Guide to Conceptual Photography


What is conceptual photography?  We can associate the word "conceptual" with something abstruse and difficult to understand. Some people are close to this direction, others are not, and many just need help understanding this art area. 

But you have to know that the concept and design precede the material embodiment. Conceptualism asserts the priority of the mental over the visual. The importance of conception is more important than perception. The neglect of the visual impression:

  • On the one hand, it leads to the negation of the representative;
  • On the other hand, it serves as a trick that excludes a commercial approach.

Let's find out together what conceptual photography is. Also, this article will tell you how to make the best conceptual image.

What is Conceptual Photography?  

What is Conceptual Photography

What is conceptual photography? Conceptual photography is a type of photography that illustrates an idea. It is a unit that works with photography as a medium. It happens when an artist expresses a thought through a photograph. 

The role of photography here is as a document, a medium, and a carrier of information. You should note that contemporary conceptual artists work primarily with the conceptual image. Today they are working with photography. Tomorrow they can work with other modern mediums:

  • painting;
  • pre-painting;
  • sculpture;
  • their bodies.

Sometimes it's hard to call them photographers. Because it happens that they don't even take their pictures. And often, the photos look, to put it mildly, unprofessional. You may ask - what is the art here? And the art here is in the thought.

In terms of genre, it can be any photo, from landscape to portrait. Any photograph can be a conceptual photograph. Conceptual shoots are often done in a mixed genre. It happens when photos from different genres meet within a project.

Conceptual photography explores itself: 

  1. how the photograph functions;
  2. how it interacts with the viewer. 

Often conceptual shoot works in dialogue with:

  • art history;
  • the history of photography. 

The subject of art here is reflection, the desire of photography to make sense of itself:

  • to understand photography as art or photography as media;
  • to understand how a person perceives it;
  • to understand how they look at it and, what they see;
  • to understand how they interact with it.

It happens that conceptual photography themes have one foot in the interdisciplinary field. It explores issues close to contemporary art: 

  • everyday life;
  • man and society;
  • environmental change;
  • migration and globalization;
  • media and society.

The photographer works in dialogue with the contemporary:

  • philosophy;
  • religion;
  • science;
  • psychology;
  • sociology;
  • politics.

Conceptual photography is not about reproducing the beauty of the world around us. Photographers show the opposition of artistic photography to fine art.

Conceptual photography appeals to the intellectual reflection of what is being seen. In other words, it does not work with the category "beautiful". Thus:

  • It is not an aesthetic object. 
  • It is not for the heart and emotion. 
  • It does not use artistic visual languages or deal with their development. 

These themes are still dealt with by art photography. Conceptual photography is not artistic.

History of conceptual photography

The origins of conceptual art, and thus conceptual photography, lie in American minimalism. We should understand it as a movement opposed to brutal expressionism. 

Critics consider performance art in 1958 a precursor of conceptual images. But, it only developed in the early 1960s. The artist Yves Klein invited photographers to the opening of his exhibition Le Vide. 

They photographed his work for permission. In a harsh neon light, he presented only the white walls of the gallery there. Many photographers took photos of their white, structureless walls. 

Even if they didn't meet the standards of the art world. The supposed possibility of objectivity corresponded to the idea of the conceptual photographer. It consisted of the possibility of an authentic image of the world. You can read about them below:

  • One of the earliest works of this genre was a 1963 photobook by Edward Ruscha. Its title was Twenty-Six Gas Stations. Ruscha did not stage the motifs but photographed them with deliberate indifference. These were 26 gas stations along Route 66. Conceptual photographers focused their photography on banal and everyday themes. 
  • Douglas Huebler, for example, addressed the phenomenon of time in his works. He explored its effect on certain objects. One of his most famous works is a black-and-white photograph of a nude woman from the 1970s. He took it at the end of the year with a shutter speed of ¼ second. Here's how Huebler presented the first half of the painting in 1973. The other half was in 1974. 
  • Bernd and Hilla Becher are also among Germany's best-known conceptual artists. We know them by our work and documentation of industrial buildings. The so-called "Becher school" also influenced contemporary conceptual photographers. Thomas Raff and Thomas Struth are the best examples. Bernd Becher has taught at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art since 1976. Struth brought the idea of conceptual photography into the modern era. While Raff abandoned the purely documentary form in the 1980s.

What are the main features of the conceptual shoot?

So, let's list the main distinguishing features of conceptual photography:

It explores itself, that is, how photography itself functions:

  • the nature of photography;
  • its documentary nature;
  • photographic truth.
  1. It investigates how photography interacts with the viewer and stereotypes of perception.
  2. It can be in dialogue with the history of art and photography.
  3. It calls for intellectual reflection on what we see.
  4. It uses series typology instead of outdated photographic history.
  5. It is not engaged in reproducing the beauty of the world around us. Because the conceptual image is not about learning how to photograph beautifully.

Types Of Conceptual Photography

Types Of Conceptual Photography

There are three main types of conceptual photography: symbolism,  abstract, and surreal photography. Read about them below:

1.  Symbolism photography
Symbolism encompasses a wide range of only objects, colors, and other qualities. You can use it to create something meaningful. 

You can use one type of symbolism to build a theme or hint at an emotion. Blue is a calming color and makes people think of the sky. And orange is an exciting color sometimes used to denote ambition. Here are some features of symbolic photography:

  • Stones and earth tend to feel solid and soothing.
  • The sun can have a variety of meanings: optimism, divinity, knowledge, and more.
  • The authors summarize these symbols that we recognize in various cultures. Other symbols of conceptual photography are related to the culture that produced them.

2. Abstract Photograph
There is no generally accepted definition of abstract photography. It is difficult to define something abstract. So we use some general principles and assume that:

  • An abstract photograph does not represent an object in its whole form.
  • It is not based on objects but on form, color, and lines.

Thus, abstract conceptual photography themes evoke a reaction of the psyche. It accentuates form, color, and lines. They are connected, among other things, with the human nervous system. It is well known that the human nervous system reacts to objects of a specific color and contrast:

  • Form. The form can serve as the basis for the composition. The form generally creates the image's design, and lines and color complement it.
  • Color. The color attracts a person's attention and excites their nervous system. In an abstract photo, you can make the color more saturated. Use a graphics editor for the best effect.
  • Contrast. It is one way to create dynamic photos - use contrast in them. A shot with a straightforward composition can attract attention just because of contrast.
  • Lines. Lines always make a conceptual shoot look more attractive. They control the movement of the eye. There are several ways to use lines. The first is to direct the line to the visual center of the image. 

3. Surreal Photography

Surrealism in photography is a movement. Photographers try to turn away from the real world:

  • They turn to their fantasies and artistic images. Surrealist photography allows viewers to enter an irrational world. 
  • They can see all its mysterious symbols and dreams. Such photographs are striking in their originality and uniqueness. 
  • They make the viewer think about a particular intellectual message of the picture. Surrealism remains a popular genre of photography. 

Beginner and experienced photographers often try their hand at it.

What Is Conceptual Photography Used For?

What Is Conceptual Photography Used For

A photograph can replace thousands of words and descriptions. It can visually show and convey the main essence of what happens. The purpose of conceptual image:

  • to bring a message to the public;
  • to show the main idea;
  • to convey a specific message. 

The idea in conceptual photography is the essential factor. And in the case of conceptual photography, the idea comes first. The author can then embody it in images, gestures, and signs.

Most photographers try to focus on the beginning of their work. They also determine all the fundamental points. They will need their work. Then they create a specific plot. 

After shooting, the image goes through very detailed and high-quality processing. Due to the processing, the conceptual photography themes are often:

  • complete;
  • original;
  • captivating. 

That is, it combines all the most important features of conceptual photography. Conceptual photographers need a lot of patience to get an accurate picture of what they have in mind. 

Many masters resort to the use of graphic effects. They also use finishing of the necessary details. Thus, conceptual photography is something abstract, bordering on painting.

Many conceptual photographers try to convey important social issues through shoots. Some of them try to take funny pictures. In many ways, the subject matter of conceptual photographs depends on:

  • social;
  • political;
  • economic situation in the country. 

The issues the authors usually address in the conceptual images are as follows:

  • healthy lifestyle and alcoholism; 
  • women's rights;
  • child labor;
  • freedom, etc.

How Can You Do Conceptual Photography?

How Can You Do Conceptual Photography

The genre has points of contact with staged photography. And the conceptual works are extravagant and unorthodox. Sometimes there are elements of surrealism and minimalism. Conceptual photography is usually intentional. 

But theoretically, it can also be accidental. It happens when the author, seeing a "scene" worthy of capture, points the lens and presses a button. Read about all processes of making such a type of photo.

    1. Create a sketch in your mind and prepare the items

Plan your composition. You can even draw your ideas on a sheet of paper. For some people, this will be even more effective. Prepare everything you need to bring your idea to life: 

  • paraphernalia;
  • set elements;
  • participants (if you will involve any in the story).

Also, do not forget the proper placement of the light source.

     2. Evaluate your composition

Make sure that the composition corresponds to the set theme and looks pleasing. We do not recommend asking other people for advice. 

They may not realize your idea and its greatness. So once again, think carefully about such a composition. You can arrange it first.

     3. Find an unusual angle

No one knows your idea for conceptual image better than you do. Nevertheless, there is nothing better for attracting attention than a new, unusual presentation of the product to bring out the features of your product that can surprise even you:

  • Take photos from unusual camera angles, and get close-ups. 
  • Also, you can look for a unique presentation of your products.
  • Tell the "story of the thing" with the shots you take, and emphasize specifics. You never know initially which angle the item you shot will make the most appealing impression or prove to be a bomb of enticement, so check out the different options.

Previsualization of the scene, that is, a preview before shooting, rough animated sketches that allow you to experiment with the arrangement of objects and participants, lighting, and camera positioning - to be able to choose the best option is not unreasonable.

     4. Pick the right lighting

Lighting can often play a significant role in your conceptual photography themes. Try to experiment with lighting. Try different options, and play around with:

  • your subjects;
  • the placement of light fixtures. 

Absolute freedom needs to express your style and your opinion.

     5. Convey a sense of scale

Some products are often used in everyday life and can be easily recognizable. Where you need to give a sense of scale, putting two items side by side can be very helpful. 

Including something ubiquitous in the conceptual shoot will help orient the product's size. For example, if the product is a miniature doll, you can place an ordinary object next to it. Take an ordinary pencil. It will give the viewer a sense of scale.

     6. Use a tripod and timer

You are probably familiar with the concept of a blur. If you use constant light, the shutter speed is less than 1/60 (and sometimes 1/100). It is when you get a blurred picture due to a natural handshake.

How can you get a high-quality shot when even the slightest vibration can cause blurring? Especially since the more significant the shot, the more critical the sharpness becomes. A tripod will stabilize your camera to take conceptual photography.

Even the most inexpensive tripod will play a big role in sharpening your images. Also, you will be able to use the camera's built-in timer. It will help cut camera shakes from your hands and improve shooting accuracy.

    7. Post-processing also plays a role 

You can combine elements of different conceptual images into one. As sad as it is to realize, photography is only the beginning of the job. Then comes the editing stage. The photographer is already processing the images for posting on the site. Prepare 1-3 different sizes:

  • large;
  • medium;
  • small. 

Remember that some sites will adapt the photos from large to small, but never the other way around. You need to know in advance what size is required.

The more carefully you approach this question. The more convenient it will be for you to search for the necessary conceptual shoo of the sold item. 

     8. Think of a bright title

The title of a photographic work, like a book or a film, should smoothly "glide" over the subject. It will reveal its meaning directly. It is where you should carefully weigh all the objects of your composition:

  • Try to think of something that would fully disclose the concept. However, remember the mysterious side of the plot. The title should hint to the audience about the idea. 
  • Don't title your conceptual photography with one of the attributes. Pick something surreal.

Your work should make the viewer think. The purpose of conceptual art is not to portray an idea but to encourage reflection through photography.

Create Your Online Photography Portfolio Website 

In conclusion, it can be challenging to decipher thoughts without knowing the context. But when you know what conceptual photography is, it is easy. After you create your masterpieces, you need to make a portfolio. You can do this very easily using our portfolio builder. Also, don't forget to read more useful articles on our blog. Don't hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.


What is another name for conceptual photography?

We can also call it fine-art photography. You can use it to reflect events that are happening. Or you can create a staged scene. 

What are the basic steps to follow in conceptual photography?

Define your concept. The first step is to design the scene and decide what it is you want to transmit. Search for inspiration. Write your ideas down. Good ideas always look best on paper. Use symbols as they will have mystical and attractive meanings for visitors. Also, create a quaint name.

What is conceptual still-life photography?

Conceptual still lives often explore universal themes like joy, sadness, individuality, or togetherness. So even if they are surreal and out-of-the-ordinary, they should also feel authentic.

Who started conceptual photography?

French artist Yves Klein is the "father" of this genre. The term 'conceptual photography' began to be used in the 1960s, coinciding with the early explorations into video art and Conceptual Art.

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