The multi-steps process that leads to developing a personal style

By Alain Briot

Genuine art, we say, has “vision,” and good poetry and good seeing quite literally go together almost always. Yet before the more literal seeing can liberate itself into that other vision we speak of, a transfiguration is needed: the eye must learn to abandon its long habit of useful serving and take up instead an active delight in its own ends
Jane Hirshfield in Kingfishers Catching Fire: Seeing with Poetry's Eyes

A – Learning how to see

If only I could tear out my brain and use only my eyes.
Pablo Picasso

1-To try and photograph everything is to end up photographing nothing well
Most photographers, both beginning and more experienced, want to photograph everything – the whole of the subject. In doing so they often end up photographing nothing, nothing of value in terms of their images presenting a different perception of the land in front of their lens. We end up seeing in their work the same we see in many other people’s work.

By definition seeing is selective. Vision, which is the end product of seeing, the outcome of being able to see, of having the ability to see what others do not see, is choice. Vision is saying yes to some of the subject and no to some of the subject, usually no to a much larger part of the subject. A selection has to be made for we know that to photograph everything is to photograph nothing.

Why is that? Simply because it takes years and years to photograph well –read see well, see like no one else’s sees- part of the total reality offered to us daily. It takes a huge amount of time and effort to do so. Therefore, if you try to photograph everything that is offered to you –if you try to See everything that is offered to you- you will fail, not because you must fail, but because you will run out of time before you can perfect your vision of any given part of the total we are offered daily. You will not be able to put the time required in any of these countless number of parts, and instead you will dilute your efforts, resulting in banal images at worst, or images that “have potential but aren’t quite there yet” at best.

2-You must therefore be selective
There is a number of ways of doing this. But let me start with this remark. A lot of students tell me, when I say that they have to be selective, that they have already been selective by choosing Landscape Photography as their field, thereby eliminating portraits, product, advertising, still life, etc, etc. Certainly, this is selection. That’s the good news. But the bad news is that this is not enough, not even close. If you hold this belief, you need to go further, way further, and start being selective in your chosen field of endeavor, i.e. landscape photography. You see, landscape photography is a field of action, not a selection. The selection comes in when you make choices about what you will and will not photograph in this field of action

Example 1: Comb Ridge Clouds

I was asked several times what this photograph of Navajoland is about. Each time my answer is the same: it is about Navajoland, albeitedly about an aspect of Navajoland that few people get to see. It is not about Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly or Antelope Canyon, to name but a few of the most popular and better-known aspects of Navajoland. Instead, it is about a more discrete aspect of Navajoland, one that many drive-by unaware, one that most may not even see, yet one that most visitors do know and appreciate, but do not think of as the subject for a photograph. Rather, for many visitors the contents of this image are part of the ambiance of Navajoland, part of the feeling and the visual landscape that surrounds them. It is not why they went there necessarily, and hence they do not seek it. Rather, it seeks them.

Only a full awareness of what you are looking for in your subject will lead you to photograph scenes like this one. To me, these are the most satisfying images because they go beyond the surface of things, beyond the expected reality of a given place. It took me years to see them.
I know that because these images are by nature subtle, precise care has to be taken first when composing them and second when adjusting their tonal scale.

3-You must be selective within the field of landscape photography
A lot of people assume, when I make this statement, that this selection applies to subject matter alone. For example, selecting to photograph only trees, or a particular species of plants, or just flowers, or only grand landscapes. Certainly, this is true. But it is only part of the possible selection. Again, you need to go further.

4- You need to define the light you want to work with.
The light you use is critical. To be selective about the light you use is therefore a crucial step in the selection process. Which light are you going to use? Direct, indirect, diffused, backlight, etc.? Are you going to photograph on cloudy days only, or on sunny days only? This is a key decision in your approach. Maybe you want to photograph only at night? And yes, you can control which light you use even though you cannot turn the sun on and off. You control it by deciding when to go out and photograph, and when not to go out. This decision is made on the basis of the type of light available outside on any given day, at any given time of that day.

5-You need to define your approach on the basis of what you love to do
The choice of equipment you use is also very important. Most photographers use equipment that is convenient rather than because it is appropriate for their approach. I recommend you define your approach first, and then purchase equipment that fits this approach. This may mean changing your current equipment, or it may mean keeping your current equipment. It may also mean changing some of what you already have and keeping some of what you already have. The answer to how much or how little can only be found after you defined your approach.

So what is your approach? Your approach is what you are comfortable doing, what you enjoy doing. Your approach is not what you don’t like doing, what you don’t feel comfortable doing. In other words, do what comes naturally, do what you like to do. Even better, define your approach based on what you love to do. Get rid of what you are doing because you saw someone else do it, because an ad made you believe this was right for you, because you idolized a pro who uses a particular approach which you, willy-nilly, thought should be yours as well.

6-You need to study photographers who do or did what you love to do
No matter how specific your approach and your choices the probabilities are high that someone else made exactly similar, or very similar choices. It’s a humbling realization, but it is a realistic realization, and it is a realization we have to be comfortable with. When this happens, and it will, the only thing you can do is study the work of these other photographers in such depth and detail that you become the world’s expert on their work. Only then will you be able to surpass what they have done. In other words, how close you will get to doing what they are doing, and how much further you will be able to go, depends on your willingness to work hard enough to understand their work better than anyone else. Less than that, and you will achieve quality comparable to the amount of work you put into this effort. The quality of your results, in this specific endeavor, is directly proportional to the amount of work that you put into your study of these other artist’s work.

Example 2: Teepees Sunrise

I tried several different compositions before finalizing my choice onto this particular one. I found the location the evening before, then returned the next day in the dark to set up before sunrise.
It is very difficult to find a good composition in the dark!
My other compositions of this scene were all horizontals, essentially because without a foreground the only other possibility is a long-lens view of the teepees.
In this case an horizontal image makes more sense because it allows you to include more distant teepees in the image.
The vertical composition however allows me to contrast object sizes nicely as well as show the texture of the rocks. It invites close examination on the part of the viewer, and invites the audience to become involved in the photograph.
I used a wide angle to create this image, thereby infusing movement and dynamism in the image.
The use of the wide angle worked well in this instance because the teepees in the middle area of the image are still large enough to be recognizable. Had they been further away they would have become too small for their shapes to echo the shape of the foreground rock.

7-You must be able to duplicate their work so that viewers of your copies will find looking at them almost as enjoyable as looking at the original

8- You then can begin creating your own work
You can do so with the safe assumption that you are departing from what those who chose a similar path, vision, direction, selection, have achieved

9- You are now working in a specific genre, or style.
You have mastered the ability to do what those you admire within that genre have achieved. It is now time to go beyond that and achieve your own vision

10- At this stage, take time to re-evaluate your vision, your selections.
Go back over the selections you made previously, in steps 3 to 5 and read them carefully. You will find that you now want to make changes, that you find some of these selections too vague, too broad, or to simply lack vision. You will find that now you are imbued with a stronger sense of purpose, of self, and that you want to set new boundaries for your work. In one word, you will find that you are now freer than you have ever been. This newfound freedom comes from the knowledge that you can achieve the quality that your selected masters can achieve and that you are ready, and able, to go beyond what they have done. You are ready, quite simply, to be yourself and to express your own vision in your work.

11- At this time I recommend you record the ideas that come to you.
The muses, most likely, will visit you at this time. Use a pen and paper, or type on your computer, or again use a voice recorder or a video camera. Just make sure that the technical aspect of the medium you use does not stand in the way. If you can, and so like, have someone else write notes of your ideas while you talk ad-lib. The process of recording is important only in so far as it is the only way for you to have trace evidence - a record- of your vision. This vision may very well never happen again, at least not with the intensity that it is happening to you right now. This is the time, and the ideas flowing through you are the ideas that will guide and enlighten your work for years to come. They are the backbone of your upcoming style, the house in which your work will flourish and find a permanent dwelling. They are the fertile ground from which the flowers metaphorically representative of your upcoming pieces will grow and bloom. They are the blood from which your inspiration will be born. They are life. Treasure and protect them for such moments are not only rare but precious as they do not happen at will.

12-Breakthroughs happen unexpectedly – welcome them, don’t reject them
In the process of learning how to see, the goal is really learning how to see differently. In this process, which is really a quest, a research, you will discover that the breakthrough most likely will happen as a twist in the road, as a sudden turn, a brutal new direction that you suddenly discover and which you have never thought of before.

When this event happens, this sudden discovery takes place, this new lead pops into your mind: follow it. Do not hesitate, do not look back, and do not fear that you will miss the shot you were after when this new and overwhelming idea came to you. The shot you were going to take, in all likeliness, is a banal one. The shot you were going to take is the one you want to get away from but do not know how to get away from. So, no, don’t look back for a second and worry about what you are about to miss if you follow this new, and unexpected, direction. You are going to miss nothing! In fact, truth is what you are going to miss is this entirely new idea that you just had, and you are going to miss it if you decide to not do it.

The new isn’t just the composition, the light, the choice of camera, and so on. The new is also the choice of presentation. For example, deciding to create a series of images – a triptych for example, printed on the same sheet of paper, is a departure from the standard, which is to print one image per sheet.

B - Developing a personal Style

Etonnez moi! (Astonish Me!)
Alexei Brodovitch

1-There is seeing and then there is seeing.
Seeing is taken for granted. We all have eyes, therefore we can all see. Yet, there is a world of difference between seeing something in front of us, and seeing something so that our reproduction of that thing can be considered a work of art. There is seeing and seeing.

2- Not all of us see the same things
You may believe that you see what I see, or that we all see the same thing, i.e. that we see what is in front of us. That is an inaccurate assumption. We all see different things, because we each focus our attention on different parts, or aspects, of the reality that unfolds in front of us.

3-We see what we have learned to see
We see what we have discovered exists out there. Our eyes are only the first of two main elements in this process. Our brain is the second, and arguably the most important part. Our brain processes the information gathered by our eyes and shows us, based on our training and conditioning, what we actually see. In many ways we see with our brain far more than with our eyes.

4- Many of us, if not most of us, see that we have been conditioned to see. That is, our seeing abilities are limited by our conditioning. To be creative, to see in a way that is unique to us, we must liberate our ability to see in order to see beyond the surface of things, see in ways that are free of conditioning.

The liberated artist’s eye sees not only what is there, but also, and mainly, what “isn’t there.” What isn’t there is what is only visible to this one person. Others do not see it because this artist is seeing beyond the surface of things, beyond the surface of what is presented to him. What this artist is seeing is his world.

5-You must become intimately familiar with the subject of your photograph to make a successful image.
You must break through the pre-conditioned confines of your daily mindset to capture the moment, the spirit and essence of your subject.

6- A personal style is an artistic filter though which you look at the world
Once you develop a way of seeing which is unique to you, you become an artist. Your artistic view of the world is in your mind. In a way, you are art –you carry your vision with you- and you the world around you through your artistic vision. For simplicity’s sake, you can consider this vision, this seeing ability that you developed, as a filter. You therefore see the world around you through this artistic filter and you represent in your work not what is there, but what you see through this filter. Other names for this filter are – your vision, you unique way of seeing and your personal style. This filter can be compared to a colored filter, or better to an artistic filter that you metaphorically screw onto your lens before taking a photograph.

7- When you reach this point in your seeing journey, there is nothing you have to fear.
You cannot misinterpret the world, for the world is in your mind. You are not representing the world. You are representing what is in your mind that you call the world. You are superimposing your mind view of the world upon the actual, physical world around you. Your art becomes the visual representation of how your mind sees the world. No one but you sees the world that way.

8 - The only way that you can misinterpret the world is if you believe that
--------- A - Creating art is wrong
--------- B - The world can only be represented in one way and one way only
--------- C - The filter you are seeing the world through is wrong

I do not subscribe to the above three beliefs, and I recommend my approach in order to successfully develop a personal style.

9-A true artist is able to astonish –surprise- his audience by presenting them with art that this audience has not seen before. True art embodies a new way of seeing.

10 - Creativity, like photography, is all about the art of "seeing." In other words, looking at the same situation as everyone else, but seeing something different.

We all look at the same thing, but through study and practice we can learn to see something that no one else’s see. Through further study and practice we can learn to represent what we see through our chosen medium. Through even further study and practice we can learn to do this better than anybody else.

To rely mainly on composition is to create an image that is contrived. We have tried so many compositions, and so many variations on compositions, as a culture that we have come close to having exhausted the subject. One now needs to rely on tone and color to bring in this uniqueness that enchants the viewer. One cannot simply rely on shapes and arrangements.

11 - Look in depth, look for a long time. Study your subject before photographing it.
You wouldn’t assume that you only listen to a symphony once and never again. You know there is much more to enjoy and discover in a second, a third, and many subsequent listening. It is the same with photography. There is much more to discover in nature than what is revealed by a first and cursory glance.

Example 3: Totem Pole

I arrived upon this scene at mid-day, and I was immediately stunned by the quality of the light. A sandstorm was blowing through Monument Valley, and the sand suspended in the air created a soft golden glow. The light was diffused yet direct. Shadows were noticeable yet open and not harsh as they usually are at that time of day. The clouds were moving fast over the valley, creating a sense of urgency because whatever cloud pattern formed an interesting composition only lasted for a couple of minutes at the most.

I knew the wind could stop blowing at any time and the sun emerge from the clouds, and that if that happened it would immediately put an end to the magical light quality I was witnessing at that moment. I therefore set to work immediately. The problem was finding the proper composition, and I struggled with that during the entire shoot, which lasted barely 15 minutes until the sun did come out, the sand stopped blowing, and the clouds moved away. In only a few minutes this magical scene returned to a mundane mid-day look. The enchanting qualities that so attracted me were gone forever.

In the studio I worked hard looking at each image in detail, trying to decide which composition best expressed the feeling of the scene as I remembered it. I eliminated vertical views because they did not share the expanse of land and cloud. I eliminated tight croppings for the same reason. I eliminated wider views because they diluted the interest too much, taking away the impact of the Totem Pole. I also worked for a long time on the tonal and color adjustments of the image, trying to recreate the soft golden glow of the sandstorm.

12 - To rely mainly on the rules of composition is to create an image that is contrived
We have tried so many compositions, and so many variations on compositions, as a culture that we have come close to having exhausted the subject. One now needs to rely also on light, tone and color to bring in this uniqueness that enchants the viewer. One cannot simply rely on shapes and arrangements.

13- If you find –and you most likely will- that another artist has used the same “filter” before you, become the world’s expert of that artist’s work. You need to know exactly what that artist has done and how he has done it, in order for you to go beyond what this artist has achieved. Anything less will not be a pure personal style but a copy of this person’s work, even if you did not know that person existed when you originally developed your style.

14 – To develop a personal style is to become an expert in a specific way of seeing
Look in depth and look for a long time. Study your subject before photographing it.
You wouldn’t assume that you only listen to a symphony once and never again. You know there is much more to enjoy and discover in a second, a third, and even more subsequent listening. It is the same with photography. There is much more to discover in nature than what is revealed by a first and cursory glance.

Alain Briot
March 2007

Alain Briot specializes in photographing the natural landscape. In addition to fine art prints, Alain offers workshops and DVD tutorials to help you study landscape photography, printing, matting, selling your work and much more.

You can find information on Alain’s work, tutorials and workshops on his website at

Alain welcomes your comments.
You can contact him directly at alain@beautiful-landscape.com

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