Photography is a visual art form, and aesthetics are one of its guiding principles.
Aesthetics is a factor in photography encompassing visual beauty. It impacts the character of an image and determines how viewers respond to it. Mastering the aesthetic of your photographic voice can strongly improve your workflow.
Here, we’ll cover the facets of aesthetic value and how you can use it to create unique and compelling images.
What is Aesthetics in Photography?
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “aesthetic” as a branch of philosophy dealing with the creation and appreciation of beauty.
Aesthetics is how we interpret and analyze beauty in art.
As far as photography is concerned, aesthetics is how we create, interpret, and analyze images using various visual qualities.
The aesthetics of an image determine what your viewers will feel when they look at your image.
From tone to color to contrast, the aesthetics of your photographic work, establish how your image will be received.
In a vague sense, visually pleasing images are perceived to be aesthetically beautiful.
However, beauty is subjective, and people’s definitions of beauty vary.
So, aesthetics in photography and a range of art forms are difficult to define – they hinge on the opinions of your viewers.
Aesthetics vs. Composition
Composition is the use of photographic methods and techniques to construct an image. It is what you use to influence the aesthetics in your pictures.
Put differently, the aesthetics of your image is the overall result of the choices you make in your composition. Composition includes components such as your use of lighting, your choice of subject, what you include and exclude in your frame, among others.
How To Influence Aesthetic in Photography
The type and quality of colors you use in your images will profoundly impact its aesthetic.
You may choose to use bright, dark, saturated, or muted tones. Or, you may opt to shoot in black and white for the absence of color.
Different colors induce different feelings and emotions.
For instance, red is typically viewed as a fiery, powerful color. In contrast, blue tones are often viewed as cool, serene.
Color-related emotions may vary depending on the viewer. Colors can mean vastly different things to different people.
A viewer’s state of mind can influence how the viewers perceive color.
To illustrate this point, again consider the color red. A person who has just fallen in love may view red as the color of love and passion. But, if you’ve just watched a horror movie, you may interpret the color red as the color of blood and danger.
Color interpretations are often a matter of perspective.
Cultural influences can also have a significant impact on how your viewers interpret color.
For example, in some cultures, red is interpreted as danger, while in others, it represents happiness and energy.
Despite these many variables, color still deserves special attention when trying to influence the aesthetics in your photographs.
There are widely accepted color associations based on nature. Blue is the color of water; green is the color of grass; red is the color of fire; yellow is the color of the sun.
The colors that you use, and how you use them can significantly alter the mood, message, and aesthetics of your image.
2. Subject Choice
Subject choice can significantly affect the aesthetics of your image. After all, your subject is the focus of your image and often what draws the viewer’s eye.
A sweeping landscape may be your subject of choice. Landscape shots capture the beauty of nature and can have an ethereal quality that takes your viewer to another place.
Streets are another potential subject choice. The aesthetics of a street scene may be more rugged than that of a landscape. A chaotic urban setting provides an alternative type of beauty. It gives the suggestion of human interaction, which seamlessly segues into the next subject we’ll discuss: people.
People are a favorite subject choice for many photographers because they are ever-changing, often unpredictable, and relatable to the viewer. The aesthetics of an image with people as the subject will hinge on the type of people included.
Does the person represent age or youth? Are they everyday people, or are they professional models? Are they family or friends? These choices matter in the development of visual quality in your images.
Wildlife is a subject choice that merges the living quality of people and the tranquil quality of nature. Catching an animal in motion in its natural habitat can create a striking image. Wildlife is widely viewed as beautiful, so you have many opportunities as a photographer when selecting this subject.
Abstract subjects can provide a unique aesthetic quality in photography. With few to no boundaries to abide by, abstract subjects allow you to experiment and let your artistry shine.
All visual elements of photography refer back to contrast and affinity. Contrast is variance between light and dark, and affinity is just the opposite or no variance between light and dark.
Changes in contrast and affinity within an image make shapes, objects, and people distinguishable.
Contrast and affinity have a large impact on the tone and perceived story of an image. An image with high contrast typically evokes a more intense emotional response than one with low contrast. So, high contrast translates to a more visually striking and dramatic image.
If you’re opting for a more peaceful, calm mood in your image, affinity may provide the effect that you’re seeking. For more intense, emotional images, high contrast is the way to go.
Light is another key component that impacts the aesthetics and mood of your image.
Your subject’s appearance can change drastically when you adjust the direction of the light that’s illuminating it. Highlights, shadows, and form all shift with the direction of light that hits your subject.
You can light your subject in three main directions:
This is when your light source is positioned in front of your subject. With front lighting, you can make out visual intricacies. However, this angle of light is often avoided in photography because it tends to minimize form and create a flat-looking subject.
This is when the light source is to the side of your subject and is a photographers favorite. Side lighting is the best way to improve the depth in your image. Lighting your subject from the side creates a gradual shift in tones, giving it a three-dimensional quality.
If your composition is missing these two crucial elements, review your lighting setup – most often it should be positioned to the side of your subject.
This is when the light source is behind your subject and facing your camera. Backlighting creates a silhouette effect and can be challenging compared to the other two types of lighting. For this type of light, you must be knowledgeable in controlling exposure to keep the image from getting blown out.
An example of a beautiful backlit image is a subject positioned in front of a setting sun. The result is stunning, but the sun’s changing light is challenging to capture at an ideal moment.
Experimenting with lighting is the most effective way to learn about its importance to aesthetics. Even a minute shift in lighting or visible shadows can make a significant difference in how your viewers respond to your images. While you’re out shooting, try out different lighting techniques and see how it changes the visual quality of your images.
Exposure is another creative tool available to photographers to alter the aesthetics of an image.
While using optimal exposure for a composition is a frequent choice, purposefully underexposing or overexposing an image can be effective, too.
A deliberately underexposed image can create an otherworldly visual. The intense darkness overwhelms many visual elements, leaving a small amount of eerie light.
Overexposure is the opposite and adds an abundance of light to a composition. This can create a surreal, ethereal image. When executed well, overexposed images can have an edgy and dramatic effect. The surplus of light in the image will blow out certain elements in the frame, creating an eye-catching effect that prompts the viewer to fill in the blanks with their imagination.
Photographers often obsess about focus, and with good reason.
The character of an image depends on which elements are in focus and out of focus within a frame.
Areas that are in focus will be richer in detail and will draw your viewers attention first. As a result, photographers usually photograph their subjects in sharp focus.
In contrast, areas that are out of focus tend to recede in the background. This is usually a good option for elements that you want to hide in your composition.
For these reasons, your choice of what and where to use focus greatly impacts your image’s aesthetics.
Focus on the elements you want to be emphasized and make any unwanted elements blurry.
Using texture is one of the best ways to spur an emotional response from your viewers.
Through the use of texture in an image, your viewer can experience how a subject feels to the touch. Is it smooth, furry, rough, or sharp? These are just a few examples of the many possible textures available to you.
Texture is also a catalyst for depth in photography. When a subject is textured, the viewer will naturally feel closer to it than to objects without texture in the frame. We’re visually drawn to textured objects more than non-textured ones.
You can add texture in your images in several ways.
The simplest way is to select subjects that have plenty of textural detail.
You can also manipulate texture with your focus setting. Objects that are in focus will have more texture than objects that are out of focus.
Finally, you can alter the level of texture in your images in post-processing. To do this, you can use editing tools such as clarity, sharpness, and contrast sliders among others. If you are interested to know the difference between these sliders, I wrote an in-depth article here.
Keep in mind, photographing texture is highly dependent upon the quality of light. To highlight texture in an image, you’ll need an adequate amount of light. It’s nearly impossible to show texture in a low-light environment.
The angle of light also plays a crucial role. Light coming from the side or above can emphasize detail and make texture more apparent. Think about intense sunlight: it illuminates the details of different textures and underlines them with shadows.
Highlighting textures in your composition is an excellent way to create dynamic and intensity in your images.
8. Symmetry and Balance
Placing your subject in the center of the frame creates symmetry, which tends to suppress the vitality in your images. Symmetry doesn’t challenge the viewer’s eye to move through the image – it will typically stay at the center.
In contrast, placing your subject off-center adds movement to your image using asymmetry. Asymmetry denotes life and motion, which makes your viewer more likely to connect with the image. Life is imperfect, and the most impactful photography is, too.
The value of asymmetry on the aesthetic of an image are evident in compositional rules such as the rule of thirds, the rule of odds, and the golden ratio.
This doesn’t mean that you have to avoid symmetry altogether, and there are times when placing your subject in the center is best. But, in general, asymmetrical layouts tend to serve a composition better.
When utilizing asymmetry, remember to pay attention to balance. Balance is still an essential component of a great composition, asymmetrical or not.
The lack of balance in compositions can make for an unsatisfying image. Be sure to seek equilibrium as you compose your images. Experiment with the positioning of elements in the frame until you achieve balance.
Resource: How to Use Rule of Thirds in Photography
Editing may seem like an afterthought, but it’s just as crucial to your image as taking the picture. You can dramatically shift the quality, mood, and aesthetics of your image during the editing process.
This is even truer if you shoot in RAW format.
You can make an array of changes to the image in editing platforms such as Photoshop and Lightroom. Color balance, contrast, saturation, and sharpness are just a few examples of elements to be adjusted through editing.
It gives you the power to create visuals that are impossible in nature. You can edit a photo that’s bursting with energy to appear dark and mysterious. Or turn a colored photo into black and white. With a few tweaks, your photo can go from beautiful to otherworldly.
Resource: RAW vs. JPEG: The Full Story
Understanding Your Aesthetics
A good way to understand what your unique aesthetics are as a photographer is to review your portfolio.
Isolate your favorites, then place them side by side with ones that did not make your portfolio. Note any differences between the two sets of images. Recognize a connection between the two. Doing this may provide you with a clearer picture of your aesthetic preferences.
You may also try to compare your favorite images with the ones that are particularly loved by your viewers. Consider the elements that make certain images your favorite. Then consider the elements that viewers appreciate.
When you look at your most successful images, try to understand why they stand out from the rest. Doing so may allow you to pinpoint visual aspects that determine an image’s success.
Once you’ve done these assessments, you can utilize it to influence your photographic approach.
Perhaps, the main difference between the images you love and the ones you don’t is a matter of your editing choices. You may find out, for example, that a subtle change in your color balance choices, can elevate your images aesthetic beauty.
Or you may realize that your audience finds certain compositions more aesthetically pleasing than others.
You may or may not choose to change your photographic workflow based on these reflections. But such critical examination will build your awareness of your aesthetic preferences and identity.
As photographers, we’re working to connect with people through our images. This connection often boils down to aesthetics. From the subject that we choose to the editing decisions we make, aesthetics are present throughout the photographic process. No doubt, recognizing and appreciating its impact on your work can help you grow exponentially as a photographer.
So, the next time that you take your camera out to shoot, consider the aesthetic components in what you’re photographing. What makes you want to look at this scene? As a photographer, you’re the captain of your aesthetic, and you have the power to mold it in any way you choose.