Imitation: Flattery and Self Evolution
A personal photographic style is what sets your photos apart from other photographers. A personal style is what we are all struggling to achieve. Which is amusing as it's the one thing that occurs naturally. Your personal style is a nice mixture of your experience, subjects you love and the works of others that you admire. And it's constantly evolving. Imitation is the best flattery, and you can learn a lot and evolve by mimicking the works of others.
I'm touching on a very sensitive subject here. There is a fine line between copying a style and imitating a style, and it's a difficult line to definitively draw. In my opinion, copying is when you flat out throw your own experiences and your own techniques to completely and blatantly recreate another artist's style. We don't want to copy. Never mind the bad karma and the potential for legal repercussions. Copying does not help you evolve as a photographer. What we want is to evolve. Mimicking another person's style – which requires you blending a bit of their style in with all of your style – is one way to evolve. There's nothing wrong with mimicking a style.
Personally, I often try to incorporate elements of another photographer's style into my own. If I see a style that I admire, I may do my best to learn about their techniques…just enough so I can understand. Sometimes, I find that I don't like the process or the techniques and I end up not incorporating any of it into my own style. But I've learned something and I've still evolved. Other times, I've learned or developed my own techniques and they become part of my style.
One Such Example…
The photo at the top of this article was created through experimentation as I was trying to mimic (again, not copy) a style of a photographer I respect. That photographer is Ray Rhodes, who's work you've seen here many times. Here I'm sharing one of his photos, There's a Rumbling In The Skies, for context. There are a few aspects of Ray's photos that I would identify as unique to Ray. First is his use of lines. Very often, he captures the sprawling countryside, but he always seems to pay very close attention to the lines in the landscape, even if its just a chance occurrence of different vegetation. I also love the way he uses light. More specifically, I love the warm colors, a clear indication that he's shooting mostly at sunrise or sunset. As a result, the photos are warm and welcoming. These are both aspects that have influenced my own style, and it all started with the photo at the top of the page.
At the time, it occurred to me that I was not shooting during the golden hours as much as I should have. This should be second nature for a landscape photographer. But I'm a details guy and at the time I was not accustomed to shooting wide, which would benefit most from the golden hour. So I started spending more time around the golden hour to get the warm and rich tones that Ray so often achieves. When it comes to line, I struggled for a while to figure out what it was about Ray's use of line that I liked. I think the aspect I liked the most was the definitive vanishing points. Otherwise, I'm not a middle-of-the-road kind of shooter and I always like to be at least a little off-center when it comes to a single vanishing point type composition. Knowing my own style helped me to mimic, not copy, Ray's style.
Now to be clear, my goal was not to be a copycat. But I needed to wrap my brain around where I was headed. Unknown Destination, at the top of this article, was not my overall goal. I admit to getting dangerously close to Ray's style with that shot. Ultimately, my goal was to refine my skills with respect to those certain elements that I borrowed from Ray. In the end, I only supplemented my style, and perhaps a bit more subtly than you might expect. For example, I'd like to share with you a more current photo, Vertical Screen, shown here. You'll note that the colors are not as warm as one might expect from Ray. I tried on the warm colors for a while, but it wasn't a good fit for me. But I discovered a time of day that worked well for my own style but still gave me rich colors. That time was about an hour or so before sunset, when the sky is at it's bluest and the sun casts enough glare that I can get a nice broad gradient from deep blue to almost white. I still get long shadows, and the colors are still a little warm and rich. Line is also a very important aspect of my style as well, except that I look for different lines. Keep in mind, much of what I shoot involves some sort of man-made structure. Vertical Screen features some landscape elements, but it's essentially an architecture shot. And so the hunt for lines is pretty low hanging fruit. However, through working in the nearly natural environment in the way that Ray does, I learned that I had been taking those lines for granted. It's easy to snap lines to a grid, but it's another thing to place those lines in the frame in a way that is ideal. So I started to look for patterns and ways to manipulate those lines to create a pleasing shot. I look for lines cast by shadows, and I look to distort the lines in a manner that now defines my own style. With this shot, I shot very close to the ground so that I would need to tilt the camera up to get that vertical distortion. I cropped out the meadow nearby so that the building retained it's presence, but from this angle the building seems much more ominous. I also shot from this horizontal angle to get that dark shadow on the glass cast by the roof and to get the bottom edge of the footer to slant and vanish towards the water tower deep int he background. The vanishing point was an important feature of Ray's work that I had mentioned, but I wanted a more subtle and insinuated approach.
And so my work is definitively influenced by Ray and many other photographers. But I have not lost any aspect of my own style in the process. What's important is that I identified elements of his work that appealed to me and I actively worked to learn from those techniques. In the end, those same same elements applied to my own style take on a form that is now barely noticeable in my own work. Even though Ray's influence is subtle, it is no less important to me or my current (and constantly evolving) style.
When you're experimenting with mimicking and adapting styles, you can get dangerously close to offending the very photographer that you admire and respect. Communication can never be a bad thing. If the photographer is approachable or someone you know, it never hurts to ask or at least explain what you're trying to do. Of course you can also keep everything to yourself until you've fined tuned everything. I frequently do experimentation with other photographer's styles, but rarely do those works see a life beyond my hard drive. Perhaps I'm paranoid…but the last thing I'd want to do is offend another photographer while I'm trying to evolve my own style. But in the end, flattery and imitation is what helps all of us grow. So give it a try.