A few weeks ago, a friend of mine spotted a guidebook for sale at an airport somewhere in Europe. Deciding that the picture on the cover looked like “a David Stott photo” (his words), he went in for a closer look, and sure enough, there was my name on the cover. He proudly snapped a picture and posted it on his blog. I barely had the heart to tell him that I’d written the book, but the picture belonged to someone else.
It’s hugely flattering when someone credits you in this way, even if their radar turns out to be a little off. The very fact that they identify a picture as looking like yours means they’re actually thinking about your work: You’ve made a strong enough impression on their mind’s eye, and when they see a picture with a certain look and feel, it reminds them of you. This is the rock on which photographic brands can be built.
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Building what graphic designers term a “visual identity” is one of the most powerful ways to set yourself apart from the camera-carrying hordes. Study any famous photographer, from Ansel Adams to Anne Geddes, and each of them has a tangible personal style: a photographic fingerprint that marks any picture they take. Whether or not you can stomach Geddes’ cutesy kiddy portraits is besides the point. What matters is that her fans and admirers can spot one of her pictures at a single glance.
Style is something that can be expressed at every stage of the photographic process. It’s there in the way you go about your business on a shoot, in the subjects you choose to photograph and how you portray them, and in the finishing touches you apply in the digital darkroom.
Developing these habits, thinking about them and refining them is what elevates photography from a technical pursuit into an art form. But you don’t have to start wearing black pullovers and cultivating a goatee to begin thinking in terms of your own style.
Lens eye: Style can be defined at all stages of the photography process. David Stott
The first step is as simple as establishing what you like to shoot. Maybe you’re a nature lover and instinctively prefer to shoot landscapes. Great. Now ask yourself how you like to see and shoot them. In a pure, observational way that seeks to elicit every drop of beauty from the scene through natural light, like Charlie Waite? In a borderline kitsch, colour-pushed-to-the-edge-of-its-logical-limits way like Ken Duncan? Or do you prefer to go for an edgier look, using shallow depth of field and heavily darkened corners?
Or let’s say you’re a people person. Do you aspire to confront environmental portraiture in the Sebastiao Salgado mould? Glammed up and highly produced fashion imagery like Mario Testino? Or the slice-of-life artistry practised by William Eggleston?
Answer these questions and you can go on to build the camera set-up you need, and cultivate the habits that suit your subject. If it’s outdoor photography, you’ll need a reliable alarm clock, vast reserves of patience, and a willingness to return to the same spot again, and again, and again, in pursuit of that one magic moment of light. If it’s people, be ready to throw a heap of compassion, chutzpah and management skills in the bag along with your portrait lenses.
Know others, know yourself
Finally, don’t be afraid to borrow ideas from other people. Most photographers’ fingerprints, mine included, are a blend of influences stolen from the pictures we love and admire. Incorporate enough of them, stir in your own personality, and you’ll create a magic brew that no other photographer will ever replicate.
David Stott is a photographer based in Australia.
Write to him at email@example.com