How to Start With Fine Art Photography

Creating something new is the most important ingredient for making art. But we can’t create something new when we just capture a scene in reality. The trick is bringing an artistic concept to your photographs.

As my grandfather was a homeland painter in Austria and a professor in art, there were lots of paintings I studied from my childhood on. My latest video gives you an overview of how I see fine art photography through my eyes. It gives you a good starting point for getting into fine art photography, as it reveals the different base concepts, but also how I decide between them and how much editing is possible without overediting in each photography concept.

The Realistic Photography Concept

We live in the real world. So, whenever we capture a scene, in reality, we just get a capture of reality. This fact makes it quite difficult to create art, and even in painting, it is easier to create art in a realistic style. The artist always creates something new on their canvas, whereas capturing reality with camera gear doesn’t create something new, which doesn’t lead to art in most cases. Realistic photography is well used for reportage photography, for instance. And the goal here is simply to indicate reality in the best possible way in the photographs, which doesn’t allow all too much editing. Reportage photographers could even lose their jobs if they edited their images as we do in fine art photography. So, while reportage photographers should stick to reality, fine art photographers should have a look at concepts that go a bit more away from reality.

The Expressionistic Photography Concept

Let’s make the first tiny step away from reality and into fine art photography. The photograph above, of the Bridge of Sigh in Venice, is not the best photograph I have ever taken. But this makes it quite strong example here, because it is already art just because of its composition and the story it tells. Let’s have a look why this is the case:

Travelers who visit Venice know that there is a prison right beside the bridge, where just the worst criminals we locked up — for life. When they were imprisoned, they had to walk over the Bridge of Sigh, which made it the last place of seeing sunlight in their lives. This image shows more or less the same view of how the prisoners, hundreds of years ago, would have perceived the last sunlight in their lives. This is why I decided to take this shot at sunset, where we see the last sunlight on the houses in the distance. And this is finally also the reason why I decided on the title “Last Sunlight.”

Expressionistic photography would allow me to edit in a way that goes away from reality, though I didn’t have to edit all too much in this case. The art was already created by the relationship between the elements in my composition: the prison, the Bridge of Sigh, the last sunlight in the distance, and the facts of history — the story that holds them all together. I simply expressed the inner values of the elements. This is what expressionistic fine art photography is all about: expressing the inner values of a story. I just expressed what was already there. So, when you are photographing next time: think if there are inner values in the elements of your scene that should get expressed. These could be different, but sometimes, it is just a single light spot and a fact from history.

The Impressionistic Photography Concept

I am a photographer, nature enthusiast, and landscape lover. This makes me see things often totally different from reality. This is simply a behavior of people who are in love: they see the world through rose-tinted glasses. So, if we want even to go a big step further away from reality, if we even don’t care anymore about reality, an impressionistic concept is our friend.

While expressionism is all about the inner values of a scene, impressionism is all about the subjective perception of the artist. In the image above, you see this nice chapel with this tree. As a tree is a symbol for life and in a broader sense, a chapel or church could be associated with deceased people, I wanted to tell this story between life and death, good and bad. The weather always changed between sunlight and rain on that day, so I decided to emphasize this weather contrast with boosting the dark sky on the right side, as well as the sunlight, hitting the grasses. The bright trail up to the chapel even adds to this entire story, as it shows something like: “stay on the right path and get illuminated”.

There are nearly no limits in editing for impressionistic photography. Although this should not be the primary goal, it is also not a problem if your impressionistic fine art photograph looks like a painting. I did a lot of editing in this image, but it is not overedited, as it shows the subjective perception of the artist — me, in this case. And this makes an image an impressionistic fine art photograph. So, when you are photographing next time and you are overwhelmed with emotions: think about how you can bring these emotions, maybe conveying a special mood with your image, a mood that fits the story your image tells.

The Surrealistic Photography Concept

Ready to go even one more step away from reality? Ready for the clear opposite of reality? Surrealistic photography belongs to my favorite artistry concepts in photography. It usually leads to the strongest images for me, but to be honest, it is also the most difficult concept of them all. The problem is obvious: We live in the real world. So, how can we photograph a surrealistic scene in our real world? This is simply not possible.

The trick is to look for surrealistic stories instead. It is something like if you were to look into the sky and you didn't see clouds, but rather different figures. As I was taking the photograph above, I saw a mountain rising and breaking through the clouds. This is why the image title is “Birth of a Mountain.” The mountain didn’t rise. We live in reality. It was just the clouds that started to resolve. But through my eyes, it looked like the mountain would rise. And this was the illusion I wanted to bring into my image.

In surrealistic photography, we have absolutely no limits on editing anymore. Surrealistic fine art photography is all about telling a surrealistic story in our real world. I would just not add elements that were not there. This could also be great art, though, but for me, this is where photography ends and compositing starts. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing bad with compositing, it is just the border I drew for myself. So, when you are photographing next time and you see any surrealistic story, like figures in clouds: think about how you can tell this story by arranging all elements in your composition in a supporting way. Mood can also be a quite good storyteller.

It Is Not Only All About Editing

The mood is an important thing in fine art photography, as it helps to support the story and to evoke emotions. The interesting thing is that I often get asked about which filters you need, to create fine art photographs, to bring mood into the photos. But it is not all about editing, and I don’t use art filters. Sometimes, it is just all about the right light, as you can see in the image above. The left version was just a test shot some hours before in flat light, while the right one was my final exposure with the right light, supporting my story of "And There Was Light," which is also the title of this image. Finally, it is the story that makes an image of art.

Many more details, examples, and tips about how to start with fine art photography are revealed in the video above.

Christian Irmler's picture

Christian Irmler is a passioned landscape photographer from Austria who comes from a line of artists.
He engages already his whole life with the compositions of the paintings of his family. In 1990 he began with photography and started to implement all his knowledge from painting into his photography.

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You are absolutely right: fine art photography is not primary all about editing. This article is not all about editing, it is all about the base concepts of fine art photography I use. As mentioned in the article, already a light spot, a fact of history, a story can be enough to bring a photography to art - even with a realistic style, by the way. Style and concept are two different things. The different concepts just allow us to go further or less on our editing without overediting. Although I see editing as an important part for my own fine art photography, this article was not meant to push any editing software.
Thank you for your comment and nice greetings,

your formular works fantastically if the goal is to build up a photography business. But not everyone likes to build up a business. For example, I refused all inquiries of selling my images as prints for more than 20 years, because I was only photographing for myself and simply didn't want to consider what others like :) I brought it to a successful business in the end, but anyway - that's not what everyone wants, on my experience. So many photographers photograph for theirselves - and this is so good! What can be better than haning your own piece of art onto your wall?
Thanks a lot for your comment and nice greetings,

AB it sounds like you must be looking into a mirror when you typed this. Angry much?

In the huge ocean of photos offer we have today, creating art with your images it is a way to make a particular distintion on your work in photography, and I am on it too.

Hi Ivan, that's so great to hear, that you are also enjoying to create art with your photography. And it is a quite interesting point of view you have, by the way - standing out with your photos due to art. Whatever our motivation is, it is such a big fun to create fine art photographs.
Thank you so much for your kind comment and have a fantastic weekend,

Hi Christian Irmler. Very helpful article. I approach my best photography just as you do here, with a fine art (painting) mindset or perspective. The principles you describe are spot on. The only limit with fine art photography is your imagination! Thanks for article.

Hi Anthony, that's a fantastic sentence you said: "The only limit with fine art photography is your imagination". This really nails it. Thanks a lot for your contribution! And so great to hear, that your approach is similar to mine.
Have a great Sunday and nice greetings,

photography becomes fine art when it's recognized as such, not when the photographer thinks he's an artist

Hi Charles, these are really interesting thoughts. Thank you therefor!
Well, generally there are a couple of clear requirements we need that anything gets to art and here it doesn't matter if it is photography, painting, even singing, or whatever.
There are some differences on the requirements between free or visual art, performing art and applied art. For free art like painting or photography, the requirements depend on the artistry base concept you decide for, for example one of the above mentioned one.
If someone recognizes a photograph as art, can be quite subjective. Has this person experience with art or with the definition of art? Or could it be, that it does maybe just appreciate the value of the photograph, independent if it finally is art or not? :)
Value is an important point, of course. It doesn't have a consequence for the definition of art though, but it makes a big difference for the appreciation and if we are talking about world-class art finally.
However, interesting thoughts - thank you for you comment!
Nice greetings,