Tips + Techniques

Craft Your Signature Style to Stand Out from the Crowd 

August 30, 2023

By Abbey Pleviak

Photographers often find themselves chasing after the idea of how to set themselves apart from the crowd. According to portrait photographer and educator Cat Ford-Coates, you needn’t run blindly after this desire hoping for the best. There are a set number of variables you can experiment with that can lead to developing a style all your own. In her keynote talk on the WPPI stage this year, Ford-Coates shared a list of ten areas to explore. Rangefinder readers can watch Ford-Coates’ WPPI talk by getting a special discounted TPS membership with the code RANGEFINDER7.

Ford-Coates says that even before getting into technical ways to experiment with your style, it’s crucial to first get in touch with your intentions. Not only are your artistic intentions the best guide for your image style, coming into alignment with them is the best way to bring about personal satisfaction with your body of work. Ford-Coates gives these two key questions for this important first step: What are your guiding principles for your art and what do you hope to accomplish for your clients with your images? Knowing the answers to these questions can help you exponentially in developing your own uniquely recognizable, creative style. 

© Cat Ford-Coates

Ten Components for Finding Your Signature Style 

Photographers work with a finite number of components when it comes to image creation. According to Ford-Coates, understanding these variables and experimenting with them is the key to developing your unique look. Each one becomes a lever you can intentionally pull while applying your guiding principles in telling your clients’ stories.  

These are the ten components Ford-Coates encourages photographers to explore: 

  1. Light/Shadow: Natural light vs. Artificial Light. Constant vs. Strobe. Flat Light vs. Hard Light. Light modifiers, such as a snoot. Taking a course like Felix Kunze’s can help you overcome any fears you have with experimenting with light.
  1. Expression: Learn how to ask for expression. Give direction. Remind them to breathe. Use your clients’ name and know their story, so you can remind them of what you’re creating together during a shoot. Be a mirror for them.  
  1. Color Harmony: Learn about color theory. Notice what colors you are naturally drawn to. 
  1. Posing: Posing is a tool that allows you to guide your clients in expressing who they are. Whether they are expressing vulnerability or power, the more you can create a shape with their body, that shape will help you tell their story.
  1. Texture: Dappled shadows, backdrops, wardrobes, layering fabrics. Textures are visually interesting, not distracting. 
  1. Motion: Motion becomes emotion. Play with shutter speed – slow or fast. What supports your story? You can bring in client motion or the motion of thrown fabrics. 
  1. Structure/Composition: Is the composition wide with lots of space, or tight and intimate? Is it a dirty frame with backdrop stands? Also, check out where you are standing — high or low. Check out all the angles. Find not just your client’s best angles, but also look for your sweet spot. 
  1. Environment: Do you prefer studio work, or do you go on location? How can you use the environment to tell your story? What should you include? What should you leave out? This can include the leading lines of buildings, or in studio, adding fabrics to your set. 
  1. Wardrobe: Either you work it out with them, or you provide wardrobe. Is your style fluffy and regal, sleek and form-fitting? Is it plaid? 
  1. Lens Choice: Notice what your typical focal length is. 50 – 70 mm compression really works in your favor. 70 – 100 mm creates beautiful background blur. 35 mm is fantastic as a fashion lens. 

These ten components are already in play in your photography. As a first step toward developing your signature style, Ford-Coates recommends analyzing your portfolio to find out where your current biases are. Before starting to experiment with these variables. It’s important to understand what you are already doing.  

© Cat Ford-Coates

Then, when you are ready to experiment, just play with one factor at a time, or at most three. If you feel nervous experimenting with clients, self-portraits can be a great way to go. That way, you can get a new technique under your fingers and be able to apply it efficiently with a client. Ford-Coates also points out that most clients love to try out an experiment with you. If it becomes part of your signature style, they get to say they did it first, which turns them into a brand ambassador for you. 

Above all, it’s important to lean into your inclinations. As Ford-Coates says, your natural biases are what allows “you to create work that nobody else is doing because they’re not going to make the same choice as you.” Those natural inclinations “allow you to create from a heart space, and the heart space is what allows your clients to connect with you because their hearts are there, too.” Furthermore, when you are connected with what brings you joy in creation, that is going to make your work not only recognizable, but also something that brings you personal fulfillment. 

© Cat Ford-Coates

Want Hands-On Instruction? 

Cat Ford-Coates is leading two Breakout Classes – Session A1 and Session A2 – at The Portrait Masters Conference in Phoenix, Arizona, this September. In them, you’ll get to go through Ford-Coates’ process of working with a client to understand their needs and desires, and you’ll see how she works with her makeup artists to come up with a look specific to that client. You’ll see how she works with wardrobe and posing with male and female models, and you’ll also get a chance to photograph the models yourself, so you can add their images to your portfolios, too.  

Regarding this year’s Conference, Ford-Coates says, “with this being Sue’s last dance, everything we’ve planned for in this conference is so special and so intimate. It simply isn’t to be missed.” 

Breakout Group A1: Mastering Style and Posing: Crafting Your Signature in Portraiture | Cat Ford Coates

Breakout Group A2: Mastering Style and Posing: Crafting Your Signature in Portraiture | Cat Ford Coates

Tickets to the Portrait Masters Conference | Sept. 11 – 14, 2023