What Is Fine Art Photography ?

As I stood at the edge of the tranquil beach, a sense of both calm and disappointment washed over me. Having checked the weather forecasts closely, I was once again feeling let down as instead of crisp morning light, I instead had low clouds and very little light. 

All around, the beach appeared to be draped in a thick blanket of low clouds, creating an almost surreal atmosphere. The waves lazily lapped against the shore, instead of what I would have liked them to be doing and were barely disrupting the stillness. I felt like giving up on the shoot, but after surveying the scene, I figured this was the perfect setting for a journey into the realm of fine art photography, where I intended to experiment with long exposures to capture the essence of this moment.

The Decision to Embrace the Elements

Despite the subdued lighting and the gentle monotony of the waves, I felt some excitement building within me as I took and reviewed my first image. There was an inherent beauty in the subdued tones and the lack of immediate drama in the scene. I knew that I wanted to encapsulate this feeling and who know, translate it into a visual masterpiece perhaps?

Having already grabbed my filters, I started on my quest. The decision to use these filters wasn't just technical; it was a creative choice. I wanted to extend the exposure time beyond what I would normally do, thus allowing the subtle movements of the waves to blur into an almost dreamlike state. The intention was to blur the lines between the sea and the sky, creating a seamless transition between the two elements. With this intentional blurring, I aimed to evoke a sense of timelessness, a moment frozen but also flowing.

Choosing the Exposure Time

As I set up my camera, I pondered the exposure time that would best convey the tranquility of the scene. While shorter exposures might have captured the details more crisply, I was drawn to the idea of extended exposures that could emphasize the delicate movements in the water and clouds. The length of the exposures was crucial; it had to be long enough to create the desired effect, yet not so long that the scene lost its connection to reality entirely.

I settled on two-minute exposures as the sweet spot. This duration allowed enough time for the waves to create a beautiful misty effect as they interacted with the shore, blurring their distinct edges. What I need to be 100% sure of here was getting my focus right. Using focus peaking, I was able to see exactly where the plane of focus was before then putting on my 10-stop filter.

Embracing High-Key Aesthetics

While the idea of intentionally "blowing the highlights" might sound counterintuitive, it was my deliberate choice to amplify the ethereal quality of the scene. With the thick clouds diffusing the light, there was a soft light that wrapped around the scene. By allowing the highlights to blend into this soft radiance, I aimed to create a high-key aesthetic that would enhance the dreamy atmosphere.

The challenge here was to balance the blown highlights with retaining some detail in the minimalistic rock formations that were to be the focal points of the composition. I wanted the rocks to stand as stoic witnesses to the passage of time, almost as if they were guardians of this tranquil space. After a few attempts, I was on the right track and off now on my new adventure.

The Art of Composition

With my settings dialed in, I turned my attention to the composition. I wanted to create an image that was both visually engaging and potentially emotionally evocative to the viewer. The rule of thirds felt too rigid for this scene; instead, I opted for a more fluid approach. Placing the rock formations closer to the edge of the frame allowed the viewer's eye to wander through the negative space, getting lost in the expanse of the beach and the soft merging of sea and sky. I have said before that the rules of composition shouldn't be rules, but more so tools, and this was a perfect opportunity to practice what I preach as such. 

What I Saw Versus What the Camera Saw

As the first two-minute exposure began, time seemed to stand still as I waited to see what the result would be. I watched as the waves danced and mingled with the shoreline, before retreating once again back out to sea. The clouds could have painted soft streaks across the sky; however, I was intentionally overexposing my shots, so these wouldn't be a factor I would have to consider.

Reviewing the images on my camera's LCD screen was in some way a revelation. The intentional blown highlights didn't detract from the photograph's impact; instead, they added to the otherworldly aura of the scene. The rocks, rendered in subtle detail, anchored the composition, and with the negative space that the blown highlights had created, I felt it added to the overall scene. 


The experiment with fine art photography was a journey of creativity and contemplation. The textbook definition of fine art photography is: "fine art photography is artistic expression through photographs, transcending reality to evoke emotions and narratives." Even as I was hitting that shutter, I was unsure if it would work out, and even after I got home and processed the images, I was still unsure. Through intentional choices in exposure time, composition, and embracing the elements, I was able to capture the delicate balance between reality and dreaminess. 

This experience reminded me that landscape photography isn't solely about technical prowess; it's about storytelling, emotion, and the artist's unique perspective. It's about pushing boundaries, embracing imperfections, and seeking beauty in the subtlest of details, from my point of view anyway.

Do you have additional thoughts on this topic? Are you a fine art photographer? I'd love to see your views on my experiment and see what is fine art photography?

Darren Spoonley's picture

Darren J. Spoonley, is an Ireland-based outdoor photographer, Podcaster, Videographer & Educator with a passion for capturing the beauty of our world.

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Darren Spoonly asks,

"What Is Fine Art Photography ?"

By literal definition, Fine Art is art that is created for purely aesthetic appeal. It consists of any and all art that is not Functional Art.

Basically, if a photo is made purely for its looks, and not to serve a practical purpose, then it is Fine Art, regardless of its quality. But if a photo is created to document something, or for educational purposes, or for use on a functional product such as a coaster or a coffee mug, then it is Functional Art and not Fine Art.

Many people do not use the concept of Fine Art in a way that is consistent with its actual literal definition. They think that the word "Fine" in this context is somehow used to refer to a high quality, and therefore many are completely misled by what they incorrectly think the term means.

Thanks, Tom, that makes sense for sure. What are your thoughts on the future and how AI will interpret the definition when it is tasked with producing Fine Art?

I haven't really thought about AI in the context of fine art, much less fine art photography. But then again I have a very strict definition of photography.

Photography is an image created by the capture of photons on a recording medium. That is all that photography is and all that it ever can be. As soon as we do anything further with that initially captured image, it is not photography anymore. So any images created by AI qualify as computer generated imagery, and cease to be photography, regardless of whether photos were used as initial input. Ditto for when we photoshop images - the result is a computer generated image, not photography any longer, although the image is based on a photograph.

We must have precise definitions for every term we use, definitions that never change and are consistent from one person to every other person. Otherwise subjective things such as feelings and personal experiences can cloud the meanings of the words we use and blur the lines of what a term actually means.

Interesting take on it ! Thanks
I think we are in for many changes in the years to come with many of those lines being blurred, a photo taken on a phone is processed by the phone and looking at what the likes of Samsung and Apple have been doing to job public’s images using what they think are the right settings met result in no more natural images for the vast majority

And I am certainly all for those changes, and whatever other advancements come at us in the near future. I just insist that everybody calls everything by the most accurate and precise term, so that no words are used in ways that are inconsistent with their literal definitions. Precise semantics are of the utmost importance to our lives.

Beautiful piece, thoughtful description.

Thank you very much William, Delighted you enjoyed it

The term "Fine-Art' is a bit deceptive to the less oriented, as it suggests a higher order of aesthetic quality then plain old "Art".

The fact that it applies to any so-called art that is not functional in purpose, equates to multi-millions of "Fine-Art" photographs, that range in quality from terrible to superb, so in the end it's largely meaningless.

So, I have hundreds of images on my site--Some are, IMO, pretty good--others not so hot, but all Fine-Art, non the less).