It’s Always Been You

What does it mean to develop a “personal style”?

In the summer of 1980, I had my first experience teaching photography, leading “camera walks” for The Ansel Adams Gallery. I was 26. I guided 10 to 20 photographers into Cook’s Meadow, where we would stand before Yosemite Falls to discuss technique. I was often asked what shutter speed to use. I would say I don’t know what shutter speed will give you the effect you want. Try many shutter speeds, I told them. The person asking that question would often be surprised at my reply, having expected the “one right answer.”

Image of a pebble under rippling water

Pebble and Ripples, Ahwahnee, California, 2020. Sony a7R IV, Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS. Exposure: 1/4000 sec., ƒ/2.8, ISO 800.

Over that first summer, guiding camera walks five days a week, I developed a more refined answer to “how to do it” questions. I told my groups that I wanted to teach them how to teach themselves what they would like best—whether regarding shutter speeds, apertures, exposure or composition—not what I thought was best or some book or other instructor felt was best. It is all about learning to trust one’s own instincts.

Throughout that summer of teaching, I learned that many people did not have a sense of their unique perspective. They would say they had no artistic ability, often having been told this when growing up, whether directly or indirectly by a parent or teacher. 

From that summer of 1980 onward, I opened camera walks or my workshops by asking my students the simple question: What is the most important aspect of photography? They would answer that the light was most important, or it was the composition, but they never answered what I felt was the correct answer. My reply was that they themselves, the photographer, were by far the most essential element in making photographs. I would typically see puzzled looks. I would then ask them if they believed they’re a unique person. Of course, they said yes. I would say each of us has a unique viewpoint, perspective, passions and experiences. Therefore, I feel that each of us can learn to express our uniqueness.

How does a photographer develop one’s “personal style,” that uniqueness each of us holds within? The very first step is to believe in your potential as an artist. Like with shutter speeds, there is no one correct answer or pathway. The key elements for creating an expressive photograph as I see it are a passion for what and where you photograph; a willingness to explore and experiment with creative directions, technically or emotionally; and persistence to pursue subjects that move you over months or years to build depth in your portfolios.

Making the “Rock and Ripple” photograph above involved many aspects of “developing a style.” I played with various shutter speeds and apertures to see their creative effects. Even still, I didn’t decide on one best technical choice but experimented while referring to the back of my camera to see if I liked the effect. With years of experience and after a few trial exposures, I noticed that a fast shutter speed best preserved the textures and shapes in the water, which conveyed the energy of rippling water moving around the stone. 

The composition I selected was a stylistic choice in terms of what I included or excluded. As I often do when framing an image, I applied a subtractive approach to my image designs, taking extraneous elements out of the broader scene until only the essence remains: rock and ripples only. I was aiming my camera straight down, so I rotated the camera to find the best placement of the rock and the angle of the ripples. I think the diagonal lines of the ripples add dynamic energy to the image.

As you play with various creative tangents, your preferences will begin to develop and become apparent, and naturally, you’ll spend more time focusing on the preferred directions.

If you wish to examine the subject more deeply, I recommend reading Guy Tal’s book, Another Day Not Wasted, in which he wrote:

The idea of finding a style suggests that there is something to be found. But personal styles are not found, they evolve in the course of working, experimenting, succeeding, failing, discovering, and course-correcting over time. The proper answer, therefore, is this: you don’t find your style; you wait for your style to reveal itself to you—you work intuitively for as long as it takes until in hindsight you recognize commonalities emerging naturally and consistently in works you consider as your most creative and meaningful.

Alister Benn is another friend who often speaks eloquently about the process of creating expressive photography. He wrote:

The idea of a personal style is a curious one, it somehow implies something constant and identifiable, like a butterfly pinned to a cork board. I prefer to consider it like this: We live on an emotional spectrum, each of us knows sadness and joy, excitement and melancholy. These are human conditions with which we can all identify. I can make an image that represents any of the emotions that we can experience, and it will have a distinct feel. Personal style can embrace our full spectrums of experience and expression; fluid, changeable and evolving, as we are. The more we limit ourselves to one facet of expression, the sooner the others become neglected, fade or perish.

I hope I have stimulated some thought regarding your evolution as an artist—where you are now and where you want to go. We get where we want to go by enjoying the process and doing the hard work along with all the ups and downs, the lulls and growth spurts that go with the journey. There is no touchdown or goal scored that lets us know we have arrived. I’ve barely photographed at all in the last couple of months, but I wait patiently, knowing that the inspiration will return, and my own vision will continue to evolve.

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.