5 Ways To Define The ‘Why’ Of Your Conceptual Photoshoot

conceptual photoshoot

Every great creative work begins with a concept. The ‘why’ of the work is the first step and the most important idea that needs to be communicated. Conceptual work, after all, is about the concept itself.

How to communicate that concept can be deceivingly complex. You have control of a multitude of factors with an endless palette of options as to how you can manipulate them. The most important starting point is to always ask yourself ‘what is the why’ of each decision. Why are you choosing this piece of fabric for a subject’s wardrobe? Why are you primarily using natural light? What does your style, your palette, your composition communicate to the viewer?  Everything in the frame is significant.  Every. Little. Thing.

Start with a core concept

For me, it boils down to a two part question.  What do I want to make work about, and what is that going to look like?  Seems so simple, right?  Not so much. That’s the toughest, most significant, most special part of the whole process.  Figuring out what you want to make work about is a complex question, and requires a lot of self-awareness, dedication, and energetic searching.  In the end, what is it you need to express that is authentically yours, and what do you want your viewer to walk with?

Portrait of chef Ferran Adria in Barcelona by John Keatley for Wired UK.
Photo by John Keatley

Know your audience

Considering your viewer is paramount. What do you want to say, and how are you going to put it on paper?  Art is communication, and an incredibly powerful vehicle for it.  Conceptual work is created to be digested by a public audience, an incredibly varied one at that.  Learning to command a response with your imagery is a life-long, truly invigorating process.  Using your own, unique visual language, style, palette, subject matter, light, rhythm, space and composition, control, and order, will cue your viewer to understand ideas they may not even be completely aware of.  It’s a pretty amazing thing.


Making art is a messy process.  I find that creative folks are incredibly hard on themselves, myself included. I expect creativity/perfection on demand.  When I don’t get it, well, clearly I’m a failed human being and it’s time to quit photography.  Ease up, folks.  These things take time, pruning, trial, and error.  Everyone has a natural creative rhythm, which includes peaks AND valleys.  Enjoy the valleys! Take that time to learn a new skill, gather ideas from inspiring visual sources, rest, and culminate.  At some point, ideas start to separate themselves out like oil from water, and you’ve got something rich to work from.  Once you’re there, experiment!  Allow yourself to discover and learn during sessions, photograph the same concept several times, try different materials, different models, clothing, lighting, locations, styling, or staging.  Let yourself play, that’s where all the amazing stuff is hiding.

Actress Sara Coates as a 70's male sports coach. Personal work by John Keatley.
Photo by John Keatley

Connect with your subject

When you are working with a human subject, take the time to connect with them and see how they respond. Even professional models will let some of their own humanity come through visually. Watch their body language, observe their facial expressions.  One of the most beautiful parts of conceptual photography is that discovery, especially when you experience it with another person. Let your model contribute, and bring their own baggage and life experience; it adds another delicious layer of complexity to your work.  If we work with human subjects as if they’re puppets, the work will reflect that approach.

Portrait of Gregg Proops as The Recommendeuer for Washington Wine Commission by John Keatley
Photo by John Keatley

Start with your ‘Why’ and stumble around until you find the how.  Why then how.  What are you trying to say, and how are you going to translate it into the visual language? Make it with conviction, print it onto a two-dimensional surface, give it wings, and put it into the hands of your viewer.

Ready to translate your conceptual ideas into real photographs? Watch pro photographer and fine are retoucher Bell and Pratik Kotak shoot a real shoot from start to finish in this one-of-a-kind course! 



Jennifer Thorenson FOLLOW >

Jennifer B Thoreson is a young visual artist creating staged imagery that is both artistically stylized and meticulously crafted. Drawing inspirations from themes of faith and the intricacy of personal relationships, Jennifer is a dynamic and emotional illustrator of the human heart.