Tips + Techniques

What Makes Fine-Art Photography Stand Out?

June 22, 2021

By Chris Daniels

UPDATED 1/23/23

Do you recall the last time an image abruptly stopped you in your tracks? Fine-art photography so visually and emotionally powerful that it demanded that you pause and consider it? What about a song? A painting? Even a meal? I’ll never forget the first time that I stood in front of one of the immense red paintings of Mark Rothko. It felt as though it reached out and grabbed my soul. I get chills recalling the moment.

The elements that impact us the most in fine-art photography are often extraordinarily simple, but what they lack in complexity they make up for in bold points of view. They demand a reaction of some kind, for better or worse. Edward Weston created what to me is one of the greatest fine-art photographs ever made. His subject matter for this image was a bell pepper in a bowl.

Meaningful and impactful, art doesn’t have to be complicated. Such is the case with famed fine-art photographer Edward Weston’s classic image circa 1930 of a bell pepper in a bowl. © Edward Weston/Courtesy of Sotheby’s

How do we take these observations and learn from them so that we can apply them to our own fine-art photography? What elements make up these simple yet profound works of art? Let’s explore that.

[Read: Balancing Work and Play to Find Your Creative Style in Photography]

What does it mean to create fine-art photography?

To answer that question, we first need to pose another more basic one: What is fine-art photography?

One definition of “fine art” is described as follows: “Fine art is developed primarily for aesthetics or beauty, distinguishing it from decorative art or applied art, which also has to serve some practical function.”

In other words, fine art is something made for the pleasure of the experience of the thing itself. Fine-art photography is only a slight step more specific. What fine-art photography comes down to is the intention behind the work—the idea, the question, the conception. This leads us to the how.

Art is so personal to the creator, and that’s what separates art from skill. Art and skill can go hand in hand, but skill is a tool for the artist to use; it’s not the determining factor of greatness or impact of the art created. Art is about what’s in your head.

[Read: Pushing Your Creative Photography with Series and Challenges]

So, what’s in your head? This is what you must ask yourself when creating an idea for your fine-art photography. Once you hone in on what moves you, it’s up to you to mold that idea into imagery.

If I’m creating a series, I like to set rules around that body of work, a set of constants and variables that I rely on to give the series its unwavering character. For example, for my ongoing series, Body Spaces, the rules are pretty simple:

  • Shoot in an environment.
  • Never show a face.
  • Never show the entire body.

That’s it. Everything else is on the table and free for me to explore and play with, but the rules make it cohesive.

If I’m not creating for a series and am instead working on a single image or set, I try my best to be fully in the moment. I want to let go of any preconceived notions and just shoot because it gives me life and joy to do so. Sometimes, I stumble on something that shifts the course of my art forever; sometimes, it’s complete sh*t. Every time, I learn something.

The artist is often said to be expressing. That may be true, but it may be more accurate to say that the artist is searching.

Feeling stuck or don’t know where to start with your fine-art photography?

First, you have to accept that a lot of fine-art photography is about playing and exploring. Every single thing you make is not going to be in the running to be your pièce de résistance or your lasting legacy.

If you’re “doing it for the ‘gram” then you’ll likely feel pressure for everything to be good, whatever “good” means. You’ve got to let that go. You have to give yourself the space to explore.

[Read: Photographing Your Way Out of Creative Roadblocks]

One thing that I do for my own artistic practice is to try new things. I do this both inside and outside of fine-art photography. If I’m feeling blocked or unsure during a shoot, I tell myself, “Hey, just play, have fun and let yourself be weird.” (This has never failed to turn the shoot around for me, by the way.)

Photography has always been my home base, but going to fresh mediums is a great jolt for my creative brain, too. I’ve been painting a lot recently, and doing so has been a great influence on my ideas for my fine-art photography. Those influences are already starting to make themselves known.

Things to Try When You Feel Stuck:

  • Ask, “What if I …?” and try it.
  • Journal.
  • Paint anything.
  • Make a collage.
  • Try it upside down.
  • Make it all yellow.
  • See if you can make two things that should never be together harmonize.

How to find an audience for your fine-art photography

Subjectivity will always play a huge factor in the art world. Don’t think too much about it. You’ll end up creating to please others if you’re not careful. All those questions you have for the world are ones someone else has too; if you pose those questions in your work and do it long enough, your audience will find you.

[Read: How to Turn Personal Photo Projects into Paid Work]

Be honest with yourself and be consistent. Share your work. Get it out in the world as often as you can! As an artist, you cannot afford to be your own worst enemy.  There are going to be lots of obstacles for the fine-art photographer. Especially if you’re trying to make a decent income with it. It’s just the truth.

During an interview for the documentary The Price of Everything, art critic Jerry Saltz said, “An artist must, must, must make an absolute enemy of envy! If you don’t, it will eat you alive!” Saltz preaches this often. Later on in a tweet he said, “Envy can only look outward. It can’t look inward.”

It’s one thing to find inspiration or even practice imitation. Those are often even encouraged! It’s quite another to become envious of someone or their position. It’s a slippery and dangerous road to constant self-doubt and cynicism.

[Read: Photography Imitation vs. Inspiration and How to Find Your Voice]

So, be kind to yourself and allow space to explore what subjects draw you in. Don’t complicate your concepts without good reason for doing so.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a handful of photo artists I admire and other resources every artists should consider:

Contemporary Fine-Art Photographers:

Photography Books:



  • Oblique Strategies (If it worked for David Bowie, it’ll work for you)
  • W1D1 (Practices in creativity)
  • DailyArt (Daily knowledge and inspiration from the classic greats)

Chris Daniels is a fine-art and portrait photographer, as well as a writer based in Seattle.