How to Think like a Conceptual Photographer

Conceptual photography transforms abstract ideas into 2D form. These ideas could be a social commentary, personal or political statement, or emotion. It may seem like an intimidating field to get into, but it’s not as difficult as it might seem. Here are some tips to get you started:

#1 Get inspired

The first challenge is to find an idea. Try creating a list of the issues or ideas that inspire you, using your daily mood and your immediate environment as a catalyst. Analyze your emotions and try to translate then into a concept. What made you happy or angry today?

Conceptual photography makes use of a great number of symbols. Everyday objects can be transformed into props, so be sure to scan your surroundings for inspiration. A toy car, or a broken cookie might be the starting point of a great story.

#2 Put the message first

Simple conceptual images remove additional distractions, directing the viewer’s focus immediately to the idea. Try to create images that are easily interpreted, bearing in mind that personal interpretation is subjective. These images tend to be less technically demanding and more about the message you are trying to communicate.

Another approach is to overload the image with symbols, creating complex conceptual compositions. This can prove to be more work intensive, both for the photographer to prepare the shot and the viewer to interpret it all, but for certain messages it can be the best approach.

#3 Minimize post-production

Once you have an idea, you have to figure out how you want to translate it into an image. The overall aesthetic of your image will play a decisive role in the way your image will be perceived. A little research into the field of conceptual imagery can be useful to know what’s out there and what works well. Pay attention to the lighting, composition and crop of your image, to minimize corrections in post-production. As ever with stock photos, be sure to leave enough room in the frame for text (negative space).

The best conceptual images develop simple visceral solutions to complex ideas, usually with only a subtle bit of postproduction to make it a professional job. Here your technical skills are not what will make or break the image; it’s a good imagination and the ability to make people smile (or frown) from a supposedly simple image, loaded with symbolism.


Whether your images will be straightforward and easily accessible or subtle and ambiguous will depend on your motivation and personal style. As ever, focus on imagination and avoid clichés – originality is key!