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What Is Conceptual Photography

by Catherine Ramsey (follow)
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What is conceptual photography?


Conceptual photography is all about visual storytelling or conveying a meaningful message. It can be done in camera using well thought out positioning of props and subjects, or through post production by editing or compositing multiple images together.


This art form isn’t a new genre by any means, photographers have been creating illustrative images for about as long as photography has been around. Film was edited in the darkroom in much the same way as we would use photo editing programs today, by physically cutting and layering images together.

Created in camera
It’s common these days for conceptual photography to be created by taking and compositing many images together. But don’t feel that this is the only way to do it. A strong visual narrative can still be achieved in camera alone (without any retouching at all), as long as it is well executed.

In some ways, these images can be more breathtaking, as there is little or no illusion. This is good news for anyone not proficient in Photoshop, or those that prefer to spend their time shooting, rather than sitting at a computer for hours.


Take careful consideration of how you assemble your scene. What’s in the background? Should you remove something? Are your subjects’ outfit’s sitting right and their makeup well applied? Have you given enough thought to your composition? Is the lighting correct for the mood you’re trying to convey (a dark, moody portrait won’t look right in bright sunlight, for example)?

Photoh by Sean Mundy via Flickr

To achieve a ‘layered’ image without post processing, consider taking a double exposure. Most film cameras have the ability to take multiple exposures with the press of a button. Some digital cameras are also equipped with this function, although you will need to enable it under the camera’s menu.

Post production manipulation
With a little bit of imagination and some clever manipulation, you can create anything from a person ‘trapped’ inside a glass bottle to an entire fantasy world made from many composited images. For this type of artwork, quality is key. You must carefully consider things like lighting and shadows, and make sure that the direction of light is coming from the same angle in every element.


In Photoshop, you’ll find the various selection and lasso tools to be very helpful when cutting and pasting elements together. But, rather than deleting or erasing the elements that you don’t need, always use a layer mask to hide them instead.

Furthermore, always make sure that each element and each step in your editing process is separated by layers. This is a non-destructive method of editing and ensures that you can always go back and make alterations to your layers easily, without having to undo your work. Your finished composite should look as though it was all captured in a single frame.



Finding creative ways to tell a story
Photo by Comfreak

Often the hardest part about creating any type of artwork is finding inspiration to start. Try beginning with an interesting location, a person, a costume, a prop or even an inspirational song. Is there a human cause that you’re particularly passionate about? Using it as a subject for your piece can create a compelling visual message but also help spread awareness about the issue.

Whatever you choose to do, your photo should evoke an emotional response from its viewers, whether it be awe, curiosity, nostalgia, sadness, joy or maybe even shock. A successful visual narrative is one that makes you feel.

Your concept doesn’t need to be especially deep or elaborate, a minimalistic approach is often better. It could be as simple as looking at your image from a different angle – an upside down photo for example can be made to look like your subject is falling.


Lastly, the title of your work can aid in getting your message across, so make sure that it isn’t too vague or irrelevant. You may choose to also include a brief description with your piece, wherever it may be displayed or posted, so that people can find out the story behind it.

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