Conceptual Photography: Communicating Ideas Through Images

Many artists create their art as a way to express ideas, tell stories, and illustrate themes. If you’re an artist who uses a camera and lens as your medium, conceptual photography gives you the most creative freedom to express yourself as a photographer.

But what exactly is conceptual photography? Who are the photographers that currently work in this genre? How can you get your start as a conceptual photographer? This guide will answer those questions and more.

Conceptual photography
Photo by Lacie Slezak

What is conceptual photography?

Conceptual photography can be difficult to define because it encompasses a wide array of subjects and styles. Portraits, landscapes, even still lifes can be conceptual images. They can be black and whites with dramatic contrast, or they can be full of color. They might be very simple with little more than one subject in the photo or they can be complex composites that require hours of post-production editing. 

All conceptual photography has one thing in common, however: It communicates an idea.

In many cases, photography starts with an object or place you want to photograph. But, conceptual photography always starts with a concept.

Examples of conceptual photography

Take a look at the following conceptual photographs. They are all very different and unique in style, subject matter, and even photographic technique. Can you tell what idea the artist is trying to portray? In some images, the concept is more obvious than others. In some cases, the idea is up to you, the viewer, to interpret in your own way. 

Photo by Yahor Urbanovich
Image by Pablo García Saldaña
Conceptual dancer rope
Photo by Eva Blue
concept tongue
Image by Yahor Urbanovich
conceptual photography
Photo by Khashayar Kouchpeydeh

Tips for taking a conceptual photograph

If you want to try your hand at conceptual photography but aren’t sure where to begin, here are some tips and ideas to get you started. Of course, this is assuming you know the basics of composition and understand how to properly expose a photo first. 

Use costumes to help portray your concept

Incorporating a costume — something as simple as an unusual hat or as elaborate as an astronaut suit — into a photo can turn an ordinary image into a surreal one. 

conceptual astronaut
Photo by Elia Pellegrini

Try to recreate a childhood dream

Do you remember your dreams? Many conceptual photographers use their dreams as unique and surreal inspiration for their work. If you’re a pro at making composites and editing with Photoshop, your skills will come in handy here.

conceptual photography
Photo by Johannes Plenio

Experiment with universal themes

When you’re first dipping your toe in conceptual photography, try your hand at ideas that will be simple to portray and easy for others to understand. This will help build your confidence to move forward in the genre. Try concepts like loneliness, time, or heartbreak. Or, depict well-known idioms like “money growing on trees,” “biting the bullet,” being “under the weather,” or “wrapping your head around it.”

Money growing on trees concept
Photo by Joshua Hoehne

Play with scale

Add an element of surprise, whimsy, or visual interest by changing the scale of one or more of the objects in your photo. Changing the scale of an object can take an ordinary image to a new level.

Photo by Yahor Urbanovich 

Try your hand at horror

Horror photography is a genre in itself, but if your image conveys an idea, it can also fall into the category of conceptual photography. Like all art, what makes something scary is largely subjective. For example, the image below is mostly children’s toys. Why, then, is it creepy? What concepts does this photo portray? Perhaps lost childhood, aging, or fear of growing up.

Conceptual photography
Photo by Collin Armstrong

Conceptual photographers to follow

Get ready to be inspired! Here’s a list of conceptual photographers who are working now: 

  • Anya Anti: gorgeous fine art and surrealistic conceptual portraiture;
  • Brooke Shaden: a self-portrait artist who explores the light and darkness in people through her incredible conceptual photography;
  • Renee Robyn: fantasy fine artist who does a ton of post-processing, too. Her extensive editing work clearly shows why the concept is so important to have before the image is ever shot;
  • Erik Johansson: awe-inspiring surrealist art created by combining multiple photographs.

Final thoughts

Creating conceptual photography, effectively communicating your ideas to the world, can be one of the most rewarding types of photography. More than most other genres, it gives you the opportunity to flex your creative muscles and truly express yourself. This is your chance to get out of your comfort zone, try new things, and push your limits. I hope this guide to conceptual photography has inspired you!

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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