how and what nature offers.
- I believe there is no bad light or bad subjects, just different and more or less challenging opportunities.
- I believe unplanned circumstances more often than not offer unplanned opportunities.
- I work primarily towards creating fine prints and towards being able to enlarge these prints to very large sizes.
- I believe I do not know what I have captured 100% until it is printed, preferably large.
- I currently favor color over black and white although in the past the opposite was true.
- I love the improvements brought about by digital technology and this in all domains that address my creative and business life
- While my primary focus is landscape photography I also enjoy photographing street scenes and people in unposed situations.
- I pray I never have to photograph a wedding. So far my prayers have been answered.
- The same comment applies to posed portraits in which the sitter decides which images they want.
- I would enjoy emulating Richard Avedon’s style and approach in regards to portraiture.
- Fortuituous attempts have helped me define my style – see below:
12 - Fortuitous attempts and defining images
Les chefs-d'oeuvre ne sont jamais que des tentatives heureuses
(Masterpieces are always fortuitous attempts)
Establishing a personal style takes time. It does not happen overnight. Unlike a new camera one cannot simply order a new personal style, have it delivered, unpack it and immediately start photographing to see what one can do with it. While cameras are made by companies that are unrelated to us, a personal style comes from within and is generated by us. There is no equipment designed to help us create a personal style. Fortunately there are approaches and actions that can help us.
In my case establishing a personal style has been largely dependent on the two things I mention in the title of this section: fortuitous attempts, as George Sand says so well, and defining images which I have to humbly declare have often been the results of these fortuitous attempts. Before I go on to explain what I mean I want to first metaphorically pull my hat to George Sand, a female French author who, although she had to use a man's name to make it in what in her time was a man's literary world, was fully aware of what it took to create something unique. Let us note in passing that there is, when it comes to personal style and masterpieces, absolutely no difference between literature and photography.
So what do I mean by defining images? To me defining images are images that, quite simply, have allowed me to define my style. What I allude to above, when I quote George Sand, is that these images were not created for this purpose. When I created the photographs that ended up defining a new direction in my work- a new personal style- I did not intend to do so. In this respect these defining images were fortuitous attempts. These images were created because at the time these were the photographs I wanted to take. They were created because at the time these were the images that embodied the strongest way of seeing I could think of. They were created because at the time these were the images I was truly excited to capture. It is only in retrospect, when looking back at what happened after I created these images, that I understood how they opened my eyes to new possibilities and to a new way of seeing. It is only later that I realized how creating these images changed the way I photographed from then on.
Does this mean that I rely on luck to create great images? To get an answer you will have to wait until my next article in this series Being an Artist.
Bright Angel Rainbow, Grand Canyon National Park
Hasselblad 500C, Zeis Distagon 60mm f.3.5, Fuji Velvia 50
This image does represent a fortuitous attempt. I was there to photograph sunset on that day but it was raining and clouds obstructed the sun until minutes before sunset.
When the sun came out I was not prepared for the sight of this rainbow. I first tried a close up of the rainbow, then did this wider view of the whole scene.
Until I received my film back from the lab I was convinced the close up was the best image.
13 - Photographic Exercises
It is time for some Photographic Skill Exercises. In the context of style these exercises are designed to help you reflect and define your own personal style.
Knowing who you are, what you like and dislike, and what equipment to use, are structural foundations upon which you can build a strong personal style. For this reason I recommend you start this list of exercises with parts A, B and C:
Defining your style
• Defining your style partA- personality
Using Section 1 to 4 list the main characteristics of your personality, as you see it. You can use section 11 as well since in it I list several personality traits.
• Defining your style part B- Approach
Using the explanations in Sections 5 and 6 define what subject (or subjects) you want to photograph and what genre you want to embrace. You may have to do some research about both as I do not provide a list of all possible genres or subjects in this article.
• Defining your style part C -equipment
Using the examples in Section 6 make a list of the elements which best define your style including camera equipment, subject matter, approach, locations, etc. You can list equipment you currently use or equipment you would like to use. Similarly, you can list subjects you are currently photographing, or subjects you want to photograph but haven't had a chance to photograph yet.
• Continue the example I gave in section 6 by selecting several photographers whose style and images are particularly appealing to you and finding out what equipment they use, what approach they follow, what subject they favor, and what light they prefer.
• I strongly recommend you attend workshops. Not just one but several. Style develops over time and you cannot expect to develop a personal style over the course of a single workshop. Workshops will allow you to get personal answers to your questions and to work upon areas that are particularly challenging. They also allow you to work with accomplished professionals who have faced the difficulties you face and who can offer effective solutions.
• Seek a mentor, someone who is where you want to be and who is willing to help you and work with you
Try new things
• Try new and different things. Try things that you like but also try things you haven't done yet. Try to do what challenges to you. Photograph subjects you haven't photographed yet. Better: photograph subjects you haven't photographed yet because you were waiting to "be a better photographer" to photograph them.
• Do not be afraid to fail. We all have to fail before we can succeed. Success is not lack of failure. Success is overcoming failure. Nobody starts as a master in anything. We all work our way up to that level. We all have to learn before we can master a technique, a style, or any endeavor for that matter. What makes the difference between failure and success is not being afraid to make mistakes. In many ways we learn through mistakes. We can devise ways to avoid mistakes but eventually we have to make mistakes in order to get to the next level. You know you are getting better when you are getting close to having made all the mistakes
• Do not be afraid to take bad photographs. You have to start somewhere. Mistakes are the normal process through which we learn how to do something new . No one starts as an expert. We all work our way up to it through our attempts. For each success a number of failures have to be expected.
• Regrettably, we rarely get to see the failures of famous photographers. Why? Maybe because they do not wish to share them, maybe because their publishers do not want to show them. Maybe because this is the way photography has been presented so far. Maybe because photography as a whole is a medium that hesitates to show its attempts. In painting we regularly see entire exhibitions focused on the artist's attempts: the sketchbooks. We rarely see half completed paintings because a canvas is often re-used later on, thereby covering the previous attempt. But occasionally an exhibition will feature a partially completed piece. When was the last time you saw a photographic exhibition in which there was a half completed photograph? Mistakes, half completed attempts, trials and errors, and "sketches" have been one of the best kept secrets of the photography world. However, mistakes do happen in photography, even if we do not get to see them because they discarded , filed away or otherwise kept away from the viewing audience. I think it is time for a change, and in my next series on "Photography as Art" I will be featuring not only completed photographs as examples but also the various attempts, the other images, I created while in the process to create the photograph which I eventually came to select as the best of the lot. I think there is much - if not more- to be learned from these attempts as there is to be learned from studying the final piece.
Study the work of other artists
• If you find that your work tends to look like the work of another artist then become the world's expert on this particular artist. Learn everything there is to learn about this person, and if you can meet him or her personally. Study with them. Make them your mentor.
• Look at medium other than photography for inspiration. Look at arts produced for reasons other than aesthetic such as tribal and primitive arts. Look not only at photographs. Look also at paintings, sculptures and drawings, listen to music, etc.
Create assignments for yourself
•Self-generated assignments – especially assignments that you have not seen done before – are powerful motivators developing a personal style. You cannot develop a personal style by only redoing what others have done before.
• Take a chance and discover what you can do with a specific subject, without knowing beforehand what you are going to do with it. Too many photographers know what they will photograph and which images they want to bring back before they start a new photography trip. Where is the discovery in this approach? And without discovery, how can one develop a personal style?
Clearing Spring Storm, Tsegi Overlook, Canyon de Chelly
Olympus OM4T, Zuiko 18mm, Kodak Royal Gold 25
This photograph, as well as Grand Canyon Rainbow, ended up defining an
Important direction in my work. Yet, both were fortuitous attempts. I never intended to create this
image, I just saw the dramatic relationship of storm clouds and isolated light shafts. I used the
only camera I had with me at the time, a 35mm Olympus, and later cropped the image to a panoramic
composition. This photograph was the reason why I acquired a Fuji 617 panoramic camera.
14 - Conclusion
A personal style is a journey more than a destination. As we have seen there are several parts to it: subject, genre and style. First find what you want to photograph (subject), then find how you want to photograph it (genre), and finally bring your own personality into the equation (style) so that you can photograph the subject of your choice, within the genre you decided to embrace, in your own personal way. If you can achieve this then personal style will follow. A lot of work is involved in this endeavor including acquiring the specific equipment you need and educating yourself about the work done by other photographers before you. To succeed in this endeavor you will have to be passionate about your work and be willing to seek help from those who have followed this path before you. Above all you will have to be patient as results will come forth over time.
A personal style is the extension of your personality. Your style reflects who you are, what you like, what you dislike, what you find important, etc. A personal style is a way of seeing which differs from other artist's way of seeing. It is your personal way of seeing the world.
A personal style reflects what you see, what you find important and what you want to capture in your photographs. Your style may change as you change and as your relationship to the world changes. I truly believe that most artists are quite aware of their personal style. Why? Because as artists we create our own style. This style is the result of our efforts, our endeavors and the choices we make. It is us who work each step of the way towards a particular result. It is us who take all the necessary decisions to insure that the image on paper matches as closely as possible the image in our head, our pre-visualization if you will.
I am constantly amazed at how much most photographers know about cameras and photographic equipment, whether it is equipment they own or do not own. Often they know far more than I do, to the point that I wonder if there is something wrong with me and whether my work would be better if I knew as much as they do about the pixel count of a specific camera, the exact reference number of a specific Gitzo tripod (being French is not enough to fully master Gitzo's numbering system), or the exact advantage of one lens versus another.
0n the other hand I am constantly amazed at how little is said among photographers about the work of other artists, except for a few names that come back regularly such as Ansel Adams, David Muench and a few others. I am also amazed at how little is said among photographers about other arts. While I consider painting to be one of the main influences in my personal development as an artist, and while I regularly discuss how certain paintings have influenced my decision to become a photographer, I find that relatively few photographers share my interest in comparing different types of art. Similarly, in the days of Ansel Adams many black and white photographers listened to classical music while printing. Some even listened to classical music while photographing in the field. This practice is still alive today among remaining students of Ansel Adams. However, photographers who come to the craft today seem to have lost this connection with other art forms, be it music, painting, sculpture or other medium. It appears we are moving in the direction of photography being just about photography, without external references to other arts.
I find it important that we work towards reversing this trend. If photography is an art form then it is important to be able to relate photography to other arts and to enjoy it together with other forms of art. If this is to happen then it is important to be knowledgeable in other art forms, not just in photography. While this is not the subject of this article, I do believe it is related to developing a personal style. It is also a subject I will expand on in my next series of articles: Photography as Art. In this next series I will be using some of my favorite photographs as examples -as points of departure- to show and explain how specific art concepts can be included and embodied into photographs. This series will be less about theory and more about practice. It will be about how I created specific images, and about how you can create similar images yourself. If this sounds like something you want to read about email me at email@example.com
Until then we have one more article to go in this series: Number 10 – Being an Artist. The response to my question about whether you wanted me to write this next article or not has been an overwhelming "Yes!" So, there you have it. As soon as I type the last word in this article I will start working on it. What will it be like? Well, I honestly don't know yet. There are many aspects to being an artist, and one of them is that artists rarely talk about what it is like to be an artist. This will be a first, but it will also be very informational. Above all it will be about freedom and about freeing yourself from the many constraints that prevent art from really being art.
Sonoran Desert, Arizona
Other Articles in this Series
© 2005 Alain Briot
Beaux Arts Photography