Modern Photography/Conception

There are many reasons to make an image, but fundamentally we almost always make an image to record something.

  • Natural image: A real subject, in its existing environment, with existing lighting. This is the most common situation.
  • Conceived image: An idea, which we would like to create by setting up a subject, creating appropriate lighting, and by using various other techniques, including filters, perspective control and post-processing, to name a few.
  • Some combination of these two extremes.

When we conceive a photograph, we could be said to use our understanding of the possibilities available in photography to formulate a goal — something we'd like to achieve with the final image. This section explores techniques and concerns during image conception that fall across this full range of scenarios.

The notion of conceptionEdit

When we talk about conception, we imply something beyond the merely pragmatic, we imply something fundamentally born of the mind. Various dictionaries dance around the definition, but all seem to suggest something relatively fundamental in human thought: a beginning, an idea, an abstract concept still divorced from the ties of physical reality. In English and most western languages, this notion derives from Latin conceptio ‎("a comprehending, a collection, composition, an expression, also becoming pregnant"). Let's look at some modern attempts at definition:

  • The forming or devising of a plan or idea. A plan or intention. Ability to imagine; understanding.The Oxford Dictionary
  • The state of being conceived; the beginning. The power or faculty of apprehending of forming an idea in the mind. An image, idea, or notion formed in the mind; a concept, plan or design.English Wiktionary
  • A sketch of something not actually existing. origination; beginning. A notion; idea; concept. Fertilization. A design; plan. The act or power of forming notions, ideas, or

But where does the idea come from? To conceive seems fundamental to being human.

Perhaps due to this very human character of conception, in common use within the field of the arts it is today skewed toward the artistic rather than the mundane. Visual artists of all media may commonly talk of the conception of a piece, ie. where the idea came from. It is decidedly less common to discuss the conception of a shot that came from an industrial photography process, eg. automated photography on a production line. In such a case the production line was that conceived, as were perhaps arguably the technical parameters of the particular line-component incorporating photography (much less individual shots). The images, however, were not. We can probably therefore derive the understanding that shot conception is a process considered to be fundamentally human: it's a unique act, it's an aesthetic act, it's a personal act.

Philosophical approaches to conceptionEdit

There are different modes of artistic conception, which boil down to differences in philosophy. Whilst the following breakdown is not a universally acknowledged set of terms for these approaches, it should help to illustrate the point. The mainstream, traditional perception of the art world is that the less spontaneous a work — ie. the later in these sections it appears — the more value it has as 'high art'. (Though it pays not to be overly troubled by others' perceptions of our work, unless the goal is to please others rather than create work that will satisfy us.)

Spontaneous or naiveEdit

Sometimes we may use the camera like a small child approaches an object, a pen, or a music instrument: as a tool without specific comprehension of the probable results, just to see what happens. Adults or people particularly experienced with a camera can find this hard to achieve, but we all begin this way, more or less. This is considered to be a very 'pure' approach, less intellectual, more visceral, a raw aesthetic. There is nothing wrong with this approach, in fact it can often catch raw and moving images from uncommon subjects and perspectives, simply by ignoring established aesthetics.

Explorative or opportunisticEdit

Building on the less formally conceived spontaneous or naive philosophy, explorative or opportunistic philosophies of conception are those in which, with some understanding of the camera, we grasp toward images of a certain nature, though without absolute preconception or rigid formalism about achieving a particular outcome, and with an acceptance and openness toward aesthetic and artistic consideration of results obtained falling somewhere about the goal as perhaps being final outputs in their own right.


Goal-oriented philosophy of conception is that in which we have an image in our mind that we wish to achieve, and all thought is focused on the 'realization' of that goal. The goal could be as mundane as 'to record this object' or as complex as 'to create a sense of upward motion in a cow being abducted from long grass by alien spacecraft against the night sky showing a particular constellation of stars in the upper-left and wintery mountains at rear'. This is probably considered by many to be the philosophy of conception under which the vast majority of art is produced. However, it could also be said to be more than a little artificial: taken to its extreme, it is a philosophy of 'immaculate conception', perhaps in part a philosophical holdover from Italianate/Renaissance Catholicism and prior to that Roman/Greek sculpture as a western artistic ideal, suggesting some kind of perfect idea, perfect subject and perfect execution. The reality is that we rarely ever achieve exactly what we set out to achieve (if we even remember what we were aiming at when we are done), and our ideas and goal can easily change along the way.

Relative to other visual arts, photography has been particularly well tarred with the goal-oriented philosophy of conception, as in the earliest era of analog photography, a goal-oriented philosophy of conception was required to achieve any results at all. This is because of a few factors:

  • Overall investment in every shot: the camera itself, film, chemicals, time, models if present, transportation overheads for bulky equipment, etc.
  • Length of exposures, which were typically multiple seconds at a minimum, greatly constricting options for spontaneity.
  • Immediacy. When painting a scene, the artist spends a huge amount of time to produce one image. When photographing a scene, we can take tens of images, evaluate them, select one or two we like, print them out and frame them before the painter's second layer of paint has dried. (In fact, when photography appeared it was initially abused by some as a devilish usurper of the high art of painting!) The photography world responded, at least in part, by emphasizing the philosophical depth of goal-oriented conception that led to a given image.


Beyond the goal-oriented philosophy of conception lies something still more obtuse, an academic philosophy of conception. Rarely carried off successfully, this is the sort of thing that gives birth to ten page essays on single color prints, or a series of photographs of slightly different angles of a nail being hammered into a woman's shoe. Loved by some, despised by many, it arguably represents a more abstract approach and a more holistic view of the image as part of a broader act of communication within society.

Iterative versus immaculate conceptionEdit

An iterative process is one in which repetition is used to evolve the output. An immaculate process is one in which something occurs once and is considered to be perfect and complete. As outlined above, traditionally conception has been considered to be an immaculate process, a sudden event similar to turning on a light bulb, being hit with a falling apple or a Zen-master's cane. While many cater to the dominant artistic audience and pretend to have immaculately conceived images, the reality is probably that many, many iterative images are taken by the majority of photographers and the most of them simply discarded. A certain French photographer famously quipped that if he knew what made a photograph work, every single shot would be perfect! In the vast majority of cases, it's simply unrealistic to expect to achieve what you want on the first attempt.