Photographers Should Not Be Inspired by Photography

Photographers Should Not Be Inspired by Photography

I am lucky enough to have hosted or been a part of workshops around the world. One thing I teach in my workshops is that photographers should not look at other photography to be inspired.

They should look at art. Now I know right at this moment, hundreds of photography purists are probably waving their overpriced zoom lens in the air angrily. But I honestly believe you will get more from studying paintings, sketches, and digital art than you ever will from other people's photography.

If you boil any kind of imagery down to its core, all you are left with is the arrangement of specific elements in a pleasing way. This is composition. If you can learn the science and technique of composition and apply it to your images, you will be away from the starting blocks with distance to spare. In photography, because we have less control, the rules of composition have been simplified down to the golden ratio, which if you rotate, you can usually get to line up with something, so I am not a huge believer. And then, we have the good old rule of thirds, which you should not use. I can not tell you how many times I have seen an image composed with the horizon on the bottom line and a lighthouse on the right third. If you only look at photography, this is where the problem lies: you will only see the simplified compositional techniques unless you follow one of the few photographers who have learned the more advanced techniques.

In art, the person with the brush or pencil has studied art, has learned from the old painters, and applies all the techniques to compose an image. This is why most of the time, if you hold a painting next to a photo, the photo will seem flat composition-wise in comparison. These composition techniques are not exclusive to the artists, though; we can also apply them to our work, but most photographers probably do not even know they exist. Instead of the rules of thirds, learn about armature grids, arabesques, leading lines, triangles, ellipses, radiating lines, and the plethora of compositional techniques used by artists. Anyone can take a photo of a pretty girl on a street with a strobe at a low f-stop and blur the background. Not many, though, can compose multiple elements in a scene using compositional techniques.

Depth is another reason why you should look at art and not other people's photography, but I do not mean the depth of field. I am talking about hidden themes, deeper meanings, and metaphors. The thing about most art is that it has multiple levels. Yes, it looks beautiful and is composed well, but between the lines and the brush strokes of oil lie emotion and stories that one must linger on. Art trains your eye to look for these clues, to stare at the work longer, and to put all the pieces together to create a fulfilling experience. Now, I am not saying this does not happen in photography, but it is not often applied. 

When I browse my Facebook or Instagram feed, I am inundated with images that all look similar. While the rise of social media and the ability to show your photos to all your friends and followers which is great, there is one drawback, that being everyone is seeing the same images and then basically copying the image they saw and re-purposing it as their own. There are even accounts specifically highlighting this on Instagram now. It is great to be inspired, but take an idea, change it, and then, add your style. If you repurpose the very same concept and idea, you are gaining nothing. It is very hard to create something new these days, but it is about your voice and your style. The same applies to art, but if you at look what painters do, they may take a well-worn concept, but they then paint it in their voice with a completely different style and make it their own. As a creative, you want range; look at how a graphic designer pieces artwork together or how a sculptor creates depth by curving certain elements on the stone.

There is a whole world of art out there to learn from, and you need to broaden your horizons if you want to grow as a photographer. So many times, I will see an image, and all the comments do is focus on what lens was used or what ISO they were on. Yes, learn how to use the camera, but do not focus on numbers. Who cares what aperture it was shot at? After three weeks of using a camera, you should be able to work that out. Instead, focus on the art of the image, the voice of the image, the message. You can learn to do this by looking at art. No one cares about your fancy telescopic lens or your $5,000 camera; they care about the vision inside that brain of yours and the way you release it into the world. Do not take an image, create an image.

All images used are creative commons or public domain.

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23 Comments

Hopper is great. How about a snapshot of commuters on a Seattle ferry? References to fine art sometimes are about all you have when doing quick shots.

salah nabawi's picture

I like it

Fontaine Lewis's picture

"Anyone can take a photo of a pretty girl on a street with a strobe at a low f-stop and blur the background."

Damn it Clinton, why you gotta call us out like that. Shush, let us believe the lies we tell ourselves.

Karin Jerez's picture

Really appreciate this article!

Eric Robinson's picture

While I think looking at art for photographic inspiration is a very good idea, I think tell people not to look at photography for inspiration is a very bad idea.

Simon Patterson's picture

Despite the silly clickbaity "don't be inspired by photography" beginning, this article has some excellent suggestions of what photographers can learn by looking at the best paintings, sculptures and graphic design work.

Eric Robinson's picture

It is I deed click bait, but what the author says is nothing new. Most if not all visual arts courses require students to study visual work from the past, why should photography be any different? If you look at early photographic work from the likes of Hill and Adamson, it was heavily influenced by fine art, partly because Hill himself was an artist before discovering photography. He brought his awareness of composition and the importance of light into his early photographic work. In my opinion anyone interested in photography should not restrict themselves to what visual reference material they study.

Lawrence Givens's picture

GD AMEN BROTHA!!! Rembrandt all day everyday

Alain Briot is a photographer in the southwest U.S. that was trained as an artist and moved on to photography after he moved to the U.S. He espouses learning photography from a painters perspective also. However, it would probably behoove anyone to be a student of both art and photography. Clearly, the artworks and the artists that have withstood the test of time (art has been around a lot longer than photography and has been studied far more) deserve attention.

Joseph Balson's picture

photographers should do this, photographers shouldn't do that, photographers should buy this lens, photographers shouldn't buy this type of camera.
Jesus.
photographers should do whatever they want/like, take inspiration from whatever they want/like, and own whatever gear they want/like. As long as it is legal.

Ed Sanford's picture

I understand that looking at classic paintings and other forms of art is extremely valuable. Clearly when it comes to composition and even lighting other forms of fine art instruct and inspire. Nevertheless, to say that it's not functional to be inspired by great photography is just flat out wrong. I learned from a great workshop instructor that painters start with a blank canvas and then add things. Photographers, on the other hand, start with the entire world and then subtract things. Photographers who have mastered artistry through the use of photographic tools as opposed to paints and pallets, offer a motivation to a photographer in terms of using resources specific to photographic art. Some of the great ones are really an inspiration. In fact, some great modern day painters will photograph a scene and then paint from it. To completely disfavor photography as inspiration makes no sense. By the way, just because you teach something does not make it right. Every teacher has a combination of facts and opinions in their repertoire. It is important to point out those differences in order to motivate and "inspire" a student to develop skills that will ultimately lead to the creation of a personal style.

Ed Sanford's picture

Thanks.... that quote from that teacher causes me to look at my efforts more critically. To include elements that only help state the message in challenging. Some of the greatest work that I see is done by those who master the concept of simplicity.

Cedi Ali Rajah's picture

Great article. Before I started shooting myself, I came across a photographer who shot plenty of beautiful women, but something about his images was deeper, more complex than the usual pretty girl IG fare. His shots told stories, were invitations into a world. They weren't just beautiful, they were evocative.

After I started shooting, guess what I realized? He utilizes techniques more commonly found in classic art. Without knowing what I was seeing, I still felt the difference.

So basically, you're right.

Zack Schindler's picture

I spend a lot of time looking at others photos online. Also study photography used in advertising and magazines. Have a lot of books by or about the usual suspects, Avedon, Karsh, HCB, Arnold Newman etc. When I watch movies I try to observe the photography in them especially B&W movies from the 1940's. In addition I look at a lot of art of all kinds. I think that studying art of all types is useful for all of us but since we are photographers why would we not look at the work of others? Painters study other painters but photographers should not study other photgraphers? That makes no sense.

Recently I have been inspired by the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto and shot the following. I was also inspired by minimalist art in this composition. Learn from the best and then try to do your best. I don't see how that is a problem.

"Beauty walks a razors edge, someday I'll make it mine" - Bob Dylan

Rod Kestel's picture

This is really silly. I'll take my inspiration from wherever it comes from, thanks. Paintings, photos or the back end of a horse, who cares as long as it sparks the imagination. Okay, maybe not the horse.

Michael Dougherty's picture

My grandfather had several William Keith oil paintings from late 1800s and willed them to the grandchildren (me) when he passed away in the 60's. I still have the paintings and as a result, I actually try to emulate the style and composition of Keith in my own photography. It's not even intentional.

David Love's picture

The problem these days is photographers skipping the inspired by and just copying what others with more likes are doing. Hard to tell pics or photographers apart in a lot of genres because everyone jumps to a trend and bandwagons it. Even phones are trying to copy the most trendy stuff, blurred background, fake glare, etc. How many new people go beyond the free presets and actions they find on the web?

Rod Kestel's picture

The first stage of mastery is imitation. Beyond that, the real artist makes it their own.

Anyway, be grateful for the ordinary talent. We need them to make us look good. Or maybe they just make me look average. Oh well.

Zack Schindler's picture

“Good artists copy, Great artists steal” - Pablo Picasso

David Love's picture

At least then they earned the steal by painting for hours. How many pics do we need of the same locations, each pic showing the degradation of the place after countless morons line up to trash and litter the place for instasuck likes?

Zack Schindler's picture

I know what you mean. I never, ever need to see photos shot in Antelope Canyon again.
Here is something that I am very proud of. I have never taken a selfie.

Perhaps one should admire photography and study art.