Although I say that somewhat facetiously, it’s not entirely a joke. One way to distinguish yourself is the medium you use. Certainly shooting color 35mm in this day and age would be one giant leap toward your very own distinct style. But for those of us who are converts to the digital age what do we do? How can we develop a style that will be our own?
In trying to talk this out a bit, I will use my own work as a reference. As a consequence, my rant here will focus around street photography. If your thing is not street photography you might want to click off now. If you are into trying to develop a street style then stick around and take a look at my recipe. Like your grandmothers who both made apple pies … I bet you could tell them apart with your eyes closed. The same applies to street photography. We all take photos out on the streets but those of us who want to be regarded as pros should have a distinct style. Our photographs should be spotted across a room without hesitation or doubt. We should aim to be distinct and not a copy. Sounds easy but is in fact hard.
I have developed a fairly unique street style for a few reasons. Let’s take a closer look at my recipe:
1. I use small sensor compact cameras. None of my work is done with a DSLR or a Hasselblad or any such thing. I use professional compacts. This adds to my style as they typically have a â€œsmall sensor feelâ€ as well as a huge depth of field. In an age when everyone is running for giant sensors and tens of megapixels, an easy way to stand out is to buck the trend. I did this not so much for that reason as for the ability to travel light and get into tight places with absolute discreetness. However, one of the bonuses I got in the deal is a signature â€œfeelâ€ to my images.
2. I shoot up close, very close, with a 28mm fixed lens. Part of a strong sense of style will be your focal length. I suggest using one and sticking to it. Cartier-Bresson used mostly a 50mm, Bruce Gilden uses a 28mm and so on. As a result their images are easier to spot. If we see a street shot taken with a long lens we know instantly, regardless of subject matter etc., that it’s not going to be a Gilden. I also use primarily one orientation â€“ horizontal. I know many people will not want to limit themselves in this way, but it certainly does help to define my photographs. If people see something that they think might be my work but it is a vertical shot they will think more carefully about it. They will think twice.
3. I shoot from the hip or frame with extreme crudeness. I like this look and I like the randomness element in my images. When I do frame, I aim to cut off heads or arms or an eye. My photographs have come to be known for their lack of a complete human body. That’s become central to my style. Other people are known for close, tightly framed portraits, for example, and others for wide angle street scenes. I suggest you go for what you like and what makes you comfortable when shooting. Many people are not comfortable to work the way I do as some strangers get very edgy when you have a camera just inches away from their body. Other people, like me, would not be happy working with close up portraits because of the communication it required with your subjects.
4. I use a lot of flash. This gives my photos a certain look which, when combined with all the other trademarks, makes them even more distinct. Using a flash on the street, especially in daylight, will attract a lot of attention. Some street shooters avoid this to remain under a better cover. Sure, I get yelled at more because of my use of flash but I like the dramatic look. Experiment and see what works for you.
5. I look for unusual subject matter. Because I do not shoot faces, I have to look for other elements to make my photographs work. Now, I do shoot some faces to be fair. But, my signature shot is usually without a face but featuring human fragments and some odd thing â€“ a broom, a portable radio, a doll, coffee cup, road map etc. I combine human fragments with the odd things that people carry around. And I get both up close and usually with flash. So what else makes my photographs different from many of my colleagues on the street?
6. I shoot in black and white only. Now this is not that unique to street photography. Obviously. In fact, color on the streets will get you more attention straight away â€“ think Hartel or Leuthard â€“ but I stick to one mode and that’s the idea here. I shoot black and white only. Never color. Additionally, I add a lot of grit, grain and contrast to my images. I like them to look grainy and dirty.
7. I don’t worry too much about focus. Focus on the streets is often difficult, especially when you work the way I do â€“ up close and fast. Now I’m not saying that blurry photographs are better. I am just saying that pixel peeping is overrated, most especially in street photography. Studio, for example, would be a different story. But on the streets it’s more important to take a good photograph than a sharp one. Added to all the other ingredients here, a bit of blur in my many of my photos helps to reinforce my style. I know some of you are doubting me on this one. I also know some will throw some hate my way for saying this and that’s fine. Take a look over some of Cartier-Bresson’s stuff and you’ll see… or Gilden or Cohen and on and on. But if you like cutting your fingers on your photographs than stick to sharp focus and make that your thing.
8. I use one camera, the Ricoh GR Digital. I don’t keep changing my camera every other month for the latest and greatest thing. I don’t use three cameras and nine lenses. I use one camera with one fixed 28mm and consistent setting. Different cameras, lenses and settings all impact on your style. Keep this stuff as constant as possible. I know a camera upgrade is important once in a while in this digital age but try to limit this as much as possible. Gilden uses the same M6 he has had for decades. Cartier-Bresson used virtually the same Leica for a career. This was possible in the age of film as those cameras were made like tanks and had no technology to upgrade. With digital we have to upgrade but keeping it reasonable and sticking, where possible, to the same manufacturer will be to your benefit in regard to style.
9. I use consistent post processing. I don’t switch around from one software program to another or between presets etc. I use one program and one set of presets and apply that to all my photographs unless something MUST be altered to make the photo work. This would have been comparable to printers and printing techniques in the old days. Many famous photographers had their own printer of choice or printed themselves. One thing they surely didn’t do was send their film or negatives out to a bunch of labs. There are exceptions of course, but you get the idea.
10. I keep doing what I do despite everything. I have a lot of followers who love my work and I have a lot of followers who heap hate on my work. I don’t seem to inspire much in the middle (laughing). Despite those people out there who for whatever reason want to be negative and talk about how crappy my work is … I don’t stop. I don’t change my course. I don’t retreat or buy a new camera or change my focal length or subject matter. I don’t change a thing. I just keep going full steam ahead. Of course, I try to always improve my work and my skills and my eye for the street. But I do this according to my recipe. The result? I might get better at making the frosting or sifting the flour, maybe even beating the eggs just so, but in the end, I always get a chocolate cake â€“ I never end up with a dozen cookies!
So there you have it. My thoughts, and merely my thoughts, on developing a distinct style in your street photography. Style won’t just happen and it won’t happen overnight. But if you are committed to finding your own signature and you work hard at it and resist simply mimicking others, it will develop. Like a polaroid, it will take some trial and error but eventually that â€œah haâ€ moment will develop right before your very eyes.
Michael Ernest SweetÂ is an award-winning Canadian educator, writer and street photographer. His signature style features gritty, high-contrast, black and white images of the human fragment as seen in our urban spaces. Â Michael divides his time between Montreal and New York City. Image: Dog and His Walker (c) 2012Â Michael Ernest Sweet.