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What is Style?

Lesson 2 from: Finding, Defining, and Marketing Your Photographic Style

Julia Kelleher

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Lesson Info

2. What is Style?

Lesson Info

What is Style?

So what is style? That is a great question. I get that one all the time. What's style? Let's have a conversation. Somebody pick up the microphone. You guys are in the hot seat right there, it's sitting right between you, you gotta just own that. (laughs) Maybe you two should sit somewhere else tomorrow if you don't like talking. (chuckles) Move around, you know. What is style? I think it's a visual definition, as it pertains to photography, it's a visual definition of who you are. Very good, very good, yeah. I mean, nailed it. Perfect. What else can style be? Yes. Style, it's like your signature. Like somebody, like when you see it, you know that it's yours, and when like people can recognize it as something that belongs to you, and that's unique to you. Perfect. Let's talk about style not in terms of photography. What is style? Yeah. An expression of your personality. An outward expression of your insides. Perfect, yes. And we can do that in our work, right? Think about ot...

her genres. Movies. High fashion. You know, like Armani, there's Prada, they have a style, right? When we look at that style, how do we define it? That's where things get, like, murky. It all has to do with the technical components of what they're doing and combining to make something appear the way it is. Right? So, technically, the dictionary definition of style is a distinctive manner of expression. A particular manner or technique by which something is done, created, or performed. Ellie Goulding is one of my favorite musicians. We were listening to her this morning in the green room, and I'm sitting here rocking out to Hanging On, okay? I love the style in which she communicates her art. She has several tools. Her voice, right? The way she puts notes together. The rhythmic motion in which her songs flow, right? And then the words she chooses to put into them, the poetry. Which has its own style right there. So these are technical components of an artist that are melded together to create a feeling. A mood, a signature. It expresses her, outward, right? Photographers do the same thing, okay? We do it with technical components, as well, which we're gonna discuss today. Style, as I knock over the table, that's the blooper right there. Style comes organically or planned. Most people, artists, it comes organically, 'cause they're not like you, actually taking a class on how to do it, okay? It can come accidentally or on purpose, evolved or suddenly. It'll either hit you in the face or gently tap you on the shoulder until you listen. More often than not, it's the tap on the shoulder until you listen. So, wake the heck up and listen. Okay? Usually, we're so distracted by the daily life craziness that is, you know, the modern 21st century, we don't hear the soft inner voice. The good one. We always hear George, he's freaking loud as an ox. But the soft angelic tap over here is, you know, I liken it to God or Heavenly Father going, "This is you." Call it what you want. I mean, I happen to be, have a faith, but it's this soft, "Go this way." Everything in life, even major decisions, you know how when your life changes, you're like, "Oh my gosh." Beth, my new digital production manager, she moved up from California to come work for me. (gasps) I mean, this is like so cool, it's not even funny. But, and it was funny, because she was actually mentoring with me in June. Lauren, do you guys remember Lauren? My assistant. She was in the last Creative Live with me, and she helps me shoot in the studio, and she handles newborns and all that stuff. She decided to go and pursue her full-time career, which was in domestic violence prevention. So she has her own, that's her journey. She has a little tap on the shoulder, go do that. Okay, so Judy Rankford and Beth Brinston were in my studio in June mentoring session, we do four mentoring sessions a year with two students. And Beth was telling me this story about, "I don't know what to do with my business. "I just got a call from my old boss, "they want me to come back. "It's like twice the money, and I don't know "if I should or not. "I really want to pursue photography." She's like, stressing because her soul's voice is telling her pursue your work, and mega happy company in L.A. is saying, "Ooh, you're gonna double your salary. "Come on, over here." Her kids would've had to be in daycare, she would have an hour and a half commute every day. Is that worth denying the tap on your shoulder? And we talked about it, and then all of a sudden, she goes, "I'm just gonna come up here and work for you." And I went, "Don't you start saying it unless you mean it." (light laughter in audience) Because the light bulb went on for me, too, and that little tap on the shoulder started to come over on my end. And I'm like, "Ah, maybe we should do this. "Are you sure, would you really do that?" Like, you know that conversation, that come to Jesus moment where you're like, "Are you really serious?" (light laughter in audience) And it was, like all of a sudden, like the light, it was that moment, that suddenly moment where you're like, "Yes! "This is the direction we're supposed to go! "Oh my gosh, this is amazing, you're a perfect fit!" And she's like (gasps) she's a single mom of twins, first of all, who does that? (laughter in audience) I mean, that's amazing right there. And so she sold her house two days after she got home. Didn't even hit the market. "Oh yeah, I got a buyer for my house." Are you kidding me? It like, the ball started rolling, and it was just, it was fate. It was God going, you know what, this is the direction you're supposed to go, and I'm just gonna freaking shove you there! Right? Sometimes we get a big shove, and sometimes it's just this little, light tap. And for most of us, when we're starting this journey as artists, that light tap, you don't believe it. You're like, no, no, leave me alone. That's, no. No, I gotta try something else. But this little message right here is the one that's gonna send you in the direction you need to go, so you need to listen to it, and you all know what I'm talking about, right? You all have it in your hearts and in your heads, it's going, "Listen, listen." Sometimes it's a big shove, and those are the great life moments, and you're like, yes, this is, I'm supposed to be there. And this is, with any life decision, not just which style you're gonna pick for your photographic art. But this is also big life decisions, career changes, should I have kids, should I get married? I mean, all these things, sometimes it's a shove in the right direction, and sometimes it's a gentle tap. Listen. What's hard about listening to this is we don't have the confidence to believe it. We go, "I'm not sure. "I'm not sure." We don't want to go anywhere unless we're shoved. Yes. I call it from the heart. I mean, yeah, the little tap. But you have to center yourself. For me, I have to center myself, and have to feel it. Is this feeling, is this the right thing to do. You know, it's an internal thing for me. You marinate on it. I call that marinating. Yeah. You have to swim around in it a little bit. Yeah, and you also have to work a lot for style. You can't shoot once a week and expect to develop a style. You really have to work at this stuff. You are exactly right. And what was your name again? Shelly. Shelly. Shelly, Shelly, Shelly, Shelly, Shelly. The problem is you guys are gonna all move tomorrow, and then I'm gonna be completely messed up. (audience laughs) Shelly, Shelly, Shelly, Shelly, Shelly, Melissa, Melissa. By the way, awesome boots. Thanks! (laughs) So cool. This is the first time I've ever worn them. They're hot. I don't get out of the house much, so. (laughs) And they look dang fine on you, girl. They are awesome. What you're saying is really resonating with me, and I feel like I'm hopefully, like, further on the path than I was before. I'm hearing a lot of things that are making me feel like, yes, yes, yes. Yeah, good. Something that I struggle with, I'm a newborn photographer, is like props, and seeing all these cute things, and that gut reaction, like, "I gotta buy, I need that. "I need that, it's so cute." But I have to force myself, and I actually am very methodical about it now, 'cause I have a little bit of a problem with buying too many props. So now, I look, and I say, "Is that me?" Uh huh, exactly. Will it make me money, is my second question, you know, 'cause I mean, just 'cause it's me doesn't mean I need it. And so I've had to be really-- Judicious. Purposeful about what is coming into my studio, because I have this style now, and I love this style, and now I have to make sure I stay consistent. Stick with it. It's an editing process. Yeah, yeah. The other thing I always ask my, those are all the questions I ask, too. But then I also ask myself, can I use it again? Yeah. Remember the Walmart teacup? (Melissa laughs) Do any of you newborn photographers, maybe you guys are too new at this to know, but the Walmart teacup, the rainbow striped huge teacup that people were putting babies in, it was like the big it thing. And then the Pier 1 blanket. Remember the Pier 1 fringe blanket that was rainbow that everybody was doing? Oh my, maybe this is just, back when online forums were it. Like, all these forums, and people would have these discussions, before, you know, you had Facebook Live and all this, like, actual video, it was typing out on a forum, on a conversation. And some people would post the pictures, and that, oh yeah. So there are trends. There are big trends. And part of what it means to find your style is to ask yourself what's gonna have longevity. What's just a trend, and so did I buy the Walmart teacup? Yes, I bought the Walmart teacup. (light laughter in audience) And I used it once. Lesson learned, okay? So you make a great point. And yes, style does come, you do need to give it time to marinate. And we're gonna talk about that in the style cycle. When you pick something that you love, don't put it out there right away. Kiss of death. You gotta truly know it's you before you do that. Okay? The mistakes that photographers make when it comes to their style are pretty common. Photographers don't actively listen to their hearts. And that's that little tap. Listen closely to what it's saying, and be willing to go in the direction it's pushing you. Because when you start listening, and you take a step in that direction, it'll tap a little harder. And then it may soften, and you go, oh, gotta go this way. And then it gets a little harder. Do you see what I'm saying? It'll push you in the direction you need to go, but if you're not listening to it, that's the kiss of death. Okay? Secondly, they try to force it too soon. This is a time-intensive process, and Shelly makes a great point. Every single artist I'm going to show you today is passionate about their craft. They practice every dang day. Every day they are creating, and refining those technical skills. It is so important. That's what's gonna get you to your style faster than trying to force it. Okay? They also don't have patience. They just... And I think this is why people dabble so much in different areas, because they want to find it so fast that they just jump, jump, jump, jump, jump. Instead of working on this particular style for a while, where you go, "Oh, I really like the way "so-and-so uses monochromatic colors." Or whatever. Okay, I think I want to incorporate cream into my work. I love cream. Okay? So I'm gonna shoot everything cream for two weeks. Everything. And granted, the immediate thought is, "But I have clients, they don't all want cream!" (light laughter in audience) I mean, you're laughing, 'cause that's exactly what went through your head. Okay, yes, I do get it. But I want you to shoot cream in every single session. Along with other things, okay? Ask yourself, find one technique, one component, one technical element that you're gonna work on, and do it in every single session. For five, six, seven, ten times. That will tell you if it's your style, if you keep getting drawn back to it. Ah, I love that cream thing. Oh, that cream thing just makes my heart sing. You just keep wanting to go back, and you want to refine it and make it better, make it better, make it better. That's when you know, oh, we're going somewhere. That's the nudge, okay? Listen to that. If you shoot it two or three times, and you're like, (sighs) "I'm so freaking tired of cream." Then maybe it's time to move on. Okay? Why is style so hard to define? Why? Because it means owning up to who you are. Really. And being secure in your own strengths. Which is probably the biggest and hardest thing you will actually attempt to do in this class. The steps, that's the easy part. Owning up to it, and realizing, yep, that's me, and having the confidence to say that is the hardest part. We second guess ourselves, and we compare ourselves to other successful stylists. This is what kills me. People who are starting out, or even intermediate, look at these advanced stylists, and go, "I'll never get there. "Wow, there's no way, I'll never be that good." George freaking has a hay day. Okay? He beats the living daylights out of you, and you believe it. So how on earth can you own up to who you are, when you've got this Imposter Syndrome voice going on in your head saying you suck all the time. So when you compare yourself to other people who have style and incredible technical skill, when your technical skill isn't even close to that, why on earth would you compare yourself to someone like that? Like, I look at Vicki's work, who I freaking adore. Vicky Papas Vergara, and Mark Bryant, who's a mentor of mine. I look at their work, and I'm like, "Oh my God, I'll never be like that." But I have to remember, Mark's been doing this 30 years! He is so technically proficient. He gave me old work of his from 1980, and I'm like, "Dude, you rocked then!" I'm sorry, give me the water. (audience laughing) I'm like, "Dude, you rock then!" He was so good at light. He just knows light. A master. And that's, when I went, I spent three days with him, I told him, "I wanna learn light on a molecular level." And he goes, "Sweet, you're my kind of student." So for three days, we freaking did every single lightning technique in the book. Nuance, (grunting) just tweak it that little bit, and what a different it makes. Okay? But that's taking someone who's good, but, you know, not great. That's when you start getting great. That's when you start taking it down to that minuscule level of technical proficiency and prowess. The master artists, woodworkers, architects, people of the Renaissance Age, you had to mentor with a master. You were an apprentice for decades before you were allowed to go out on your own. You had to master the nuances of everything. And so as a photographer, you gotta do that. Get your skill where it is, and don't start comparing yourself to great stylists until you're at their technical level. Okay? It's challenging to put into words, your style. It's obscure at times, right? It's more of a feeling, it's a combination of elements. So describing that in English language in an eloquent way is extremely challenging, but we're gonna do that in our artist statement. Style is kind of underlying and permeating your work, so it's not something, like an f-stop where you go, yep, number F.2, you know, 1.2. Whatever, it's not something that you just define like that. It's not a quantitative thing, it's very qualitative. And it's not always in-yo-face, okay? Elusive is what I like to call it. You only know it when you see it, like I was talking about Olivia, "Ah, it's an Olivia image. "I know that image, that's Olivia's." "Ah, that's Mark's. "Ah, that's Vicki's." People try to, you know, emulate you, and you might look and second guess and go, "Oh, is that Vicki's image? "Nah, that's not Vicki." You look at it, and you realize, "Yep, no I knew it wasn't Vicki." Do you know what I'm saying? Like, you know when you know. And that's a great stylist. But all of this is extremely frustrating, because when your technical skill isn't quite there, and you're trying to find your style, you want to pull your hair out. But what I'm trying to tell you is that as your technical skill begins to increase, your style will get better, and better, and better, and better, and better. And Olivia, you're a living example of that. You know that. Over the year you spent in the studio with newborns, all of the sudden you're like, "Okay, I'm getting good at this now." And then you start relaxing there. And you starts coming out. Right? Exactly. Instead of, "Oh, I'm so focused on ISO, f-stop, "and shutter speed." How on earth can you focus on the artistic component of that and letting your soul's voice come out when you're so worried about which f-stop you're supposed to be on, okay? So having your technical skills mastered is an important component. So how do you cope with the insecurity of kind of not knowing what your style is, not having that technical skill. Well, it's scary to be authentic. This is, this image is me. This is part of my new Real Kids line. Okay? I call it lessons in lovey launching. Lovey, you know, like my kid calls it his lovey. And she was dynamite. And this came about quite accidentally. It's very Allison Tyler Jones -esque. If you look at her work, you'll feel the two of us in there, like, you'll feel her in my work, if that makes sense. And you'll find that with a lot of artists. Like, you'll see their influences. Like if you look at the great impressionists, Manet, Monet, Cézanne. Well, he was kind of more transitional, but Seurat, all these artists, you'll see that they were influenced by previous artists before them. You'll echo the feeling in their work of somebody else. And Allison is definitely echoed in my work. And what happened was, is this, it was a newborn session. Finished the session. Kid's walking out the door, and he has his sunglasses on. He's covered in dog hair. He put his old clothes back on, his navy blue sweatshirt, and Porter, my dog, for those of you who know me, I have a pug. He sheds like crazy, which is the only thing that drives me crazy about him. Other than that, he's an amazing dog. But this kid had been rolling around on my carpet, which is really embarrassing that he got up, and there was hair everywhere. But it was the most adorable thing. He had sunglasses on, and a binky in his mouth, and his blanket, he was dragging on the floor like Linus. Oh my gosh, it just all of a sudden I went, "I gotta shoot your kid." They were leaving. (light laughter in audience) The session was over. I yanked out my lights. Set them all up again, and took five minutes and shot that kid, and that is the image that they bought a 50 inch canvas of. 'Cause it was so that little boy at three. His little Spider-Man sunglasses, his little binky in his mouth, and his blankie and lovey, and he's just standing there like this, like Linus. It's the cutest dang thing ever, and then he took his sunglasses off and went like that at me. Oh my gosh. So all of a sudden, I was hit suddenly with a style. Kids being themselves. He dressed himself. This little girl, same thing, dressed herself. That's what she wanted to wear! So we're gonna wear it! Okay? Clean, simple backdrop, either bone or white. Not lit, for that kind of soft gray, like, not low-key, but mid-key look. Okay? But it's really scary to be authentic to who you are, and it's something that you have to grapple with. What if no one likes your style? That's the big question. That's the scary one, the George question. What if no one likes this, okay? But let me tell you, they will if you market it right. It's not about what it is, it's about how you market it. Trust me on that one, marketing is an art, and once you fall in love with it, it will sweep you off your feet. Because you can pretty much put any messaging you want in front of anyone and make them love anything just on how you say it. Okay? It is the art of language. It is the art of communication to make somebody feel something and solve their problem. So when you take your art, whether it be gross, ugly crap, or the best thing ever. Have you ever noticed there's some people, some photographers out there who have, like, mediocre technical skill and they're raking it in? Like, million dollar studios, and you're like, "Dude, how is that guy making that kind of money?" It like blows your mind. It's 'cause he's a good marketer. It's because he's a brilliant marketer. And then you see these amazing artists who are as poor as church mice. They don't know how to market. They don't know how to run a business. It's all business and marketing. If I can drill anything in your head, and finding your style is the first component of that, because when you can define that into marketing language, all of a sudden you can take the crappiest work from here to high heaven, and make anybody want to buy it. Yes! That didn't make me sound very good, I sound a little manipulative, don't I? (laughter) Don't mind me over here, it's a peanut gallery. Okay, it is hard to figure out what's you, especially when you're first starting. But I promise you, as you develop your technical skill, it will come. So I always tell people when they're finding their style, we're gonna go through that find it formula, which is extremely helpful. But the other component of that is be passionate about learning your craft. Mastering the technical components. Light, color, composition. It's one thing to start off with f-stops and ISO. Okay, that's actually learning how to use a camera. But your camera is just the paintbrush that you have. From there, it's about the artistic components. Great art all has the same elements. Color, lighting, harmony, center of interest, you know, composition, how you place things in the frame, mood, all of these things are components of great art. So once you learn the technical skills of being a photographer, then it's time to start honing it into art skills. What makes great art? What makes a great visual, communicative image? Okay? And that's not in f-stop and ISO. That's learning to see. That's learning to see what's good and what's not, okay? Asking a client to pay for what is you is a huge, huge step. And probably the one we all struggle with the most.

Class Materials

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Body of Work Artist Statement
Studio Borchure
Style Manual

Ratings and Reviews

Cesar Flores

Wow wow wow, as an artist on a beginner's stage this was an amazing presentation. Julia is a pro on teaching the psychology of the artist within ourselves. I will follow her from now on and start putting in practice her step by step techniques on finding my style as an artist. Thank you Creativelive and Thank You Julia, you are amazing


This course is amazeballs. Love love love love love love love. Just buy it. :)

Laura K.

Wow - this may be my favorite Julia Kelleher class (and I own several). So much of what she talks about hits home with me, really speaking to where I am at in my photography journey and the struggles I grapple with every day. Lots of hard truths - the kind that remind us as to the necessity of good old fashioned hard work (really, really hard work) - the need to be truly technically proficient - the need to experiment - the need to practice every single day - repetition ("wash, rinse, repeat!") - and the need to continue learning all the time. I also really appreciate the fact that Julia touches on the PPA (Professional Photographer's of America) CPP (Certified Professional Photographer) process a bit. I just took my CPP exam and will be working my way through the image submission phase of the CPP process over the course of the next year; so it was nice to hear Julia's thoughts and experience in her own CPP journey. I NEEDED this course. Julia and Creative Live - thank you for bringing this to us. And Julia, thank you for diving deep into the hard realities that we need to hear and know in order to truly grow and evolve artistically and professionally.

Student Work