Developing Your Photographic Style: Excerpt From A Chat with Zack Arias

I recently got a flood of questions via Twitter asking about developing a personal photographic style, which made me think about a million conversations I’ve had with my photographer buddies over the years… And I was wishing I had recorded those. And then I remembered that I DID have one that I recorded from an old chasejarvis LIVE with my pal Zack Arias. He’s a fun guy, great shooter and very talented photography instructor. Here’s a few nuggets from our banter (plucked from the middle of the conversation and transcribed…) about developing personal photographic style…

CJ: Tell me the first time you realized that you actually had a style. Because for me, I can’t believe that you can take pictures for as long as it took me to take pictures before I actually could say that I have a style. Do you remember when that moment was for you?

ZA: I’d say it was probably just a couple of years ago. I’ve been pursuing this… If I count going to school and assisting and managing a studio, and trying to get my freelance career going, and then failing miserably, and then restarting it, that’s been about fifteen years. And I’d say…

CJ: Is that where the gray came from?

ZA: Yeah. That’s where the gray and all the kids, one of which you can hear in the background. Hawk is in the audience here. I guess in just the last couple of years I could finally sort of sit back and go, huh, this is what I do and this is how I do it and this is how I approach photography and this is kind of my style.

CJ: But it took a long time.

ZA: Yeah. Style is something that takes a long, long, long time and it takes; really, what it takes is shooting and just doing it over and over and over. It has to just develop and you can think you’re sort of on like when I started in photography, I thought I knew where I was going with my photography and how I would shoot. But that changed and I’d go down a different route and that would change and even just as last year, I was trying to break out of how I shoot things, do things differently and what I found that was most successful was just to go back to doing what I do and just kind of sticking with it. Every year, I seem to try to push my style and every year I fail pretty miserably doing that.  And it’s just one of those I need to learn slowly and just slowly move forward.

CJ: If you try and develop a style from your living room, it’s unlikely that you’re going to and a lot of people, like, oh, when do you know when you got a style? You don’t know until you look back six months or a year or two years and say, oh, wow.

ZA: Or ten years or a decade. And at the beginning, you’re usually kind of replicating someone else’s style.

CJ: Right and imitation, that’s a great way of learning.

ZA: And that’s part of it. I replicated all the magazine photographers that I followed. I went out and shot just like them. I learned how they did it, but I had to get moving on from that….

If you want more, the entire video conversation is here.

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Kim says:

Thanks – needed to hear that. I’ve seen so many things lately that say “figure out your style” and “develop your niche.” Well, I don’t know what those are right now! I appreciate hearing it’s not something that happens over night.

ash says:

to paraphrase (bite!) Aesop Rock “Isnt it strange how its a fad to bite your idols when the reason you liked them’s coz their shit wasn’t recycled”

Sure, study and take inspiration from idols, just dont aspire to be the next . Stay true to yourself, your vision and be the best ‘you’ and your style will develop over time with you having to worry about it. Follow your work as you see (and change) what works and what doesn’t flow so well.

This can apply to pretty much anything – from creatives such as art, design, writing through to things like people management. Just dont be suprised if you find someone else doing something similar on the other side of the (getting smaller) globe.


fas says:

Well said but it takes lots of imagination and wild thoughts to do it.

Peter says:

I always wanted to avoid having a set “style” because, let’s face it, a style means at least some kind of repetitive element in one’s work. I always wanted every project to be unique in pretty much every way possible and finding new solutions instead of resorting to the same way of shooting something all the time. I realize that every photograher and every artist has a unique way of looking at things, and I am aware that a style is essential for getting professional work so that prospective clients can roughly see what they would get if they hire me, but still, I don’t like it at all if someone can pull out a single photo of mine and say “This is so cool, all of his work kinda has this unique feel to it”. I simply don’t like it if someone can sum up my work or my point of view in any way.

Trouble is, it was only recently that I realized how much of a “style” I had actually developed over time when I saw photos from somebody else who had attempted to copy the aesthetic (subject selection, composition, perspective, angles, light, exposure, everything) of some of my images I usually take at some regular event I do as a side project. That was kind of weird. I’m not really sure whether to count that sort of thing as a success or as a failure.

Mark McGowan says:

Interesting discussion – I found myself thinking about developing a style recently whilst revamping my portfolio site. It’s funny to see how what you think is ‘your’ style change through the years.

Jennifer says:

TYPING ERROR!! Zack Arias does ROCK!

Jennifer says:

Zack Arias Dose rock! He is amazing! Thank for sharing! I am sill working on my style!

Fernando says:

Thank you! Especially for the part on learning from replicating other people’s styles. I’ve come into photography from a background in music and in jazz (& blues & rock) the “school” is trying to work from another cat’s style. You get in there, slow stuff down, learn solos note for note, imitate their tone and then it all adds to your own vocabulary. Eventually you find your own voice.

But, as you guys say, it takes time and you only really see it in hindsight.

steve says:

Weird, I just watched the whole cjlive with Arias last night and you posted this morning. Everyone should go check out the 2-hour conversation; it’s full of valuable knowledge.


DanielKphoto says:

I believe I saw this one live, really glad :) Thanks again for sharing Chase, I love your work/way of thinking/blog/everything and I learn a ton from you!

Developing a style is the most important thing a photographer needs to do. Without a style your work will fail to capture people’s interest. I suggest that you try and find a niche for yourself. Many photographers make the mistake of trying to be good at many different areas of photography to show how good they are- but the great and inspirational photographers have a vision and a style that brings them into the fore.

I loved reading that excerpt. It really drives home that the key to finding your style is — well, it’s just that — going out and finding it. I think that is why we respect certain photographers — those who have invested a life towards their pursuit, and it shows.

It’s also interesting you mention imitation, how those who really KNOW their style built that throughout many years of imitation and experimentation. One day I will have the gray, and maybe one day.. others will strive to imitate me. But they won’t be imitating me, they would be imitating history. And I think that’s why I _love_ photography – it was, is and will always be part of history, both in physical form and in the non-tangible. I find it amazing we all are a part of that cycle, whether we want to be or not.

Thanks for the inspiration, Chase. You always cause a switch in my brain to flip — changing the way I see the world each and every time.

Sergiu says:

It’s kind of crucial to have you’re on style , or that own look that somebody hires you to do for them, especially in today’s shaking industry.The hard part is being original.Inspiration from others is very importaint , but it depends how much of that you combine with your own ideas and feelings to get the end result, with your trademark on it.

Daf says:

I think it’s all too easy when starting out to look at other people’s photos and think – wow those are great – I’m shit. I need to be doing THAT not what I’m doing now. Which I think is a mistake – by all means take inspiration from what you love of others work but try not to judge yourself by other people’s standards.
It’s refreshing when you finally think – wow, Ok – I actually am half decent at this and what I’m doing naturally has merit. :)

Amy Kim says:

The “style” issue has been and is a constant stirring for me as it has not been long since I’ve began photography.
In addition to what is said above, being cognizant of what I like and don’t seems to help. And patience.
Thanks Chase for thoughtful & helpful entries.

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