Conceptual photography is a type of photography whose primary intent is to communicate a message. The concept is both pre-conceived and, if successful, understandable in the final image. Fine art photographers have been using conceptual photographs to produce incredible projects and images since the dawn of photography in the late 1800s. The genre isn’t confined to just fine artists, though. Advertisers and illustrators have turned to conceptual photography to help promote products for years. The use of conceptual photography in marketing and advertisement led to the rise of the stock photography industry and has become one of the largest areas for professional photographers to earn a living today.
The notion of crafting creative and intelligent conceptual photographs may seem like a daunting task, but in reality it all comes down to a few key points, which, if mastered, will lead you down the path of creating some truly compelling—and perhaps even profitable—images.
The first part of any creative endeavor involves generating ideas for what you want to create. Think about the project you have in mind and write down a list of terms or concepts that share an association with your main concept. For example, if you want to create a conceptual project about the environment you may generate a list including things like: forests, conservation, global warming, plastic, waste, renewable energy, wildlife, etc. The list will come in handy when you start to visualize what your photographs will look like.
Before you can begin to create the actual images it’s helpful to define exactly what it is that you want your photographs to say. With a clear purpose in mind, you’ll be better able to create a cohesive project, especially if it is a multiple part series. The point of a conceptual photo is to communicate an idea. If your message or ideas are unclear from the beginning then this will likely be reflected in the final images.
This can be the easiest or toughest part of the process depending on how well you have prepared. If you’ve established what you want your images to say and have started to visualize what the images will look like then photographing the concepts will come naturally. The set-up will be your main concern here. It is important to make sure the visual elements of your photographs make sense with the concept you’re trying to create. Make sure the lighting you use matches the mood of your message.
Keep symbolism, iconography, and motifs to a minimum. Viewers will interpret elements in their own way. Overloading the viewer with too many visuals allows for more varied interpretations. Being flexible is also very important. Don’t expect to your final images to look exactly like you originally planned. The best part of creating a conceptual project is letting the work grow and take on a life of its own. Being an adaptive artist makes you more creative and the work all the more relatable.
So get out there and experiment. The best projects are the result of bold exploration. Don’t be afraid to try something new!
About the Author
James Elliott is an award-winning visual artist and fine art photographer from the United States. His work and books have been seen and celebrated around the world. Discover his most recent conceptual series here.