Conceptual Photography – Staging Your Ideas

By Federico Alegria / February 22, 2018


Many photographs aren't taken but made. These images are deliberately constructed through a creative process where the conceptualization and intentionality of the project match the importance of technical knowledge of the photographic medium.

“The camera only facilitates the taking. The photographer must do the giving in order to transform and transcend ordinary reality.” Ernst Haas

At some point, many great photographs require a solid planning process; others happen serendipitously, as a result of the photographer's ability to react to spontaneous situations. The common factor behind all good photographs (the ones that stick in people’s memories) is that the photographer was actually prepared.

Today we are going to talk about conceptualization in photography, which is the act of forming or building something conceived in the mind that can be expressed by way of photographs.

Every photographer has their own way of doing things – and just like any photographer's workflow, there is no exact recipe for building photographs based on a concept.

Nevertheless, we can pinpoint some stages of the commonly accepted creative process. These are steps any photographer can follow to stage their ideas and build meaningful photographs.

Ideas Burst

Starting a new project is always a challenge for any photographer, regardless of their level of experience. If there is no challenge, it’s because things are not being done well. Possibly one of the fastest ways to generate ideas is through the consumption of literature, music, movies, photographs, illustrations, comics, etc.

Sudden inspiration happens, of course, but sometimes it takes a long time to do so.

One of the best-known ways to generate ideas is through brainstorming, which puts us in a forced state of “idea generation” around a certain topic or thing.

This can be done individually or collectively. Basically what happens during a brainstorming exercise is that we list everything that comes to our mind in a short period of time, without minding their congruence or logic. Therefore, it is often considered to be a purely cathartic exercise.

Selecting A Topic

Endless topics might seduce our interest when we develop a photographic concept. However, there is something we must always consider when choosing a theme: it must be able to be developed using a camera.

It is important for photographers to develop a solid concept, but it’s also important for them to work on a topic that really interests them.

By doing this, the photographer will work to flesh out the concept with deep passion, which ultimately reduces the risk of failure.

Many photographers tend to work according to pre-conceived visions of the finished work. But instead of just jumping towards the final result, it is often worthwhile to distance oneself from one’s expectations and evaluate all the possible ways to develop an idea. This will provide more room for creativity.

Shaping Your Ideas

Not all ideas are great, so you'll need to establish a system to filter all your ideas. This will leave you only with the ones worth developing. Brainstorming is a deeply subjective thing, and if you just plunge wholeheartedly into trying to develop any old random idea, you run a high chance of failure, which will lead to frustration.

Developing Ideas Through Research

After filtering down your ideas, it will be wise for you to start researching the topic you’re trying to approach. From documentary to artistic images, research is always a valuable stage in the development of any project.

If you take this for granted, your results will be pretty superficial, and you may unwittingly approach the topic in a way similar to those other photographers have taken. Research will make you more objective about the concept you are trying to capture.

One of the most accepted ways of collecting information during the research stage is through primary and secondary sources of information.

Primary sources are those from which you can extract original information from first-hand sources. Examples of primary sources of information include works of art, literary sources such as diaries or letters, and sound files. It is also possible to conduct interviews, where the information collected is also considered as primary.

Secondary sources of information refer to sources of information gathered by someone else – such as documentaries, books, articles, and the internet.

Image Realization

The image realization stage is where the images start to happen. They are a by-product of a solid concept that can be developed throughout the photographer's entire workflow. This process should be driven by the concept, but leave room for creativity while producing the images.


Photography is the universal language, and being able to tell stories through images is the most effective way to generate engagement with viewers.

As the author, you will have a clear idea of the story you are trying to convey, but, near the end of the process, you rearrange images to present them in a coherent storyline. Some people like having a script, others a storyboard; again, there is no exact recipe for crafting a story, and you'll be using the one that fits best your style.

We hope that these guidelines will be helpful for you as you strive to develop photographs with meaning, purpose, and concept. Only by actually working with a conceptual mindset will you be able to build a system that suits your own needs.

If you have any thoughts, questions or advice for us, please leave them in the comments section below.


About the author

Federico Alegria

Federico is a one of our staff writers and has 8 years of experience in making documentary photography, he is currently working in long-term photo essays and you can watch more of his work here. He is also a photography educator at a design-focused University, and is currently pursuing his PhD (and of course, his thesis is around Photography). His work has been featured in museums, newspapers and magazines. He is currently based in El Salvador.

Leave a comment: