Conceptual model of photo design

The presented system structures the photographic process. You could call it a structural system of photography. System sounds a little abstract and technical. Professional photographers, who do not just shoot in an unsystematic way, therefore sometimes use the term of conceptual photography. A photographic conception is ultimately a system for planning all the factors that are decisive for a photographic project. But conception sounds prettier and more artistic.


A system is obtained by putting together all the factors of an operation and its circumstances and relating them to each other. It is here a system of visualization. For a successful and purposeful photography I found the following main factors and connected them in a simple morphological model. The terms are generally known and will be defined in more details for the purpose of a practical approach.


Instead of factors, you could also talk about the different dimensions or levels of the photography process. I analyzed a lot of Flickr photos of all quality levels and all types of Flickr users. Most photos have weaknesses because one or even two of the factors were not taken into account. Boring or stereotypical subjects. Incorrectly used photo technique. Poor aesthetics. Lack of statement. In the worst case, all of the above. This is as unfortunate as it is unnecessary because most photographers spend a lot of time using Flickr and taking photos.


The system to be presented here is designed for practical productivity. We are familiar with the terms subject, photo technique, aesthetics and statement from numerous photography books. However, in common usage they are overlaid with stereotypes and unhelpful or one-sided ideas. Therefore, here follows, first of all, a clarification of how the terms are to be understood in the photographic system presented here.


Motif is a location with one or more objects. The objects can be animate or inanimate, static or in motion. I call this motif scene. Motif has something to do with motivation. There must be a reason why you photograph a particular scene and carelessly pass by others. The evaluation of a motive corresponds to the world view of the photographer. Manipulated by motif stereotypes, the world view is often very limited. Not the good eye, but the inner view determines what we see and photograph. And this includes knowledge about our motifs. An animal photographer who knows the life and behavior of animals can bring out what is typical, individual and special.


Someone who only thinks animals are beautiful, cute and interesting can at best take a good animal photo by chance. And this applies to all areas. If you are not a connoisseur of people, you will not take good photos of people. If you don’t know much about the city and its people, you’ll be at a loss as a street photographer. This can be continued indefinitely. So it is worthwhile to think extensively about motifs and their characteristics and to acquire suitable knowledge.


But we can also change and arrange motifs. In studio photography, this is done anyway. A commercial photographer usually still has a decorator at hand to assemble a suitable and pretty motif scene. But even in everyday photography, slight changes to the subject scene can lead to much better photos.

Photo technique

Photographic technique is discussed in countless photography books and Internet publications. Photo-technique represents scientifically and technically secured knowledge. Therefore, it is the most easily accessible and understandable. Quite in contrast to the other factors motive, aesthetics and statement. For the articles on this website, basic technical knowledge about focal length, aperture, exposure time, ISO, etc. is assumed. The photo technique is mentioned where it is about relations to the other factors motive, aesthetics and statement. But, of course, it will be useful if you have a solid knowledge of photographic technique.


Aesthetics originally means perception. Here it is about making the subject scene well perceivable. The greatest praise for one of my photos was the statement that it was a visual experience. For aesthetics in the sense of good perceptibility, it is meaningless whether a motif is ugly or beautiful. One can take good aesthetic photos of ugly things and bad and repulsively boring photos of beautiful things.

In common parlance, aesthetics is the study of beauty. One need not be surprised if most photographers seek out beautiful subjects, such as landmarks, and want to take beautiful photos of them.


But this is not about photographic definitions. But around a systematic and practically applicable overview which improves the aesthetics, and/or perceptibility of a photo. The most accessible are the design tricks described in most photography books. However, this does not go far enough. Among other things, a variety of composition principles are hidden in art theory. We find there spiritual-scientific theories are full of verbal acrobatics, mixed with ideology and psychology. Bulky, elitist, and very difficult to tap into for practical purposes. So it was a ray of hope that I came across the aesthetic theory of Birkhoff, a mathematician with an interest in art. Mathematicians, as we know, take a sober and systematic approach. With Birkhoff’s aesthetic measure, I have adopted a formula that can be used to explain and classify the well-known aesthetic theories.

M = O / C (M = aesthetic measure O = aesthetic order C = complexity)

The best aesthetics is achieved when O and C are in balance. M = 1.


The formula has not only a theoretical, but more importantly an immediate practical use. And you don’t need a calculator either. It can be applied intuitively. The best aesthetics come when you succeed in creating a balance between complexity and order in the photograph. I consciously look for disturbing, confusing and superfluous elements in a shot. By choosing cropping, perspective and direction, I try to hide these as much as possible. If the motif is too uniform, symmetrical and boring, I bring disturbing factors or additional objects into the photo. So it’s a very practical and intuitively applicable theory. You learn by trial and error – but also the other composition theories and tricks can be classified and systematized by the equilibrium formula. They are practically always means for the generation of order or complexity. One should therefore know them and experiment with them. For example, central perspective represents a high-level geometric order. It provides an appropriate balance even for complex scenes. Here is an example:



Message of the photo

With the statement it behaves similarly as with the aesthetics. A stereotypical term, which one must first analyze for its practical suitability for the creation of a photo. Of course, one is familiar with such phrases as “the photo has a strong statement,” “the photo doesn’t say anything to me,” “the photo is appealing,” “the photo tells a story.” In fact, however, a photo cannot speak. Nevertheless, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Just as with the use of the factor “aesthetics”, there is no getting around a systematic approach. Ultimately, it is about the meaning of the objects that are depicted and visible in the photo. And for this the science of semiotics is useful. Semiotics is the study of signs and their meaning. In the case of the photograph, these are visual signs. Mainly iconic signs, because there is a comprehensible similarity with the real objects designated by them. Besides also symbolic signs, if writings or symbols appear in the motive.


The view of semiotics brings a level of abstraction into the photo, which allows to analyze the photo as a visual message or to convey a desired message by clever choice of visual signs. However, semiotics is also originally a humanities discipline and with its various definitions is somewhat difficult to access in relation to practical photography. There is a lot of talk and a matter that is simple at its core becomes a kind of secret science. I will therefore confine myself to the essentials. And that is as simple as it is practical.


The statement is not necessarily the result of the photographic process. One can also start from a desired statement and look for and compose a suitable motif for it. This would then be conceptual photography, which starts from an idea. The idea is then visualized photographically. Symbols and associations play the decisive role.

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