This is my understanding of how to develop a creative style. This is not the only way but this is the process that I used. I hope you find it useful.
- Define what sparks your curiosity: The foundation of your style is what creatively lights you up. What image/images stopped you in your tracks? Who are the photographers that you get lost in their work and repeatedly come back to them? Be specific. Assemble a mood board or print out the images to tape to the wall. Is there a trend or an unifying trait? Break it down like ingredients of a recipe. I have found it very difficult to describe what images that excite me but I know them instantly when I see those images.
- Emulate your favorites: This may seem like an odd place to start finding your style but it gives you a bench mark to compare and evaluate your work. Ira Glass sums up your current state perfectly when he describes a gap between your taste and the quality of your creative output. I will leave this long quote here just in case someone has not seen it.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” ― Ira Glass
With deliberate practice, you can close this gap. I purposefully use the term deliberate practice because this doesn't happen by mere accident. Give yourself assignments or elements to work on. Maybe find a group of fellow photographers who will critique your work and provide constructive criticism. Know where you stand, where you are going, and then develop a plan to get there.
Creative frustration: You will reach a point where you can no longer just copy a style or a photographer's work. The best way I can describe the feeling is that it feels like you are putting on a disguise or a facade and being frustrated/annoyed by that realization. This creative frustration forces you to take a leap beyond what you have done so far. The leap could be come in the form of combining another photographic idea to your emulated work. Or applying the same style but with different equipment or subject matter. It is your chance to wander off the establish path and strike out on your creative own.
Crisis Phase: Failure and missteps are all part of the experimental process but they challenge your ego as a photographer. You mentally establish yourself as a good photographer able to get close to the masters and then destroy this image in order to progress beyond what you have created before. It sucks. It is a hard process. Unfortunately, there is no way around this process. You can chose to stay in the emulation phase or you have just have to work through the suck until you get to the other side.
"You must be willing to embrace a season of incompetence in order to move to the next level and continue developing your voice." - Todd Henry
Your failures do not have to be out in the open. Sharing them may help speed up finding the answer but its not necessary. Side project are a perfect arenas for experimentation. Your first idea (or even your 13th) may not work. But each iteration is feedback which will allow you to find the solution you are looking.
Repeat steps 3 & 4: The creative joy of solving step #4 will slowly fade away as you get completely comfortable with your new style. Over time, the same creative frustration will creep into your work. This will prompt another creative leap. This is the creative loop which drives us forward.
"What is a master but a master student? And if that's true, then there's a responsibility on you to keep getting better and to explore avenues of your profession." - Neil Peart