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Wednesday, 10 October 2007


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Thank you


This is an astute observation on the culture of photographic celebrity, or maybe even on celebrity in general. Distinctiveness is really where it's at. It's identity, standing out from the crowd, a unique way of seeing the world that makes a photographer worthy of note.

I don't think much about creating or keeping a style, but tend work on pictures in a way that is the "best" way to print each particular photograph. On the other hand, I tend to shoot "projects", which helps to keep a focused concept of what you shoot and how you print it. This type of approach has resulted in some people observing, from loking at my Flickr sire, that my work has a "signature" and a "look".

As a result that the best, and perhaps the only effective way to develop a style is not specifically to look for one or try to impose one on your work, although it helps to shoot projects, which is also effective to help you find what to shoot.

Another thought is that a style need not, and should not be too obvious or heavy-handed. In this connection, I remember the essay at the end of Ray K. Metzler's book "Landscapes" in which he is quoted as saying, in a reference to a Salgado exhibition that his prints are good, but that they are all printed to the same "sensibility", that is, to the same tonal palette: Metzker is an excellent photographer and the prints in his Landscape book are printed to various sensibilities, as he feels is appropriate for the particular print. Style can be a subtle rather than an obvious thing; and I tend to think of this each time that I work on a print.


Mike, I appreciate that you don't define photographic success exclusively by monetary gain, and that significant photography, fueled by inspiration or a measure of genius, might exhibit an element of "strangeness," and could be the photographs that someone would dismiss out-of-hand.

Your ideas seem to span all the arts: the musician who might be perfectly content to grind-out cover songs; the writer dumbing-down his prose to mirror Hemingway; the landscape photographer retracing Ansel Adam's tripod tracks. Ironically, the practitioner might even achieve monetary success with these strategies, but not the success you speak of, artistic success.

Hey Mike,

"Instead of a strong stylistic signature, they present themselves as the makers of a wide variety of essentially generic pictures. Here's a typical one: it will have a couple of shots of kids or families; a couple of nature landscapes; some "abstract" closeups; a couple of "found color" shots, usually with the color goosed uncomfortably in software; two or three black-and-white shots, possibly with a "street photography" or "photojournalism" feel. Et cetera. Technically, they'll all be in "ADL," or the Anonymous Digital Look: clean, clear, everything in focus, brightly colored. I think you know the kind of portfolio I'm talking about."

This is exactly my website !!! and exactly why I generally don't like it, even if some people do and like telling me. I have at least as many images I want to add but it is just more of the same for the most part. I have a few things that could pass as a "collection" or portfolio of a theme but always end up in the same place.....I do feel I have made a large leap in terms of quality in the last 6 months though. Whatever "quality" means.

While I enjoy the online world and the friends I have made doing the challenges at DPreview I am by and large at the mercy of my inability to cull and orginize my own work. Heck, I wonder at times if it's even worth it.

Maybe I should have stayed in school and got a degree so many years ago but life and travel were calling. And photography in Chicago (1983)just seemed like a bunch of arrogant, masochists who just wanted someone to sweep up around the place and bully.

Maybe I should go back to school and maybe you should actually start one. That or just charge a consulting fee for portfolio review. The online "critique" thing is boring me stiff and reminds me of college which is likely where that type of thing should remain. Complete strangers (myself included) telling people to follow the rule of thirds, crop a bit here and there and go back durring "the golden hour" is by and large only pertinant to a complete newcomer to photography.

Sorry for the rant and thanks for the most excellent post.

This may be a useful analogy: There are thousands of skilled musicians who earn a comfortable living playing music that someone else wrote and, essentially, copying someone else's style. These musicians play in orchestras, wedding bands, cover bands, recording studio sessions, and so on. Some are highly sought after precisely because they are so adaptable and can blend in so well with everyone else. The musicians we notice and remember, however, are the ones that have a very distinct and recognizable style. Even the most distinterested listener could immediately tell the difference in sound and feel between Carlos Santana and Wes Montgomery; John Coltrane and Kenny G; Barbara Streisand and Big Mama Thornton. Their names alone are evidence of the contrast.

In my opinion, however, just because there is a difference in intention between these two types of musicians (and often stark differences in style between the second type) doesn't mean that one has to make value judgments. One is not necessary better than the other. But if you want to get noticed, you'd be wise to follow Mike's sage advice. The only catch is that being "you" is often a lot harder than you'd think.

Or you could just send them to the Richard Prince exhibit at the guggenheim :)))

While I agree that a very tight and cohesive portfolio is a requirement in areas such as fine art, portraiture, studio, etc., there are fields where variety is the best option. Photojournalists, for instance, are expected to showcase their abilities and talent in a portfolio that rarely exceeds 20 images that encompass images as widespread as sports, news, features, picture stories, portraits and pictorials. Not an easy task to do well. Corporate and wedding photographers, as well, must show a wide variety of imagery to appeal to the widest possible range of clients.

It all comes down to purpose. Portfolios for jobs are often quite different than portfolios submissions to magazines or galleries. A photographer has got to know the intended audience, and tailor the portfolio accordingly.

Your comments strike me as pertaining more to the "making money" kind of success than what I'm talking about....

Mike J.

Mike, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on what it takes to succeed as a photographer. One bit that struck me was this:

"Tragically, many photographers might actually have seen pictures go by that were the real clues to who they really are, to what their personal style should have been; but, ironically, they reject these pictures for some reason, perhaps as being "not professional looking," or otherwise not like pictures they've seen before—and they hit the delete key.

In fact, you ought to do the opposite."

I often find that after having an immediately positive reaction to one of my photos, I'll reject it thinking that it wouldn't be well regarded by others. Occasionally, someone else will see the photo before I hit the delete key and give some affirmation to that first impression of value. While I don't have the talent or aspiration to be a great photographer, I do think that I can benefit by taking your words to heart and learning to trust my own sensibility. This is probably even more important for someone like me than it would be for a great photographer since 99 out of 100 times that someone looks at my photos in the future, that someone will be me. Realizing that, it makes very little sense to throw anything away for anyone else's sake!

I dunno, seems to me that portfolios are all basically the same. The only differences lie in the intended audience (and purpose), whether it be an art director, gallery owner, magazine editor, or personnel manager.

I think one of the greatest things in life is serendipity. I was reading an excerpt of "On Being a Photographer" by David Hurn and Bill Jay yesterday, and it is exactly about what you're talking about. The summary is pretty much that you have to have a consistent body of work, and that to achieve that, you have to deeply know and/or love you subject matter.

Here's the Lynx (scroll down to the bottom, on the Books section):


First I read this post, and then I read Bob Lewis's weekly IT-related column (at www.issurvivor.com/) and then I saw some similarities. True, these two seem unrelated, but that's the fun part. Bob was writing about his recent vacation, and relating it to his IT experience. Mike was writing about people, and relating their questions to his experience in photography. But both write about the intersection of technics, creativity, and business.

From Bob Lewis's main points, as they may relate to developing a photographic style:

1 - Experts experience a different world.

What you see in a photograph is what you see, but may not tell much about where the final image came from. The vision of a world-class photographer comes from who that person is, what that person has been through, and that person's effort over years if not decades. You (and I) might produce an occasional faint copy of a style but can't do it consistently because we just don't live in the right world. It's someone else's world, and we will always be outside of someone else's world.

2 - What you like and what you should ask for aren't always the same.

"You don't always get what you want but sometimes you get what you need." We've all heard variations of this. Still, it's hard to both know what we need and to ask for it. Maybe the problem is the asking. Maybe it has too narrow a focus. Maybe it's just too needy. An artist should never think too small, or be too limited, nor should anyone, really. What you want and what gives you real joy can be delightfully at odds, and an artist really needs to be open to the possibilities of the unexpected.

3 - You can't optimize for everything.

The more you optimize for one dimension, the less optimal your results in all other dimensions. In other words, if you try too hard you'll get something that looks the part. This is especially true if trying to mimic someone else's style, or trying to look like a "professional." If you're really good you'll be unique, and you'll also automatically be optimal for exactly that condition. Relax. Let it happen.

4 - The outside view tells you little about the inside view.

This is similar to the first point, but still a little different. You could call this "mastery of technique." "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is." When you try too hard, you're focused on the wrong things. The vision comes from who you are and also how well you can handle your tools. If you don't know which end of the hammer does the work you're going to have problems. Likewise, if you know which end of the hammer does the work but you still can't pilot it then you're still going to have problems. When you know the hammer so well that you forget it's in your hand, then you are a master and it shows.

5 - Sometimes, what you get is better than what you'd planned.

And being able to recognize this is the core of creativity. "Bad artists copy. Great artists steal." Pablo Picasso didn't necessarily mean that a great artist steals from other artists. An artist can and will steal from himself, or from a chance encounter with the unexpected, from a flicker of a bird's shadow, from a chance sound, a stray word, a child's gesture, the rasp of a grandmother's ancient voice. What happens, every instant of every day, is all inspiration. And it's all unplanned no matter how hard you try to put it into a box.

Hey, you believe in God? You think God has it all worked out? Maybe so, but do you think God is boring and predictable and you have God figured out? Heh. God is smarter than you, and more fun. And whether or not "God" is a concept close to your thinking (not actually to mine) this world is smarter and wilder than all of us put together. Stay loose. Experience the holy fire. Let it burn your butt whenever it wants to.

"Photojournalists, for instance, are expected to showcase their abilities and talent in a portfolio that rarely exceeds 20 images that encompass images as widespread as sports, news, features, picture stories, portraits and pictorials. Not an easy task to do well."

I don't think Mike was really talking about portfolios. I live in the Twin Cities and worked for one of the papers for a while, and knew most of the photographers at both papers. There were two photographers, one at each paper, (and sometimes a third) whose photos I could almost unerringly pick out because of their peculiar eye, whatever the assignment was. I can't even say exactly why, but I'd be looking at the paper and see a photo something would click. These same people were generally recognized as the best PJs at the papers (I wasn't alone in my ability to pick them out.) Despite the fact that they shot all kinds of stuff, their style still showed through. Style is separate from the work.

Talent isn't one thing that exists at one level. And the people who become distinctive usually do so because they are *very* talented and because they work hard at it, and usually, I think, because they have a particular interest. When the Robert Mapplethorpe flap was taking place in Cincinnati, I was talking about it with a photographer friend and asked, "Why would somebody do that?" about the uglier sex shots, and he said, "Because that's what he's interested in." Simple as that. Put talent with a compelling interest, and you have something.

And Mike (I don't know) may be an example of this -- his talent is in writing, even if he thought it was in photography; his *interest* is in photography. The product, which is fairly distinctive, is TOP. 8-)



Terriffic observations.

I was all over the place when I took up photography again. But I've been redacting like mad since you brought that up a while ago. It has helped point me toward a more focused vision. (Wouldn't proclaim artistic success, yet.)

Ironically, I may have admired Howard Bond too much. His body of work made me think one could excel at landscape, architecture, and whatever else might catch your fancy.

I can't.

Mike, I think your ideas about the nature of photographic success are right on. When people ask me for advise or opinions regarding their photos, I tell them two things: (1) That the camera is simply a "Save" button for their mind's eye (that usually gets us past all the technical mumbo jumbo), and (2) That just as with any other form of self-expression, photography requires a "point-of-view" and "taking a stand."

These last two are what one gains with maturity (notice that I didn't say "age"), and maturity comes with self-knowledge. With maturity and self-knowledge often come a certain degree of masterfulness, be it in a professional sense (doctor, lawyer, carpenter), a communal sense (conversationalist, organizer, friend), or a personal sense (living a jojous life, taking the long view, being accepting and forgiving). What do these have to do with photogrpahic success? Nothing, unless you use them to generate your photographs out of who you are, and not who you think you ought to be.

Your suggestion of a Significant Failures folder is right in line. My own photographs tell me more about where I'm going that anything or anyone else, if I'm willing to look carefully, and with as few preconceptions as possible, at them. I also tell beginners (and constantly remind myself), "Learn to look so that you may come to see."

Finally, and what all the preceding has been leading up to, is to not worry about finding a style; just keep trying to find yourself in your work, and your style will almost certainly find you.

I like the idea of significant failures.

Liken it to your favorite music. Do you like overproduced, highly polished sounds with no real insight and experimentation -- or do you like the crazy ones, trying their own thing and inventing their own definitions of quality?

This image is a 2 mp crop that I've interpreted and reinterpreted for hours. It is by far my favorite portrait, even though it's technically not very sound. I put it in my portfolio last year against my own better judgment -- and yet, that's one of the most popular shots.

Have a look at the book of Ansel Adams photographs in his famous Stieglitz Gallery show. Did you ever see such an unpromising looking mish-mash of images? They were, as you described, "a wide variety of essentially generic pictures."
It must have been the famous AA quality of the prints themselves, not thier content, which attracted old Stieglitz.

Mike, you have summed up, quite eloquently, something I have been saying for a long time. Authenticity is where it's at, it cannot be put on like a style. It's a life long journey, discovering who you are, what you relate and respond to, how you feel, and where you came from, all conspire to inform our point of view. It's that point of view that gives us authorship over our images and allows us to be and photograph who we are.

Thanks for this post, I will make it required reading for everyone I know.


I know what you mean - everybody has a photo of a lone tree or branches against the sky. (I do too, although I _haven't_ showed them to anybody. :-)

On one hand, there's something that Michael Reichmann said after putting the photos of elephants on his site. To paraphrase, "Yeah, I know that there's ton of elephant photos out there, but _I_ took these."

On the other hand, I am genuinely interested in landscape, in architecture, in street, in macro, in animals and so on. Should I limit myself to just one type?

And concerning the sincerest form of flattery, for instance, I liked a series of photos by a guy named Mark Tucker. Road photography, if there's something like that, where some of the photos were so postworked they were reminiscent of paintings like Turner's and other old painters'. Exactly because I saw something like that, I'm consciously avoiding doing anything similar. (Photos like number 20 or 32 at http://www.marktucker.com/07dream/index.html, which are from that series. He didn't include the one that looked like a Turner. Pity.)

Good advice about the Significant Failures folder. You really have to be open to that inner voice that's whispering for your attention.

Now that single-copy photo books can easily be created through online services, I'd suggest seeing whether one can put together twenty or so photos that work with one another to support some kind of visual concept or feeling in a small book. Something that can be offered without explanation or apology. Not as a portfolio necessarily, but more as an exercise. Why? To see whether you can create visual structure. Great photographers aren't scattered in their thinking. There's a considered intelligence underlying their work that shapes their expression. They may or may not talk about it, but it's there. If you can't get a small book to hang together, it's a clue that maybe you just don't have the chops, at least yet.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the “you’ve got to develop a style to be a good photographer” argument. It seems backwards. I especially like your suggestion Mike, to identify significant failures and put them in a drawer to learn from over time.
I agree that a good photographer has a style – but I believe it comes from within, as the living essence that occurs in the photos that one achieves when working from the heart with intensity. An evident style is the result of being a good photographer. I don't think that most good photographers became that way by applying a personal style to their photos.

A long time ago, I realized I'll never be great for precisely the reasons mentioned. I don't even consider myself a good photographer, no matter how many people tell me otherwise.

I have nothing but admiration for photographers who have been able to stick with something and develop a style. I on the other hand, don't have the consistency to see a style emerge (at least none that I can make out) simply because I get bored very quickly.
I cannot retain interest in any particular topic for a longer period of time and that's why my collection is all over the place. I like to try new things and new styles. Call me versatile, call me "indistinguishable from a thousand other guys"... I don't care ;)

At the end of the day I enjoy taking photos. If I get paid for it, even better. And that's all there is to it...

Mike, I confess to having no cohesive style(I think?). My measure of a succesful photograph is when I see one and wish I had taken it.

Probably my favourite article of yours for some time, both on here and in Black and White Photography magazine.

My knowledge of photographers is limited, especially in comparison to yourself Mike, but your writing reminds me of the time a friend lent me a National Geographic book (can't remember which one specifically).

The only photographer I knew by name who had worked for NG was Sam Abell, and of his work I knew only 2 specific images - the cowboys branding cattle and the two fishermen at work. As I looked through the book I made a mental note of all the photos that struck a chord with me. Later, when I looked back at the book for a second time, I made a point of checking the name of the photographer who took each image, intending to perhaps buy books of their work for myself.

As I remember it, there was only one name - Sam Abell. Every photo I liked from that book was by the same photographer. That was the first time I understood photographers could really have their own, immediately recognisable style. And I did buy his book, The Photographic Life.

One thing people forget is that until an artist comes along and shows us how it's done, how it makes sense, how it adds up--it doesn't. It's not like those ways of thinking/seeing/being are all out there somewhere waiting to be claimed. They aren't. They have to be created. Nobody knew what a "Dylanesque" song was until Dylan showed us. Nobody knew you could make still lives of toilets and vegetables until Weston did it. Now EVERYBODY knows. But nobody knew before. So it's when you see that thing that doesn't make sense, that doesn't fit in, but that resonates with you, that's what you have to stop and fix on, hold on to, follow.

There was probably an amateur photographer who came along before Weston who thought, hey, that toilet is beautiful, I wonder if I could make a picture just showing the form, the shape--NAAAH! What am I thinking?!? Everybody would laugh at me! Better go copy another pictorialist cliche....

Mike J.

I agree with Chuck regarding intended audience. Cohesiveness that helps form a definable image to picture professionals and having confidence in your own photographic viewpoint aren't the same thing.

My mishmash website got me into a group show just yesterday. I still don't know which specific images the museum director liked best, but it could be that it never would have happened if I had chosen instead to base my website on one narrowly defined theme.

I think the message about finding and staying true to your style is very important. This requires a degree of introspection and personal honesty that is easy in theory but hard in practice.

I ran headlong into this issue about six months ago. I was on a photo trip with a small group of people to a fantastically photogenic part of the world. I came back with about 40 rolls of film that had some beautiful shots in them. I printed them, looked at them on the 'wall of truth' next to my darkroom, and realized that they looked very much like what Michael Kenna would have done had he been along with all of us.

They did not look like my own pictures. So they will never see the light of day other than to supply some nice ersatz college-dorm-room-and-apartment decoration for my daughters.

So, what did I learn? One thing is that it is still a useful exercise to see a place with a perspective that is really not your own. I figure it can't help but add to my bag of tricks that might usefully be employed by me later when I am working on something that is more of my own thing. I would liken the whole exercise as similar to learning to cover a really good song by someone else. The practical experience in doing it cannot help but bleed into your own personal work, even if it is only on the level of technical expertise.

So, what does make a great photographer with a distinctive style? Is it technical proficiency -- the mastery of the camera and the printer? Or, is it creativity, that elusive quality that marks the true artist?

The scientist in me likes to think of these two qualities on a two dimensional axis with technical proficiency on the x-axis and artistic ability on the y-axis. This model can be applied nicely to photography, but can also be applied to other arts, like music for example.

This model is often used in marketing and marketers divide the diagram into four quadrants:

Quadrant 1: low technical ability, low creativity

Quadrant 2: low technical ability, high creativity

Quadrant 3: high technical ability, low creativity

Quadrant 4, the magic quadrant: high technical ability, high creativity

Quadrant 3 is where I sit, along with many of my friends and colleagues. Let's call ourselves the geeks. We love everything there is about the technical side of photography: the cameras, the printers, the paper, the lighting etc. etc. We pore over websites hunting for the latest bit of news from Canon, Nikon and Leica. We hang out in camera stores, panting over lenses we can't afford. We envy the pros, not because they produce wonderful work, but because they get neat stuff like giant white lenses provided for them. When we see images hung in galleries, we critique them for their technical failures. We see blown highlights or poor prints. We see noise in the picture or lens distortion. We read about software and buy every Photoshop plug-in that comes out. Our hard drives are littered with demos of new software products as well as old raw converters that we don't use any more. We may even be professional photographers, working on the fringes, taking photos of weddings or cows or children. Our work is well-executed, but predictable. People admire our photos because they are always in focus, always printed on beautiful paper, always composed nicely. They may buy our photos because they immitate iconic images (canoes on rocky lakeshores, muskoka chairs in the sunset) and we charge market value for our prints. But, we don't get galleries knocking on our doors.

Perhaps the most interesting question of all to me (and I would guess to most aspiring geek photographers) is this: is it easier to become an elite photographer if you are creative first and then acquire technical skill or vice versa? Is it even possible to become creative if you are the kind of person who is drawn to the technical side of photography? Can creativity be learned?

I certainly hope so with all my heart. There is a body of thought that says that creativity can be learned and the Internet abounds with great advice.

I've been at this hobby in a serious way for about 3 years and I must say that my creative side is improving. I've taken a lot of good advice and now work on a series of projects so that my art has purpose. I have created an artist's statement and have thought long and hard about what I'm trying to say in my work. If I take a lot of pictures, I'll occasionaly find one that says something special. And, my art-loving relatives have started to ask for specific prints for their living rooms.

But, I'm not out of the woods yet. I still take lots of iconic stuff like sunrises and sunsets. I still love equipment and pixel peeping. I'm not sure I can discern a particular style emerging, although the choice of subject matter, composition and vantage point is starting to become more consistent over time.

I'm still a geek and I suspect a lot of you are too. I prefer downloading a new piece of software to getting up at dawn to catch the right light from the right vantage point. I'm not sure I have something pithy to say to the world; something different from everyone else like a philosophy or a vision. But, maybe that will come with time and thought.


as charlie_d said, start your own school. your views and comments on all that photo-stuff just rocks. only this post along with the 1-2-3 method is a revelation for the not so experienced one.

I've only ever had one image scrutinised by people in the business - and they weren't terribly nice about it. So, I posted it on Flickr and invited a thousand people to look at it again. And they said the same thing. Well, that image is in a special folder and makes me smile...

I generally agree, especially about the "ADL" - goodness knows I've done it myself (more out of fun than anything else though). And the 1-2-3 system might well be one way to reduce its effect.

My only rub with this article is that it omits one large point: analysis of your own style critiquing pictures. When you talk about ADL you're doing so based on the features visible within the photo - you list "everything sharp" (yes, quite, WHY?!?) but how about seeing the metaphorical frame *around* it as important? Specifically, you could be asking "why did they make this photograph? What were their choices? Would it have been better some other way or is ADL actually not a bad choice?".

I find all my significant future signposts in my significant failures bin. Usually when 'the internet' doesn't like it, or doesn't get it, I know I'm on to something.

Very nice elements to this essay.

One way that I see it happening elsewhere is how a «Greatest Hits» collection of an artist is a horrible album, in the sense of flow and attraction to it. The problem is that it is likely to not speak with one voice, but selects songs that were hits, perhaps to different audiences/generations. Meanwhile, less successful acts, with no Billboard hits, may succeed because they make a more cohesive selection, even across many albums.

You (Mike) can probably mention books from excellent photographers that just don't work well. For me, the clearest one is a comprehensive Hiroshi Sugimoto book, while a book (e.g., Architecture), works very well, and I love it. Then, someone like Michael Kenna can be more comprehensive.

Another validation for one of your points can be found on flickr. The (arguably) most popular photographers there demonstrate a style -- not necessarily unique -- which is VERY consistent. A more critical audience moves up in sophistication by demanding something in the style that sets them further apart.

However, for all the success of a well-known (or recognizable) style, there is the potential pitfall of dominant gimmick (a bad word choice perhaps). One excellent example, to me, is long exposure photography and how it can dominate a photographer, rather than the other way around.

I would think that a portfolio is the equivalent of the 30 second pitch in an elevator to a CEO (or similar): demonstrate what you are about, and different, and the impression that one can do any style should be an inference and not a explicit statement.

As Winogrand said, "the best images are always on the verge of failure." The difficult part is to know when you're on the verge or off it.

There is no ideal time to evaluate your own work and all judgments are temporary.

Your articles always inspire me and make me think. This one really hit me hard. I have been shooting so many different subjects from landscapes to street photography to macro.........and........I never developed a noticeable style (at least I don't think I have). I have had my moments where pictures I have taken made me feel like I was moving towards something above "typical". I shoot full frame digital and the post processing can easily be used to create effects and unique post processing methods can be used to form images that look unique and I guess that can be considered your signature look. But if the passion for it is not there and you are just doing it for the sake of doing it....then that is not style.....it's an empty vessel of pretty photos that just sit there and get the occasional 2 second glance from a viewer who quickly moves on to the next photo.

A big part of making things confusing is too many choices in the digital era. What body? Which lens or lenses? How will I process the photo in Photoshop? Should this be black and white or should I make it a high contrast super saturated picture that jumps off the screen? I think it's reasonable to imagine one photo having 100's if not 1000's of different "looks" depending on what Photoshop editing you will do to it. I'm rambling here and I hope some of it makes sense.

I sometime wish I could just forget about all of it and simply go out with a Leica M7 and a 50mm f/1.4 lens and do nothing but wander around for hours on end......day after day taking photos and forget about editing the pictures and simply have the photo lab down the street develop them for me. Then life would be simple and a style would emerge.

Thanks for the thought provoking article Mike.

Hello Mike,

I think that for commercial success a photographer has to find a niche where they can provide something different to the thousands of other talented and keen photographers out there. In my case, I have found that by specializing in images of Japan and being able to write about the subject I can provide a "product" that few others can produce. By creating this niche you then have the chance to create unique images that will hopefully be a commercial and critical success.


Having just now read the article again (maybe all the way through for the first time) I think it important to point out something......

While I still agree that you nailed many good points I don't agree that people must work t'words a "single unique" signature. The artists you mention painted a fairly narrow and defined "style" and I dare say it would be very easy (for someone like yourself) to guess corectly at an unknown image.

Many photographers old and new are curious and interested in many genres and work in many styles. They do seem to have a signature within each however. I think that still falls in line with what you are suggesting?? (I think)

I dare say it would be much more difficult to identify a never before seen print of say.... Harry Callahan, Paul Strand, Ernst Haas or a Joel Meyerowitz.

Those guys all did pretty good no?

Thanks again for a very good read Mike

What a wonderful article -- thank you, Mike. And so many insightful and thought-provoking comments as well.

There's so much to digest, and I have little to add. My humble way of thinking about this is simply that the key is honesty -- to be true to yourself and your vision. Without this in the photographer, there can't be anything worth looking at in his or her work.

Vague, I know. And maybe I'm fooling myself -- but I think I can recognize dishonesty when I see it.

No, not a modest contribution at all! Honestly is a very important aspect of all this.

Mike J.

I once did a book featuring numerous photos of rural folks working with draft animals. It took most of a year, and I did my best. A friend of mine--a painter at the height of a long, successful career--one day showed me a few "snapshots" he'd taken of the same creatures. The photos were jaw dropping in their originality: camera position, framing, etc. It was like I hadn't really seen the subject until I saw these snapshots. I doubt my friend had spent 30 seconds taking them. The experience wasn't enough to make me sell my cameras, but it certainly made clear to me the power of an original mind.

Peter wrote:
"I agree that a good photographer has a style – but I believe it comes from within, as the living essence that occurs in the photos that one achieves when working from the heart with intensity. An evident style is the result of being a good photographer. I don't think that most good photographers became that way by applying a personal style to their photos."

I don't believe that Mike was suggesting that you "apply" a style, but rather, that you "find" your style, which fits in line with your belief. His idea of saving "significant failures" (I like that BTW !) is in line with this ... you try to discover which images appeal most to you and then why, and then use that to drive you to do more of what you really want to do. I'm not far along with this process ... I'm letting lack of time get in my way ... but I started making a little progress after reading a few articles along these lines in "Galen Rowell's Vision". These articles suggested similar introspective exercises for identifying common threads in the photos you like best.

Tony wrote:
"Mike, I confess to having no cohesive style(I think?). My measure of a succesful photograph is when I see one and wish I had taken it. "

I have this reaction to a (very few) photos by others. I have to wonder, if I started collecting those photos in one place and could look at them together, what I'd see. (Actually, I can think of a recent one, and I think I'll start such a collection right now !)

Carl Root wrote:
"My mishmash website got me into a group show just yesterday. I still don't know which specific images the museum director liked best, but it could be that it never would have happened if I had chosen instead to base my website on one narrowly defined theme."

I admit to being a rank amateur in such discussions, but Carl - from the day I first looked at your portfolio on photo.net, I was immediately struck not so much by individual pictures as with the body of work ... to my eye, your portfolio is anything but a mishmash and exemplifies perfectly a personal style. Don't ask me to try putting it into words, but I could look at a photo and say "hey, that reminds me of Carl Root's photography". (That's not exhaustive, I'm sure you could post many of your pictures individually and I would not have that reaction, but I still think they mostly all fit together stylistically).

It's interesting to see both Dylan and Picasso mentioned in the comments above as support for Mike's argument, when I see both of them as being on a lifelong struggle to "kill" the most recent version and grow a new one. Then, damn, it's time to kill that one too. Dylan seems to be so completely sick of Dylan. There's always an old Dylan lurking in the newest one, but he's trying. I saw him perform last summer, and many of his old "trademark" songs were so deconstructed and fit into his new style that they were all but unrecognizable until a well known phrase came up.

Picasso too; you can walk through the Picasso museum in Paris and there are a lot of different people who worked under the name of Picasso. Or one "person," but one constantly shedding his skin, becoming someone new.

The Buddha said there is no "you," no self, at least not the way you think of it in your every day mind. And this is relatively easy to experience with a meditation practice. With a deep, long term meditation practice, the experience that there is no solid "you" becomes very clear. "You" is a process, a set of tendencies, something that changes a lot based on set and setting and the moment. As awareness loses allegience to "I" it becomes more available to the energy of the moment. Creativity is more possible in every second. If the energy and the situation of a moment has to fit the template of "I," much of what's really happening will be missed.

Since I've been photographing I've been aware of the Dylans and Picassos, and then the Rothkes and Pollacks, who get a single thing and keep to it. It does seem that the latter tack seems to be far easier for the general public to understand and buy. And Buy. Don't get me wrong, I love Rothke. In the right mood I think Pollack showed genius.

Since I was a skinny kid with a pony tail lugging a view camera all around in a backpack, I've changed my own skin a lot of times. There is certainly a thread of awareness and something like an "eye" that has persisted. I'm not skinny and don't use a view camera any more, but there's far more to it than that. I'm glad I'm not in my old skin -- that would be too tight. I'm glad I didn't find a box and stay in it. There are a lot of spaces I still want to explore.

These days, there is less of a "me" that I can identify. I think Dylan would be proud.

Hi John L.,
All points taken, but consider also Neil Young, who determinedly went looking to shed his old skin and reinvent his style--numerous times--when he already HAD the perfect style. To me, the NY of the Ditch Trilogy is perfect, and then he went meandering off trying to be a Star Wars punk rocker, a nostalgia band, a techno-electronica band, a horn-based R&B guy--all a search for style where none was ever needed.

The point of which is--? I don't know. Except that maybe part of finding your real self is knowing it when you find it.

Mike J.

-- Or that you can't really shake the set of tendencies we call a "real self. " Neil sure couldn't ever play one guitar chord on Old Black or sing one note without being clearly Neil.

Also my "Dylan would be proud" is absurd. Dylan would never be proud of me!

The thing is I've been wrestling with this for years, and more and more recently, now that it's relatively easy to show my work in different collections.

I also completely agree with the poster who said, "If you can't make a book hang together..."

I guess that's where it fits together for me. Even if you don't photograph in the same style all your life, you have to be able to hang a show or make a book that works together.

And I agree with you, Mike, in your post for the most part. But then there's this other side I wrestle with, the angels on my other shoulder, who are often even more silver tongued than you.

This week's photo of the week on my site is completely different from those of the last three weeks, which did show remarkable continuity of style. But I like this week's too.

Buddhism sounds a lot like libertarianism to me in that I love the idea of it until I actually learn some details of it ;)

Me/I seems to be about how I look at things or what I see. I imagine this ought to evolve over time, but evolution is slow. In regards to the musicians, it strikes me as similar to objections over "applying a style" to your photography; finding your style is different from applying your style. I like Mike's writings on topics of style & portfolio because they strike a chord with me, just like the articles in Galen Rowell's Vision I mentioned earlier, and forum discussions on dpreview by an artist named Norman Rich who talked about presenting photographs "in series" rather than striving for the standalone image. He talked about using the camera to "study" a subject - sort of a shortened exercise along the lines of the long term study of subject matter discussed in "On Being a Photographer" (that sample chapter someone pointed out makes me want to read the rest of that book).

And finally, I simply prefer to look at presentations of photographs that are visually well organized. I don't mind so much if a photographer does street photography, landscape photography and wedding photography, but I want to be able to look at one kind without the other. And it goes beyond that ... if a collection of b&w pictures, it's distracting to see different tones together; inconsistencies in contrast, but more the colors ... a tinge of sepia here, a tinge of blue there, this one sort of pinkish ...

Discussions like this creep into my views of photography over time ... too slowly for me to even become a good photographer, but better slowly than not at all !

Interesting point of view Mike. I will try to follow your advices, especially this one which I liked: "Whenever you get a picture that looks wrong but that you kinda like anyway, a picture that you like even though something about it bothers you, a picture that appeals to your eye but that you assume no one else will like, quietly put it into the Significant Failures folder. Don't show these to anybody."

I wholeheartedly agree about the "Significant Failures" folder. I'm always amazed by how many younger photographers automatically delete so many pictures just because it's digital and they can. And then they wonder why their photography is not really improving...

This is one of the best, if not THE best essay on developing a good photography style that I've read. Very well done -- at least to to this tyro!

I had one more thought about this driving home tonight ... the differences in the portfolios Mike describes remind me of albums (yes, records) back when putting together a good album was an art. Springsteen's Greatest Hits will never approach Born In The USA even if you actually like more songs on Greatest Hits; Dire Strait's Brothers In Arms will never be equalled by a collection; Who's Next beats Who's Greatest.


This seems like wonderful advice.

I have one thought on the matter, having looked at the portfolios of a lot of artists trying to break into the museum world:

There's one struggle trying to make a great image. There's an entirely different one trying to sort out the meaning and value of images, and how they might be of value to others. And you have to forget that first struggle when it is time for the second.

Thanks for an excellent post.

Yes, and I think it's a good thing if Springsteen picks up an acoustic guitar and makes an album of Pete Seeger cover tunes. I think better of him for doing it. Even cooler if he could play a banjo.

Somehow it's easier for me to talk about this musically than by referencing photographers. Why is that? Partly I don't want to say anything bad about some of the masters of our time who have been stuck in a small-ish style box their whole lives. Partly I guess it's because, as Mike points out, there is little in the way of successful contrast.

I think my favorite living musician these days, and for the past several years, is Bill Frisell. While he can have a distinctive sound -- one note and you know it's him -- he can also venture very far and wide, sometimes within a show. He's constantly putting together new and odd groups of amazing musicians, a bit like that other skin-shedder Miles Davis. I've seen him in the middle of a rocking electric set put down his electric guitar, pick up an acoustic one, and have a hoe-down-from-mars duet with Tony Sherr. And I like that a lot. I think he's stretched across more genre-and-mind-bending territory than any musician playing, and he's my favorite.

I guess I want to do that too, and my axe is the camera.

Style does plays an important part to one's photography, as a photographer for the last 20 years I am finding it hard to have a style of my own, because If I am inspired by famous photographers I try to shoot what I see , but not thier style I also feel when I first started shooting I had a style a fresh vision, I am still struggling defining myself with what kind of photograpy I shoot , I shoot alot of Urban Landscapes of New York City. I am trying to create a style or a visoin of my own, so what I am saying one has to start shooting at avery early age in life , I only started to shoot when I was in my twenties , I also believe style and vision has alot to do with the age you begin to shoot.


But isn't the distinction you are making, Mike, that of the difference between a great photographer and a good one. I took a look at charlie d's portfolio - he's a good photographer. Sorry, Charlie you are not great yet so keep working at it. As a good photographer you might take a great photograph. If you take unique photographs then you will become great. Winongrand said, I think: if you look through the viewfinder and see a familiar shot (I paraphrase) then don't take it.

Anyway, Mike, you've brought out the self-flagellants in force with this post. Personally, I ain't great, I ain't good but I'm really into the business of getting better and getting a buzz out of it!

I took a look at charlie d's portfolio - he's a good photographer. Sorry, Charlie you are not great yet so keep working at it. As a good photographer you might take a great photograph. If you take unique photographs then you will become great.

Hey Rod,

Thanks very much for even taking the time to have a look. I'm not sure if I am even good!

My site is quite out of date, and I hope to have it reshaped into a more coherent and indicative form. It has never really been a portfolio in the truest sense. My girlfriend built it for a class project with the back end allowing me to ditch using photobucket or other service to host and share photographs.

I make no large or even small claims about the quality or importance of my work, I just make photographs.

With any luck and loads of work I hope to maybe some day make "something"

Thanks again.

I make no large or even small claims about the quality or importance of my work, I just make photographs.

Charlie that's probably where the both of us are going wrong. Get out the megaphone!

But seriously, I've been struck by the thought that many great photographers were also deep thinkers about photography as well - many have written about their work, not in a technical way but more about the aesthetic qualities. They saw a purpose in photography that the ordinary snapper doesn't consider.

At the moment I'm like many serious amateurs at the post snapper phase trying to take photographs just like the ones I admire taken by others. I'm imitating and flattering my betters in exactly the way Mike points out. One day I hope to have the vision and confidence to get a few significant failures. And the first step in the programme to throw imitation addiction will be to resolve never to take another cute sunset ever again!

(That's a subject for you, Mike, a ten step programme to wean us from cliche. What she should vow not to photograph)



Guilty as charged. Sigh. Maybe it is time to revise my website. Again. First I'm going to print this post and responses and read it in bed.

I signed up because I wanted to humbly thank you for what you have written.
For so long I posted at various well known art sites and a critique site, and was well receieved. One of the major critiques I receieved was that I was not diverse enough.

I specialized in Maco floral, floral, birds, still life, skies [no, not sweet sunsets and sunrises, but dramatic cloud formations], birds and animals. My flowers were said to be recognizable as my work - 'cold', and yet I was told to get out and try other things as I could become 'stuck' in one zone. So I removed most of my flower shots, became rather disilluioned and turned to fractals, and mathemtically ended up making flowers there. :)

I did take advice given per the photography, but my heart was not in it. My folders still filled with the subjects I 'felt' within me, and ones I could put a signature to proudly, even though I still need a lot of tech help at times, and am still learning.

But this post is to thank you, and I cannot thank you enough! You made my day, and I will continue to 'follow what is within' because I 'know' I cannot imitate others, it just isn't within me.


Is it possible to have a "style" if you're a photojournalist or documentor of events?

I find myself strongly agreeing with Mike's overall message. The inimitable styles of certain photographers I like--Ninagawa Mika and James Whitlow Delano, for example--immediately spring to mind. However, there are numerous examples of accomplished amateurs who find their "individual" style within a stylistic trend. I note of late that these include b&w wide heavily burnt skies, color wide urban scenes with saturation way down, and b&w wide high contrast, high grain street work.

Hi , nice post with some interesting points.

I am still looking for my direction or style.

if anyone cares to help please take a look at my website www.richarddaniels.com. Comments much appreciated.

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