Are you struggling to understand photography aesthetics? You’re not alone.
But while aesthetics can seem confusing, especially to photography beginners, it’s actually not that hard. And in this article, we’re going to break it all down for you – so you leave knowing exactly what aesthetics is, why it matters, and how you can create your own aesthetic photography.
Let’s dive right in.
Table of contents
- What Is Aesthetics in Photography?
- Is Aesthetics Really That Important?
- Photographic Aesthetic Versus Photographic Style
- The Key Elements of Photography Aesthetics
- Photography Aesthetics: Final Words
What Is Aesthetics in Photography?
Aesthetics in photography refers to the look or feel of a picture. It’s a broad concept, one that covers a lot of image characteristics, including:
- The arrangement of elements (composition)
- The quality and direction of the light
- The colors and contrasts
- The exposure and tones
In other words:
By adjusting any of the items listed above, you can create different aesthetics.
Now, the term aesthetic often goes hand in hand with another term: beauty.
This is because aesthetics is often defined as the study of beauty, or as the study of what makes things beautiful.
But while our definition of aesthetics also focuses on the appearance of an image (without labeling it as “beautiful” or “ugly”), it is important to think about aesthetics in the context of beauty. In fact, some of this article will be devoted to recognizing how different aesthetics can create – or fail to create – a beautiful photograph.
(Confused? Don’t be. I’ll share plenty of examples of aesthetics so you can understand exactly what I mean.)
Is Aesthetics Really That Important?
Aesthetics is extremely important in photography.
Because without aesthetics, you won’t know how to create images with different effects. For instance, if you’re interested in conveying sadness, you can use a moody aesthetic. And if you’re interested in conveying happiness, you can use a bright and upbeat aesthetic.
Without photography aesthetics, you’ll also struggle to recognize what makes a photo beautiful, and how you can capture beautiful photos.
Once you’ve mastered aesthetic photography, however, you’ll be able to create different effects at will – and you’ll know how you can play with different image characteristics to produce beautiful results.
Photographic Aesthetic Versus Photographic Style
Photographers are obsessed with developing their own style.
But is a style the same thing as an aesthetic? Or are they different?
Generally speaking, “style” is a narrower, practical concept, one that addresses your methods of photography.
So a style might involve repeated use of shallow depth of field, or constant use of minimalistic composition, or frequent use of backlighting for stunning silhouettes.
An aesthetic, however, covers a lot more ground. A cinematic aesthetic, for instance, involves various composition types, plus specific colors and tones.
Because of this, it’s much more difficult to develop an aesthetic than a style – and even an experienced photographer may move between different aesthetics depending on the day, their camera, their mood, etc, while their style remains unchanged.
The Key Elements of Photography Aesthetics
Now let’s take a look at the different elements that actually go into creating a photography aesthetic – and how you can use these different elements for beautiful results.
Exposure and Tone
Is your photo bright? Dark? Shadowless? Shadowy?
All of these are key questions for the aesthetically minded photographer.
Because depending on your exposure, and your camera’s rendering of tones, you might end up with a photo like this, which features a bright and airy aesthetic:
Or a photo like this, which is dark and shadowy:
Or a photo like this, which is more neutral in its tone:
In fact, just by adjusting the exposure of a photo, the aesthetic can drastically change.
Note that, in the context of aesthetics, there is no single correct type of exposure. You can render the tones of your scene any way you want, and you’ll still end up with some sort of aesthetic, be it dark and moody, bright and airy, shadowy, bland, or something else entirely.
That said, certain exposures do tend to be more aesthetically pleasing than others, which is why it pays to understand exposure and its effects on your photos.
In general, you want an image that’s well-exposed, meaning that it displays details in the shadows, details in the highlights, plus genuine midtones.
But while it’s often a good idea to start with a detailed exposure, you should also consider deliberately underexposing for artistic effect; an underexposed image becomes dark, dramatic, and ominous.
You can also do the reverse, and by deliberately overexposing your image, you can create an image that feels upbeat, happy, and energetic.
In other words:
Just by choosing to underexpose or overexpose, you can create two different types of aesthetic photography.
Composition is frequently overlooked when discussing aesthetics in photography – but the truth is that composition can dramatically impact the overall look and feel of your images.
For instance, you can use a number of simple compositional rules and guidelines to create aesthetically pleasing photos:
The Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is a simple compositional guideline that suggests you position key elements a third of the way into the frame.
For instance, take a look at this image, where the horizon line is positioned at the upper two-thirds mark:
A rule of thirds composition tends to feel more harmonious than a centered composition, where key elements are positioned smack-dab in the center of the frame:
Rule of thirds compositions are often more aesthetically pleasing than centered compositions, and that’s why I highly recommend beginners commit the rule of thirds to memory and use it whenever possible.
Plus, the rule of thirds tends to create a feeling of dynamic order – where the viewer feels satisfied and at ease, even as their eye continues to journey all around the image.
Leading lines refer to lines that lead the eye around the frame.
For instance, you might have leading lines that take the viewer from the bottom of a photo toward the top:
Or leading lines that take the viewer from the left side to the middle:
Really, leading lines can take the viewer anywhere; it’s up to the photographer.
But how do leading lines contribute to aesthetic photography?
First of all, by leading the eye toward the most important parts of your photo, you create a focal point, and this tends to be far more eye-catching and, yes, aesthetically pleasing than the alternative.
Leading lines can also create a nice sense of motion, for a dynamic, even frenzied aesthetic.
And leading lines, by taking the viewer from the foreground to the background, can create depth in a photo; this, in turn, makes the result feel especially real (which is a sort of aesthetic of its own).
The Rule of Odds
While the rule of odds is less popular than the other two compositional techniques listed above, it’s a great way to create more harmonious and dynamic compositions.
Here’s what it says:
Make sure key compositional elements come in odd-numbered groups, rather than even-numbered groups.
So if you’re photographing a handful of flowers, the rule of odds would command you to use one flower, three flowers, five flowers, and so on – but not two flowers, four flowers, or six flowers.
Where does this come from?
The idea is that even-numbered items are easily digested in the viewer’s mind, which leads to a lack of drama and movement. Whereas odd-numbered items cannot be comprehended and then easily discarded; instead, the viewer is compelled to look from item to item, their eyes moving around the frame, taking in each and every element.
So with odd-numbered items, you end up with more interest, more movement, and a more aesthetic photo.
Lighting is the bread and butter of aesthetic photography.
With lighting, you can create mood and atmosphere. You can produce shadows, highlights, white backgrounds, black backgrounds – you name it.
Now, if you want utmost control over your photo’s aesthetic, studio lighting is the way to go. With a few speedlights or strobes, you can create pretty much any aesthetic you can imagine.
But if you prefer natural lighting, that’s okay, too, and there’s plenty you can do to create different aesthetics with various types of sun and shade.
Let’s take a look at a few common methods of lighting for aesthetic photos:
Frontlight is when you light your subject from, well, the front.
(In other words, the light comes over your shoulder and strikes the subject directly.)
Now, depending on the time of day, frontlight can create very different aesthetics. For instance, by shooting mid-afternoon on a sunny day, frontlight will produce flat subjects with harsh shadows for a very intense, even painful, result. But by shooting around sunset (i.e., during the golden hours), you can create frontlit photos with a warm, inviting atmosphere (and a much more intimate aesthetic).
Note that frontlight does make for very easy exposures, so it’s good for creating neutral, detailed photos.
Backlight comes from behind your subject. It often creates eye-catching silhouettes, like this:
Though backlighting can also create dramatic flare effects instead:
I’m a huge fan of backlight, myself, because it lends so much drama to even the most ordinary of subjects. But you do have to be careful because it’s very easy to underexpose or overexpose areas of the scene; I’d recommend bracketing to ensure perfect detail.
As you’ve probably realized, there’s no one single backlit aesthetic. But backlight does tend to create more dramatic, energetic images, thanks to the powerful flare and silhouette effects.
Like backlight, sidelight creates a dramatic aesthetic. But while backlit images tend to be eye-wateringly intense, sidelit images tend to be much more somber and moody, like this:
You see, sidelight hits your subject from the side, creating shadows while revealing textures. Parts of your subject will often sink into the shadows, hence the moodiness, while other parts will be highlighted – hence the drama.
However, you can add or subtract from the drama by adjusting the quality of your lighting. Soft light – such as that produced by a modified strobe or a golden setting sun – generally gives less dramatic results. Whereas hard light – produced by an unmodified strobe or a powerful mid-afternoon sun – brings the drama in spades.
(Note that soft light produces scenes that are much easier to expose, whereas hard light produces insane amounts of contrast.)
Did you know that a few subtle shifts in color can change the feel of your entire image?
It’s true – and once you understand how it works, you’ll be able to harness color in your own photography for amazing results.
You see, different colors, when combined, can produce different aesthetics in your photos. Artists often work with a few popular color combinations, including complementary colors and analogous colors.
Complementary colors sit opposite one another on the color wheel. You’re probably already familiar with standard complementary color pairs, such as:
- Blue and orange
- Red and green
- Yellow and purple
Now, imagine two complementary colors together, brilliant and shining. How do they make you feel?
Generally speaking, complementary colors are contrasty. They work together to create an intense result, one that forces you to look away. So if you include complementary colors in your image, you’ll get a shot that’s powerful, intense, and in-your-face.
Analogous colors, on the other hand, tend to be much more subdued. A pair of analogous colors will create a harmonious image, one that’s easy on the eyes.
Here’s a list of common analogous color pairs:
- Red and orange
- Blue and green
- Yellow and orange
- Purple and blue
Think about each of these color pairs. They’re kind of calming, right? That’s because analogous colors are very similar to one another. Contrast is almost non-existent.
Of course, as a photographer, you’re not confined to analogous and complementary colors. There are plenty of other types of color combinations, and it always pays to play around and have fun.
(For instance, you might try a monochromatic blue palette to create a sad aesthetic, or a monochromatic green palette to create a nature-themed shot. An orange/teal or gold/blue color scheme will give your images a cinematic feel, while a yellow/orange color scheme can make your images feel hot and nostalgic, like a summer day from years past. A green/yellow color scheme is warm and artistic, while a blue/green color scheme is peaceful and soothing.)
Just remember that color can dramatically affect your photography aesthetic – and use complementary and analogous colors as a starting point for exploring other color effects.
Technically speaking, post-processing isn’t a discrete element that helps make up a photographic aesthetic.
Instead, post-processing allows you to edit all the other aesthetic elements discussed throughout this article.
And that’s what makes post-processing so powerful. With a bit of editing skill, you can radically alter the aesthetic of your photo long after you took the shot. Of course, post-processing doesn’t offer complete flexibility – certain aspects of your image files are locked in the moment you take the photo – but editing allows you to make massive changes.
For instance, you can use post-processing to adjust your composition, and therefore the overall balance and dynamism of your image. By cropping to conform to the rule of thirds, you’ll create harmony – but by cropping to violate the rule of thirds, you’ll end up with a static, tense shot.
And you can use post-processing to adjust the tones in your image. By boosting the exposure, your image will become bright and airy; let the exposure fall, and the shadows and drama will set in. You can even adjust individual tonal areas for a more refined effect, dropping the shadows for added mystery, boosting the highlights for added energy, and so on.
These days, even colors must bow to the power of post-processing. With the adjustment of a few sliders, you can take a few unpleasant colors and create a beautiful complementary color pair. Or you can desaturate certain colors, then shift other colors to create an analogous or even a monochromatic color scheme.
Photography Aesthetics: Final Words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should know all about the concepts behind aesthetic photography – and you should be able to produce powerful, aesthetically pleasing images with careful use of exposure, composition, lighting, and more.
So grab your camera and have some fun. Experiment with different photo aesthetics.
And get some images you’re happy with!
Aesthetics refers to two related concepts: How a photo looks and feels – as affected by the colors, tones, and composition – and whether a photo is beautiful (i.e., aesthetically pleasing). Based on the look and feel of a photo, you can end up with a result that’s stunningly beautiful or downright unpleasant (or somewhere in between).
To take aesthetic photography, you’ll want to pay careful attention to key photographic fundamentals, such as composition, color, and exposure. Through careful use of these characteristics, you can create truly beautiful photos. You can also use these fundamentals to adjust the look and feel of your photos (using underexposure to create a moody aesthetic, for example).
Absolutely! In fact, editing is one of my favorite ways to create different aesthetics. By judiciously applying crops, tonal adjustments, and color adjustments, you can dramatically alter the aesthetic of a photo.
Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, even when it comes to art. That said, there are many techniques you can use to reliably create aesthetically pleasing images, such as the rule of thirds, the rule of odds, leading lines, careful exposure, analogous and complementary color schemes, etc.