If ever there was an artistic chicken-and-egg situation, it is manifested in the struggle to define one’s personal style; the elusive thread that binds the artist’s work consistently through a recognisable signature expression which is unique to that person.
It is not surprising that so many people struggle with the issue of personal style. With so much of the discourse around photography focused on tools, technique and visual gimmickry, and so little attention given to topics relating to creative expression, many end up seeking their style in visual effects rather than in expressing their creative voice. In other words, too many photographers spend too much time worrying about the style portion and not enough time nurturing the personal aspects of their work. Ultimately, both will play a role in the photographer’s personal style, but the decision on where to place the emphasis will dictate different, even opposite, approaches to finding one’s style.
Perhaps the greatest mistake in approaching a personal style is that of trying to define the style first, and then forcing work into it. This often happens when unseasoned photographers first master a given technique, such as HDR, creative blur, B&W conversion, or star trails. Having achieved technical proficiency and some praise for a successful image, some will be tempted to continue repeating the performance, calling it their style, whether it represents an inner vision truly or not.
Perhaps a better way to think of a personal style is as the expression of the unique traits that define each of us as individuals and as creative artists. In this sense, a personal style can be regarded not as a goal in itself but as a by-product of the creative choices made by the artist. This, of course, would require that the artist is expressing his/her own unique voice in the work rather than mimicking that of others. Mimicry is not a bad thing in itself and is vital in the training and evolution of an artist. Still, it takes time to mature, and this is where the great conundrum appears: many budding photographers attempt to achieve a unique style before having developed a fully creative voice or sufficient command of the skills required to express it. This bit of wisdom, which was obvious to artists of the past who studied and apprenticed for years before pursuing independent careers, seems almost like sacrilege in today’s instant gratification culture. And yet, it holds true: there are no shortcuts.
By virtue of being personal and representative of the skills, sensibilities, maturity, and experience of the artist, a truly personal style is one that evolves organically over time. Attempting to force it on your work will result only in confining and limiting your expressive powers, possibly preventing them from evolving as you restrict your range of experimentation and force your work into a contrived style. Keep working until your work is mature. Let your style emerge by itself as your work and sensibilities mature and evolve; trust that it will happen, and give it time. Be yourself and your style will follow.