Creating concepts for a photoshoot is a great way to involve your imagination and integrate more of your creative ideas into your work. The process involves a different way of creating images for most photographers, yet many other artists and performers work this way. Much of the ‘work’ is done in the planning stage before the actual shoot, so when shooting a concept it's not possible for a photographer to just show up and capture what they see, perhaps like they would at an event.
In this guide to creating concepts for your photoshoots, we answer all your questions on concepts as well as share an easy-to-follow step-by-step process.
- What is conceptual photography?
- What is concept photography used for?
- Types of conceptual photographs
- An overview of the photoshoot process
- Famous conceptual photographers
- Guide to creating a concept photoshoot
- Identify the central idea of your shoot
- Brainstorm ideas
- Create a mood board
- Find a location
- Check the weather
- Create the image
- Experiment with editing
- Final thoughts
What is conceptual photography?
Conceptual art emerged in the late sixties and brought new life to photography beyond its uses in capturing landscapes and portraits. This photography style explores concepts over things, so the process begins with an idea or a message the photographer wants to communicate. The aim is often to evoke emotions in the viewer such as love, loneliness, or nostalgia and therefore symbolism is often a key feature of concept photography.
This differs to the idea most people have of photography - where the photographer travels to a place and finds interesting things to shoot, often not knowing what photos they will end up with.
What is concept photography used for?
Conceptual photography has many uses and is utilised across commercial photography as well as fine art. You can use concepts in advertising to sell a product by associating it with attractive ideas, or you can use concepts to provide thought provoking commentary and highlight social problems. You can also use concepts to educate people by helping them grasp abstract ideas.
Concepts can be portrayed in a single image or across a series of photos, it's up to you as the photographer to decide the most effective way to communicate your idea.
Types of conceptual photographs
Symbolic photographs are the most common type of concept photographs. They are typically simple but impactful images, where an idea or real-life object is replaced by its symbolic equivalent (for example, the image of a skull can be used to represent mortality, a candle can represent the passing of time, and flowers can signify new life and growth.
In this type of photography, the idea behind the photo remains abstract and open to interpretation by the viewer. The image does not try to represent an accurate depiction of visual reality. For example, you could use dark colours and harsh lines to symbolically represent a negative emotion like despair.
Surrealism is a genre of art that uses exaggerated symbolism and imagery to create a dream-like image that can help the viewer suspend their perception of reality. Salvador Dali's melting clock in his artwork 'The Persistence of Memory' is one of the most famous surreal images.
Conceptual photography does not always fall under surrealism, but it has many elements drawn from this genre which aims to challenge the viewer through imagery that may seem illogical or irrational.
An overview of the photoshoot process
It's best to think of yourself as a creative director throughout this process because you decide what your final image or set of images are going to look like well ahead of the shoot. On the day of the shoot, the setup time is generally more intensive than other types of shoots because the scenes need to be meticulously prepared. Sometimes the image is manipulated afterwards with digital editing too for dramatic impact.
Every detail counts in a conceptual photoshoot - the location, the wardrobe, the lighting, and the props. Everything shown in the frame should be there for a reason. There is a main theme running through the photos that tells the story of a character, so you can think of it like a movie but shown only in visuals.
The key to a successful concept photoshoot is purposeful decision-making, asking yourself ‘why’ every element matters. For example, Why are you using predominantly natural light? Why are you using a certain fabric texture? Why are you using a warm colour palette? Etc.
Famous conceptual photographers
It can help to gather inspiration from others' unique conceptual photo series. Here are some of the best current photographers known for their conceptual work.
Dasha Pears uses impeccable editing skills to create surreal scenes which come across as both minimalistic and dramatic. Her concepts revolve around finding our place in the world.
Jovana Rikalo is a fine art photographer from Serbia known for magical scenes that depict fairytale-like, dreamy scenarios.
Pol Kurucz creates colourful and unexpected images with his conceptual portraits. He likes to redefine the concept of beauty by showing off his model’s imperfections.
Gemmy Woud-Binnendijk is a fine art portrait photographer who enjoys recreating the atmosphere of an old portrait painting with her historical-inspired images. She often incorporates settings, costumes and makeup from the Baroque, Victorian and Renaissance periods.
Chema Madoz is a Spanish photographer and best known for his black-and-white surrealism and visual poetry. He often works with simple, everyday objects.
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Guide to creating a concept photoshoot
Identify the central idea of your shoot
Your starting point is to identify what you are shooting, the purpose of the shoot and where the image(s) will be published. These details are often provided by your client in their brief, for example for an advertising job the client may state “Every Beauty Company wants you to shoot a double spread magazine ad for our new line of fresh unisex perfume celebrating spring.”
Next, you want to think about who your audience is and what message you want to say to them. This message should be clearly communicated through the images. In order to achieve this you'll need a clear purpose in mind, because if your message or idea is unclear from the beginning then this will likely be reflected in the final images. But don't worry, you will develop a cohesive concept when you follow the next few steps.
You can jot down your ideas using a simple pen and pad or sticky notes, or if you would prefer to go digital there are online brainstorming tools available like Milanote where you can organise your thoughts and even invite other people to collaborate with you.
Start adding ideas that relate to your central theme, including lighting, colours, location and backdrops. The main thing about brainstorming is letting your ideas flow by writing them ALL down. There are no bad ideas at this stage, so make sure you’re not evaluating them as they come up. Some people find it helpful to set a timer to create some urgency so they won’t get stuck mulling over their ideas.
Once you've got all your ideas down, take a break and come back to your brainstorming session when you are able to see your ideas with a fresh perspective. It may be helpful to group each idea into sections, for example, location, styling, and models. Now it’s time to look through them all with a critical lens so you can select the strongest ideas in each group. Take this opportunity to check everything you’ve selected ties back to the central theme.
Create a mood board
Once you have formed some cohesive ideas from your brainstorming session, you can see how they work together by finding visual references and adding them to a mood board. The images can represent the colours you want to incorporate, the setting, clothing fabrics, or the characters in your story.
Again you can choose to physically print out pictures and stick them to a poster board or your wall, or you can go digital and make a board on Pinterest.
You don’t have to be an artist to make this step worthwhile, just rough and simple sketches will do. The idea is to visualise how your concept will look and roughly draw out the composition elements of each photo, including the poses if you have models. This step will be particularly helpful if you are creating a photo series so you can see how the images fit together. When you look at your sketches, ask yourself, do they tell the story you want to convey?
Find a location
Now that you've done the majority of the concept planning, you'll be much clearer on your vision for your photography location. The features you require will vary greatly depending on your concept.
Maybe you require a professional photography studio with a simple white backdrop so you can focus on shooting the subject and the props with no distractions. Or maybe you need a studio with a kitchen because you want to feature food in your image.
You can also find great outdoor photography locations, see our guide to the ultimate outdoor photo studio setup.
Check the weather
Lighting has a huge impact on the mood created in your photo - imagine how different a scene would look on a clear day under bright midday sun versus under the low light of an overcast day with full cloud cover. So unless you are shooting in a blackout studio where you have complete control over your lighting, you'll need to check the forecast and ensure the weather aligns with your photo shoot requirements.
This may mean scheduling a backup shooting day just in case things don't go according to plan on the day, which will help to reduce your stress levels before the shoot.
Create the image
This can be the easiest or toughest part of the process depending on how well you have prepared. You’ll most likely spend a lot of time on the set-up to make sure the visual elements of your photographs align with your concept.
But it’s also important to stay flexible. It’s unlikely your final images will turn out exactly like your planned version, and that’s okay. Being able to adapt will allow the project to evolve and can add a greater depth of meaning.
Experiment with editing
This step isn't always necessary but you could consider enhancing your concept in the editing process by adding some additional creative editing techniques, especially if you want your image to lean towards surrealism. Many conceptual photographers dramatise their images by using their photo editing software to create effects like:
- Multiple exposures - to superimpose two or more exposures in a single image
- Composite imagery - to combine two or more images to create a new image
- Film grain effects
Trying concept photography will allow you to experiment with a new and exciting creative process. It can be so rewarding to start with a concept in your mind and then bring it to life through a photo shoot.
If you're not used to putting in so much planning prior to your shoot then trying this style of photography will push you outside your comfort zone - and this is key to expanding your photography skills. Having the ability to form a cohesive concept and translate it into a visual story will elevate your work whether you're shooting products or portraits.
If you're looking for a photoshoot location in London, you'll find spaces to suit every type of concept shoot on Tutti — from churches and rooftop spaces to industrial buildings, Victorian homes and loft-style apartments.
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