Beyond Presets: 5 Tips for Crafting Your Style with Scott Detweiler
One thing I often hear from new photographers is how challenging it is for them to find their style. Initially, most people tend to reach for actions or presets in their favorite editing applications and adopt one. Sure, these bundles can give you ideas and narrow your focus, but in the long run, they are not the ideal solution.
You’re probably assuming I don’t know about that fantastic Black Friday 50,000-plus Mega Style Pack for Lightroom and Photoshop you bagged for $9, saving you nearly $84,922. There is no doubt that your future style is buried in there and all you have to do is find it, even if it takes you a year or two. Of course, then there is the potential impending fistfight with the neighbor who has a nice camera who has also selected Borneo3321 as her style, and now your photos all look pretty much the same. So, rather than spend days or weeks in a desperate search for the one that speaks to you and spending money on medical bills from the stitches in your face, let’s just learn how to find it from the outset.
Finding your style is easier than you think because you already know what it looks like. Let’s break down how do define it so you can get on with perfecting the rest of your photography.
Let’s first wrap our head around a simple idea: Your style is what you enjoy in the subject, technique, lighting and tone of a photo. If you took all the photos you like from any photographer and put them all in a pile, you would see a specific look. Your style is more than just the colors, contrast, tone and saturation that are magically bestowed on the photo you have selected by a handy preset; there is a lot more involved when you’re searching your soul for your unique look. Let’s break down style into a handful of components, and then discuss how we can use each one to narrow our search for what speaks to us.
The subject matter is that thing that turns your creative crank, and you enjoy shooting it above all else. Sure, you might have to take jobs in peripheral areas to help pay for luxury items like food, but you need to find what area you are passionate about. The subject matter often drives different styles. Discovering that you treat boudoir images differently than a fashion shoot should not come as a surprise. If you find your work is a bit fractured, perhaps it is because you are working on a lot of different areas of photography and not all of them are singing from the same hymnal. That can cause brand confusion if you are working under one unbrella, so consider unique brands for these areas.
Once you have a sizable portfolio in one specific area, you should see some trends in how you approach your subject, and that is the first step. What you tend to shoot has a lot to do with style, but it can limit our scope. If you love to shoot street photography, then you probably love black-and-white imagery and unposed storytelling. This doesn’t mean you have to stick with that stereotype, but initially, most head in that direction. Don’t be worried if you find you approach different areas of photography in unique ways; this shows healthy growth and perspective and not a one-style-fits-all mentality. One style rarely works for everything you shoot unless it is so subtle that it’s barely noticeable.
Light turns heads pretty quickly. Dark, moody images get those “love the light!” comments, but that doesn’t mean they are for everyone. Light and airy and soft and natural are also beautiful. Regardless of your abilities as a photographer, you probably have a preference for the types of images you enjoy. This drives photographers to learn to light. Getting something close to those images they enjoy is their goal. It is also an area where growth is usually fast and leads to quality in a short time. Leaning on natural light is not harmful when you’re searching for your style, as that is what many people enjoy. It has a much more significant role to play in flexibility and keeping your images from looking like those shot by the throngs of people with cellphones.
Don’t assume your style is based on natural light because you don’t know how to use off-camera lighting yet. Seek out what you want and don’t downplay your ability to learn to light. Don’t get caught in the trap of lighting, requiring more work because you have to haul it around and you might need an assistant to get the image you want. If you want more than natural light, don’t hold yourself back. There are plenty of sessions on lighting at ShutterFest, and one of those is bound to resonate with your muse.
When people think about style, tone pops into their head right away. Do you prefer warmer or cooler images? What about cool shadows and warmer highlights? There are so many possibilities, and what makes matters even more complicated is that each image might not fit your main style and will need a bit of a nudge to make it feel right. On top of that, you might prefer warmer tones for work like boudoir, but cooler for things like pets. Contrast, saturation and overall feel of an image can be subject to whim, and indeed should be.
Getting stuck using a specific action or preset is the same as eating nothing but cheese pizza your entire life. Sure, pizza is great, but there might be something right in front of you that you love but will never get to taste. Don’t get stuck in a rut and forget to explore.
One of my favorite ways to tone an image is to start with the shadows and work in cool and warmer tones until I find the ideal tone. Then I do the same to the midtones and highlights. In the end, each image is unique, and I don’t use any presets. When I look at my body of work, I see similarities even though they were not intentional at the time. Each image is made without consideration for consistency in look, but in the end, they all tend to look like part of the same family, my family.
Do you prefer a shallow depth of field and love all that bokeh? Perhaps you enjoy shooting at very high ISO settings for a film-like grain. Maybe you prefer products that alter the focus plane and create unusual effects. All of them are worth trying, and might speak to part of your soul that nothing else has touched before. The technique we choose impacts our images, and there are many out there to try. You can see some of these trends today, like shooting with neon sign lighting and severe underexposure that can be brightened in post-production. It is just one of an infinite number of ways you can approach your favorite subject and use your camera in creative ways. I am always open to trying something even if I think it isn’t for me—it might lead me down an unexpected rabbit hole and on to a new adventure.
Have you ever seen one of your favorite images printed large and in an elegant frame? Once you look at your work in print like this, you will have a hard time making a justification for digital being the way you want your images presented. Sure, we all need to post photos on social media, but if that is where your process ends, you are missing out on a world of creativity.
I like adding additional texture, paint and other media to my printed images to create a work of art from my art. This can open doors to more substantial sales, as I have mentioned in previous articles.
Hate your old work?
If you don’t enjoy much of your older work, that is a good thing. Hating some of your past creative works shows you are growing. You probably now see things you wish you could change, be it lighting, pose, technique or post-production. Never stop exploring and expanding, and you will see your style evolve over time.
If you ever feel you have reached your maximum potential, try different subject matter and look at how that can be different from what you have already mastered. It might open new doors in your primary area you never considered. I don’t feel I will ever master any area. I enjoy looking at things differently. If you feel you have mastered something, you have not yet dug deep enough.