How to Start Shooting Fine Art Photography

How to Start Shooting Fine Art Photography

Fine art photography always seems to be a somewhat mythical beast. Many photographers want to shoot fine art, some photographers label their work fine art, and others thing that the whole “fine art thing” is a load of rubbish. The whole thing often seems confusing and intimidating for newer (and sometimes more experienced) photographers.

I think that much of the confusion comes from a lack of knowledge of what “fine art” means. And if you don’t know what the term means, how can you make a plan to start applying it to your work?

For almost the past decade I’ve been studying History of Art at university, and before that, I was a full-time photographer. I think that this makes me uniquely placed to talk about what fine art photography might be, and how you can start shooting it.

Is art subjective?

Many photographers who consider their work to be at the artistic end of the scale will tell you that “art is subjective” and therefore if they tell you that their work is art then that means it must be art. “It’s art because I say it is” seems to be a common refrain.

Now, this is the very subject that I wrote my Research Masters thesis on (more specifically, if new digital media such as Videogames counts as art). And I’m pretty confident in saying that something isn’t art just because you say it is. I’m also not entirely convinced that art is completely subjective (liking something or not doesn’t mean it’s art or not). But that’s a larger subject and not for this post.

Fine art style?

When we’re dealing specifically with fine art photography, one of the interpretations of “fine art” is a particular editing and shooting style. It changes with the fashions from year to year, but for instance, fine art style often means soft light, perfect retouching, and positively glowing skin when it comes to portraits. It often tries to recreate the look or mood of historical paintings from the Western canon, especially artists like Vermeer or Rembrandt.

And that’s absolutely fine. It’s totally reasonable for a style of photography to have developed that is referred to as “fine art style.” It is a style of photography that imitates the classic works that people refer to as “fine art” that you might find in a commercial fine art gallery or an art museum. And of course, I think that taking inspiration from art galleries is always a great idea.

But that’s not the whole story.

What makes something fine art photography?

There are quite a few theories of art – that is to say, philosophical theories of what counts as art and what doesn’t and how we classify art. My particular expertise is in the following theories:

  • Institutional Theory of Art
    Described by George Dickie and Arthur Danto. Suggests that things reach the status of art when institutions (museums, galleries, funding bodies, universities, etc.) take them seriously as art (collecting, teaching about, selling, etc.).
  • Cluster Theory of Art
    Described by Berys Gaut. Suggests that things are art if they are similar enough to other things that are already classified as art.
  • Significant Form
    Described by Clive Bell. Not strictly a theory of art, but rather a convincing argument (to some) that colour and form can be more important than emotive subject matter.

Historically in the art institutions, fine art has had a particular meaning. Fine art means something that was created purely for aesthetic or beauty purposes. This is the opposite of the applied or decorative arts, which are objects that have a practical purpose but are also decorated or decorative in some way.

Obviously, photography is still quite a recent development and therefore doesn’t always quite fit into the various definitions that the institution of art history has always used. And that makes it tricky at times to identify what is or isn’t fine art photography.

Applying the theory to your photography

Knowing what is or isn’t fine art is one thing, but working out how to apply it to your own work is something completely different. That involves picking out the relevant bits of the theory and applying it to photography.

I’ve thought quite long and hard about what makes something fine art photography, and I think that I’ve come up with two options that cover quite a broad base of different styles and subjects.

It’s primarily concerned with shape and form

If you are primarily preoccupied with shape and form then you might be a fine art photographer who is producing fine art photography. In some respects, the subject matter is fairly irrelevant in this criteria.

fine art photography

For me, experimenting with the medium of photography itself makes images fall into this category. The shot of the bottle above, for example, was made from multiple images layered together as I tried to experiment with how objects appear in camera. And the apples on the right were just me playing with colour, light, and texture.

This preoccupation with experimenting with the medium of photography and the aesthetic results that are possible is, for me, something that qualifies work as being fine art photography.

It’s about making meaning

Something else that might classify your work as fine art photography is if you’re primarily concerned with portraying meaning through your images. This could be emotional feelings, or possibly something like social justice ideas.

It’s the making of meaning that allows commercial work like that of war photographer Don McCullin to transcend pure reporting because his works have taken on meaning over time. The same goes for organisations like the FSA (Farm Security Agency) and photographers like Dorothea Lange – although they might initially have been primarily about commercial data gathering for various purposes, their work is now seen as being about meaning, feeling, and social justice issues.

So if your work is about conveying emotion, or about campaigning for a better word, then your work might just be fine art photography.

What if it doesn’t fit?

These are my own ideas about what constitutes fine art photography. It’s not a definitive set of rules, and it certainly doesn’t mean that somebody’s work isn’t as good as another person’s if they don’t fit into my ideas of fine art photography.

There are many accepted and used definitions of what fine art photography is. But there are also many people who use the term without really understanding what it means. I hope that after reading this blog that if you’re in that group of people you perhaps have some ideas to think about, and some places to research if you’d like to know more.

Shooting fine art photography

Now that you have some ideas about what fine art photography might be, it’s time to put them into practice. My advice, if you want to start working in this genre, is to spend some time thinking about two different things:

  • Art that you already really love and how you might be influenced by that art in your photography
  • Feelings, emotions, or issues that you might want to convey through your photography

I like to brainstorm these things every now and again, creating mindmaps of ideas and determining how I might incorporate these concepts in my work. And then I start mindfully including them when I do shoot, be it portrait, still life, or something completely different.

Over time the subject of a photograph itself has become less important to me in many ways, and instead, I am more interested in experimenting with form and colour, or the feelings a photograph gives me. This, to me, is the key to fine art photography.