On Style

Sleeping Sea Lions, 4 (Zalophus californianus) © Mike Spinak

Many photographers are concerned with style.


“What’s my style?”

“Do I have a recognizable style?”

“Is my style consistent?”

“How can I develop my style?”

People with these concerns about style often pointedly choose to adopt recognizable eccentricities of technique, equipment choices, or subject matter, for the explicit purpose of differentiating themselves. Unfortunately, they sometimes do this devoid of well conceived reasons fused with their expressions. In such cases, these devices amount only to gimmicks.

Many who adopt such devices work toward what they believe to be style, based on an operative definition that style is a chosen set of tendencies and visual tics, which add up to a distinct and recognizable sum.

That’s mistaking the effect for the cause.

The visual tendencies and photographic tics which make a great photographer’s works identifiable are actually not her style. They’re the artifacts of her style. Not the style, itself.

Style is the manifestation of who you are. It’s how you see. It’s how you think. It’s what subjects resonate with you. It’s the kinds of meaning you perceive. It’s how you express yourself. It’s the sum of all of your mental and perceptual characteristics, coming through in your creations.

As the manifestation of who you are, it’s not something that you can change like a pair of pants, by switching to a rangefinder camera loaded with Tri-X film, or by cross processing, or doing Polaroid transfers, gum bichromate prints, heavy texture overlays in Photoshop, or whatever else. While exploring and experimenting can be good and necessary, arbitrarily latching onto gimmicks will only get in the way of your true style.

Your style is rooted in your formative experiences, and in the characteristics of your senses. Your style may change over time, but such changes come from further formative experiences changing who you are, and from sensory changes affecting your perception – not from attempts to specifically pick or alter your style. Raising children could change your style; having a stroke could change your style; switching from color digital to exclusively black and white film probably won’t. At least, not in the short term, nor in a way that can be planned.

Each of you reading this already has your own unique photographic style (and artistic style, in general). It’s within you, inextricably tied with who you are. You already perceive and understand the world in ways uniquely your own, which thereby inform your creative expression with a combination of characteristics only you impart. If your style isn’t already apparent, then it’s latent (or perhaps lost within a confusion of other irrelevant details which needs to be pared away) – but it’s not nonexistent. It exists, and doesn’t need to be created.

Find what resonates with you. Pursue it passionately. Plunge its depths. Be true to yourself in your perception of it, your response to it, your representation of it – unabashedly, unreservedly, and completely.

Your style will then naturally shine through.

Sleeping Sea Lions, 4 (Zalophus californianus), Monterey Bay, California

All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.