Right now, I at the North American Nature Photography Association annual conference in Texas. I am also helping out with the college student program, and they are a passionate group of photographers who care a lot about the natural world.
I got a question from one of my students at BetterPhoto.com about finding one's personal vision or style, and this is closely related to some of the things I have seen with the college students. A lot of photographers think about this, and I do think it can be an important part of the growth of a photographer. What is interesting is that some of the students are developing some unique ways of seeing and communicating through photography, yet I am not sure they have thought about it a lot.
I don't think there is any one way to finding a distinctive vision or style to your photos. Years ago I spent a lot of time thinking about this. Yet a distinctive style came to me more when I forgot trying to achieve one. Now I get people telling me all the time that they recognize me from my photographs, which is what a personal style is all about.
Hopefully, I won't turn anyone off by going all "Oprah" (though I think she has a lot to tell us about this). I think Oprah is actually right about how we live our lives - authentically and true to who we are. That, to me, is exactly what being a good photographer is all about and that is how we find our distinctive style. And that does require taking a lot of pictures so that you can truly respond to what is authentic and true.
One thing about photography is that it is a craft as well as an art. The more you hone your craft, the more you can use that craft in service of your vision. It is very difficult to be authentic and true if you cannot control your medium. This is why it can be difficult for a beginner to find a personal style.
Many photographers will look at style as a certain way of using photographic technology, such as black-and-white, HDR, how lenses are used to control an image and so forth. These are certainly part of photography. However, all of these are things external imposed on photography. Shooting all high-contrast black-and-white, for example, might give a "style" but it would be very superficial and would not be very satisfying (or a very positive experience) if you simply did that imposed on your photography yet you did not care very much about high-contrast black-and-white.
In many ways, it comes down to something that is perhaps a little overused these days, passion. What do you care about? What turns you on about your subjects, your photography? What makes you excited is also about what will be true and authentic to you.
Photos: The spider is an orbweaver common to the Los Angeles basin in the fall. The California poppy is from Central California (from last year - it is still early for poppies in most areas).
Editor's Note: Rob Sheppard, Outdoor Photographer magazine's editor at large, teaches many excellent online photo courses at BetterPhoto.com, including Impact in Your Photographs: The Wow Factor and Creating Storytelling Photos.