(Last updated on June 26th, 2022)
When you first see a photo that makes you exclaim “Wow!” you can often say that it has some aesthetic value. It does more than capture your attention. It touches your mind and emotions in deeper ways.
Aesthetic photography is intentionally created images designed to express beauty. This is subjective. What makes me say wow might seem boring to you. Aesthetics is the part of the elusive nature of art.
Photographs with an aesthetic quality stand out. When you’re scrolling your social media feeds and stop to ‘Like’ a picture, it’s usually because a photo you see has some aesthetic value to it. Sometimes you may not be able to articulate what it is about a photo that has this effect on you. But you know there’s something special about it.
In this article about aesthetic photography, I’ll explore why photos are aesthetic or not. I’ll also provide some tips about photographic style and how to make your pictures get more ‘Likes’ because of their aesthetic characteristics.
- Defining Aesthetic Photography
- Differences between Aesthetic Photography and Non-Aesthetic Photography
- Producing Aesthetically Pleasing Photographs
- When Aesthetics Matter In Photography
- How to Develop Your Photography Aesthetic
- Frequently Asked Questions
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The photos one person loves to look at and ‘Like’ on social media, or hang on their walls, may not appeal to another person. What we like to look at differs depending on our personal taste.
Taste is tied to our upbringing and even early childhood experiences. I still love and am inspired by many of the first photographers whose images drew me to love photography. I still listen to most of the bands I was introduced to when I started listening to music. And there is no match for my mother’s home cooking. None of these things might appeal to you at all because our life experience is different.
Culture, relationships, education, and other aspects of life shape our appreciation of all art forms and what we find beautiful. These things all influence our aesthetic appreciation. It is tied to our personal worldview. So when we talk about aesthetic photography keep in mind that it must vary from person to person.
Aesthetic photography is photography that you find beautiful. It moves you. Inspires you. Hopefully, it challenges you to become a better photographer. To make aesthetic photographs you must portray your subject well. In such a way that others will find your presentation of it appealing, attractive, and beautiful.
As a noun, aesthetics refers to the philosophy and principles that guide and govern your idea of beauty. In photography, this encompasses your taste and style and how you express this with your camera and post-processing.
Not all photography is aesthetic. Nor does it need to be.
Photojournalism, sports photography, and any photos taken for documenting something don’t need to be aesthetic. Sometimes they are more authentic to their purpose if they are not.
A lack of aesthetics often makes a news photo more powerful and believable.
I doubt anyone would find this photograph aesthetically pleasing. It is one of the most powerful and influential photographs ever made. It undoubtedly hastened the end of the Vietnam war because of the public outcry it inspired. The lack of aesthetics makes this photo more effective. I am sure aesthetics were not on the mind of Nick Ut, the photographer who took this picture in 1972.
Other genres of photography require a strong sense of aesthetics by the photographer for their images to be successful. For example, wedding photography. Photographers in this genre strive to provide their clients with aesthetic photographs. The balance of their success often lies in a combination of their photography skills and how well they listen to what their clients like.
Professional photographers have the task of producing images that most suit their client’s needs. This often means they must learn what the client thinks is attractive. Producing a wedding album of documentary-style photographs will please some couples. But others will prefer a more controlled and set up look to their pictures.
As a professional photographer, I am always careful to listen to my clients. I want to learn how they will use the photos I take and what style of images they like. I know if I can provide aesthetically pleasing images, I have done my job well. A happy client is more likely to hire me again in the future.
To produce aesthetically pleasing photographs you need to be confident using your camera. You also need to have a creative vision that you express through your photographs. The more feeling you can infuse your photos with, the more pleasing they will be to people.
I like flowers and enjoy photographing them. But they are not among my favorite subjects. My wife loves photographing flowers. Her flower photos are always more beautiful than mine. Even when we photograph the same flowers. She has a wonderful ability to soak her pictures in feeling and this makes them more attractive.
Many photographers spend a lot of time and effort concentrating on the technical aspects of the craft. What lens to use. The right settings. The best rule of composition to use. These are all essential elements of a good photograph. So is how you connect with your subject.
To make beautiful photos that move the people who look at them you need to put your heart and soul into what you do. Don’t overthink things. Focus on what you feel is going to make a beautiful picture.
Practice with your camera equipment until you are very confident using it. Learn to manage your aperture, shutter speed, and other controls. The more confident you are with them, the more of yourself you can give to bringing creativity to your photographs.
A photographer may be technically proficient but lack creative vision and expression. Another photographer may enjoy using their camera with every automatic function engaged. They can still take wonderful, creative photos even though they have technical flaws. Both can take good photos.
Learn to combine the technical aspects of photography and use them to express your creativity. Then your photos will have a more attractive aesthetic quality.
Aesthetics matter in photography when you want people to enjoy looking at your photos. Can you imagine having the majority of people liking an Instagram feed that contains only ugly photos? There will be some, but most people prefer to look at beauty, rather than what repulses or merely intrigues them.
The purpose of your photography can determine how important aesthetics are. Building a popular Instagram account often requires a strong photographic aesthetic. People love beautiful pictures of beautiful subjects. Even if you take beautiful photos of dull subjects, people will be attracted to them.
In contrast, if you aim to document pollution at your local beach, aesthetics should not be your focus. You want a series of images that will repulse people. Well-composed and exposed photos are still necessary, but the less attractive they are, the better.
Here are a series of tips to help you develop your photography aesthetic.
I don’t mean what clothes you wear or how you do your hair. Work on developing your photography style. Practice using techniques that you enjoy the most. The more you do something, the better you get at it.
If you like the look of motion blur, practice using slow shutter speeds as often as you can. Experiment and learn to control your shutter in relation to the speed your subject is moving. Perfect this and it will naturally become part of your style.
Photograph the same subjects. The ones you love the most. Taking pictures of the same subject often will help you see it in new ways, especially when you have some emotional attachment to it.
Use the same set of composition rules every time you take photos. The rule of thirds is popular because it is so effective in aesthetic photography. The rule of thirds is where you imagine two vertical and two horizontal lines evenly dissecting your composition. Placing your main subject at any of the four points these lines intersect often makes a photo more pleasing to look at. Strong lines in a composition placed on any of these imaginary lines also make for a more aesthetic composition. Think about this next time you are tempted to place a horizon line in the middle of your frame. Instead, tilt your camera up or down a little so the horizon corresponds to the upper or lower third line.
Photographic style takes time to develop. The sooner you start the more your personal photography style will become what you want it to be. This has a strong influence on aesthetic photography.
Tip #2: A Good Subject Does Not Make a Good Photograph
Good photographers make good photos. No matter what they are photographing. Anyone can take a quick snapshot of the most interesting subjects. But a good photographer will look at a subject and apply their skills to make the best picture possible.
I often teach people during the travel photography workshops I run to not take a subject for granted. Even if the subject looks fabulous and exotic, I tell them to take their time and make photos of it that are unique and interesting.
Making the ordinary look extraordinary is a challenge for many photographers. Thinking about aesthetics when you photograph plain subjects will help you make better photos of them.
Irving Penn and David Hockney are two photographers who have a big influence on some of my work. I love what they do and have spent endless hours pouring over their images hoping to soak in some of their creativity.
Seek inspiration from other photographers whose images you find attractive. Look at how they compose their pictures. Think about how they manage the light and make their exposures. Try to understand what it is you like about how they make their pictures. Think beyond what they photograph and you might begin to feel what they feel when you have a camera in your hands.
Tip #4: Use Gestalt Theory Principles in Your Compositions
Gestalt theory is about human perception. These principles describe how humans group similar things, identify patterns and simplify complex images when we perceive objects.
When you learn to apply these principles to your compositions, it’s likely that more people will find your photos attractive to look at. Gestalt principles are more about how we perceive a composition rather than about what we actually see. To use these principles well takes practice.
For a deeper dive into understanding how Gestalt principles work, check out this article.
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When you find an interesting subject to photograph, experiment with it. Try as many different techniques as you can. Think about what you are doing and how beautiful you can make your subject look.
Experiment with composition. Don’t only photograph from the first angle you think of or use just one composition rule. Mix it up. Move around and look at your subject from a variety of different angles. Look at it from above. Lie on the ground. How does it look from there? Try the rule of thirds. Look for leading lines. Can you make a frame within a frame? The more you experiment with the various rules of composition the more skilled you will be at applying them.
Change your exposure settings. Don’t always work with your camera on auto or adjust your settings according to the exposure meter. Do things alternatively. There is no right and wrong in the art of photography.
Breaking the ‘rules’ of photography can lead to the creation of more aesthetic photos.
How you edit your photographs has a huge impact on their aesthetic qualities. The more skilled you are at post-processing the more control you have over the final outcome of your photos.
The sky is the limit when you have the skills and vision to make your photos look beautiful. Don’t be confined to making minor tweaks when you see an image that you think has potential.
Looking at how other photographers edit their pictures is another great source of inspiration. Learn how the tools they use to gain the look and feel of their images. If you can find tutorials, work through them and learn the techniques. Then add your own flare by changing them to best suit the photos you take.
Aesthetic photography is subjective. Not every creative choice you make will appeal to every person who looks at your pictures. This should not matter. If you have clear creative vision and good camera skills, you will make great photos.
Aim to make beautiful pictures and you will. Practice more and more with the same subjects. When you photograph something you love repeatedly, you will see a fabulous progression happen in your images over time.
Be intentional about how you want your photos to look. If you are not sure how to achieve a particular look, get online and learn how it is done. There is nothing new under the sun. You will always find some other photographer has done what you aim to achieve. Learn from them. Get the basics down. Then continue to develop your style.
Make the most of good composition. Careful lighting and exposure. These things can make even the dullest subjects more appealing to look at in a photograph. Starting out with a beautiful subject makes aesthetic photography more achievable. But there’s more to it than what you choose to photograph.
What you find aesthetically pleasing may not appeal to me, your mother, or your neighbor. It’s important to remember this, but don’t be controlled by it. Concentrate on what you love to photograph. Infuse your pictures with the passion that you have and others will be attracted to your photos.
Frequently Asked Questions
Aesthetic photography is appealing and beautiful. Usually, this means the photographer has good skills and can control their equipment confidently. It also means they know how to express themselves with their camera. Truly aesthetic photographs reach beyond being pretty to look at and will inspire positive feelings in people who look at them.
You take aesthetic photos with the intention of making beautiful pictures. Use composition rules most appropriately. Control exposure settings to get the look and feel for the atmosphere you want to create. Be mindful of using color well in your pictures also because good color use provides emotional influence to a photograph.
Aesthetic style is one many people find attractive. If the most common feedback you receive is that your photos are beautiful, you know you have an aesthetic style. Aesthetics in photography is a combination of technical skill and creative expression.
People are attracted to what they find beautiful. Stunning landscapes, colorful flowers, and puppies are some subjects that are commonly liked by most people. How you photograph any of these or other subjects, depends on how aesthetically pleasing the resulting pictures are. The more creative and well-controlled you are, the greater the aesthetic value of your photos.
Concentrate on making beautiful photos of beautiful subjects. Start by photographing what you love. When you photograph something you find attractive and beautiful, you are more likely to succeed. Your photos will naturally be more aesthetic to others when your heart is in what you do.
Kevin Landwer-Johan is a professional photographer, photography teacher, and author. He has been passionate about photography for as long as he can remember.
Kevin began his career in newspaper photography in the late 1980s and worked in editorial photography for many years. After this he interned with a commercial photographer, learning many new skills. From there he freelanced, covering many different genres of photography ever since.
He ran his own award-winning photography business before moving to Thailand in 2002. Since then Kevin has continued to work in photography and also moved into video production. For the first ten years of his life in Thailand, he focused on producing media content, both photos, and videos, for non-profit organizations. He funded these efforts primarily through the sale of his stock photography and videos. In more recent years Kevin has discovered a great enjoyment in teaching photography.
He also runs in-person workshops, develops online courses, writes, and creates videos about photography.