#320 The Magic Quadrant of personal photographic style

By philberphoto | How-To

Feb 03

Most posts on DearSusan aim to teach the reader something the photographer knows, and the reader not. Like how a piece of gear performs, or how a part of our planet looks. But not this one. This is why it has fewer pictures than usual, as I am not about to show, but to search.

I don’t know what your style is. How could I, I don’t know who you are. But the purpose of this piece, the first instalment in a series, has 2 aims. One, to convince you that knowing what your style is will help your photography. Both in terms of keeper rate, and in terms of satisfaction from your efforts. Second, it will help you position yourself among the various choices that a photographer makes, deliberately or not. But one thing this series is not about, is telling you what to do, what is right, and “how to do it like the pros in 5 minutes”.

So, what with the title? Are you a creator, a grabber, a fondler or a storyteller?  Or a combination of the above? Answering that question has relevant implications on your shooting style, your subjects, and your gear. The rest don’t matter…:-) Actually, in consultation with the ever-learned Pascal, we came to the conclusion that grabbers and fondlers are on either side of an axis, sort of an “either, or”. Creators and storytellers are also on either side of an axis. Let’s describe what we mean.

To get a first insight, let’s begin with 3 contributors to DearSusan and one other shooter known to them. If I had to classify Pascal, he is more of a creator. He likes his pictures to show his creative input. They are individual, and are meant to be. When I am with him, or know the place he has shot, I am often surprised at this ability to create a shot out of nothing and nowhere. His ability begins with his eye. Seeing not only what exists, but what he can do with it. And because he is an accomplished photographer, he is fully aware of this. So he doesn’t waste time effort and money on what does not fit his style, or matter to him. Except when thrown a perverse challenge, of course, but that is another story, to come later.

Paul on the other hand, is a typical take-no-prisoners-make-no-apologies grabber. The grabber’s shot is an appropriation of a moment, a situation, a look. Certain tribes used to believe that a photography captured their souls, which were thus taken from them. That is, in a figurative way, what Paul does. Paul, also an accomplished photographer, is also quite deliberate about this. Read his posts about the storm, or why he bought a Fuji camera, and the grabber can be heard loud and clear.

The classic fondler is my friend Boris, whose pictures you can see here. His avvowed goal is to show everything there is about scenes that inspire him. But, in order to show everything, he needs to try everything. Which is why Boris is as slow as Paul is fast. Paul will fire off shots, sometimes even one-handed. Boris hardly ever shoots without a tripod, and usually spends between 30mn and 45mn shooting each spot to death. And often coming back for more, in case he gets better weather, or light, or whatever.

Now, if you’ ll give me leave to speak about myself, to me. I am clearly not out to “show everything” a la Boris. I am not out to “grab people’s souls”, as Paul does so well. And I am quite incapable of creating something out of nothing like Pascal. What I strive to do is to show enough to stimulate the imagination, and let it complete my work. If I had to reduce that to one word, I am a storyteller. Funny, it was my father’s nickname in his days as a boy-scout.

This classification in 4 groups doesn’t mean that you can’t show more than one tendency. So, if you visualise the two lines separating grabbers from fondlers and creators from storytellers as crossing at a 90° angle, you see 4 quadrants, like this:


Let me show some examples. Here you see Paul on Pont des Arts, expert grabber that he is:

Pont des Artes - testing Pascal's 90mm Leica Summicron R

Pont des Arts – testing Pascal’s 90mm Leica Summicron R

Then here is my shot, on a different day, telling a totally different story. Paul highlights, “who is there and what is happening”, while I show “who might be there, and what could happen”


Here is Pascal, shooting a fountain on the way up to the Sainte Baume. What is this fluid flowing? Some magical source of strength or health?


And my shot of the same. It is water, of course. But for whom?

La Source de Nans , a fountain in the Sainte Baume massif in Southern Provence, France

La Source de Nans (Philippe)

So, which is your quadrant?

But, you could say, how does this matter, and why? Can’t my style change with my mood, my equipment, the subjects and opportunities at hand? Sure it can. Though Boris is not a grabber, it doesn’t mean that, given the right opportunity, he would just cross his arms and say: this is not my style!

A couple more examples, where Boris “shows everything”, and I do not, preferring for the viewer to “fill in the blanks”. Boris’ shots first, then mineParque Nacional Queulat Parque Nacional Queulat

HN1C0660 resized

HN1C0766 resized

So where does this all lead? Well, int he first place, knowing “what works for us” translates into “what we should shoot”. Then knowing “what we know how to shoot” should equate with the previous, or we will end up frustrated…

But of course, it also means something in terms of gear. The grabber is not about to pull the camera out of the bag, and/or change lenses before (s)he can “take the shot”. Equipment must be compact, always at the ready. The fondler has no need for that. His shots are deliberate, maybe even planned in advance. But he is a resolution and dynamic range hog, for whom there is no such thing as “enough”, and sometimes resorts to tilt-shift lenses to correct his images.

The creator can sometimes (but not always, of course) use the weaknesses of his (her) gear to advantage. Hence the use of such lenses as pinhole lenses, fish-eyes, Lensbabies etc…

So when it gets, for example, to the forthcoming 50Mp+ cameras that should be released soon, who should consider buying one? Paul probably doesn’t give a hoot about ever more pixels. Pascal will be painfully hanstrung between that and the multi-shot Olympus. I will very defintely lust for one, as will Boris, unless he can’t get a Nauticam housing for his 2 (a proper fondler, he has no Plan B. Merely 2 Plan As. Compromises are not part of his vocabulary).

I think you get the idea. Now the forum is yours. Tell are who you are. If you know, that is. Otherwise, find out, and enjoy the benefits!

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  • paulperton says:

    I might as well kick this one off Philippe. Can’t argue much with what you have said, save I never (ever) shoot one handed – my six and a half decade old paws are now just too unsteady. – sometimes even at 1/125th.

    But, I’m smiling as I write this. My shot of the girl on Pont des Artes (what better place to take a photograph?) was exactly as you said; an instant, with Pascal’s 90mm Leica R on my Sony NEX-7. A test. A trial. A photograph that has brought and continues to bring me an immense amount of pleasure. Thanks for seeing it too.

    No doubt I’ll have something else to say ‘ere long 😉

  • SteveG says:

    I like the analysis and find myself somewhere between Boris and Phillipe; I rarely use a tripod but am never confident enough that I can capture what I want in one shot, so take multiples.

    My problem is determining which shot captures what I am after.

    Here are 3 shots of the ancient beech trees which border the Wye Valley Gorge. In camera, I couldn’t be sure which had the atmosphere I was searching – winter cold, statuesque trees, steep terrain.
    On my big screen, screen capture attached, I can see them side-by-side.

    At first I thought the middle one did it, but on further reflection, the one on the left is what I wanted This sort of judgement is difficult through the camera viewfinder, as the comparisons can’t be made.

    • paulperton says:

      Agree – I’d have opted for the LH shot. Would I have tried to find the other two? Probably not.

      As Philippe said, I’d more likely to shoot it and move on. After all. who knows what’s around the next corner?

      • SteveG says:

        The first two were taken from the same viewpoint, just a change in zoom. The third was a little further down the track. For me each says something different and I could tell a different story around the third one. That would be in a different context, however.

        I am sure we all take photos which aren’t for a project “in mind” but “Could be useful for…”. Then the problem is the labelling/filing!

        • pascaljappy says:

          Steve, my fave is the 3rd. But it doesn’t spell out cold winter day for me. I’d see that as a nice autumn walk. There are still leaves on the trees and the shadows indicate sunlight and create a dynamic rhythm that’s not in tune with a sleepy winter. Ans the slope isn’t very pronounced.

          With your brief in mind, I’d also go with Paul’s choice: number 1. You might try cropping 20% off the bottom to get rid of that warm brown soil and give more room to the bare trees, as an experiment.

          Lovely set, whatever the intended meaning!

  • Julie Mautner says:

    Intesting post! And lovely photos all…

  • Philberphoto says:

    After all, who knows what’s around the next corner? Paul, you are the very example of Micawberism! I admire that, as I do your grabs. Don’t I wish…

  • Boris says:

    First I had to look-up what a fondler is, since I’ve never heard this word before. Depending on the context you will find any kind of nice to let’s say interesting definitions. But I’m sure that Philippe meant it in a positive way.

    And it fit’s my photography style quite well. Although agreeing of being mainly a fondler I would see myself rather on the storyteller side than on the creator side.

    I often try to TELL A STORY about certain special places. To achieve this I FONDLE finding the best compositions etc., but also I often just GRAB a perfect moment like a big wave or a rainbow or a light ray and CREATE something new and not obviously visible by using for example ND filters …

    … maybe the categorization in the magic quadrant is not as simple as I previously thought.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Hello Boris, having seen your photographs on Wild Places, I feel you are both a creator and a storyteller. Your photographs depict a scene and a moment, but your processing style is strong and consistent.

      A 100% creator is probably someone who forgets about the scene altogether and creates a pleasing visual object, regardless of the subject matter. And a 100% storyteller probably focuses on the subject matter without much thought about personal style, like some reporters.

      Some people manage to be both, telling stories while adding their strong style. People such as Sebastiao Salgado, for instance, or Pentti Sammalahtti. That’s the hardest and most interesting place to be, in my view.


  • Sean says:

    … This is a terrific way for someone to understand their position in regards to crafting an image, imprinted with ones own unmistakeable ‘signature’.

    I flip, or ebb and flow, between being a ‘story teller’ and being ‘creative’ …

    • pascaljappy says:

      Don’t we all 😉 It’s always fantastic to view photographs from someone with a constant style, but that takes a lot of commitment, refusing to take (or show) photographs that do not fit in with that specific vision … Ah well 😉

      • Mer says:

        Hmmm, I’d have to rate myself as a grabber with pretensions of being a creative or storyteller. I don’t have a blog or online gallery, but if I did, then any consistent style would get there through curation and processing rather than capture. However, given that my processing is led by the image rather than any particular style, I suspect that I’ll always have a collection of photos that could have been taken by a bunch of strangers. Variety is the spice and all that.

        Within my mixed bag of photos, I could break them down into subsets that would sit together more easily. Night shots are almost always grainy monochromes because I don’t use a tripod and my high-iso large-aperture images tend to fall apart in color; it’s the photon-deficient necessity-induced cohesion style.


        • pascaljappy says:

          Hi Mer, maybe you could try selecting a few of your favourites and grouping them into ‘projects’ to see where these fall on the grid. If there are some you’d like to share, feel free to send pics and text to us, we’ll be glad to publish them. Cheers, Pascal

  • Matthew Chu says:

    You are probably in inundated with request to comment on people’s style. I hope you will have time to take a look at my photos. I think I am a fondler and storyteller, with more weight on being a fondler. What do you think? Below is the album of my recent trip to Italy. Appreciate your comments.


    • philberphoto says:

      Matthew, to my eye, looking at your portofolio of Italian shots, I see more storytelling than creating, and more grabbing than fondling. Many of your shots capture the essence of the moment, the street musicians, the streetcars, the food, the alignmenet of trains in the station. That IMHO is pure grabbing. I did not see real fondling at work. Now I need to repeat that no style is “better than” or “superior to” any other. Fondling takes vast amounts of time, and is hardly compatible with street photography. A good example of that is Robert Doisneau’s iconic shot of French lovers kissing. A pure grab, or so it seemed, but executed with the perfection of full fondling. Except that, many years later, it was revealed that the shot, reputed to have been a street capture, had in fact been posed by professionals. In which case Doisneau, and this does not minimise his work in any way, had all the time he needed. If you will, the real storytelling in the picture was magnified by the storytelling about the picture…:-)

  • MelW says:

    What a wonderful discussion! The blend of wit, insight and humor makes Dear Susan my favorite photo blog (if that’s the correct name for it). I am a Grabber when roaming about and a Storyteller when capturing an event (like an open house in a library). Now, I see it all in a fresh light. Thanks.

  • Philberphoto says:

    Whew, Mel, thanks for the kind words! Let me grab them before Pascal does, they really fondle my ego. I am sure Pascal will now pretend that I’ve created them myself, in order to tell a nice story. What a friend, eh?

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