Monday, 5 March 2012

Creating a photographic style

At some point I am sure we all wished we had 'style'. I probably think about it once a week and my partner probably wishes I had style a few times a day. Anyhow, having style and creating a photographic style are two different things. If you are lucky you have both and the world is at your feet.

For our purposes I'm not going to worry about whether you have style but will concentrate on creating a style. One you are born with and the other you can develop. So, lets look at creating a style largely aimed at 'black tie' or social event photography. Whilst there is some opportunity to create a unique style for other types of event photography this is probably the genre which has the most opportunity to do this. Unfortunately, it also seems to be the genre in which individual styling is least applied. The primary reason for this is probably that Social Event photographers usually work under pressure and there is little time in the process to adjust lighting etc. for each couple or group being photographed.

As a social event photographer I will usually opt for the generic, tried and tested set ups and poses which work and which sell. This usually uses standard back drops, flat lighting, simple posing and easy processing. However, I don't need to change a lot to add an element of difference.

If we identify the elements that create the style of an image we can quickly see how we can change these elements to uniquely style our images. This in mind, lets look at these elements of style.

No backdrop, single colour (black, white etc.), standard mottled, lit backdrop, environmental (uses a feature of the venue), themed, green screen etc.

The choice of backdrop is probably the easiest starting point and will lead us naturally into how we light both the subject and the backdrop. Your photography can feature a specific type of back drop. For example you can use a grey backdrop and light one area with a gelled strobe with a snoot. The basic concept is then consistent throughout your images but the individual images can be posed to vary the effect of the coloured splash.

Soft lighting, harsh lighting, flat lighting, shadowed, sculpted, sharp fall off, separation light. Like backdrops we are spoilt for choice here. You can choose a painter style (Rembrandt lighting for example) or you can go flat (generally safe for events) or you can be a little less soft with the lights and make it your own. The number of lights, the size and type of light modifiers (bare bulb, umbrellas, softboxes etc) and the distance between subject and lights can be used to create a look which is different to the standard two lights at 30 to 45 degrees event set up. I regularly use a single large umbrella set about 20 degrees off centre. Big enough to give lots of even light but offset enough to create some light shadows on one side of the face.

There are as many poses as there are people. The standard poses have been developed over the years to cover singles, couples and groups. Yes, you can do something different but be sure that whatever you do is in keeping with your subjects tastes and expectations. Putting a wind machine on and having your subjects pose like they are head on into an Arctic gale is not likely to be popular with an elderly crowd at a black tie awards ceremony. Posing also opens up another variation which is where do the subjects look. They can look at the camera, at each other, into the distance, dreamily at some spot over the photographers shoulder etc. Wedding and fashion magazines can be a good source of inspiration for new poses. Don't be afraid to try something new or if you notice a look between a couple to recreate it.

A quick aside. Look at features which the subject will not want exaggerating (or even in the picture). A woman with wings under her arms is not going to thank you for shooting her side on with her arms draped over her partner and her wings swinging in the wind.

Close crop, wide crop, landscape, portrait, use of space. Whilst you can and will vary the crop significantly in event photography you can make a particular crop a feature of the image collection. Shooting or adding empty space in processing can create a very different look to an image.

The camera height and angle with respect to the subject will alter the perspective of the subject in the image. Feet will be smaller and heads bigger if shot with the subject looking up and the camera above head height and tilted down. This is the extreme but when you vary height and angle then you vary perspective. I usually try to shoot at a height relative to the subjects height. For children it does mean I kneel and then promise to diet as I get back up.

Focal Length
The choice of focal length should not be determined solely by how far away you are and how much you are trying to get into the image. We can take a close crop at 17mm and stand 4 feet away or move back and take the same shot at 50mm. In the 17mm shot the foremost facial features will be exaggerated and in the 50mm shot the features will look far more natural. We could take the same shot with a 300mm lens and compress the features. You can use focal length to manipulate perceived distance.

Depth of Field
Shallow, deep, face depth, eye only. Depth of field is one of those variables were it is easy to go for the safe option (set lights and camera to F8/F11 and stand 7 feet away) but can make a huge difference to the image and is not that difficult to adjust on the fly without having to adjust the lighting. When you set up your lights set the ISO on the camera to allow you to back off a couple of stops so you can go from F11 to F4 on the camera by just adjusting the aperture and ISO and not having to adjust the lights. This will allow you to do groups and selective focus single person shots quickly. Like the crop you can make a particular depth of field a feature of your photography and whilst it will not be a part of every image it can be dominant in the collection of images. Be careful with very shallow DOF as some will see the out of focus areas as a failure on your part.

Distance affects your Depth of Field and selection of focal length. Combine distance with crop, Aperture and Focal Length and you have a huge number of variations at your disposal.

Camera Rotation
Look for lead lines in groups and individuals. Lead lines will usually be formed by dress (a strong pattern or style) or pose. Rotate the camera to the line and shoot. The angle can be varied to make this bolder or weaker. Be careful though as it can make you look like you would not know a straight line even if you fell over one.

Sharpening, cropping, exposure, black level, grain etc. You can create an unlimited number of variations by adjusting these variable after capture. The style of processing you use is usually related to the lighting style. Hard lighting with strong sharpness and black levels is very different to soft lighting with no sharpening and a standard black level. A level of vignetting in post processing can be a subtle feature.

Colour White Balance
Warm, cold, creative. Colour White Balance can strongly affect the look of an image. In general for social event photography the colour balance should be set in camera and should be slightly warm. However, it is an element which you can change and changing it can be part of your style.

Colour or Black and White
A pretty fundamental one this one. You may choose to only print in B+W and make this part of your style. Not one to use at Proms unless you enjoy being beaten up by mothers.

You could add other elements but I hope I have covered the major ones here. Don't be afraid to try something different. A couple of small changes may well be enough to create enough of a difference without drawing any attention to exactly what is different.

Any variation of any one element has been done many millions of times over the years but put all the elements together and we have many millions of unique combinations and variations. Developing your own style can be an evolving process. You don't need to set a date and change all elements at once. Gradually change one or a selection of elements until you have a look you are happy with and that sells. Don't forget this is a business so having a unique look and style which identifies you is great but if no-one buys it then maybe that is not the style for you.

A parting thought. Style yourself. The most successful event photographers I know have something in common. Well groomed and well spoken. Remember that when you uniquely style your images the client is buying into you and your values and style. You are selling this concept from the moment they first set eyes on you and with the first words they hear.