We tend to see photography as quite a straightforward discipline. You press a button (or touch a screen) and an instant in time is captured. Despite the complexity of the process that makes this action possible, even a toddler is able to say what photography is. As we break it down into genres, the vast majority of them are just as easy to explain. Portrait, landscape, product, wildlife… They’re rather self-explanatory. You might have felt fairly confident in your knowledge until that day when you first encountered “fine art photography.” After that, as is so often the case, it’s possible you feel as if you’re seeing that term in every single photography website you visit.
Unlike the most common and popular photography genres, fine art photography can’t be put in a labeled box. The same way you wouldn’t be able to write down the characteristics that define the concept of art. Essentially, fine art photography is not a photography genre but an art form. As such, its definition can significantly vary depending on who you ask. There are, however, a few general guidelines one can take to understand what fine art photography is and how to excel at it.
What is fine art photography?
Fine art photography is a photographic representation of a subject or a scene that focuses on its aesthetic or imaginative meaning, rather than its objective depiction. It’s completely up to the photographer to decide what the meaning of the image is. But it’s likely that each person who sees the photo will perceive a different meaning. Essentially, fine art photography is whatever the photographer wants it to be. But also whatever each viewer sees. Seems confusing, right? Welcome to the art world.
So, if anyone can decide what fine art photography is, does that mean anyone can become a fine art photographer? It sure does. But then again, anyone could technically become anything they wanted to be. The secret to actually become something is always a combination of talent and hard work, not necessarily in that order. To make all of this a little bit less vague, we have put together seven steps that will help you start your journey towards becoming a fine art photographer.
Find your passion
“Find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain you of your all.” This quote, which may or may not have been written by Charles Bukowski, perfectly describes what it’s like to discover your true passion. It’s not about literally dying for something, but about dedicating your life to it. It’s about finding something you love so much you’re willing to give it all your time and energy.
This is why people who have a true passion are so good at what they do. They dedicate themselves to improve their skills every day. While being passionate about fine art photography is a good place to start, it may prove to be too broad for the task in hand. As it is not a photography genre per se, you’ll need to dig a bit deeper to find the type of images that will keep you going.
Fine art photography requires an emotional connection between the subject and the photographer, so you’ll need to find a genre, subject, or style that resonates with you. If you already have a portfolio, this step might be quite easy to figure out. Once you have found your theme, you’ll need to build an emotional and cognitive structure on which to develop your creative vision.
Set a concept
Behind every successful work of art there is a strong concept. Art, whichever its discipline, is done with a purpose. This can be an idea, a message, or an emotion. Maybe you can describe it in a single word. Or maybe you’ll need a full artist statement. The concept sets an intention for every image and determines what it will look like. It’s the one thing that you want people to take away from your work. It gives your images meaning.
No matter how beautiful your images are, they won’t make an impact unless they are created around a strong concept that moves your audience. This step is crucial in the fine art photography journey, and it will likely be one of the hardest to conquer. Search both within yourself and out in the world. Write down dozens, even hundreds, of ideas and see what they mean to you. And, most importantly, don’t rush it.
As Tchaikovsky once said, “The muse doesn’t come without being called.” Just like with any other skill, inspiration and creativity require hard work. You might start off with a lot of ideas, but your brain will eventually get tired of providing great content in exchange of nothing.
Look at the work of others. Not only fine art photographers but also painters, sculptors, and even filmmakers. Consider what their art makes you feel and how they achieved this result. Read books and magazines, and subscribe to photography blogs. Use your personal experiences as a source of inspiration. Find at least one new thing every day that gets an emotional reaction from you.
Change your views
Everyone has a story, and fine art photography is all about telling your own. Entering the world of fine art photography means moving from documenting the world as it is to using it as a subject to express your ideas. It is not about the best way to capture a scene but about how to make it transmit a specific concept.
Spend some time visualizing your ideal scene beforehand. As you’re not bound to being faithful to reality, you can let your imagination run wild. Feel free to modify key aspects such as light and color as needed to fit your concept. Redefine ordinary spaces and objects and capture them under a whole new perspective.
Improve your skills
There’s a popular saying that goes: “Don’t follow your passion, get the skills first.” As much emphasis as we put on the importance of finding your passion, it won’t take you that far without the right skills. For example, someone who dreams of climbing Mount Everest wouldn’t ever even consider doing so without training for years beforehand. For photographers, light is the biggest mountain they’ll ever have to conquer.
In fine art photography, light plays a crucial role in transmitting the right mood to match scene and concept. Because of this, it’s an absolute must that you learn how light works and how to control it. The best way to do so is combine theory with practice. Attend some courses or take online photography classes, and take every chance you get to put this knowledge into practice. Regardless of the shape your processing work ends up taking, you should always aim to get your camera images as close as possible to the final goal.
Your creative style is the fingerprint of your work. There are hundreds of thousands of fine art photographers trying to make a name for themselves. The only way to make sure your work is noticed among this crowd is doing something unique. People are not looking for beautiful images that anyone could take. They are looking for honesty and truth.
Let your personality permeate your work. The subjectiveness of fine art photography allows for a sense of intimacy and connection that other genres cannot offer. Allowing your emotions to affect the creative process will result in genuine pieces that your audience will feel drawn to.
Let your work dictate your path. One of the main things artists across all disciplines have in common is their sense of permanence. What makes their work recognizable is the consistency of certain elements or themes across their whole body of work. If you look at the work of any famous painter, sculpture, or fine art photographer, you’ll probably be able to describe the entirety of their portfolio in a couple of adjectives.
This principle should work the other way, too: The audience should be able to determine that all photos belong to a same artist simply by looking at them. This can be achieved in many ways, such as using the same subject, color palette, or lighting. Even when working on different series, you should aim to keep a minimum consistency across your whole portfolio. Every photo that you shoot should follow the path marked by the images you created before.
Develop a personal style
Post-processing is not cheating, despite what they might have had you believe. At some point in the history of photography, we started pretending that editing photos is a sin. But to be fair, post-processing has been a thing since way before Adobe was even a thing. Was Ansel Adams a bad photographer because of his extensive darkroom work?
Editing is an essential part of photography. The image a camera captures rarely represents the scene that the photographer experienced. Even in objective genres of photography, post-processing work is required in order to get a representation as close to reality as possible.
As for fine art photography, the limit on how much editing is too much simply depends on the photographer’s intentions. Since you’re not trying to document the world, there’s nothing stopping you from adding or subtracting elements from the image. At the end of the day, your work is purely representing your views and ideas.
Practice makes perfect, or at least helps you get a lot better. Before you settle on a direction for your fine art photography work, allow yourself enough time to learn, discover, and fail. Test different subjects and themes. Use different lenses and bend all photography composition rules. Play with abstraction and negative space. This experimentation process will allow you to see each scene from diverse perspectives, and understand how each of them is perceived.
Share your work
What’s an artist without an exhibition? The last, but definitely not least step is to let the world into your creations. A professional photographer website offers the perfect platform to share your images exactly the way you intended them to be seen. Everything from the layout and colors to fonts and buttons is up for you to choose.
Don’t be afraid to also step out of the online world. Reach out to local galleries and share your images in their expositions. Who knows, maybe people will fall in love with your images enough to take them home! Few things are as satisfying as seeing your work on someone else’s wall.
Ready to take on this new adventure? Create a photography website and share it with the world!