Creatives: Don’t Choose A Unique Style
For years, I battled choosing a niche and style. Everyone will tell you to pick a niche if you want to find success, but I was resistant. In hindsight, I realize it was because I hadn’t found the right niche. And I wouldn’t have found it by choosing, I found it by doing some of everything, and from that, realizing what I enjoyed most. So don’t pick it, just let it happen by accident.
When I started out as a photographer, I shot everything; portraits, landscape, travel, sports, music, product, weddings. I shot with natural light and flash, in studio and outdoors. I experimented with everything I could.
Over time, I stopped doing some of those things because they weren’t interesting to me. I slowly started removing sections of my website. 5+ years ago, my site had: Portraits, Product, People, Wedding, Music, Lifestyle, Athletes. And that’s how it should have been. I was learning about photography, and more importantly, learning what it was that I enjoyed doing most.
5 years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed that my website in 2016 would only have athletic and active lifestyle photos. The only way I ended up here was by starting there. Nothing was crafted intentionally, beyond me doing more of the work I was drawn to and less of what wasn’t as interesting. I didn’t blindly choose a niche because I “needed” to. I pursued the things I loved doing and dropped the things I didn’t like. By definition, your style is whatever it is you do, so just go with what you like, and in hindsight, you can point at a style.
I searched my archives and found a good example of something that’s stuck with me since 2009. The photo on the left, taken of my sister on my parent’s deck, expressed movement and flow, and that’s something I still love to capture (recent photo on the right):
These are all self-portraits, which means—that’s right—I was taking selfies in 2009–2010 before selfies were cool. I did this a lot, that’s how I learned lighting. I would go walk around campus in college and set up lighting and my camera on a tripod and practice. During this period, I learned I loved having people in my images, and that interesting light is important, but rarely had subjects so I used myself. The things I kept were my desire to work with great light, and my desire to shoot people.
Identifying a photographer’s style should be like looking at a baby photo of a friend. You see the familiar facial features in the picture, and you see how they looked similar to their adult self, but it’s impossible to look at a baby and imagine what they’ll grow up looking like. That’s how a style should be; You see it in hindsight and it makes sense, but it shouldn’t be predictable.
The style of my images is ever-evolving. I don’t have one single editing trick or preset or light setup I used for every single image. I didn’t decide on Day One that that was what my look would be, then shoot a bunch of photos to build and match that look. I shot all sorts of content, styles, angles, I processed photos in a thousand different ways. But there are looks and effects that I like that I find myself going back to that scratch my aesthetic itch.
I like clean and simple backgrounds with a lot of texture, but not a lot of pattern. I like hazy flare in a background that indicates the direction of light, and that separate the subject from the background. I like putting my subject right in the middle of the frame. I like using bold clean lines with minimal distractions to guide the viewer to the subject.
All of this has come out of not restricting myself early on, and continuing to not stop exploring new methods, looks, and approaches.
If I had chosen a stylistic and subject matter path right off the bat, I might not have found the things I enjoy the most. There’s one thing a style shouldn’t be: chosen. It should just happen. Don’t craft your personal brand. Be it.
Look at your body of work. What don’t you like? Stop doing that. What do you like? Keep doing that. Kinda applies to life too, ya know? By seeing what sticks out as your favorite over time, you’re seeing what your style is. Do more of that. Repeat.