Everyone needs a look and style to their photography. Hopefully one that helps express their vision. The thing we need to ask ourselves is how much of what we think of as our style is defined by our vision and how much by the tools we use. In other words, does my vision dictate the tools, or does my gear define my vision?

When I was first starting out, I was lucky to connect with a very experienced model who liked modeling for me. She had modeled for a myriad of photographers for various magazines and I felt fortunate that she was always up for shooting with me for no money. One day I asked her why she was always shooting with me and she said she liked my ideas and really liked my photographic style. I was a little surprised. I didn’t think I had developed a style yet. So I asked her what my style was. She thought I was a little slow and described my soft lighting style. I realized that I had been lighting everything the same way. My kit consisted of a pack, three heads, two large softboxes and a medium softbox and that’s what I used every shoot. I immediately went out and bought two umbrellas, some gels and a set of grids. As someone who was mostly self-taught, I certainly didn’t want to get in the habit of using the same lighting set-up for every shoot.

My early style of softbox lighting with a mostly flat lighting arrangement.

I didn’t think about it much after that but lately, situations have come up that have made me think about style and how much we photographers let the gear we have dictate our style. I have been exposed to many new light-shaping tools because of working for Michael Grecco, who is all about shaping light to create a dramatic portrait. He has a vision and uses the tools he has to shape the light to his vision. This is the direction I would like to go with my style, though I have more of a natural looking lighting style.


A very deliberate departure from my typical lighting utilizing a ring flash.

I can’t really say that having your gear at least partially define your style is a bad thing. Zack Arias made quite a name for himself as a one light shooter. He could only afford one light and refused to let that stop him. So he developed his style, largely around his gear “limitations”. It worked out great for him. He ended up touring around doing his “One Light Workshop” teaching enthusiasts how to effectively light with one light. He can now afford much more than one light but even with larger studio shoots, his style is still heavily influenced by his one light days.

For most of us, I think limiting ourselves to the capabilities of our gear is a pitfall we need to be aware of. Looking at my body of work, my favorite photos from a lighting perspective are ones where I didn’t use three lights with three softboxes. I took some chances with some fashion shoots in lighting much more creatively. I rented gear I had never worked with before and figured out how to achieve the look I had envisioned.

It helps to have a clear vision before going into a shoot. If you wait until you’re at the shoot to figure out the lighting, you’re more apt to let the gear dictate the look. If you plan ahead you are more likely to use the tools to achieve your vision.

A more dramatic lighting style with a directional hard light.

Rental is a great way to get exposed to different tools. I saw a photo that was shot with a ring-light and realized that look would be perfect for a shoot I had been planning. I rented one for the shoot and learned to use it on the shoot. Some of the images from that day are still my favorites of my work to date.

Of course, while lighting is a very important part of defining a photographic style, it does not completely define a style. There are plenty of other factors that go into an image to define style ranging from subject matter to post-processing that can be equally important. All of these are things photographers need to be aware of when defining their style. </soapbox>

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

  • Dbaptiste

    This was a great article and I am self taught as well. I have small package of lights and I think I do pretty good. This article helped me realized that maybe I should go on crags list and find a few grids and bounce boards. lol. 

    • zenzino

      Thanks. Definitely change up the way you use your gear. It could even be as simple as going to the art store to get foam core with white on one side and black on the other to bounce and/or cut light.