What Is It, and How Can You Do It?

A simple guide to fine art photography

Anyone with a camera can be a photographer these days, and many of those who do have cameras want to be professional photographers or artists. Over the past couple of decades, I’ve noticed a clear rise in people calling themselves “fine art photographers” – but who are these “fine art photographers?” What do they actually do? And what is fine art photography?

Maybe it’s time to look into the essence of “fine art” so we can understand how it’s different from “normal” photography, and what it is that fine art photographers do compared to everyday photographers.

What is fine art photography?

I consider this image to be one of my fine art photos:

Fine Art Photography Example
A home built in the 30s, then abandoned only a few years ago.

On the other hand, I have lots of images that may be “art,” but they are not what I would call “fine art photographs.” This next image, for instance, isn’t fine art:

Fine Art Photography Example.
The main street of a small town in Australia.

I think both of my images would look nice framed and hanging on a wall. But if our goal is to identify which counts as “fine art,” only the first really fits into the category.

So what is fine art photography? Honestly, there isn’t a definitive explanation or definition for what is a fine art photograph, but there are things that help us understand what it is and how to recognize it.

(Recently, I heard a photographer saying that you could add a wild edit to an image – like a weird curving blur – then you would be able to call it “fine art.” I don’t agree; weird edits don’t make an image “fine art,” they just make it silly.)

Anyway, when I was doing my fine arts degree, part of what was required was to take turns putting our work up on the wall for critique. During those sessions, we talked about techniques, about what was working, and about what wasn’t. We would also discuss the ideas behind the work, and where we wanted to go with each project.

On top of those critique sessions, we had individual one-on-one sessions with lecturers to help us discuss our ideas and how to achieve them. The idea was to determine a plan for proceeding with our work, consider avenues for supporting the work, and to look at other artists who did similar work to see how they conveyed their ideas. These sessions were invaluable because they helped us work out what we were doing and the direction we needed to go.

Below, I offer a series of items that you generally need to think about before you can create fine art photos – and by thinking about those different items, you can start to understand what fine art photography is all about!

Fine Art Photography 3
Consumerism, everything becoming obsolete.

An artist’s vision

Before work can become fine art, the artist has to have a vision of what they think their work will look like.

An Idea

Fine art is about an idea, a message, or an emotion. The artist has something they want to convey in their work.

That idea or message may be something small. It can be a single word, such as “abandon.” Or it might be a whole statement, like “exploring the way the moon affects the tides.”

It is a start. It is like a hypothesis.

Consistent technique

The work you create to demonstrate your vision and ideas has to have consistency to it. When all the work is together, it has to have similarities. Often, artists will use the same medium and techniques for each idea (i.e., for each fine art project).

A body of work

In the end, you have to have a body of work that shows your ideas, subjects, and techniques. If you were to get your images into a gallery, there would need to be a uniformity to the entire collection.

An artist statement

Finally, you would most likely need an artist statement. This is a short explanation of what the work is about, why you created it, and how it was produced.

When you go to a gallery, you might look at photos and wonder what they are all about. That’s when you should look for the artist statement. It will help you figure out the artist’s intentions and the methods they used to create the work.

Fine Art Photography 8
A high school that has been closed awhile. The vandals have taken over, but the light still comes through the windows.

How to do fine art photography

You don’t need to have a degree in fine arts to be a fine art photographer. However, you do need to think carefully about your work and what you want to achieve.

Here’s an easy process for producing fine art images, and while you don’t have to follow it, it can certainly help you out if you’re struggling!

First, get your ideas together

Brainstorming is a great way to begin a fine art photo project. Simply sit down and write down your ideas! Consider:

  • What topics do you feel passionate about?
  • What messages do you want to convey?
  • What subjects do you like to photograph?
  • What techniques are you interested in?

Just write and don’t take too much notice of what you are writing. This phase is about getting your thoughts down on paper. They might not make any sense at first, but as you work through your ideas, things will start to come together.

Fine Art Photography 4
Here, I was brainstorming about the idea of consumerism for a fine art project. The notes don’t always make sense, but that’s okay! It’s about getting your ideas down on paper.

Once your brainstorming session is done, you should have the bare essentials of what you want your work to be about. You might decide to disregard a lot of what you wrote, but there should be enough to help you work out what you want to do and the direction you want to go.

Next, decide on your topic

Topics can be anything. They don’t have to be heavy topics (e.g., ideas that are really political or socially conscientious). My example throughout this article is “consumerism,” as I’ve had a couple of exhibitions based on that concept, and the idea that we’re turning our homes into massive rubbish (garbage) bins.

Working out your message and the motivation behind it can be more difficult. For a topic like “consumerism,” you might want to explore it from a specific direction: the impact it has on the environment, what is going to happen to all the goods we keep buying, etc.

Find a subject for your photos

What is your subject matter going to be? If you’re looking to create fine art photos addressing the topic of “consumerism,” would you photograph rubbish piles? Or would you look directly at the different brands and all the different products they come out with?

What your images include is just as important as the ideas behind them. Just remember that your subject should link to your topic or message.

Fine Art Photography 6
This was once a home. It was built over a hundred years ago, and it’s now left with the outside crumbling and grass trying to cover it over.

Work out your technique

The technique you use for your photos isn’t so important; it just has to be the same for all the images.

You can start by experimenting, but once you have want you want, then your body of work has to all be similar. You must create a cohesive portfolio that will look great and that work together when on display.

Create your body of work

You should now make as much of the work as you can. If you are planning an exhibition, then you need to know in advance – before you start making the images – how much work you will need for it.

When the work is complete, there are going to be pieces that simply won’t work, and you will be better off leaving them out. It is difficult to determine what is best for an exhibition, but just because you made a fine art image doesn’t mean it belongs as part of that particular project.

Last, write your artist statement

Once you’ve created your work, you’re almost there – but you’re not quite done. You need to write that artist statement! And it needs to be written in what is sometimes called “artspeak,” or language that fits with the art world.

In other words, it has to sound good. If you are applying to galleries, then they’ll notice your artist statement just as much as your work.

Here is an example of an artist statement that I wrote about fine art work around the theme of abandonment:

“It is human nature to sculpt and contour the environment into shapes and forms that we find pleasing. We live in these buildings, work in them, and find entertainment and nourishment in them. We spend time in rooms designed to help us learn through many stages of our lives. When the buildings can no longer be maintained, they quickly fall into decay. My work looks at the rate of decay and how similar it is to the human condition. How easily we can fall into the same sort of decay when we are no longer being cared for. Through photographs of old and recently abandoned buildings, I want to explore the metaphor of the human condition with the deserted buildings.”

I just made that short statement up, but I hope it gives you an idea of what an artist statement is like (and what it should sound like). If you do a Google search, you can find many websites that can help you write one. You will also be able to find examples of artist statements so you can see what other artists are doing and how they are creating their work.

Fine Art Photography 9
The old science room in the closed school. Things are scattered and nothing makes sense.

Go make some fine art photography!

At the end of the day, the work should be about you and what you are passionate about.

Don’t worry about what other people think. If you know what your vision is, what your subject is, and how you want to create your work, then your artist statement should come easily, and you will find yourself on a new and exciting path.

If you are making lovely images without any of the above elements, then chances are you aren’t creating fine art photographs. However, if you have a vision or message, and you have ideas that you want to convey through your work, then you are likely creating fine art.

If you want to create fine art images but you feel that your work doesn’t meet the criteria I shared, perhaps you should think about what you want your work to be about. But remember: Your images are still art, even if they’re not fine art, and it’s also fine to take photos because you enjoy it, or because you want to create something beautiful.

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