What is the “Fine Art” in Fine Art Photography?

Moody boudoir image of young black girl in blue hue

“Fine Art” — We hear those words tossed around like confetti at a New Year’s Eve party.

We’ve all heard the term before but what does it mean? What does it stand for? What exactly is fine art photography? Are you a fine art photographer? What’s the measure by which that is determined? 

These are questions that I’ll answer in this article because I believe I’ve discovered what those words, “fine art”, really mean. At least I’m satisfied with the answers that I’ve uncovered. 

After all, I call myself a fine art boudoir photographer and I kind of had a notion of what that was but I wanted a more exacting definition for myself. I wanted to be certain I wasn’t a fraud or a phony or just someone using the term to sound “artsy” or pretentious. 

I can say this, however, and that is “fine art photography” exists. It’s a real thing that can be defined and not just someone’s subjective opinion of what they believe it to be.

So, let’s get this party started. I can assure you that you’ll come out the other end with a clear understanding of what fine art photography is, and also what it is not.

But first, let’s start with a one sentence definition. (By the way, in my screenwriting days I had to define an entire story down to a one sentence synopsis.)

I will say this though, I had to spend hours researching and a lot of critical thinking to write an entire article on what fine art photography is in order to write a one sentence definition of it. 

So, in one sentence:

What is fine art photography?

Fine art photography is the exceptional and creative use of light, composition, subject, and color with its own unique style (distinct from what we see in our daily lives), created as a work of art to be displayed so it can be appreciated and experienced with the intended effect of uplifting the human spirit.

Okay, that was a mouthful, I admit. But it covers all the points I want to go into further detail about below. 

So, let’s get to it!

Breaking Down Fine Art Photography Into Its Parts

I break the term “fine art” photography down into four major elements. 

They are:

  1. The intent of the image (its usage)
  2. The image itself (the “art” part)
  3. The tools and technology used to create the image (the “fine” part)
  4. The medium of presentation (also the “art” part)

The Intent of the Image

One of the main things that defines fine art photography from other types of photography is its intent. It’s the “why” behind the image. Why create it?

Unlike commercial photography where the images are used to entice people to buy things, or photojournalism where photos are used to record what is happening, fine art photography is art for the sake of art.

It is created intentionally to be appreciated, experienced, and to have it stimulate us emotionally as a work of art. It is created for the shear pleasure of what art gives to the human experience. It enriches our lives and contributes to the greater good of life. 

Its purpose is a positive one, to satisfy and enrich the human spirit in some way. It represents the best we have to offer and its message is always a positive one… an uplifting of the soul.

Anything disturbing, negative, horrific I would not call fine art because I believe fine art operates in only the light of human spirit and not within its darkness. 

It celebrates life and the world we live in, in some fashion.

The Art of the Image

The Artist

One can’t talk about the art of a fine art photograph without first talking about the artist behind it. 

Fine art photography is usually the result of one passionate photographer as its driving force. I say “usually” because most photographers operate alone without a creative partner that shares equally in an image’s creation.

It is certainly possible for a photographer to work with a retoucher or post-processing individual, but there’s usually one person responsible for the overall look of how an image is going to turn out. 

Conceptually Driven

Fine art photographers (and therefore, fine art photographs) are conceptually driven.

They have a vision of what it is they want to create and it’s something that can not be seen with the naked eye, in other words, they have to create it with their own artistic talent. 

Fine art photographers take a captured image from their camera and manipulate it in ways so it transcends real life and becomes something “more”, or they manipulate the subject in-camera before taking the shot.

A simple example of this would be a long exposure of the surf on a beach. With a long exposure the surf will appear smooth, even, and calm… creamy and dreamy. One can’t see that with the naked eye.

Smooth creamy water

Artistry

Fine art photographs stand out because the artistry needed to create them is usually quite high. Someone just snapping a picture of something they point their camera at does not require any artistry at all. It requires minimal technical skill but no artistry.

Artistry is defined as creative skill or ability. 

Fine art photographers have a high level of creative skill they’ve honed over many years. 

One test of “artistry” is that the image has a distinctive style. It has a look all its own. It’s something that an average photographer would not be able to reproduce with their current knowledge and skill level — and that’s one of the elements that makes the photo stand out as being exceptional. 

It’s because of this artistry that many fine art photographs demand your attention. They are so above the norm that they stop us and force us to take a closer look while stimulating an emotion within.

The “Fine” Part of Fine Art

Fine means of high quality.

Fine art photographers strive to achieve high quality in the process of creating their art. 

This means they’ll use the highest quality equipment they can afford at the time. Now, this is a generalization but I’ve listened to enough “fine art” photographers speak about their process to know that acquiring the best camera, lens, printer, ink, paper they can afford is a major factor in capturing the highest quality image possible.

They want the expression of what they’ve created to be as pure as it can be, or rather, they want an image’s full potential to be realized as much as possible through the highest quality technology and gear that’s available to them.

An image can be reduced in its brilliance and compromised due to cheap gear, low quality paper and ink, mis-calibrated printers, and on and on.

They are proud of their creations and want to do them justice much like a chef who seeks out the finest and freshest ingredients when preparing a dish. 

The Final Element

Now that we’ve covered the intent of the image, the art of the image, and the technical process of creating that art, it’s time to talk about presentation.

The Presentation

If the image itself is the star, then how that image is presented or displayed serves the role of a good supporting character.

In talking about framed fine art photographs in particular, the frame (and also the matting when appropriate) can serve to complement the image, supporting its mood and color palette.

Let’s take for example the large-scale fine art photographs of underwater photographer Cheryl Walsh whose dreamy fantastical world of faeries and mermaids are supported with frames that complement the color tones of her images as well as ornate frames that support her more Rococo character pieces.

Underwater fine art image by Cheryl Walsh

Both of which can be seen on her website and Instagram page. 

https://www.cherylwalshfineart.com

https://www.instagram.com/cherylwalshfineart/

If your fine art image is of something minimalist in nature, having a matting and frame that’s minimalist as well supports that whole vibe. You don’t want something that clashes with the mood and tone of the image itself.  

The point here is that the framing, matting, and printed image work together as a stylistic symbiotic whole. 

Final Thoughts

So, those are my four criteria for determining if something should be labeled as “fine art” photography or not.

  1. Its creation is meant to be art for the sake of art
  2. It is conceptually driven and created by a photographer with a high degree of artistry that displays a unique mood or style
  3. The photographer used the highest quality equipment afforded to them at the time in an effort to render the finest image possible
  4. The work is displayed in a way that complements the image and presents that image in its best possible light

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Charles Mitri

Founder / Lounge Boudoir

Bella Mitri Boudoir

Charles Mitri

Charles Mitri is an award-winning boudoir photographer and also founder and writer of LoungeBoudoir.com, an educational blog and resource website for boudoir photographers worldwide. He lives in Yorktown, Virginia.

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