What is a Signature Style for Portrait Photography?
Can you identify your favorite portraitist from just observing there unsigned work?
Are there elements of their style that standout regardless of the photographic genre?
Can you spot the originator from the emulators?
The first portraitist whose style stood out for me was photographer, Sean Archer. While Archer’s scenes were seldom different, it was his lighting, composition, and post-production technique that began to set his work apart from so many others. It was the nuance of his style that began to reveal other photographer’s unique style and artistic signature.
Jake Hicks is a master of editorial high fashion and glamour photography with colored gel lighting. He’s actually an excellent photographer all-around. However, he’s made colored-gels popular through his artistic style and commitment to his photographic vision. While many incorporate colored gels into their portraiture, Hicks has made them a hallmark of his photographic style.
Finally, there are portraits that I have always loved and only recently discovered the artists behind them—Mark Seliger. If you’ve seen a provocative portrait of anyone famous in the last decade, he or she was likely photographed by Seliger. Seliger has created iconic images of everyone from Barack Obama to Kendrick Lamar and from Kim Kardashian to Drew Barrymore. His compositions can be simple and sublime or intricate manifestations of whimsy and sexiness. Nevertheless, there is a visual quality that is inherently a measure of his signature style.
Style ≠ Genre
One of the hardest things for photographers and laypeople alike to understand is that style has no bearing on genre. Whether you shoot weddings, boudoir, products, travel, or macro photography; there are elements of the artist’s eye that will always come to the forefront in every image they make.
For photographer and serial entrepreneur, Sal Cincotta, the signature is not only in the details but also in how he envisions his work before he shoots. As a result, his style is just as much a way of thinking as it is the final works he creates. While Cincotta openly shares his techniques and approaches, it would take an apprentice years to get inside the mind of the master and begin to compose shots before ever opening the shutter.
Style begins to emerge and cement itself because of the photographic artist’s approach to constructing her creative. Regardless of her subject, portrait masters tend to follow a line of creative thinking that always leads them to the same style of production. The more identifiable the style becomes, the more evident it becomes that the artist can produce similar results consistently. Moreover, it reflects a know-how that is formulaic and repeatable on-demand. From a business standpoint, that’s super critical to success.
Don’t Bite My Style
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” — Oscar Wilde
In the golden age of hip-hop, when another rapper copied another emcee’s style, it was called biting. It was heavily frown upon because hip-hop is about originality and artistry in writing and delivery. The same holds true for photography, it’s about originality and artistry in all the details that matter for producing a remarkable image. An industry has been born from more photographers wanting to adopt the style of their favorite photographer as their own. While this sounds like a great idea at first, it’s riddled with ridiculousness.
In short, no one goes to McDonald’s to get a Whopper Jr. with cheese. Likewise, you don’t buy Tom Ford Fucking Fabulous fragrance at your local Target. Clients and customers only want the signature style from the original source. Imitations simply won’t do. For portrait photography, you’re not merely commissioning a portrait, you’re summoning the talent and artistry that only comes from a single person. It can’t be duplicated with authenticity.
I have a few mentors whose style captured my attention. However, it was always their business savvy that was the most compelling aspect about them. I’m not interested in duplicating anyone’s style no more than I want anyone to copy mine. We should all draw inspiration and challenge from our colleagues. That inspiration should provoke us to dig deeper into our own creative reservoir to produce something novel and necessary. Whether it’s a remix, a new interpretation, or a genetic descendant—it’s should represent a new dimension to the creative conversation not a repeat.
Discovering and Defining Your Own Signature Style
I’m often asked, “How do I find my own signature style?”
In truth, you already know it. You’re drawn to producing images a particularly way that you instinctively repeat over and over across multiple genres. It’s how you see the world.
The real trick is to step back and be critical of your work.
What do you see when you look at your portraits?
What stands out when you review a series of different images? What remains the same across different images?
Finding your signature is more than simply saying I shoot natural light photography. It’s more than saying I only shoot during “golden hour.” I only shoot in Black & White. I only shoot with a 50mm lens. All of those things are clues and ingredients to defining your style. If I removed any of those elements from your portraits, would the image fall flat on its face? Or would their be trace elements of style that persist regardless of the scene or situation?
Therein lies the rub. Those trace elements are the hallmarks to what makes your art uniquely you. Hone that aspect of your craft. Learn to summon it on a dime or a deadline.
When you do, share your signature style with me in the comments below.
Who knows, maybe you’ll inspire me to remix it with my own signature.