Conceptual art photography might be one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated types of photography. It's a genre that requires forethought and planning--perhaps enough so that casual shoot-from-the-hip shutterbugs might be put off. But once you get into the creative process, it provides a myriad of artistic outlets that can improve any composition in any genre.
The basis for conceptual photos is a foundation - a building block - into what makes photography a form of fine art. Understanding this art form is an excellent first step in transitioning your work from snapshot to masterpiece.
What is Conceptual Photography?
Conceptual art photography begins with a concept - something the photographer wants to portray with visual imagery. There are no boundaries beyond that. But, when you dive deeply into the topic, it becomes clear that this simple foundation makes conceptual photography ideas very different from other photography forms.
Fine art photography is often confused with conceptual artworks. Conceptual photography ideas are certainly one type of fine art photography. In other words, all conceptual photos are fine art photos, but not all fine artworks are conceptual.
It's best to consider an example. A common subject in fine art is the still-life portrait of a bowl of fruit on a table. It's an art class and photography school staple - it teaches you shape, form, lighting, composition, technique, and a slew of other skills. But is it conceptual? If it's just a bowl of fruit, expertly and beautifully captured, probably not.
But what if, instead of starting with the idea of capturing a fruit bowl still life, the photographer started with a more fundamental concept. Let's say they want to capture loneliness. So now they approach a fruit bowl, piled with apples, bananas, and oranges. Off to the side sits a solitary lemon. They compose the shot, making that poor, lonely lemon is now the star of the show.
What's the difference? Both are fine art photographs. But the solitary and sad lemon is conceptual - there's a more profound mood, feeling, and idea behind the entire work.
Creative conceptual photography knows no bounds. It's fun to dive in and explore new and unique ways to communicate concepts that everyone is familiar with. You can use any production or post-production process.
Your images can be realistic or surreal, imaginative or mundane, creepy or comforting.
As with fine art photography, there are many sub-genres of conceptual photos. Conceptual portrait photography is a fascinating topic. Here, instead of capturing your subject as they are, you exercise complete control over the composition to communicate your idea. Many conceptual works use models in the frame, sometimes only body parts, sometimes in fantasy costumes, and sometimes processed and blurred into obscurity.
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How To Do Conceptual Photography
If there is one rule to conceptual art photography, it is to make a photo as a painter would approach making a painting. You are not out to capture snaps. While every photographer should take their time to compose a shot and frame it well, a conceptual photographer goes much deeper than that. Here are 12 Great Photography Composition Techniques and Tips to take eye-catching photos.
Instead, you are setting out with your concept in mind. You might sit and sketch your ideas on paper. Perhaps you have a brainstorming session, and you list all of the ways you could communicate your concept. At this point, you don't even know what objects or subjects will be in your photo, you only know the idea you want to communicate. You might spend days, weeks, or months in this phase. It might not seem much like photography, but it is art at its most fundamental level-creativity. If you are looking to improve basic photography skillset, understanding these design principles can be a great help in your work.
Here are 5 Top Tips for Shooting Unique Conceptual Photos
Every photographer will have a slightly different process for creating this type of photography. However, if there's one quality that sets these images apart from most others, it's that they require planning, engineering, and conceptualizing.
- Dedicate the Time to Brainstorming and Planning
- Define the Concept or Message
- Start Creating the Images
- Step Back and Refine the Image
- Use Post Production to Experiment with Conceptual Photography
Tip 1 - Dedicate the Time to Brainstorming and Planning
Like most other fine art photographs, creative conceptual photography requires premeditation. Brainstorming, mood boarding, and storyboarding are common tools people use to do it, but the process is unique for every photographer. Do read our article with 15 Great Tips on how to Create Awesome Moodboards.
What exactly are you thinking about here? Well, there's no good answer except to say "everything." Brainstorm your overall concept-write down everything that comes to mind. Narrow it down, hone in, and filter it down to precisely what you're trying to communicate to your audience. Here are 12 tips to write awesome content for your website.
Once you've thought on that a bit, sit back and think about the "how questions." How are you going to share it with the viewer? How will the elements in the frame tell your story?
Then you can get into the real nitty-gritty, thinking about moods, aesthetics, and processes you'd like to use. Start looking around for inspiration from your contemporaries--who else is doing similar things, and how can you differentiate yourself? What do you like and what do you hate? Or, more importantly, what do you want to use in your composition?
Tip 2 - Define the Concept or Message
Now you've got all the ingredients, but you still need to narrow things down. For example, visual artists often distil their process into a short vision statement or similar document. Creating work like this requires a clear plan, and the document will help you stay on task.
Remember, approach this type of photography as if you were a painter. It's well and good to say that you need to have a concept to base your photograph on, but the truth is deeper. It means that you're building your image from the ground up in the way that you visualize it. And that's actually a bit harder than the job of painter since you're going to need to find the location, models, costumes, props, and everything else.
The level of formality here is entirely up to you. The best thing to do is put together a notebook to collect your thoughts and keep them for later. Your goal is to start with a broad range of topics and ideas and then take that down to a final concept.
Tip 3 - Start Creating the Images
Here are just a few of the elements and tools that you might want to experiment with. There are no limits, so think outside the box and come up with new ways to say what needs to be said.
- Symbols and props
- Double exposures
- Play with colours, monotones, and black and whites
- Use shadows in your work
- Force perspectives
- Use raw emotions
- Mirrors and reflections
- Blend other forms of art and photography
- Use light painting and other creative techniques
Tip 4 - Step Back and Refine the Image
Once you've got a good set of images to pull from, now you can take a long hard look at them and think about how your project is progressing.
This isn't a bad time to bring in friends, family, or colleagues. Don't give them a preview or an elevator pitch--just show your work to some trusted people. Find the ones who are most likely to give you their honest feedback.
What is their takeaway from your best images so far? Is it as intended or completely different? If it's different, how does that make you feel? Their views and reactions could open up an entirely new element to the project that you hadn't seen before.
Tip 5 - Use Post Production to Experiment with Conceptual Photography
Here are just a few post-processing techniques that you might think about using for creative effects in your images.
- Film grain effects
- Double exposures
- Composite imagery
- Defy the laws of nature (i.e., floating models or subjects, water flowing uphill, etc.)
Once you have a collection of conceptual photographs, do begin work on building a portfolio website. Make sure that the portfolio website builder you choose offers the flexibility, features, and ease of use you need to put together a professional portfolio website without requiring any coding knowledge. Pixpa is a portfolio website builder platform that is trusted by creative pros around the world. Have a look at some stunning portfolio website examples.
Here are 29 Outstanding Photography Portfolio websites built on Pixpa, for you to get inspiration and ideas. These photographers have made excellent use of Pixpa, an easy to use website builder to showcase their photos. You can draw inspiration from these creative professionals and study their portfolios, to get a clearer idea of how you want to showcase your repertoire of work.
Here are 8 Conceptual Photographers You Should Know
One of the best ways to learn about conceptual photography - what it is, what it can be, and how you can do it -comes by studying the master's. Art never occurs in a vacuum, so check out these amazing artists and draw inspiration from their boundless creativity.
Shaden is a self-portrait photographer whose works focus on juxtaposing the light and darkness in us all. Her favourite themes are death and rebirth and beauty and decay. In her photographs, she becomes the characters from dreams--creations of her fertile imagination. She studied film in college, and her greatest passion is storytelling.
Thompson is another self-portrait artist whose subjects often include abandoned houses or empty forests. His works have been featured in HuffPost, Rangefinder, National Geographic, Format Magazine, and Esquire.
Ray was an American multimedia artist living in Paris until the outbreak of World War II. He was a contributor to the Dada and Surrealist movements. Ray used a technique known as the photogram. The photographer places objects on photographic paper and exposes them to light. These photographs, made without a camera, he called "rayographs."
Baldessari was a California native who taught at UCLA and the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. He produced more than 300 solo exhibitions and won numerous awards. His work is best described as photography with a heavy dose of mixed media. Images are heavily processed and often cropped and distorted, with essential details removed or replaced.
Lemieux was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and rose to popularity in the 1980s with picture theory artists like David Salle, Cindy Sherman, and Jack Goldstein. Her images are introspective and minimalistic. Her works are part of the permanent collects of many major art museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the Guggenheim Museum.
Sherman is an American contemporary artist born in 1954. She studied to become a painter but was attracted to photography early on. She said it freed her up to put all her creative efforts into the concept instead of the creation of the art. Like others, she's primarily a self-portrait artist. She uses outlandish costumes and makeup to convey her concepts, many of which revolve around feminism and the nature of representation. She pushes boundaries and creates conversations. Her breakout collection of photographs was titled "Untitled Film Stills." As she has done since, she is a photographer, model, hairdresser, makeup artist, stylist, and wardrobe for all of her shots.
German photographer Ruff was born in 1958 and specialized in landscape photography and interiors. His current works are heavily edited and digitally manipulated. Usually, he takes his images from other sources and processes them to communicate his concept. Ruff has exhibited widely, including at The Met and the Guggenheim.
Demand began as a sculpture and began photographing his creations. Eventually, the final photographic image became the ultimate goal for Demand. He starts most projects with an image from the media and recreates it in a sculpture made from cardboard and coloured paper. The result is disquieting--something that is real but at the same time definitely is not real.
Unleash Your Creativity With Conceptual Photography
Conceptual photography isn't for everyone, but it's a fascinating genre of art form that's worth studying. Elements can be applied to many different areas, no matter what sort of photography you love to take. So even if it's not your lifelong passion, taking some time to play with conceptual ideas can make you a better and more impactful photographer. You must read the top principles for taking aesthetic pictures.
Conceptual Art Photography Frequently Asked Questions
What is another name for conceptual photography?
Many people use the term fine art photography when describing a conceptual photo. Conceptual works are fine art in nature, but not all fine art photography is conceptual. Conceptual photos start as an idea, a feeling, or a concept. Once you've decided what you want to communicate, you start to answer questions like, what will be included in the frame, or how will the subject appear. For this reason, many people describe conceptual works as staged photographs.
What are the basic steps to follow in conceptual photography?
Conceptual art photography always begins with planning a concept or idea that you want to communicate through your work. How you go about doing that is entirely up to you. Many artists research and brainstorm ways to say what they want to say, and they may go through many different subjects before landing on the right one. There are many choices to make, and every photographer will make different ones - from lighting, location, and composition to the basic idea of what is included in the frame and what is not.
Conceptual photos are a form of fine art photography that is heavy on intent - every element of the composition should be controlled to communicate the photographer's message better.