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How To Understand and Use Aesthetics in Photography

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Photography exists in many different forms. Some are joyful, others thought-provoking, terrifying, and so on.

Some forms, known as aesthetic photography, catch a viewer’s eye and are pleasant to look at.

But what makes them stand out? Here’s all you need to understand and use aesthetics in your photography.

What Does Aesthetic Photography Mean?

Artistic shot of a bridge in the colored light of sunset - aesthetic photography

In the dictionary, aesthetic is the measure or appreciation of beauty.

In photography, it usually means that an image is appealing to the eye. Something about its subject, composition, colour (or lack thereof). It makes you want to sit and observe it for much longer than you would an average picture.

Like beauty, aesthetics aren’t easy to define in simple words. It all depends on the viewer’s preferences, experiences, and photography knowledge.

A beginner in landscape photography might find all kinds of photographs aesthetically pleasing. An expert might have a different opinion about the same photos.

dreamy shot of a person resting on a hammock in the sea at sunset - aesthetic photography
In general, most people would agree that this photo matches the definition of aesthetic photography. The unusual composition, peaceful location, eye-catching symmetry, and pastel colours make it stand out.

There are exceptions to every rule. But we can agree that certain photos are appealing based on a few important factors.

Knowing these can prevent unflattering compositions and lead to outstanding photos.

Why Aesthetics Matter

dreamy shot of a person standing in a field at sunset - aesthetic photography
Understanding photography aesthetic can help you improve your business and earn more money. For example, publishers and stock agencies gravitate towards images with perfect compositions. The more aesthetically pleasing your photos are, the easier it will be for you to attract customers.

Aesthetically pleasing photos aren’t only made for appreciation. If you know how to take photos that stand out, you’ll:

  • be able to provide future clients and models with impressive results. This might lead to more photographic opportunities in the long run;
  • have enough photography knowledge to educate others through video tutorials, articles, and more;
  • understand how to express your opinions in photography-related conversations;
  • attract more people to your work on popular social platforms like Instagram. This could lead to photo opportunities and job offers;
  • have confidence in your ability to take eye-catching photos anywhere. It will improve your portfolio and make you more collaborative; and
  • give helpful feedback using the right terms to both beginners and peers.

These are some of the many benefits of understanding how beautiful photography works. And why it matters.

Are Aesthetics and Style the Same Thing?

studio shot of a female model posing on the floor - aesthetic photography

Finding and developing a style is an important part of any photographer’s journey. But it’s not the same as aesthetics. Photography style and photography aesthetic don’t go hand in hand, which means that you can have a strong style but no aesthetic at all.

In general, a style is the way you approach photography. This includes technical settings, equipment, and more. You can associate your style with your outfits (or your fashion style).

An aesthetic goes a little further than that. Take a look at your gallery and see if you notice patterns in colour, composition, subjects, and so on. If there are similarities that make your general style stand out, you have an aesthetic.

Artistic shot of a flock of seagulls flying on the beach - aesthetic photographySome photographers are known for their fantasy-themed photos, their nostalgic colour corrected snapshots. Or a subject they often shoot.

If you can recognise a photograph without knowing the creator’s name, then that artist has an aesthetic.

If your images have an emotion that catches a person’s eye and makes them feel something, you have an aesthetic.

The Foundation of Aesthetics

As you already know, aesthetic isn’t one solid thing, yet it consists of a few simple factors.

These are what makes almost every beautiful photo stand out. They make you feel something, and inspire you to take stunning photos of your own.

The Rule of Thirds

A person taking a landscape photo on their smartphone, using the rule of thirds grid - aesthetics in photography
You can improve your photography aesthetic right from your phone. Most of today’s smartphone cameras have Rule of Thirds guidelines, as pictured here. Advanced apps are also available for understanding this rule on a deeper level.

The rule of thirds can improve compositions. It’s made up of two horizontal and two vertical lines.

You can visualise these yourself or have your camera do the work for you using visual guidelines.

Place your subjects where those lines intersect. Horizons should be parallel or on the horizontal lines.

These guidelines mean to improve your compositions and prevent dull photographs.

Leading Lines

An aesthetic picture of a small white flower placed between wooden planks

Leading lines can be anything as long as they all go in the same direction. Their purpose is to lead the viewer’s eyes to your subject.

Without them, your compositions might look too crowded or empty.

Common leading lines are shadows, roads, and train tracks. Because of the nature of this technique, it’s often used in landscape photography.

Gestalt Theory Principles
Aesthetic photo of colored hot air balloons flying over a field of tulips

Psychology uses the Gestalt Theory to understand the human brain. You can also use it in photography to improve things like framing and storytelling.

You’ll often notice these principles in aesthetically pleasing pictures.

Some of Gestalt’s principles include proximity, segregation, and closure. They all emphasise the importance of placing subjects in specific places. The mind can then process what it’s looking at.

For example, look at the proximity principle. It states that subjects that are close to each other look familial. You can use this to emphasise the relationship between two or more models in your photograph.

How to Make Your Photos Aesthetically Pleasing

Before you use this, you need to understand your unique preferences as an artist. This involves a few simple steps and you can figure it out.

Make a Collection of Photos That Stand out to You

A laptop on a table, opening on a screen editing aesthetic photography

Your aim is to put all your photos in one place so you can find similarities and differences.

Later on, this will help you figure out what kind of aesthetic you’re going for. And how to approach your own photography.

You can make a Tumblr blog, add photos to a Pinterest board, or save posts on Instagram. Make sure you have access to the photographers’ portfolios.

That way you can get an idea of their general aesthetic as well.

Observe and Take Notes to Understand Your Taste

Dreamy still life of a book and bouquet of flowers on a white table - aesthetics in photography

Once all your references are in one place, you can start analysing them. Here are a few things you should look out for:

  • Subjects – do you have a mixture of subjects you like, or can you categorize them? Do you gravitate more towards people, landscapes, textures, etc.?
  • Lighting – is the light in the photos limited, soft, harsh, or a mix of everything? Lighting is an important part of any image. Pay close attention to different lighting approaches to find out your go-to aesthetic.
  • Compositions – how many techniques and principles can you name? This is a great photography exercise. And an easy way to understand what attracts you to certain photos. Are most of your favourite photos unconventional, or do they follow the rule of thirds?

Artistic photo of two doorways - aesthetics in photography

  • Colours – do you gravitate towards monochrome, vibrant, or faded photographs? Look out for editing and colour correcting tricks. You don’t need to be a Photoshop pro. Write down the kinds of colour combinations you like.
  • Focus – are most of the photos sharp and detailed or soft and abstract? Try to figure out what camera settings the photographer used. You might notice that you like soft backgrounds, grainy photos, or unusual textures.

Ask Questions to Introduce Yourself to New Concepts

Dreamy night portrait of a girl lighting a sky lantern - aesthetics in photography

Even expert photographers aren’t wizards. No matter how experienced you are, ask questions. Don’t be afraid of contacting your favorite photographers and asking for help.

With a healthy amount of curiosity, you might earn yourself valuable lessons and mentors for life.

You’ll also get an even clearer idea of other people’s aesthetics and why they approach photography a certain way.

Discuss Photography with Other Artists

a group of photographers shooting aesthetic photos outdoors

Once you have a clearer idea of your favorite photos and the people who took them, discuss them with your peers.

You don’t have to limit yourself to photographers. But it would help if your friends knew even a little about photography. This way, you’ll get proper feedback that will all enrich your knowledge of aesthetic photography.

Your discussions don’t have to be philosophical. You can discuss the concept of aesthetics, other photographers’ portfolios. Even why certain images stand out more than others, and so on.

Dreamy wedding portrait of a couple posing on a beach - aesthetics in photography

If you’re feeling bold, take a few photos of your own. Make sure you consider them aesthetically pleasing. Ask for constructive criticism with an emphasis on aesthetics.

This might provide you with invaluable feedback that you wouldn’t have been able to come up with on your own.

Practice Consistently to Understand Your Aesthetic

Dreaming photo of a blue butterfly resting on a door frame - aesthetics in photography

With all this newfound knowledge in your head, you can start taking photos. To avoid feeling overwhelmed, have a few notes. Use them throughout your photoshoot.

As you take photos, see what you’re drawn to. If this matches with the notes you took, you’re very close to understanding your unique aesthetic. You’ll be able to use this information whenever and wherever you take photos in the future.

I gravitate towards black & white photos, the golden hour, and expressive faces. This is evident in all my pictures and is an important part of my aesthetic.

As you can see, you don’t need to use complicated terms to describe your aesthetic. Experiment with simple terms until you find something that sounds right.

Dreaming diptych of a female portrait and a sky of flying birds - aesthetics in photography

Conclusion

Your photography aesthetic matters. It can help you take striking photos. It’ll you a better understanding of photography fundamentals. And it’ll help you develop your unique and irreplaceable style.

All you have to do is be curious. Research different artists and experiment with all kinds of genres. You’ll then find your unique aesthetic.

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1 comment
  1. Hi Taya,

    Fantastic article! I just shared it on my Twitter account. It’s good to hear that other photographers think about aesthetics to bring their work to the next level.

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