I feel that all art consists one basic thing: a story (or a why). To tell this story you need three more basic things: a subject (what), technique (how), and style (how again). For an effective piece, each of these components should be the result of a conscious decision.
In photography the subject is usually pretty clear; it’s what you are taking a pictue of. The subject should be obvious when looking at a photo, but not every photo has a clear subject. That’s where many snapshots are lacking. When you casually snap a photo of a scene in front of you, your eye might know where to look, but the eye of an objective viewer may not. The subject may be where most of your story is. A clear focal point will draw the viewer in and put them into whatever story it is that you are trying to tell. How is that subject made more clear? Technique and style…
Say your subject is a child playing. You want the viewer’s eye to be drawn to the child. There are many photographic techniques to make this clear. Taking advantage of the rule of thirds or the golden ratio in your composition can make the subject, in this case the playing child, stand out. If you know your camera well, you can adjust the aperture for a shallow depth of field, leaving only the child’s face and expression in focus. Maybe the colors of the child’s clothing stand out from the rest of the scene, then use of color can draw the viewer’s eye. I would define technique, as used here, as any means you have of controlling your tools to reproduce what you see in your mind’s eye onto the film or sensor. Film speed, shutter speed, and aperture are the brushes that a photographer uses to paint with light on their canvas of film (or sensor). Knowing how to use what you have available will take your art much further.
But to tell a story, you don’t just need to reproduce what you see, but also what you feel. You can use your subject and technique to produce a style that will tell that part of a story. Style isn’t just taking all your photos in black and white. Nobody will ever confuse Ansel Adams with Henri Cartier-Bresson thinking that they have the same style. Black and white photography is technique, landscape photography or street photography are a range of subjects. A technique or subject may be a large part of their style, but it doesn’t define their style. Ansel Adams used black and white films, careful dodging and burning, and scenes of impressive natural beauty to create iconic images as he saw them in his eye. Cartier-Bresson used fast films, a small rangefinder, and sharp lenses to discretely capture memorable moments on the street. What gave those two photographers a distinct style was their consistent use of technique and subject to portray the feelings in the story they wanted to tell.
How you shoot your subject, what you know about them, and how the feelings surrounding that subject are conveyed is style. This goes beyond only how your shoot, or only what you shoot. Think back to that playing child as the subject of a photograph. Suppose you want to convey the warmth of the day and the contentment of the child in the shot. You might wait till they have just the right expression on their face, with their eyes focusing right where you want them. You might choose to incorporate lens flare, or overexpose the frame to convey the brightness of the sun. If working with digital, you might adjust the saturation and colors to make the scene feel warmer. With a little thought you will be able to make the viewer see what you saw and feel what you felt.
Something interesting happens when you lose control over one of your three tools. If you have no control over your subject, you are forced to use only technique and style to convey your story. Same with the other two components, technique and style. When you place limits for yourself to work within, you have to think more creatively, and it may become problem solving. Challenge yourself with a photo project that limits you and see if it isn’t true. After I work within limits, I find myself seeing that’s more worth shooting in the everyday things around me when I don’t have those limits. It’s a great way to freshen your perspective and get out of a rut.
This story told using subject, technique, and style can be done in any sort of creative medium. Photography is what I enjoy using, but the same thing can be done with writing, music, painting, or any other means you have control over. Try thinking more about one of these things next time you shoot and see if it doesn’t make a difference in your product.