Maybe it’s an unusual lens, a unique filter, a custom preset, or an unconventional post-processing technique, but a visual ‘signature’ always sets an artist apart.
“Being recognisable is critical in this digital era because people are scrolling so fast that you only have one second of their attention,” the New York-based photographer Mischelle Moy explains.
“Earning recognition for a signature style definitely lent itself to my work being spread across platforms faster and helped me grow my following, which in turn has pushed me to create more and share more, and eventually resulting in promising gigs.”
We asked seven photographers with vastly different—but equally identifiable—aesthetics to tell us about how they developed their styles. Here are their tips for creating your own.
1. Learn to post-process manually (at first)
“I actually learned how the Curves adjustment worked from downloading presets to see what controlling each curve does, but always making sure to edit each adjustment manually during post-processing, from start to finish,” Mischelle tells us.
“Each image may look similar, but they were not processed the same. I have been practising this since day one. Experimenting with various techniques within the software definitely played a big role in figuring out my style.
“Experimenting with various techniques within the software definitely played a big role in figuring out my style.”
“My early experimentation included creating a lot of gradients in the horizon and skies. I was studying all the various sunset palettes and taking them a step further, twisting them into neons and greens to mimic northern light skies. After that, I moved on to understanding the given colours of leaves (by that, I mean the hues that the camera captures) and twisting them to becoming reds and purples or electric blues.
“I think what helped me a lot in understanding the multiple uses of each tool was playing with them, and if you have a hard time figuring it out, download a preset and move everything around—moving the curves, layers, switching blending modes, etc. Once you’ve mastered these tools, you will learn their limits and bend them to work for you in your process.
“Plus, once you become accustomed to this practice, you might realise the benefit of making your own presets for the sake of saving time, but still remember that each adjustment can be altered.”
2. Take photos every day
“In the beginning, I took photos constantly and I looked at a lot of other photography work too,” the Santa Fe-based artist Natalie Christensen remembers. “I tried to emulate what I was most attracted to and so just practised and practised. I think it took me about eighteen months to find my style, and I was shooting for hours every day.
During this initial part of the process, follow your gut and try not to get too wrapped up in the technical details; those can come later. “I had to teach myself to use a camera, and I taught myself the basics of post-processing, but that was the extent of it,” Natalie adds. “For me, it is about ‘seeing’ first. I want to feel something when I look at my images, and if I get too technical, I lose that aspect.”
3. Talk about your work with others
“I was working with a couple of mentors at that time, and they asked questions that helped me see I was getting somewhere,” Natalie tells us. “They also showed me the importance of sequencing and talking about my work.
“I did my first portfolio review in 2017. The decision to apply and go through the process of getting ready for an event like that was a major turning point. The process involved choosing, sequencing, writing about, and printing my work, and then I prepared to meet with the reviewers and speak about it. It all confirmed to me that my ‘style’ was my artistic voice and I should continue to develop it.”
4. Collect photos you love
Eloise and Luc, the photographers behind the creative duo L’oeil d’Eos, are known for their lush, otherworldly pictures from their adventures in landscapes and natural spaces around the globe, but they’re also known as the curators of the popular Instagram hub Explore Observe Share, where they showcase work from other artists.
“Instagram is a great place to get inspired and discover new artistic trends,” Eloise tells us. “We don’t necessarily have a ‘mood board’ per se, but we are always looking for new artists to highlight. We are exposed to so many images every day through the platform, and I think that has informed our own work.”
Of course, you don’t have to start a platform, but keeping a folder of inspirational images, whether it’s a physical binder or a Dropbox collection, is a great place to start.
5. Use your phone (seriously!)
This tip goes back to taking as many photos as possible; while fancy gear is nice, the best camera is the one you have with you, so a mobile phone will do just fine. “I took some film photography courses in college, but my ‘look’ really started around the time the iPhone came out because of the ease of use,” the graphic designer, art director, and photographer Brenton Clarke Little explains.
“I didn’t take it too seriously at first, and I still have an observational playfulness to it. I’m not sure if I really thought about it too much in the early days, but after a while, I realised I was pulling inspiration from minimal, observational film photography from the 1960s-70s and especially that certain look that vintage postcards have. I wanted to make it my own, so I just found a nice balance, and it kind of stuck after a few years of trial and error.”
6. Don’t be afraid to go analogue
“Use all the digital and analogue tools at your disposal,” the Berlin-based artist Navina Khatib advises. “I’ve always played around with analogue filters such as kaleidoscope lenses, foil, or transparent paper and used various layers and multiple exposure techniques. I have always felt annoyed by the endless digital vs. analogue talk. I wouldn’t pay too much attention to that. Try both. Do what makes you happy and you feel confident about.”
“Do what makes you happy and you feel confident about.”
7. Publish your work
Sometimes, getting an outside perspective can help you notice patterns within your work you didn’t know were there. “One important step was sharing my pictures on Instagram for the first time in 2017,” Navina says. “I quickly became known and received so much amazing feedback, which made me spend even more time on it. Quite a lot of people have written to me over the years to say they feel peaceful looking at my photos. Some even use them for meditation.”
8. Travel the world
Natalie Christensen is inspired by the architecture and light of Santa Fe; she says she wasn’t an artist until she moved to the Southwest. Navina Khatib was influenced by the landscape of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, and her trip there marked a significant moment in her career. Eloise and Luc also say their travels around the world have helped shape their work. The idea that a place could inspire an artistic vision came up again and again among the photographers we interviewed.
“A turning point in my Atmospherics project was a 2015 trip to Iceland, where I had the opportunity to just experience the light in that area of the world,” the Vancouver-based photographer and graphic designer Ross Buswell remembers.
“Since then, I’ve been hooked on vast northern landscapes. I think I try to shoot what I’ve learned about light from those locations in all my landscape images now. I’m really interested in capturing light, mood, colour, and texture together in the same image—but I also like my images to have a warm analogue depth to them.”
9. Watch the trends, but then move past them
“I try to avoid trends in image aesthetics,” Ross admits. “I think a good image is timeless. As a graphic designer, and someone who designs and contributes images to album covers, I’m always aware of those trends, but I try not to get too caught up in chasing aesthetic styles. What was cool five years ago will probably be cool again five years from now.
“I want to see more photographers copy less of what they like and really work on their own voice. Figure out your own way to get an effect that someone else is using. It might look a bit different in the end, but that’s how we gradually push things forward.”
10. Embrace change
Your style isn’t something that remains fixed and stagnant, no matter how refined it is. “I’ve gone through several different ‘phases’ of what you might consider different styles, each being appropriate for that phase of my life and what I was trying to express,” the Oakland-based photographer Paul Hoi reflects. “My advice? Create work that excites you, but be ready to abandon a style when it no longer suits you.
“Not when it gets difficult, but when it doesn’t feel like it helps you to express yourself the way you want to. It makes me sad to see an artist who gets attention for a particular kind of work, and that ends up being all the work they do. That happens a lot. It’s like staring at a corpse.
“Create work that excites you, but be ready to abandon a style when it no longer suits you. Not when it gets difficult, but when it doesn’t feel like it helps you to express yourself the way you want to.”
“Don’t do it for the likes. Don’t do it for the marketing algorithm. Don’t do it for reactions or features. It’s a life-long process. At some point, I was a ‘Polaroid photographer,’ then somewhere along the line, I was an ‘infrared photographer.’ I grew up drawing and was exploring ink drawings for a couple of years. I’m now in love with CGI and the creative freedom it gives me.
“Each phase felt like it was honest to my personal circumstances and interests at the time. And each phase is informed by the ones before it. The only consistency has been that I’ve been willing to move on from each phase as I grew as an artist and a person. I hope that feeling of creative movement in my life never stops.
“Learn to let go of things. Learn to move on from a style when it no longer suits you, and be okay when it causes you to lose likes, followers, and the like. In short, keep it strange.”
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.