What Is Aesthetics In Photography?
Whether you’re taking pictures on a professional camera or a first-generation smartphone, there’s one thing we all have in common: we want to take nice photos. Now a term you’ve likely started to hear tossed around is having an “aesthetic photo.” You’ll hear this from Instagram influencers, photographers of all genres, and even regular artists. So what exactly is “aesthetics,” and what does it have to do with your photography?
Aesthetics in photography is the overall look of your photo based on the composition and photo-editing style. An aesthetic image will contain more eye-catching elements of color, lighting, and subject matter, thus holding the viewer’s attention for longer. A truly aesthetic photo not only captivates its audience but showcases the unique style of any photographer.
On the surface, that all make sense. However, how does that help you to start taking more aesthetic pictures? Well, in this post, you’ll learn not only about aesthetics in photography but how you can start creating your own style for your photos.
What’s The Meaning Of Aesthetic?
Aesthetic is something that’s simply defined as “pleasing in appearance.” That means that literally, anything can have aesthetic qualities, but it relates specifically to visual mediums of art—things like painting, drawing, animation, and photography.
Any type of visual artist strives to have created an aesthetic piece of artwork to share with people. After all, without an appealing image to look at, nobody is going to be interested. Every genre of art has its own unique forms of aesthetics and what constitutes a “nice” picture. For example, street photographers will appreciate the aesthetic of dark shadows and black and white.
Meanwhile, a portrait photographer may favor softer shadows and more matte tones in their photos.
Both of these are “pleasing in appearance,” but it’s a subjective thought. The aesthetic you like may differ from the one I prefer, which is why there are so many kinds of art and photography. What’s seen as an aesthetic image changes between genres and people.
How Does That Relate To Photography Aesthetics?
Just like any other kind of art form, photography has endless types of genres and styles. Landscape, wildlife, portrait, macro, or sports photographers will all take different types of images, each with their own look. Depending on the genre of photography you’re in, your aesthetic will be influenced to suit one type of style or another.
To give you an example, sports photographers typically take photos with zoom lenses and edit their photos to look as close to “real life” as possible.
Meanwhile, many landscape photographers opt to use a wide-angle lens and heavily edit their photos. By changing colors, replacing skies, or blending multiple exposures, a landscape photographer ends up with a vastly different result than that of a sports photographer.
These different approaches to capturing and editing an image are what ends up defining every photographer’s aesthetic.
Now you know that aesthetic is the general appearance of a picture, but what exactly changes how a picture looks? In the world of art and photography, this is called composition. Whether you’re aware of it or not, every photo you take has some thought behind it. You choose how you angle the lens, what you take photos of, and how objects are positioned in your frame—all of these choices and up creating your composition, aka how everything in your photo is positioned.
A lot goes into choosing compositions for a picture, and there’s even a long list of rules. These rules of composition can be used to help make your photos look more appealing and draw your viewers attention directly to the subject. With a better composition comes a more captivating image, which, in turn, creates an aesthetic photo.
Are Composition And Aesthetic The Same?
At this point, it’s easy to misunderstand composition and aesthetics as the same thing. In reality, an aesthetic picture is the result of a good composition. Without well defined compositional elements, you cannot create an aesthetic photo.
Here’s an easier way to think of this.
Since aesthetics are defined as pleasing in appearance, that means it’s the end result of a photo. You cannot just snap a photo with your eyes closed and expect an eye-catching image. That’s like trying to bake a cake by throwing all the ingredients in a pan and hoping they turn into a cake. Without the proper steps and mixing of the ingredients, it’s impossible to “bake a cake” or capture an aesthetic photo.
To make sure you’re properly mixing the ingredients of this “cake,” you have to use different elements of composition while taking your pictures. That way, you follow the proper steps in the recipe to create the end result you’re going for, which is to capture an aesthetic photo.
I don’t know about you, but now I want a piece of cake…
Anyways, although closely related, composition and aesthetics are not the same. Composition is the steps of taking a photo, while aesthetics are the end result. Without the proper steps (aka composition), you won’t capture the aesthetic you want. Similarly, you can’t take an aesthetic photo without knowing which steps to take.
Key Elements Of An Aesthetic Photo
No matter what type of photography you want to shoot, the elements that make an aesthetic photo all remain the same. Many of these are, in fact, rules of composition but work together to capture an aesthetic photo. Depending on the style of your work, you may favor one look over another. However, each of the points below is important to think about while in pursuit of aesthetic photography.
– Colors, Textures, And Patterns
One of the first things often associated with why someone likes or dislikes a photo has to do with either colors, textures, or patterns. All of these elements can be used to draw attention to your subject or create a certain look for your images.
When you’re taking pictures, there are a ton of colors you’re able to focus on in-camera. Choosing what colors a model wears, the color of your backdrop, or the environment you shoot in all play a role in this.
Just think of a typical dark alleyway in the city versus an open field with tall grass. Your pictures in an alley are guaranteed to feel more moody, dark, or rough compared to the carefree and bright nature of an open field. Although completely different locations, they also have a completely different color palette. This ultimately creates a different mood in your images and changes the type of feeling your audience gets when looking at your picture.
Looking at the two photos above, you can get a better understanding of how you physically feel looking at one photo or another. With completely different colors, textures, and patterns throughout the image, the way you perceive it is changed. This is aesthetics at work.
Another way to define your aesthetic in photography is by choosing how much you include or don’t include in your frame. To give you an example, minimalist photographers love to keep their frames open with not much to look at besides the subject. This could be done by placing their subject against a solid colored background and removing all distractions from the photo.
Ultimately, this lack of distractions helps to define the aesthetic look of minimalist photographers.
Although that’s a simple example, the same can be said about all genres of photography. What you choose to point your lens at defines your genre and aesthetic. If you’re trying to create a certain theme for your portfolio or social media, choosing how much you include in your photos truly defines your aesthetic.
Just like any type of art, this is all subjective. There is no right or wrong with creating an aesthetic, and it’s completely up to your own tastes. We’ll get more into defining your own style later in this post.
– Unique Editing Styles
In recent years, photo editing has become a pre-requisite for any serious photographer. Whether you’re against it or not, there’s no denying that it completely transforms your images. You can change colors, improve exposures, or even manipulate the photo by adding elements that weren’t naturally there. The types of adjustments you make while editing photos are something that cannot be done in-camera. That’s why having a certain editing style is crucial for defining your aesthetic as a photographer.
In most cases, the types of colors you add to your edits are what truly define your aesthetic. Whether you prefer muted tones, vibrant colors, or extreme highlights are all things that come together to form your own style. In every genre, there are different editing styles that help to create a certain “look” to a picture.
With family photos, the aesthetic is often bright glowy highlights, warm tones, and soft contrast. On the other hand, street photography tends to have more contrast, darker shadows, and a gritty look to certain photos. Looking at each type of genre, you’ll see different editing styles that often outline the aesthetic people prefer in those niches.
– A Clearly Defined Genre Of Photography
As we’ve talked about in this post, each genre has a different look to it. Some niches have bright colors, while others prefer muted images. Since each genre of photography has its own types of aesthetics, you need to clearly identify which genre of photography you’re shooting. Without doing this, you can’t match what constitutes an eye-catching picture.
After all, people in different genres prefer different things. Just as someone who prefers looking at landscape photos will have different tastes than someone who looks at fashion.
Within each genre, there can be different types of aesthetics, but it often breaks down into a few simple categories. Just try looking through any type of photography online, and you’ll see this for yourself.
An easy genre to identify the types of aesthetics in is landscape photography. Here, the aesthetic boils down to 3 main categories:
- Soft and dreamy
- Realistic and true to the eye
- Photo Manipulation
The soft and dreamy aesthetic in landscape photography often has vibrant colors with very glowy highlights. The photo has a whimsical feel to it and is guaranteed to catch your eye.
With a realistic aesthetic, landscape photographers aim to keep things looking as true to real life. There won’t be as heavy of editing, but there are some subtle color shifts and contrast adjustments. Overall, these pictures look pretty darn close to what you’d see in real life.
Lastly, there’s manipulation. This type of landscape photography replaces skies, blends exposures, and merges photos to create an image that appears larger than life. These photos aren’t necessarily capturing what the scene looked like in real life but added an artistic twist on an environment.
These three types of aesthetics in landscape photography can be mixed and matched but ultimately are clearly seen among any true “landscape” photographer. Although this example revolves around one genre, it can be applied to any other type as well. Take a look at the types of image aesthetics in your genre and try to identify what they are. This will help you to better define your genre as a photographer and have an aesthetic to match.
– Contrast And Exposure
In a nutshell, contrast and exposure control, how bright or dark your photo looks. As you begin to define your own aesthetic, choosing the contrast levels in your pictures plays a huge role.
Some photographers love dark and moody photos, while others prefer things on the overexposed side. On the other hand, there are other photographers who prefer the HDR look that perfectly exposes every exposure range.
There’s no right or wrong, but the one you choose will truly change the aesthetic of your pictures. This element of aesthetics varies greatly between individual photographers and doesn’t have much correlation to genres. This comes down to personal taste and the mood you want your photo to give off.
– Focus And Depth Of Field
There’s a big difference in the look of a picture with a shallow depth of field versus a large one. If you only take pictures with heavily blurred backgrounds, that becomes a key element of your aesthetic as a photographer. Since focus and background blur completely change the look of your pictures, it also influences your aesthetic.
If you’re trying to emulate the look of another photo, make sure to note the focus. Even if you’re shooting the exact same thing, you’ll get a wildly different result depending on the aperture setting. By changing how much of your photo is in focus, you end up with a totally new feel to your pictures. This, in turn, influences the aesthetic of an image.
How To Take Aesthetic Pictures
Now that you know some of the key elements behind an aesthetic photo, how does that translate into capturing pictures? To help you start taking more stylized photos, try these 5 easy tips to help improve your aesthetic.
1. Focus On Your Composition
As you learned earlier, composition and aesthetics go hand in hand with photography. Since you can’t create a unique aesthetic without working on your composition, this is something you need to focus on.
The easiest way to start improving your compositions is by learning about the different rules I share in this post. Actively thinking about these compositional elements before you ever press the capture button will make a world of difference. It’s shocking how much better your photo can look just by repositioning your camera or changing a lens.
No matter what genre of photography you’re into, composition is the key to it all. In fact, any visual artist who ignores it is really just shooting themselves in the foot. After all, why would you ignore something that you know will make your pictures better?
Like I’ve always said, the perfect settings and the most expensive camera aren’t going to capture an amazing photo. However, a good composition will, no matter what camera you’re shooting with.
2. Take Color Into Consideration
Color is one of the most crucial ways to portray emotion in an image. If everything in your picture is black and grey, it’s pretty hard for your image to portray joy. Instead, these darker colors tend to indicate feelings of mystery, doubt, sadness, or emptiness. Compare that to a photo full of vibrant and bright colors, and it’s easy to see that there’s a totally different mood being portrayed.
When creating an aesthetic as a photographer, color is so important to stay aware of. From the locations you shoot, the clothes your models wear, to the way you edit your pictures. All of these play a role in the mood of your images, which ultimately dictates your aesthetic. Make a choice of what type of feeling you want to portray in your images, and make your color choices from there.
Although color is most easily defined by physical components of your pictures (location or wardrobe), it can also be adjusted with photo editing. While editing pictures, you can favor certain hues to influence the mood of an image. For example, you could favor blue tones to make the image feel cold or empty or favor warm tones to make it feel more inviting.
Color in photography comes as a two-part deal—the first with taking the photo and the second with photo editing. The colors you choose in each of these steps will completely change the aesthetic of your pictures.
3. Remember The Importance Of Lighting
Without light, there is no photo. However, not all light is the same. It comes in different intensities, colors, and positions. For example, taking a portrait in a dark room will look a lot different than in direct sunlight. This isn’t because of your change of camera settings, but instead due to the quality of light.
Whether you’re shooting people, animals, buildings, or mountains, the light is constantly changing. Things like the time of day, the weather, or the location all play a role. The type of lighting conditions you choose to shoot in will change the aesthetic of any photo you take.
The first type of lighting condition comes down to the time of day. Shooting at mid-day looks a whole lot different than at golden hour. In the middle of the day, the sun is harsher and shines from above. At golden hour, the sunlight appears more orange and casts softer shadows over an environment. Depending on what time of day you shoot at will completely alter the mood of your photo. This, in turn, influences the aesthetic of your picture.
When it comes to shooting people or objects, you now can control where the light is in relation to your subject. By rotating someone’s body, changing shooting locations, or using natural light, you end up with a wide array of results. Since you can control where a subject is being lit from, it changes how they appear in the photo. Different lighting situations will play a big role in emulating different types of aesthetics.
4. Forge Your Own Style Of Shooting And Editing Photos
The ultimate goal for any photographer is to have people identify who you are by recognizing your photos. Learning how to forge your own style as a photographer is a slow process, but it is crucial if you want to have a unique aesthetic.
At first, it may seem like a hopeless battle to make your own style. I mean, how are you supposed to start something if you don’t even know where you’re trying to go? Luckily there are some easy ways to help develop a photo aesthetic that’s unique to you.
First, you need to find other photographers who you admire—people who take photos that you’re absolutely obsessed with and would proudly display on your forehead. Take a closer look at their pictures and try to identify what it is about their pictures that you like. Look at the subjects they shoot, where they take photos, how they edit, and other traits of their work.
With a solid idea of why you love their images, use that information and try to replicate it. Copy their style and start experimenting with it in your own work.
Then, rinse and repeat this process with a handful of your favorite photographers.
It may seem weird to try to “copy” someone else’s work, but what this does is helps you to understand your aesthetic. By taking a deep look at what you do and don’t like, you’ll start to notice some patterns. Then, by trying to emulate these aesthetics, you’ll start to figure out how each of them is created. After going through multiple styles, you’ll subconsciously start to pick and choose your favorite aspects from each aesthetic.
Without even realizing it, you’ll end up with your own aesthetic built through some of your favorite styles. Since you took the time to understand and experiment with the aesthetics you like, you can easily create your own unique one.
5. Use Photo Editing To Your Advantage
Don’t forget about the value of photo editing when creating an aesthetic as a photographer. Photo editing can completely transform your pictures and give it a whole different mood. Use this to your advantage and choose colors and contrast values that fit the aesthetic you like.
You can use any type of photo editing software, from professional desktop programs to mobile ones. All that matters is that you don’t skip out on it. I’m willing to bet that any of the photo aesthetics you love right now heavily rely on photo editing.
For example, some people love the desaturated and earthy tones common in many event and wedding photos. Others like things extremely colorful and saturated with orange and cyan tones. Both of these effects are impossible to create in-camera but only require a few sliders to achieve with photo editing.
Now you may not be an expert photo editor right now, and that’s ok. Learning how to edit photos is like relearning how to take pictures. It takes time, practice, and a little bit of guidance along the way. To help get you started, be sure to check out these in-depth tutorials on how to edit photos in Lightroom or in Photoshop.
If you want something a little more cost-effective than these programs, then definitely check out my review of Skylum Luminar.
With a whole new understanding of what aesthetic photography is and how to use it to your advantage, you can start to stand out from the crowd. By identifying the types of photos you love to look at, you can take bits and pieces of each to form your own style of image. Once you start to create your own style, people can easily identify your work and become super fans.
At the start of it all, aesthetics in photography comes down to choosing the right composition. Without the right building blocks, it’s impossible to get the result you want. Get out and experiment with different styles to see what you like, and you’ll be amazed at how your aesthetic changes over time!