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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The run-of-the-mill, low-concept portrait of the egret (left) contrasts with the high-concept group photo (right). The apparent visual mismatch between the birds and their reflections was caused by Plant's choice of camera position relative to the scene. It creates a photo that's intricate and unexpected. A dark exposure helps to emphasize the eerie mood he was trying to convey. J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 500mm ƒ/4L EF IS USM, ISO 800, ƒ/9, 1⁄500 sec.

A lot of things can help you tell a story with nature images: interesting weather, the line of sight or the pose of an animal, or even a brief, but unique and meaningful convergence of natural elements. What you should be looking for are what I like to call "story cues"—the elements of a photo that get viewers interested in the subject's story. Just as a good composition visually entices the viewer, story cues can encourage the viewer to linger and study an image.

Just remember, when you make a photo, not just one, but at least three stories are often the result: the real story behind the photo, the story that you're trying to tell others as an artist (which may or may not be connected with the true story, depending on your artistic whim), and the story that each viewer extracts from the photo (which is often completely untethered from the first two stories). There's no need to try to make all three stories the same; there's especially no need to try to force your viewers to see the story you're trying to tell. It's sufficient to make a photograph that sets viewers' imaginations on fire.

2 Move your feet and seek novel compositions and juxtapositions. I see it all the time—photographers who show up to a location, drop their camera bag and start shooting, never moving from that first spot. Successful photography is all about moving your feet, and looking for unique and compelling angles. High-concept photography, in particular, requires finding fresh perspectives. Learning to see scene elements as abstract shapes, lines and colors helps; so does a creative eye and a willingness to think outside the box.

Even more important is to be constantly on the lookout for unique and compelling juxtapositions of visual elements. Successful artistic composition is more than just figuring out how to arrange everything within the image frame; it also involves finding meaningful, sometimes even ironic, relationships between elements. A compelling composition will do more than just lead the viewer's eye into the picture frame—it can help tell a story about the subject and arouse the viewer's curiosity and interest.

In the high-concept photo, twilight blues and an interesting cloud formation come together to create a solemn mood and elevate this scene to a higher level. Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II USM, polarizer, 2-stop graduated ND filter, ISO 400, ƒ/11, 2 minutes.

3 Don't just chase "magic hour" light; chase expressive light. Too often, we end up chasing stunning sunset and sunrise light to the exclusion of other types of light, which can be equally effective (if not more so) for the subject matter at hand. I look for the edges of light, mixed light and complementary colors when creating high-concept images—and not always at sunrise or sunset. Often, high-concept lighting can occur at other times of day (even in the middle of the day). It's all a question of matching the light to the subject and patiently waiting for unusual lighting events to occur.


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I especially enjoy working with a mix of light and shadows. Too often, I hear photographers (especially wildlife photographers) extol the virtues of shooting when conditions are overcast. Sure, even lighting makes exposure and composition easier, and can be perfect for some subjects, but I usually prefer a mix of shadow and light. Such light can be difficult to work with, creating extreme contrast between areas of light and shadow, but the results can be very dramatic, especially when working with spot-lit or backlit subjects. I also often mix natural and artificial light, such as flash. A good external flash is an often overlooked, but nonetheless critical, photo accessory. It can be used to add fill light to subjects, giving them a little extra bit of emphasis and detail, or it can be used in more surreal ways instead. Artificial light gives the nature photographer the power to alter the natural mix of light, imposing more of his or her artistic vision on the subject—something of crucial value to the high-concept photographer. I'm also always looking for opportunities to mix color creatively. Mixing colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel (called "complementary colors")—such as mixing warm and cool tones or color opposites such as red and blue, or green and magenta—can be very effective.

4 Use weather and color to create mood. Mood is an important component of all great photographs. To me, "mood" encompasses anything that acts to strike an emotional chord with your viewers, forging a connection between them and your photograph. Of course, emotions are mercurial and fickle things, which is why mood is such a difficult subject to discuss—but I'll do my best here to make some sense of it.

For nature photography, use of "atmospherics" is often an effective way of expressing mood. Atmospherics include a number of weather-related phenomenon that occur when moisture in the air reacts to temperature, most notably, mist and fog, dramatic storm clouds and rainbows. Color can also have a powerful impact on the emotional response generated by a photo. Warm tones dominate early and late in the day, whereas cooler tones are more common at other times, especially at twilight or in deep shadows on a sunny day. Use color creatively to enhance mood.

The high-concept photo (right) shows "expressive light"—backlight at sunset filtered by dust in the air and a hint of lens flare create a warm golden glow. The effect helps to evoke an emotion and tell a story. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD, ISO 800, ƒ/6.3, 1⁄400 sec.

 

5 Wait for the decisive moment. I like to think of photography as an exercise in finding "convergences," those moments when two or more elements come together in an interesting, meaningful or artistically relevant way. Usually, such convergences are fleeting, leading Henri Cartier-Bresson to describe photography as capturing the "decisive moment" in which one is able to record an essential interaction of subjects at its peak. Ideally, the moment should reveal something about the character of the subject or capture an instant when nature's power is at its fullest, filled with energy and possibility.


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High-concept photography and decisive moments go hand in hand. In fact, I would argue that photography, among all art forms, is uniquely suited to capture of the decisive moment, and is what makes photography singular. If you change your thinking from photographing places or subjects to photographing moments, you'll see a dramatic improvement in your work. The proper moment can elevate even a mundane subject to something special—or it can elevate an already special subject to something timeless. So, for example, don't just go to the Grand Canyon to take photos of the Grand Canyon; instead, plan for enough time so you can wait for special moments to occur. The fact that the Grand Canyon is your backdrop will make those moments all the more meaningful!

6 Go with the flow with long exposures. A click of the camera shutter captures a moment, plucking a frozen instant from the air and suspending it for all time. Not unlike ice, static photographs can often appear lifeless, cold and dull. The high-concept photographer resists this characteristic of still capture, and instead strives to impart a sense of motion, energy and life to his or her pictures, seeking to capture the dynamic forces at work in nature, creating an illusion of movement and vitality. One way of bringing energy to your photos is to use long exposure times of several seconds or even several minutes. Long exposures can help you capture a new perspective on reality and show the world in an unexpected way.

During long exposures, moving elements gradually lose distinctness and form, becoming abstract and artistic blurs and brushstrokes. You have to be careful to ensure that long-exposure blurring supports your overall composition or theme. Your DSLR is a perfect tool for experimenting with long exposures, as you get instant feedback after every exposure, allowing you to adjust your exposure time as necessary to get the look you want. Remember, you can't just simply set your shutter speed to any exposure time you want and expect to get correct results; you need to compensate for the light by changing your aperture or ISO, or using neutral-density filters to alter the amount of light coming into the lens. For longer exposures, a remote shutter release with a shutter lock, used in conjunction with your camera's Bulb setting, is necessary.

Conclusion. You have to force yourself to seek the high-concept image. Sometimes it happens when you have poor conditions, and you're trying to eke out a decent image from the shoot. Sometimes it happens when you have something truly wonderful, and you decide you need to give it all you've got to make sure you fully capitalize on your subject's potential. Either way, you have to stop and ask yourself: How can I take this to the next level? If you do this for every image you make, you'll find that your own personal artistic voice shines through—and that your photos will get increasingly noticed by others.

Ian Plant is a full-time professional nature photographer, writer and adventurer. His work has appeared in numerous publications worldwide, and he's a frequent contributor to Outdoor Photographer magazine and OP Daily. He's also the author of a number of instructional nature photography books, including most recently the critically acclaimed Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition, an artistic tour de force spanning several centuries and different artistic media in its quest to reveal the composition secrets of the great masters. See more of his work at www.ianplant.com.

10 Comments

    This is a great article that we can all learn something from. Photography is a constant learning endeavor. We all need “refreshes” from time to time.

    Galen Rowell used to refer to low-concept photos as “record shots”, because they simply are a record of a site and prove you were there. As artists we certainly wish to achieve much more than that, and you have explained many of the ways to do it! Thank you Ian, for taking the time to organize these helpful principles into a coherent article.

    VERY good practices. It’s funny but I’m very literal about things (I hate cutesy overdone titles and captions for example – just tell me what the subject is!) But I’ve come to practice all of these things, just in an effort to add interest -for me probably more than the viewer. I’m not actually going for high concept or creativity. But for me I can’t accomplish things like this by trying for them directly or following tips. I just have to let them emerge organically. And if it gets too far from the real world I’m not as into it. Your images (and thankfully most of your captions/titles) tend to walk that line very nicely. It’s why I’m a fan of your work!

    “These photos (above and right, below) show high-concept and low-concept compositions of Angel Falls in Venezuela. ”

    So how about displaying the low-concept photo?

    (Do you guys not have copy editors?)

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