Photography is an art form that many think is easy until they actually try to take it seriously as a career path. Those who choose to follow the path of photography quickly discover that success depends on more than just having top-quality equipment or great subjects to capture images of – it also largely depends on finding a signature style that defines you as an artist, rather than just someone with a camera.
Bart Kuykens understands this better than most, having earnt a reputation in the photography world for his signature gritty style of moody black and white photography. When people see Bart’s work, it is instantly recognisable, and this is an effect all photographers should aspire to achieve in their own careers.
Finding a signature style is not necessarily something you need to think hard about – it should come naturally and have its origins in your personal taste. Bart says:
“I was always intrigued by film, especially black and white. Once I started taking photographs professionally, I immediately chose to work with black and white film and developed my own signature style.”
Trying too hard to artificially manufacture your own signature style could leave you shooting in a manner that you don’t personally enjoy. If you’re sincere about being a photographer, then there should be a direction that naturally appeals to you the most.
A signature style needs to develop organically, largely through experimentation until you find the recipe that works best for you. Bart’s advice to those struggling to find their signature style is:
“Try and shoot many different styles and adapt to the style you feel most comfortable with. It also depends on the niche. If you want to be an expert in wildlife photography, shooting exotic birds with very long tele lenses, then a 35mm Leica on roll film is not the best choice. Once you found your niche, you should develop your skill and style and stick to that for a while. Over time you will finetune your style.”
Studying your own work and connecting the dots of what elements produce the best results is key to differentiating yourself within your chosen niche. On this point, Bart comments that:
“Personally, I always shoot with available light and 95% of the time outdoors. I get the most inspiration by walking around and looking for locations. As for my equipment, I stick to Leica for 35mm photography and Hasselblad for all my medium format photography. I feel very comfortable shooting with those 2 brands and there’s a bunch of lenses available on the second hand market if I feel the need to change a lens for another one. I also like to use ‘old’ glass, which renders in a different way then the new lenses developed for digital photography.”
Bart has a robust understanding of his own photography style, and can explain why it’s more than just analog black and white. Even if others don’t fully understand all the subtle elements that make his work stand out, he does – and this is key.
While the pursuit of a signature style is largely a process of self-discovery as an artist, there are practical considerations as well. If you manage to hone your signature style and begin to gain recognition for it, it wouldn’t make much commercial sense to suddenly switch to a style that was unrecognisable.
Bart understands the appeal of having his name attached to a signature style, saying that:
“I like it when people approach me because I am that ‘analog black and white photographer’. I try to become the best version of myself within this niche, and more and more people recognise my pictures on social media – which pays off in the end.”
Of course, this brings into question to balance between doing what is personally gratifying as an artist, and doing what makes the most money on a consistent basis. Regarding this topic, Bart explains:
“I like to stick to the idea that I am only gonna shoot the way I want. Clients who book me know what they book me for, so I am not willing to compromise on that. I strongly believe when you contact an artist for a commissioned job you have to give them 100% artistic freedom. I don’t function at my best when too many rules are on my plate. If you see my website and portfolio, you know what to expect from my work. Being profitable is another question – if you dream of becoming a billionaire, then photography is probably not the best option. However, making a good living out of your passion is absolutely possible with photography, many did it before, and many will continue doing so.”