What is Fine Art Photography?
Fine Art Photography is a field of art that uses the technical craft of photography to express the aesthetic or creative intention of the artist. Fine Art Photography, therefore, distinguishes itself from other forms of photography in its purpose. The goal of most Fine Art Photography is to use a ‘finely’ crafted photographic image to elicit a particular response from the viewer, often of wonder, awe, and novel satisfaction through its use of composition and design principles coupled with an engaging subject matter. Here, aesthetics and personal expression become the primary reason for taking the picture.
Viewers of Fine Art Photography can derive pleasure from discovering elements of harmony in the scene. Photography has the power to freeze time, allowing the viewer to explore and contemplate harmonious visual arrangements of composition, light, tone, or contrast. Fine Art Photography also invites viewers to uncover new associations of subject matter through the relationship between the subject, the frame, and the other contextual elements within the frame. In other words, Fine Art Photography brings together the technical, aesthetic, and contextual to form a new idea, concept, or message that the artist wishes to express.
How is Fine Art Photography Different from other forms of Photography?
While Photography could be described as the process of capturing a physical scene through a lens and translating that scene into a 2-dimensional format (whether digital or analog), the uses of this process can vary greatly.
Most professional photographers will execute the documentation of real-life places, persons, and things with a certain degree of technical skill which allows people to want to view the work in the first place. In other words, on a professional stage, certain aspects such as proper exposure and basic compositional awareness are required. However, once you have someone’s attention, what you do with it will vary.
For instance, Photo Journalism dedicates itself to using photography to represent newsworthy events. The purpose of the medium becomes the relaying of information regarding people and events in the news. This form of photography is most often accompanied by text to support and illustrate real-world happenings.
Other forms of Documentary Photography include sub-genres like Sports Photography, which seeks to highlight athletic achievement, Animal Photography, which allows the average person to get up close and personal with otherwise unobservable inhabitants of nature, Portrait Photography which attempts to represent the personality of a person or character, and Architectural Photography which displays the of design and engineering feats of built structures.
Commercial Photography, on the other hand, is meant to show off a product for the purpose of sales. Fashion Photography, Product Photography, and Food Photography, all falling under this umbrella, are created to make viewers desire the subject and therefore, purchase the item.
In all of these examples, the documentation of the subject matter became the reason for taking the image, however, in Fine Art Photography, photography itself, and the inspiration of the artist behind it, becomes the reason for picking up the camera. Fine Art Photography serves as a form of Art, not as a form of news or advertisement.
Oxford dictionary defines ‘Art‘ as “the use of the imagination to express ideas or feelings, particularly in painting, drawing or sculpture.” When we put the Art in Fine Art Photography, we get refined photographic skill used for the purpose of expressing ideas using an artist’s imagination.
There is room for crossover, however. Some Documentary Photographers can take a fine art approach through their refined use of aesthetics. Also, Fine Art Photography may overlap in the portrayal of some of the subject matters listed above, for instance, whether fashion, architecture, or even news, the primary focus in any situation lies not just in the relaying of information about the subject, but in obtaining, through observation, new insight and ideas into the subject through the artist’s expression.
Have a look at this photo from Alfred Steiglitz, one of the photographs to be considered Fine Art Photography. The line here between Fine Art and Documentation is not obvious at all. The image portrays immigrant tradesmen on a ship sailing back from the United States to Europe following the end of their work contracts.
The Steerage, as the work is titled, is the name used to refer to the lower decks which transported passengers of lower classes. The image, however, wasn’t taken for a newspaper reporting on the issue of immigration, but by a photographer, known at the time mostly as a pictorial photographer, who happened to be aboard the ship witnessing the scene and who was overcome with an urge to capture and share the moment for its complex beauty.
There was something about the scene that moved Steiglitz. Perhaps it was the contrast of the predominantly male figures in black above against the female figures in white below. Or maybe it was the pristine glow of the empty bridge that divided the picture frame. Something in the scene inspired Steiglitz to compose the picture with such care that allowed the aesthetics of the work combined with the context of the subject matter to transcend the image from documentation into something considered a work of art.
Tips for creating Fine Art Photography
1. Start with your Idea
Before you go out shooting, set an intention for yourself as to what you want to capture and why it is important to you. Why is this subject matter of interest to you? Is there a story behind it?
Next, consider how this would be achieved. What equipment would you need to express your intention in the best way possible? Fine artistry in photography involves making conscious decisions about the aesthetics of your work. These decisions could involve which camera, lens, or lighting effects you need to express your idea.
Take this image for example.
This is a self-portrait I did to represent myself in a new environment in Berlin, Germany years after a similar image below was taken during my photographic studies at Oberlin university.
Here, my idea was clear. In the original black and white image, I wanted to express a feeling of alienation that accompanied a moment of transition in life from college into the real world. Fast forward a decade or so later, having transitioned again to a new city and country, similar in name, I wanted to re-create the effect and aesthetics of the original image, only this time show a kind of passing of time and growth.
Doing this required several decisions. First, I had to find a location that represented a feeling I wanted to portray. After finding the location, I had to determine the right day and time to take the image, here early morning on a Sunday to ensure no traffic and give myself the time I need to compose the frame. The camera and lens had to be chosen ahead of time to give myself a similar look to the first image.
The composition was thoughtfully planned, even though it differed slightly from the first image. In the original image the slight tilt and lack of central positioning give an uneasiness to the photograph, whereas in the more recent image, the composition is central and symmetrical further allowing a feeling of balance and rootedness. As you can see, these are only a few of many choices that were made to enforce, support, and express a particular idea I had.
2. Mind your Composition
Remember your frame is your canvas. How you position your subject in your camera frame will influence how viewers see and feel about the subject. You may decide as I did above to center your composition. This will allow the viewer to focus in intensely on the subject.
Alternatively, you can use the Rule of Thirds composition to help move the viewer’s eye across the image. Here, your frame should be divided into thirds vertically and horizontally, and your subject or main Focal Points should be placed ideally along these points of intersection.
The size of your subject in your frame can also affect how your image may be interpreted. Do you want your subject to dominate the frame, or blend into the background? Are the elements in the background or foreground helping or distracting from your intention?
Just as you want your viewer to discover a new visual or emotional when viewing your subject, each time you approach your subject to take a picture, you too will discover new aspects you may wish to highlight.
3. Experiment with Camera Angles
Try photographing your subject from different camera angles. Camera angles that point upwards portray a dominant subject, whereas camera angles pointing downwards empower the viewer over the subject.
Similarly, an overhead’ birds-eye view’ can offer a feeling of order and control to a scene or situation.
While a camera angle low to the ground will create a more imposing environment, making the viewer feel small.
A ‘Dutch’ Angle, where the horizon line is slightly titled can also offer another feeling to the work. This camera angle could generate uneasiness in the viewer, but it can also lend itself to a feeling of playfulness and quirkiness.
4. Photograph your Scene More than Once
Each time you photograph a subject or a scene you will see something new and different. In outdoor locations, the lighting will be continuously changing and offering new highlights and shadows to play with. Your subject matter may also change or look different each time you approach it.
But more important than changes in your scene or your subject, are changes within yourself as a photographer. Each time you photograph a scene, you record that scene inside yourself. When you approach it the next time, you come to it as a different person, a person who now has a history with that scene. You may notice more differences in the conditions of your scene. You may have learned techniques and things that worked or didn’t work from the last time. You may even have experienced changes in what or how you felt about the subject and these changes will be apparent each time you photograph even the most familiar of images.
5. Enjoy the Process!
Finally, the key to Fine Art Photography is to enjoy the process! The more pleasure you take in finding beauty and harmony in your scenes, the more that feeling will come across in the work. Fine Art Photography is about freedom to express yourself, and freedom from making mistakes. Having fun is a great way to open up the creativity and inspiration needed for Fine Art Photography. For me, the immense satisfaction I get when I manage to blend meaning and ideas with beauty and balance is what drives me to keep producing images.
After all, making photographs for the love of photography is the whole point 😉