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Finding a Timeless Photographic Style
What is style? Who invented it? How do we create it? In today’s competitive world of wildlife photography, it’s all about identifying what can set your pictures apart and weathering the times, says Peter Cairns

Style is one of three words I have been pondering a lot recently. Anyone who knows me would contest that I am barely qualified even to discuss the subject. So, what is style? Who invented it and how do we create it?

Since the evolution of the digital camera and increasingly its extraordinary capabilities, the bar in the field of wildlife photography has been raised exponentially. As each day passes, that process marches on inexorably. Front-lit birds-on-a-stick, nice as they are, now is a bit passé with an increasingly sophisticated and discerning audience. The savvy wildlife snapper now has to look for something extra.

Peter Cairns Cockerel


What is style?
We all want to get our images seen, and more importantly, noticed by others, be it publishers, camera club judges or simply family and friends. The trouble is we are all image drunk. What knocked our socks off just a decade ago is all a bit matter-of-fact today. We need to develop our style and, to do that, thinking has to be fresh, boundaries have to be pushed and rules challenged. So what is style? To be honest, I have not got a clue and I am groping around in the photographic quagmire of uncertainty just as much as the next man. What I do know about style, however, is that you know it when you see it.


Developing instincts
The second word I have been mulling around in the small hours is instinct. We all have it to some degree and the great wildlife photographers have it in spades. They know instinctively where to position themselves, what viewpoint to adopt, how to use light and how to optimise composition. They know how to interpret their subject. So where do you get this instinct from? It is not something that can be taught easily or quickly; it evolves and develops after hours, days, months, years spent in the field watching and waiting; investing in the knowledge bank that ultimately will repay with instinctively stylish images. Photographic instinct is hard earned, however it is defined.

Peter Cairns Squirrel in the Snow


What is the magic ingredient?
Style and instinct then, are prerequisites in today’s competitive world. They are intertwined, inextricable. But I do not think they are enough. I hate to say it, but really I do not. The number of perfectly executed, compositionally exquisite and beautifully lit wildlife images that set my pulse racing these days, regrettably is very low (and I am including my own images in this rather depressing analysis). Again, it comes down to over-exposure; we simply see too many great pictures. So what is the magic ingredient? What is the key to the ‘wow’ response we all seek from our audience? How do we engineer that sharp intake of breath?

Impact: that is the only word I can come up with; it is the third in my trilogy and the most significant. In order for our images to have an impact, they must contain impact. Images that hit you like a sledgehammer, that burn into your mind and stay with you, invariably have bags of impact. Whenever I go out these days, I mutter that word to myself over and over again; I have been known even to write it on the back of my hand.

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Creating impact
OK, so what is impact? At the risk of fudging yet another question, I guess it is a bit like style: hard to define but obvious when you see it. In truth, impact is subjective because it needs to touch the individual viewer on an emotional level. More often than not, however, impact relies on something a bit different, an extra ingredient. That ingredient can be intense eye contact for example, action, humour or behaviour; it can be exciting light or an unusual viewpoint or it can be “bad weather”.

In recent years I have gone out of my way to take wildlife images in extreme weather. Obviously I cannot engineer this, but I can try to take advantage of it when it happens. Pouring rain or blizzards are best, but any conditions that inject a bit of impact into my pictures, I seek out rather than avoid. This “bad weather” factor was not a conscious decision initially but, living in the Scottish Highlands, it is one tool I have available for turning the ordinary into the more extraordinary; it is one way of creating impact. And, if I can do that stylishly, it is all the better.

Peter Cairns Bird of Prey


Same rules, different approach
The same traditional rules of wildlife photography remain unchanged. Great wildlife images rarely are the result of a chance encounter; it has always been 90 per cent preparation and knowledge and 10 per cent execution. Finding your subject, attracting it to a particular area, engineering a background, taking account of lighting conditions, positioning a hide, are all things (and lots more besides) to work on before a single shutter is released. The proliferation of tours, workshops and hide rentals by-pass this preparation for many, but that does not change the fact that the bar now is set so high that we all have to push that little bit harder to secure images which elicit a response from our audience. Using extreme weather is just one way of doing exactly that.

I have to concede that this sounds a bit daunting if all you want to do is get out there and enjoy your photography; and, of course, we all want to do that. But let us be honest here, we are all show offs. Yes, we enjoy close encounters with other species, yes we enjoy taking the pictures, but it is so much more satisfying when other people respond positively to our images. So, it makes complete sense for all of us, professional or recreational, to strive for the very best images we can produce; to strive for style and, essentially, impact. Impact is what makes the difference.

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Peter Cairns

Peter Cairns has worked as a freelance nature photographer since 1999, during which time he as been honoured with numerous awards, including the Natures Best Photographer of the Year in 2010.

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