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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The High Concept Image

Pro tips to help you take your photos to a higher level

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These photos (above and right, below) show high-concept and low-concept compositions of Angel Falls in Venezuela. Ian Plant created the high-concept image by using a 10-stop ND filter and making several long exposures during peak sunset light. This captured the movement of the clouds across the sky. Canaima National Park, Venezuela. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II USM, ISO 100, ƒ/8, 141 sec.

High-concept photographs go beyond mere literal representations of your subjects; instead, they seek to use light, composition, mood and color creatively. On one level, high-concept photography is the difference between "snapshots" and "art"—but it's so much more than that. It's the difference between merely documenting your subjects and telling a compelling story instead. It's about going from "meh" to "wow!" It's about showing your viewers something they haven't seen before—and showing them your personal and unique artistic vision. Most of all, it's about moving past the low-hanging fruit and reaching for the treetops instead.

We all know what "low-concept" photographs are because we've all taken them (in fact, I take them all the time). When first learning photography, I think it's fair to say that we all take pictures of things; we point our cameras at our subjects, without thinking too much about how to transform the subject using creative expression. Low-concept photography can also describe photographs that have a primary purpose of creating a literal or documentary interpretation of the subject. There's nothing wrong with low-concept photography—many editorial outlets and commercial applications require a straight approach, and for some subjects, the low-concept approach works best—but if you're looking to stand out from the crowd, you'll need to be a bit more creative.

High-concept photography moves past a "straightforward" or "literal" approach. Famous photographer Minor White once said, "One should photograph objects, not only for what they are but for what else they are." More than just some artistic mumbo jumbo, this quote gets at the heart of high-concept photography. It starts with the process of artistic abstraction—seeing your subjects not as rocks, trees or bears, but rather in terms of shape, color, light, motion and energy—that is, seeing your subjects "for what else they are." High-concept photography seeks to capture mood and emotion, and to use light, color, composition, time and moment creatively. A high-concept photograph might reduce the primary subject to just an element of the overall composition, rather than focus on it alone. High-concept photography, in a sense, is all about moving past the obvious and exploring your subject's hidden truth.

Although this is by no means an exhaustive list, here are a few of my favorite techniques for creating high-concept photographs. All of these techniques aid in the photographer's effort to engage in the process of artistic transformation—the act of imposing the artist's own vision on the subject or scene photographed. The final goal of high-concept photography is to present the world in a way not seen before by viewers, to give them something unique and fresh, and to let the photographer's personal vision emerge. Sometimes I use just one technique, and sometimes I use a combination of techniques to bring my images to the next level; often, one or more technique may bleed into the next. The individual techniques don't really matter so much, and by no means do your photos need to look like mine to be considered high concept. The important thing is to think creatively at all times and to have the courage to try something out of the ordinary.

1 Don't just record your subject; instead, capture a theme, concept or story. Everyone—and everything—has a story to tell, and it's the photographer's job to figure out what that story is and to present it to others in a compelling way. The story should emerge from your subject, of course, but the high-concept photographer can also add his or her own personal artistic spin. The story doesn't have to be a complex narrative; it can be a simple concept or theme. As long as you arouse interest or emotion on the part of your viewer, you're on the right track.


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