What is fine art photography, exactly? You’ve probably seen the phrase a few times (or many times). Maybe you’ve even wondered whether your own photography is “fine art” or not.
The genre of fine art photography is confusing partly because its definition is so vague. Fine art photos are images that are created solely for their imaginative or aesthetic quality. It’s the opposite of documentary photography, which seeks to capture life, people, and significant events for memory and historical records.
Documentary and fine art photography are clearly different in theory, but in practice, there’s a large gray area. For instance, if you care about aesthetics and photojournalism, how do you know when you’re creating fine art versus documentary photos?
Here’s one way to simplify the fine art versus documentary question. When you’re taking a photo, ask yourself, “What’s more important, the subject or the art?” Obviously, both are important, but which one inspired you to take the photo?
For example, if you’re photographing a birthday party because it looks cool and you want to remember it, or because you want to share pictures of it with others, then the subject is more important. If it were a different party with no significance to you, you wouldn’t take the photo. In this case, it’s documentary photography.
On the flip side, if you’re photographing the party because you see an opportunity to develop an idea or create something you’ve imagined, then the art is more important. The party may have no significance to you beyond that idea or the imagined picture you’re creating. In this case, it’s probably fine art photography.
Still confused? Try browsing fine art photos to get a feel for what they’re like. The following 30 images, organized by genre, are a great place to start!
Fine Art Portraiture
Most portrait shoots require some creativity and forethought. However, with documentary-style portraits, creative planning is focused on the model’s identity. You’re trying to highlight their personality, rather than develop your own ideas and art.
In fine art portraiture, it’s the reverse. The art you want to create – your ideas – are more important than the model’s personality. For instance, look at these faceless portraits by Patty Maher. They’re a good example of how important the photographer’s vision is in fine art.
This focus on art is perhaps most clear in fashion photography, where the models’ personalities are often irrelevant and eclipsed by the concept of the shoot. Unless the shoot is highlighting clothes and accessories instead, fashion photography tends to cross over into fine art photography. Just flip through some high-end fashion magazines to see this!
Conceptual photography is, by definition, a type of fine art. For this reason, the two are often confused or used interchangeably. However, fine art is a broader category than conceptual photography; not all fine art is conceptual, though all conceptual photos are fine art.
Conceptual pictures may also resemble fine art portraits. The difference is that a conceptual portrait represents a specific idea, such as fear or curiosity, while a fine art portrait may have no specific meaning.
For more inspiration, check out these 40 outstanding examples of conceptual photography.
Still Life Photography
Still life photography is another genre with a large gray area between fine art and documentary photography. The difference is, again, the purpose of the photo and the importance of the subject. Are you taking the still life picture because the subject is special, and you want to show it to others? Or are you experimenting with an idea or technique to create art?
For instance, you can find countless images of food on Instagram, but the majority are spontaneous and documentary in style. They show a special location, dish, or moment in time the photographer wanted to capture and share.
By contrast, in fine art food photography, the photographer’s imagination is clearly evident in the picture. It’s not a memory; it’s something the photographer thought about and then executed artfully.
Fine Art Landscape & Nature Photography
Some fine art photographers thrive in a studio setting, where they can control all the details of a shoot. Others thrive in natural settings, such as wild landscapes, where they can’t control everything. Then, instead of creating a scene from their imagination, they put their imagination and style into a scene that’s already there.
Fine art nature and landscape photography have become increasingly popular thanks to image editors, which allow photographers to easily alter the appearance of a scene. But you don’t need an image editor to create fine art. There are a handful of other ways to create a striking fine art photo of nature.
For example, you can find a unique perspective, use in-camera techniques, or develop a series of images around a core idea. Though post-processing allows for more possibilities, it’s not a prerequisite to becoming a fine art photographer!
Fine Art Architectural Photography
Similar to landscapes, architecture is a subject you can’t bring into your studio. You have to go out, find unique angles, and develop a style that’s distinctly yours. In this way, you can present an artistic view of architecture that changes the way viewers see everyday buildings.
With architecture, too, you can develop ideas that you communicate through your images. For instance, fine art photographer Sharon Tenenbaum has shifted from celebrating the shape of architecture to focusing on the interaction between people and their architectural environment. Read her thoughts about this creative shift in her article, What Makes a Great Fine Art Architectural Photograph?
Fine Art Photojournalism / Street Photography
On the surface, photojournalism and street photography may seem purely documentary. After all, documentary photography focuses on capturing reality, so it can be shared and remembered. Isn’t that what photojournalism is?
Yes, sometimes, but not always. Ever since news photographers began taking inspiration from art photographers in the 1960s and 70s, another motivation for photojournalism has emerged. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for photojournalists to focus on the artistic and emotional impact of their images, not just the reality of the scene. They want to create visual narratives, which stir viewers’ emotions.
Typically, this emotional story isn’t created by coincidence. Successful photojournalists do thorough research ahead of time, and after this preparation, they choose a story or idea they want to explore. Then, they show up on the scene with this concept already in mind.
But even when a photographer is working spontaneously, letting their environment inspire them, they can still have a point of view they’re trying to communicate. For example, take these photos of an ultra-orthodox community in Jerusalem, shot by street photographer Ilan Ben Yehuda. Despite the spontaneity of the shots, they’re composed to create stories with themes of humor, irony, and surreality. In this way, they’re more like fine art than documentary photography.
Many of the above photos were selected from our talented Flickr group.