The Art of Photography: Defining Your Visual Style | Stephen Vanasco Aka Van Styles | Skillshare

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The Art of Photography: Defining Your Visual Style

teacher avatar Stephen Vanasco Aka Van Styles, Photographer & Founder of V/SUAL Apparel

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Visual Signature: A Turning Point


    • 3.



    • 4.

      Shooting in the Streets


    • 5.

      Editing Selects


    • 6.

      What's Next?


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About This Class

Hone in on a photography style that is consistent and uniquely yours.

Join Stephen Vanasco — aka Van Styles — on the streets of New York City as he shares personal stories and professional tips about defining your photographic style, an essential skill in today's bustling photography landscape. Primarily known for aerial and model photography, this 25-minute class focuses on Vanasco's new black-and-white, high-contrast style, which has fueled his creativity, personal brand, and even new professional gigs. Lessons explore:

  • Defining your point of departure (a creative constraint to direct your art)
  • Camera and technical considerations
  • Finding the beauty in your surroundings
  • Editing in Photoshop (Vanasco converts color to black and white)

From parameters that can frame your photography to executing and editing your shots, you'll gain inspiration and insight to take your photography style to the next level.


What You'll Learn

  • Street photography. Stephen will teach you how to build your creative instincts while working in your own backyard. You’ll learn photography by exploring your environment and honing your artistry to create meaningful work that reflects your eye.
  • Creating your own. You’ll improve your photography skills by interacting with your surroundings, and you will define your artistic intent by shooting what interests you there.    
  • Learning from history. Stephen will discuss noted street photographers that inspire him, sharing particular works that have helped reinvigorate his art – and will encourage yours, too!
  • Analyzing photography. Successful street photographers find visual interest in even the most mundane subjects. Stephen will walk you through the way that he developed his artistic “point of departure,” and will discuss depth, line, lighting, and the questions you should ask yourself as you begin to build your own visual signature style.
  • Developing technique. Stephen believes in making most artistic decisions in the street, not during the editing process. He will suggest ways that you can find compositions, experiment with techniques, and define your artistic point of view while you are actively shooting the subjects around you.
  • Using gear. The right tools are a crucial part of a photographer’s ability to make impactful art. Stephen will talk about the useful features of his bag, cameras, and the lenses he relies on for photo enhancement. With Stephen’s guidance, you’ll appreciate the ways that gear can improve your ability to get the right shot every time.
  • Exercising technique and style. You’ll follow Stephen as he photographs the streets of New York to give you an in-depth lesson on how to create art out of shadow, texture, and light. You’ll explore how to find subjects, how to engage strangers that you want to shoot, and how to experiment with different lenses in the field to capture more immersive snapshots.
  • Working with natural light. Stephen will illustrate how to use the harsh light and shadow of the natural environment to create dynamic abstract compositions out of the everyday cityscape.
  • Editing software. Your artistry is expressed when the camera is in your hand, but the right editing can make it more impactful. Stephen sits down to show you the software he depends on for photo editing, photo restoration, and photo retouching. You’ll follow along as he explains the best (free!) tools to use to convert color photographs to black and white ones, and how to enhance your work to best reflect your artistic vision.  
  • Creating contrast and clarity. You’ll get a detailed look at how to create contrast and clarity when your shots need a dramatic punch. You’ll also learn how Stephen adjusts his highlights, midtones, and shadows to create more polished, interesting photographs.
  • Working with filters. Even when you are shooting in monochrome, you can use colored filters to make the compositions more compelling. You’ll learn how Stephen chooses filters for dramatic effect, for highlight control, and to complement his subject matter.
  • Cropping – Stephen will show you how the right crop – while shooting in the field and during the editing process – can make arresting works of art out of simple colors, textures, and shapes.

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Stephen Vanasco Aka Van Styles

Photographer & Founder of V/SUAL Apparel


Stephen Vanasco is a NY-born, LA-raised photographer heavily influenced by the '90s skate scene. Never one to sit and wait for people to give him an opportunity, he took a chance and followed his passion for photography. Now he professionally travels the world for photography and for his brand V/SUAL.

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1. Introduction: You don't need to travel to a far off land, to make a great photo. I think it's more interesting when you find something that people have to think about, or people have to question, "What is that?" When you tell them what it is or tell them what you created, it's almost like a shock that they wish, they already knew it, like it's a surprise. There's something to be said about when you build up your eye and your creativity. Locally, when you do travel somewhere that is really interesting, you're going to have such a different approach to it than everyone else already has. It's such a beautiful thing to find something you love doing. You just want to do all types of it. But for me, a turning point was just realizing it's like, I want to be more direct with the photos I'm going to be making, I want there to be intent, I want there to be a purpose. So, in this class, we're going to go over a visual signature that I'm currently building. We're going to go over the idea of what a point of departure is, when you pick up your camera. In this technological age, I think a lot of people who maybe picked up photography in the past three to five years, to them their visual signature might be their editing process. The realization that I had recently was that, it should be in your composition, it should be in your technique of how you're using the camera. The image that comes right out of the camera, should have your visual signature embedded into it. The one thing that not everyone has, is their own eye. I'm not going to see things the way you do, you won't see things the way I do, and that's truly what's going to make you find your voice in photography these days. So, when we go out, I'm just going to show you what I've been seeing, what I'm paying attention to, what catches my eye. We're also going to go over the cameras used. So, Leica M cameras, they're my favorite for the past five years or so. I normally shoot the monochrome, but we're going to be shooting with an MP240 tape just to show processing technique of color, the black and white. So, the point of this class is, taking your camera with you wherever you go, wherever your day, your life is going to take you. When walking a path being so attentive and so intent on making something so specific, that it can only come from you. 2. Visual Signature: A Turning Point: Today, I'm going to go over course with you guys regarding visual signature, the idea of a point of departure and more or less to showing you how to expand your eye and your view on photography. So, in this class, we're going to go over a visual signature, that I'm currently building and touching on the visual signature. In this technological age, I think a lot of people who maybe pick up photography in the past three to five years, to them their visual signature might be their editing process. But again, the realization that I had recently was that, it should be in your composition, it should be in your technique of how you're using the camera. The image that comes right out of the camera should have your visual, signature embedded into it. Not relying on the post's efforts to define that, because everyone has that same advantage. The one thing that not everyone has, is their own eye. I'm not going to see things the way you do, you won't see things the way I do. That's truly what's going to make you find your voice in photography these days. So, I don't want to see it from the students involved of this class. What I think will be an interesting and successful project, would be just taking things within your surroundings, within your daily visuals and make photos of it. Feel free to experiment, feel free to challenge yourself, feel free to step back from your photo after you made it and think about it. Is this by intent? Did I mean to make this? Did I mean to create this?" It doesn't have to be the image that we're getting flooded with and impressed with, that makes a good photo. No, what makes a good photo, is your eye. What makes a good photo, is your creativity. So, whether it's photographing one color palette over and over again in certain ways, like that something. Whether it's portraitures of people showing their smile lines and their face. It can be anything that you catch your eye looking at on a daily basis but for whatever reason, you've never explored documenting that over and over again. To the point where when people see the images together, they totally understand what your objective was when you went out to do this. I, myself, was re-inspired with the works of some older photographers who I respect. Fortunate enough to be around them for a panel discussion a few months ago. The topic was finding your voice in a digital age of photography with so much technology. There so many things that are readily available to everyone to make a photo, whether it's your smartphone whether it's picking up a DSLR, a mirrorless camera of some sort, even a film camera. Being around Mark de Paola, Ralph Gibson on this panel, two older photographers whose work I am extremely respect. Just kind of broke me down, in the sense of looking at my work and what does my work necessarily say. What do I wanted to say? When I look back on it five, 10 years from now, will I be proud? Will I be confident that I knew what I was doing exactly? I've definitely been having a lot of fun for the past 14, 15 years with photography. Exploring and discovering all different types of it from model work to aireal to street. But what I was realizing, thinking about this was, is there an identifiable as put visual signature that transcends through my work? Across the subject matter that regardless of what I'm shooting you can tell, it's something that I'm creating. I think a lot of people go into the world to shoot photography and expecting the mommy lock out your door. You're going to see this magnanimous moment, that is it's going to be so epic and it's going to be the greatest photo ever, when in reality, you can walk around all day and come back with nothing. So, hearing Ralph Gibson, "You don't necessarily have to wait for this big thing to make a really great photo. You can make great imagery with your environment, with what's going on around you, with what's more existing." That really sparks something in me. The best way I could say is, I felt like a real awakening to how I want to make my photos. The next day after this panel discussion, I wanted to reset my eye and reset my mind, in a sense go back to basics. Shooting strictly the monochrome camera, so, there's no color palette involved in my images whatsoever. I completely took the color scheme out of everything. That's my point of departure. I'm looking for depth within the shadows, I'm looking for the way lines fall to the light. It clicked for me and like okay, this is it. Let me keep following this, building as a visual signature this way. It was probably one of the most fun and enjoyable days of me making photos in a while. I was able to get one photo of those really just pleased with personally. A puddle on the ground, a girl cautiously stepping over it, as if she was going to fall into another dimension. This is a photo of a bit of a tourist attraction I live, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown. Again, it's a very popular place. People have taken billions of pictures there, but I was personally fond of this photo that I made there. Because again, I don't think I would have seen it the way that I did, prior to my talk with Ralph and everyone else in that discussion. Again, I'm seeing things differently. So, I walk into my backyard, palm leaves in the foreground, shadows casted onto the wood fence in the background. The shapes of the leaves that were being created in everything, it had a sense of depth, it had textures, it had patterns. But it also, continued to show me and you can make an interesting photo out of everyday things that are around you. I mean the idea that I walked onto this backyard of mine and made this photo, was just such an amazing feeling that I'd overlooked for so long. Stressing myself that I needed to have- again, grand moments or an epic setting, or I needed to travel somewhere. These are thoughts that I would carry. Now, that's totally out the window and the game is totally shifted for me. So, now, talking we're going to go out. We're going to hit the streets of New York. This is an exercise that I want you the viewer, you the student, you the photographer to understand that walk outside your door, look around at things a little bit differently, see things a little bit differently and possibly push yourself to create a little bit differently than your comfort zone. 3. Gear: So, we're going to get ready to head out and shoot. Before we do that, I wanted to run through some of the gear that I use on a daily basis. As far as my bag, Chrome Niko bag, great travel one, also a great street bag. Reason why I love it as a great street bag, has this quick easy access on the side right here. So if I need to grab my camera out to shoot, I need to get batteries out, SD cards, lens change, I don't have to take my full bag off, I can swing it around do that. It's also weatherproof, very comfortable even when loaded up with all types of gear, so it's always been my go-to bag for the past three years. Normally, I would shoot with Leica Monochrom 246, just love the simplicity of black and white. But for today's class, I'm going to be working with Leica M-P 240, color camera, 50-millimeter 2.0 summicron APO lens is what I've been working with. Aside from that focal length, I do work with some other ones. My favorites in the past few months have been the 90-millimeter 2.0 summicron as well, this 135 millimeter. Then at times, if I do want to get a little bit wider, a 28-millimeter summicron. Another essential to what I shoot with is a DSPTCH straps. I love these things, been using these for a few years now as well. One thing I really dig about them is aside from the strength and durability is the clips, which are very safe actually, but it's modular. So if I want to go from a neck strap to a wrist strap, it's as easy as clipping it together. Another reason why I love working with rangefinder cameras, especially the lenses, is the zone focusing ability. If there is a moment that's coming up really quick, I can quickly focus to get my shot. On top of the lens, it has the metering system. So, it shows you if you're out at F8, how many feet you need to be at for it to be in focus. So, I can look down and get my image versus having to pull it up to my face and possibly missing a moment if it arises. Another thing about this camera and any camera when I'm doing street stuff, I'll shoot at a high ISO, roughly about 1600 is where I'm always at. I do this because I want a faster shutter and I want a higher F stop. I want the depth in my image. I don't want it to be 2.0 or 1.4, just go out and test some shots with your ISO settings to see what your dynamic range ability is. The idea of this is like say shoot 1600, maybe shoot a stop or two underexposed. When you bring it into a process, just simply pulling the brightness, pulling the shadows, and pulling the blocks, it'll show you how much leeway you have before the image starts to deteriorate. Same thing with your highlights, pulling down the highlights, seeing how far it can go. So that way when you do go out to the streets or any setting with your camera, you know your leniency. So, I'm going to run through the lenses and why I like to use them, how I feel like there purposeful to me. First, I'll start with the 50 millimeter. This lens is primarily on my cameras at all time. Being that it's a tighter composition, I find it more challenging and I love just being able to be very specific with what I'm showing you what I see. The 90 in a 135 millimeter two-focal length I've really come to love, especially when it comes to say cityscapes. I love compressing the depth of say buildings and streets into a photo. With this, again, in relation to the 50, it's much more specific with what I want to show you. So, I could look at a city and I could see down streets and I could see layers of buildings together. I love the result of my photography when using these lenses. Because you're compacting, compressing so much of that depth into a photo, it translates so well. The widest I'll go these days with where my heads at, where my eyes at would be a 28 millimeter. Again, this is a really great lens for zone focusing. If I'm focusing on people for street, I love this lens because it forces me to get right up in their face and right in there with them. I want to try to fill the space of the frame with this lens with my subject matter. I don't want to leave too much dead empty vastness going on. I really want to show you what I see with this. So, these are the focal lens that I've definitely been running with lately, and I've been feeling very fulfilled by the images I've been making with them. 4. Shooting in the Streets: Right now, I'm heading towards the Brooklyn Bridge. Just being aware of what's going on, but I'm also photographing everything that's grabbing my attention right now that I see a pattern within, or I find someone interesting. I always treat this like the initial beginning of my outing. It's like a warm up almost, kind of like stretching out my eyes, stretching out my hand and eye coordination with my camera. Then, usually, after a little bit, I click and find a rhythm, and I start finding more and more photos to make. So, I think it's also important to remember when days you go out, don't stress to get this big photo. You don't need to worry about that. Just exercise your technique, exercise your eyes, and you'll see what's going to fall into place. Just like a block back, I saw a man doing some shoe repair by hand, rather than just walk up and make a photo without explaining anything to him and having him get nervous or freak out. I explained I just want to photograph your tools, not you at all. I think communication is a huge essence when working in the streets. Thank you. Have a good day. I'm not a huge fan of taking a photo from across the street like running away. I think it's great to engage with the people you're surrounded by. While I was just shooting right now, just the pattern of the crosswalk lines, the lines from the cement leading out to that, and then you have this cool crack running through the middle of these lines. So again, experimenting with different framing, and so did the landscape framing, which has a little bit more leading lines, which is a portraiture vertical shot to give you more a perspective of what I was seeing. So, this is one of the shots that I just got. What attracted me was the contrast between the white lines in the street, the crack running through. I'm already envisioning my photos as black and white since that's what the mode I've been in lately. I just think this will be a strong image once processed. So, right now, I'm going to post up here for a bit. This patch of light that was falling through caught my eye. It's the bricks leading up to the light. The harsh cut with the shadow and the light, and then the human figure walking through it. So, hopefully, we'll see if any other people come walking by. We're out here in Greenpoint right now, just a changing of the scenery, the landscape. A lot of great old structures out here, kind of weathered, little aging on them. But also, we have a little bit of sun coming out, which hopefully is going to give me a chance to demonstrate use of harsh light, harsh shadows when making your photos in the streets. So, right here, what was really attracting me is just like this framing and layers of textures going on. From this almost rotted brown wood transcending into this white window frame, that's also just weathered and aged. You have some depth with the shadow coming in from this leading into these horizontal lines from the blinds. We have additional framing here, and you also have the shadow being casted from the frames onto the blinds. So, to me, it's just very interesting set of layers going on, and so I'm just playing around to see the different framing options, different ways to photograph this. I'm so keeping in mind that I'm shooting black and white in my head. But again, I think this is a subject we're going to touch on through the editing process of this kind of stuff, is that, regardless of its color, black or white, the image should still speak and say something. I'm not solely relying on the aqua of the wood or the rust of the trashcan to make the photo, in my opinion, good. I'm seeing the layering to it in the shapes and everything beyond that, so the color palette involves can work for, but it's also not solely relying on it. This was pretty interesting with the wind blowing right now. It's making this tarp behind it move, changing the shape of the shadows with the chain-link fence and the poles and everything going on. That was pretty fun to shoot right now. So again, with the idea of making a photo more specific than general, I feel like a lot of people are in love with wide angles, 24 millimeter and below. They would probably come here, shoot as wide as they can, get everything from the right all the way to the left, and just try to pack it in there. What I think happens with that is that, you're presenting the viewer with a very general image. So, rather than beam wide, I'm shooting with the 135 millimeter for this. It allows me to be more specific in something that's so broad. So, when I look and see, I look at the Chrysler Building and center, like you just see the structures around it. You can see the shadows falling in those front buildings going into light. So, to me, in my head already, I know it's going to be great depth within this photo. I can frame it a different way going from landscape to portraiture. Shooting right down at the middle, I'm going to get the orange of that raft, the wood leading up to it. Similar thing, if I look over to the Empire State Building, you have these apartment houses right in the front, just giving it more depth than you normally would. If you shot with, say, a 24 millimeter, you would just have wide, and you wouldn't feel as immersed in the image as you would with the, say, the telephoto lens of some type. So, we saw plenty of daylight left. I think we probably have another two or three hours, and I could keep going. I think though, today, through walking through the financial district, walking through Chinatown, shooting out here in Greenpoint and Brooklyn, I was able to demonstrate and give some good examples of the techniques and eye side of photography that I was talking about before. So, from here, we're going to wrap it up, and we're going to catch back up in the editing process with my laptop, and check out the group of images that I got today. 5. Editing Selects: So now that we're done with shooting, we're going to go through some of the images that I selected. I explained earlier, I'm photographing with the black and white processing in mind since I worked with my colored camera on this class. But I'm going to showcase how the thought process of treating it like black and white helped me achieved the final image. So, here we go. For those of you who don't know, I prefer to work through bridge. I've opened them up in Photoshopp and I'm also going to touch on an additional piece of software that I prefer to use when converting color images of black and white. The software is called Silver Efex Pro 2. It's through a company called Nik, N-I-K, and the beauty of this is it's a completely free program software. It could work with Lightroom, it can work with Photoshop. Here is the image of the parking sign reflecting through that metal truck that we saw at Greenpoint. I'm going to click Open Silver Efex. I think everyone gets very protective of their software, of their ed editing techniques. This goes back to the idea everyone has the same thing. Your eyes should be different, not your editing stuff. Normally, what I would do, say, with an image like this, I would probably enhance the contrast up to around 25 percent structure or might be considered clarity, bump that up to 25 percent as well. From there, I'll play with some highlights, midtones, shadows especially. Dynamic brightness is also great, relevant to film. Once I get to what looks good to me, what I like, what I'm happy with, how I think the image should look from when I captured, I'll finish it off and then apply it as a layer to Photoshop. So from here, once I got it in there, one last thing I'll do is I'll just open up my levels, something very simple that said Auto. Sometimes, it doesn't enhance contrast to it, subtle but it definitely can tell a difference, so I'll just check the prior after. Then, I have my photo. So that's that one. Next image we'll jump into is the compressed photo of the Brooklyn bridge. So, same thing, open up Silver Efex. For my own purpose, that's one thing I love about the idea of black and white minus shooting. I'm not distracted by the color of the sky, the color of the cars driving. I'm just purely focused on the content and the subject matter within my photo. It always begins within your image that you made, your composition, your technique and what you're seeing. The processing shouldn't be so far left that it totally veers away from that. It should be in-line with what you're doing. I'm not looking to be super intense. I'm a huge fan of when you make your photo and you're processing it to make it is as true to your eyes as you can, not so much imaginative. So, again, you can kind of see subtle shadows giving a little highlight but which also enhances some contrast to it. Remove the layer for a second, so you see that's that, that's that. Nothing too intense with this here. Here we go. This is the window I mentioned in Greenpoint that I love with the grading of the wood, to the window frame, to the shadow, to the blinds. So, when I shoot with my monochrome camera, I do use colored filters, just as you would with traditional black and white film; red, yellow, orange, and green for certain points of contrast. So, a fun part with this is if you're shooting color, of course, and you're processing it with this software, you can use a yellow filter which is what I probably would have had on. Red is a very harsh contrast, dramatic effect. Yellow is roughly about all around; highlight, control, filter. Orange is in between the red and the yellow. And the green is really good when photographing plants. The image I referred to earlier, the pines in my backyard, I have photographed with the green filter on my lens. Here we go. This is the cab photo. So here we are. I'll start it off. I'm going to put my yellow filter again. Because I'm shooting so much of this filter, I knew it was going to really bump with the highlights of the color of the car. Again, let's bring that contrast up, structure up. And for this one, I want the buildings to pop out a little bit more. So, maybe I'll pull the shadows up a tiny bit, just check my levels once more. And again, you could see when I apply the levels, it brightens up just the shadows a little bit, and I think it's a good balance for this shot. All right, here we go, one of my favorite photos from the day, the gentleman walking underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. So, if you remember the original, I just cropped in from the side a little bit. I didn't want the vast framing that kind of clipped the side of the cones and everything. I want to be very focused on the gentleman. When I photograph, I definitely do my best to crop within the frame so there's no additional cropping going on in the post. But sometimes when you're involving people and they're walking and they're moving, you want to get the shot, your frame isn't always going to be precisely perfect every time. I'm sharping this a little bit more because there's just so much cool textures going on. All right. Let's bring this back into Photoshop. So, keep in mind, you obviously can spend as much time or as you want little time as you want processing as long as your image comes out. So, apply the levels to this one. As you can see, it just takes care some of the stuff. The foot is a little bit more highlighted. So, here's what I'll do in that case, if the auto levels almost there are not quite what I want, I'll bring the levels back up, I'll make a midpoint, a high and a low point, the low point down a little bit because I still like how the shoe is a little bit more clear in the image, but I do love the harsh shadow. So, pretty much there you have it. This is where my heads at, this is where my eyes at, via point of departure, filling the need to strongly develop a visual signature. Now, what I want to see from this class, from you guys, is you stepping out into your world and showing me your own eye, not anyone else's, not any other influences coming through, but your eye. Just make something out of nothing. That's the beauty of art. That's what it is. It's solely creating and using your mind, your eye, with a tool of a camera to make a photo that first and foremost shows what you see and is intriguing. So, I appreciate you again for coming to check out this class and I can't wait to see what you, guys, come up with. 6. What's Next?: