How to develop your own unique style of photography
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A proliferation of images has most of us asking whether or not we have found our voice amongst so many others.
With digital photography, engineers and color scientists made the appearance model of digital imagery to try to emulate WYSISWYG. And they did a great job.
The captors themselves don’t see an image even close to how it looks after being processed. What you see on screen is an abstraction as it passes through many steps, many states of image building, by running the document through a processor. The good news is that, for those who shoot raw, having a digital negative is an opportunity—a playground for you to find your unique vision and bring it to life.
When film was the only support for photography for the masses, the film had an inherent bias to it in terms of color, density, grain character, etc. Even if shot and processed without straying from the recommended process, it still had a “look”.
That look, however, was only expressing a single preference—an attempt to represent a pleasing color, similar to that seen by the eyes and imagined in the mind.
How did photographers start developing unique signatures?
For Peter Lindberg, it involved shooting under exposed Tri-x, and then pushing in development. That gives deep blacks, some grain, and a shiny highlight. Color films were cross processed in many ways that created a signature.
Nick Knight, for example, did lots of VPS color negative in E6 chemicals. Some did color negative over exposed 4 stops, and pushed 2+. Lots, perhaps too many, did E6 in C41.
Like a color palette, the way you use a knife to push the paint around on a canvas, like the very act of construction of a painting, photography is no different. Peter Lindberg, Nick Knight, Paolo Roversi, each and every photographer wants to find a signature to what they do to differentiate themselves. While Lindberg likely has his influences in darker post war graphics yet ranging back to the “follies” era, that dark romantic style is in fact his signature. It is definitely part of his creation, before during, and after. Without the processing, the images would be turned towards a more mainstream image with less unique style.
Nick Knight came through a punk rock era, and was surely around artists that were using hallucinogenic and delirious colors derived through not only film such as Polaroid, but in film processing techniques. In fact Nick Knight likely was a pioneer in that respect, pushing the limits of what could be done by processing to the extreme. When you looked through any Avant Guarde magazine, you knew without reading the credits it was a Nick Knight series. That is what a signature is.
Paolo Roversi had worked most of the time with Polaroid 8×10. By mixing up the film negative and positives and lighting for this marriage, the results were always a unique blend of a color array, tone, and density, which created the look on film. One cannot forget that the models, styling, photographers interaction are just as important, yet we are talking about the development aspects that derive a signature.
Since the demise of Polaroid films, Roversi has had to adapt in a new way. We now see full evolution with a similar look from digital capture. The cold and soft shadows and creamy pink rose highlights are simply created in development from raw images. His signature is maintained, and we go on recognizing the total look, digital or not.
Searching for a unique style
These days we are again searching for a unique style to our images. This starts before an image is even opened in Photoshop.
Your signature is a cumulative effect of all of the elements lighting, composition, and in the case of model photography, models styling, hair and makeup, and décor. Yet, why leave all the intention up to a generic WYSIWYG delivery?
As I see it, every image from raw has enormous potential. Not only at the time of capture but after the fact, and after being developed and edited. The more you learn and practice on your raw images the further you can push the edges, and find your signature, unique to your images.
Images in RAW format are just information files off the captor, and a lot of other details needed to draw an image. The image is actually three channels of monochrome levels of the response to what color was hitting the photosites. It is all mapped to through processes to form an image as you see drawn on screen, camera LCD etc.
Accepting the images with the controls sets by default will not put a signature other than generic on your creativity.
To make your voice sing, record your signature into your images is by exploring digital development from raw. Personally, I love Adobe LightRoom, yet that is simply because LightRoom is a visual dream machine. The exact same color conversion engine and controls are built into Adobe Camera Raw. Every version of Photoshop will have some version of ACR in it. You can use Bridge as a browser and organization tool, and ACR as the portal into what you are doing onscreen.
What gives you that look exactly?
For me, it is the tone shape, and volume created. Since the RAW image is by default made to look like reality, you must change that truth to something else. While that can be anything, what I think is the key, is the way the shadows define the depth as well as the tone distribution, the way the saturation makes the image either illustration, and overall coloration which plays into the mood evoked.
An image that lives is one that becomes dimensional by its shape, and being it is 2D it can only be by tone, and where the tones are, how they are distributed. Since the default capture should be fairly close to what you think you saw (granted exposed correctly) you could say, well that is it, you would be missing the opportunity to make a signature out of your images.
This edu article is about the notions of making a signature, not a tutorial on the applications used, yet some examples are here for relevance. [My blog contains tutorials on lighting and LightRoom development settings.]
The first is a daylight primary source photo, afternoon sun. As shot tethered, into LightRoom directly the images looked like example 1. That is the default rendering of the raw. Close enough to what I saw albeit more contrast as the eye sees into shadows that a camera cannot.
Example 2 is the first set of correction I applied for the images coming into the computer while shooting. Adjustments to exposure, tint, white balance, and fill light all helped to make it look like I thought I wanted to see it without adding a “look”.
Example 3 is where by adding split toning, some brush strokes to dodge and burn, changes in individual color HSL, all add a signature to the image. By adding a touch of magic, it becomes an image that has a hint of coloration, a touch of highlight and shadow that shape the image, and all make it a beautiful reality.
Example 4 is simply a revisit, another control set on top of the image in example 3, just the same could have been on top of a virtual copy from raw as a start point. It too has a signature, as the de-saturated look is popular, and when combined with the previous highlight and shadow tones, some local dodge and burn, and color tweaks it becomes a very strong statement without any retouching.
Your signature must be made in B&W
The key to B&W is contrast, and where the tones are distributed.
As the color defaults, the B&W default control sets are made to represent a generic panchromatic view of the said image if you simply click on the B&W setting. Same goes for the B&W control settings in camera, or any other editing program.
LightRoom is supplied with a lot of presets like sepia, high contrast etc, even infrared. They are a good start point for beginners. Other third party apps or plug-ins like Nik software have very good presets. Yet beware, you are not creating a unique signature by using widely distributed presets!
What LightRoom or ACR offer, are methods of filtering what the captor saw in three color channels, back into grey levels. One way to begin is by selecting B&W, and then going back up to White Balance. Then the tint will quickly move the tone around, allowing you to play with that. Next, is the all-important B&W color distribution sliders. You find some dynamic edits happen visually as you move the distribution of what the captor saw in color relative to where you set the assumed adjusted white balance and tint.
After you’ve created a dynamic image it’s not finished. The Tones panel is your last playground that will make or break the images.
Once you’re there and happy with your style choice (a potential “signature”) made in the negative, save that preset so you can apply it to more images and adapt it to other shoots.
Things like clarity, fill, sharpening and grain are all just more additional “voices”. I usually apply a first set, and then do whatever pixel level editing in Photoshop, and then return to LR for making further virtual copies, with yet more development settings.
Here is an example. B&W 1 is the default RAW preview.
B&W 2 is a highly modified control set with increase in exposure, black clipping, tone curves, white point, B&W distribution, then split toned to give it that sepia tone which I love.