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Tips & Tricks for Conceptual Photography

written by: •edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 6/22/2009

Conceptual photography may seem like an intimidating field to get into, but it's not as difficult as it might seem. Here are some tips to get you started on thinking like a conceptual photographer.

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    Conceptual photography fascinates not too many more photographers than it frustrates. The skill required in composition, not merely with regards to technical or aesthetic consideration but also for mind-breaking, clever metaphors and ideas, is a difficult one to acquire. This article aims to help someone develop an eye for composition in conceptual photography.

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    Before We Begin

    It's hard to tell an artist how to approach their art. After all, every artist has a different approach. This is especially true of conceptual photography. However, once you get started into conceptual photographs, your own style and methods will soon emerge. It's that getting started bit that this article is trying to answer.

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    Creating The Concept

    For conceptual photography, where else to get started but for the most important part—the concept? Think about what you might want to say in your photograph. If you're strapped for ideas, think of the issues and ideas that inspire you. A recently broken relationship can translate into heartrending emotional conceptual work, just as a politically active mind can produce messages to persuade and convince people of the validity of their mindset—or the fallaciousness of others. Whatever makes your mind spin and gets you inspired is sure to translate into a fascinating photo.

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    Symbols & Props

    A little reverse idea-generating works just as well. Sometimes you can be inspired to a concept by the objects around you. Is that a cross at the end of your necklace? How's that old musty jewelry box looking? See a half-ripped political advert in the gutter on the way to work this morning? Don't be afraid to work with whatever's around you, being inspired as you go.

    Once you've got an idea of what you want to work with, it's time to figure out with what you'll be working with. This is often the trickiest bit. Think of symbols that might express something of your idea. Hearts and crosses enough for you? What about coming up with physical representations of nicknames, idioms, jokes? Work with wit and cleverness to avoid cliché. Everyone's seen those images of spilled pills or lone lipstick cartridges. Originality is key.

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    Composition

    There are a number of ways to approach composition. Indeed, this is where most conceptual photographers really display their personal style.

    Many conceptual photographers prefer minimalism in their photos, that is, preferring to have extremely clean and simple photographs with blank backgrounds so that the subject—and thus the concept—are the only thing that the viewer would focus on, with absolutely nothing to distract them.

    Other conceptual photographers prefer busy images, loaded with objects, symbols and people, all presenting different concepts that interplay and interlink to form complex conceptual landscapes. This tends to be a bit more involved, both for the photographer to set up the shot and the viewer to absorb it all, but for some messages it really just works brilliantly.

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    Aesthetics: The Pretty Factor

    People like pretty things, point and fact. Even when they don't consciously realize that an object is beautiful, or even just pleasant, they still will find the object—and whatever concept that goes along with it—more attractive than if it was packaged in an ugly or displeasurable manner. Think of advertisements: how often are unattractive people featured? Even if the person featured isn't a supermodel, they're never unappealing. The pleasing values of the person gets attached to the object that's being marketed, and without you really knowing why—you're sold!

    That's not to say that the aesthetics of an image can ever replace good composition, especially when it comes to conceptual photography. But using people and objects that are at least pleasing to the eye may make the photos a bit better in the eyes of the viewer.

    Of course, there's always deliberate juxtapositions of the beautiful and the ugly, if you and your concept are so inclined. For instance, a picture of an ugly man slipped amidst perfume bottles and gold jewelry may bring pause to a viewer. Images that are deliberately ugly may also be used to good conceptual effect.

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    Technical Requirements

    Conceptual photograph is one of the least technically demanding types of photography to get into. After all, the emphasis is not on how low your f-stop can go or how quick of a shutter speed you can get, but the concept itself. This makes conceptual photography much easier to get into for amateur photographers than, say, sports photography or portrait photography.

    That being said, there is a minimum required. Clean, well executed photos are a must, just like with any other field of photography. Knowing your way around exposure, ISO and other controls are helpful, and if shooting smaller objects, a little know-how with the f-stop and manual focus is also good.

    Lighting is an important consideration with such planned shots, especially if indoors. Developing an awareness of lighting is a must if you want your objects to be clearly and presented in good lighting, and having a few toys up your sleeve wouldn't hurt either. Even if you're just getting started, it's not too hard to make your own ring flash, soft box or reflective umbrellas for more precise control of highlight and shadows.

Conceptual Photography

What, exactly, is conceptual photography? How do you take conceptual photos? In this article series, we’ll explore the technique of conceptual photography and learn tips and tricks on how to capture conceptual photographs with a digital camera.
  1. What is Conceptual Photography?
  2. Tips & Tricks for Conceptual Photography