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A few weeks ago I wrote about putting together a portfolio (click the link to catch up).
Today I’d like to discuss something that’s related, and that’s how to choose photos that work together in an aesthetically and visually pleasing way.
That’s part of the skill of putting a portfolio together. But it’s also something that you might do if you’re selecting photos to print and hang on your wall, or putting together a photo book.
The idea is to look beyond the subject of your photos and get you thinking about the way they’re linked on a conceptual and aesthetic level.
How to choose photos by theme
It’s interesting to look through old photos searching for themes you may not have realized were there.
When I was in China a few years ago I could see that the color red is an important part of Chinese culture (where it represents good fortune and joy). Red is used a lot in historic buildings like temples and the Forbidden City.
When I got home, and had time to look at the photos I’d made on the trip, I grouped the photos that made strong use of the color red together. Here are some of them.
The images I chose are linked by country (China) and color (red). There’s also a similarity of subject as they all show a specific aspect of Chinese culture. I developed them in Lightroom Classic in a similar way, to help them work together as a set.
This is a good example of choosing photos by theme and visual aesthetics.
I made the layout in Lightroom Classic’s Print module. You could make a print like this with your own photos, or use it as a layout in a photo book.
Here’s another example. A few years ago we spent some time in Andalusia, exploring the pueblos blancos (white towns) in the mountains.
It’s tempting to put all the photos taken in a certain town together. But instead I took a thematic approach to the way I chose photos that worked together. Each photo uses the square format and has a strong, bold graphic composition that juxtaposes the white buildings against the clear blue sky.
Here’s are a couple more photos from the same region with a different thematic link (the palm trees).
Turn themes into projects
Another advantage of bringing together photos with a similar aesthetic is that you’ll start to see certain themes emerge in your work. You may not have even realized they were there until you started looking at your images this way.
The next step is to turn some of the stronger themes into projects. A project is where you deliberately come back to a theme or idea, exploring it in depth over time. Themes are often accidental, projects are purposeful and deliberate.
For example, the sea is a constant theme in my work. I worked at sea for a few years and I’ve lived near it for most of my adult life. A growing appreciation of my local town’s seaside location has inspired me to turn this theme into an ongoing project.
Here’s a set of photos I made when walking along the town’s sea wall one summer evening. They have a similar aesthetic, thanks to the light, the inclusion of the sea in each photo and the black and white treatment. To make them work as a set I had to choose photos with a good variety of subject matter.
This is a project I intend to explore further over the next year or so.
How to choose photos by visual aesthetic
So far the photos in each set I’ve showed you are linked by theme or subject and have a similar visual aesthetic.
But it’s an interesting creative exercise to look through your photos to find images that are linked purely by visual aesthetics, and not by theme or subject.
This helps you appreciate some of the composition elements of your work, like use of color, tonal contrast and light.
But it’s also practical because it can give you ideas for choosing photos that work together as prints hanging on a wall, or in a layout in a photo book.
Let me give you an example of that.
The subject of these photos is different, but they have a similar treatment. Both make strong use of tonal contrast and texture. They’re both good black and white photos. Because of that, they work well together. They’d look great as a pair of prints on a wall.
The same idea works with sets of three images, again ideal for wall art or a photo book layout. The photos below are linked by purely by aesthetics – the black and white treatment, the square crop and the use of white space in the composition.
Choosing photos linked by visual aesthetics is difficult because it’s subjective. But it helps you look at your work in new ways and you might start to see patterns emerge that you weren’t aware of.
Learning from other people’s layouts
To finish I’ll show you a couple of page layouts from my ebook Square. The first shows a set of images linked by the color blue.
The second shows a set of black and white photos linked by geography (I made them all in China) and visual aesthetic (strong use of shape, black and white).
The reason I’m showing them here is because you can learn a lot about layout, choosing and juxtaposing photos from studying fine art photography magazines and photo books with a critical eye. Ask yourself why the editor chose those particular photos to go together. What can you learn from the layout and how does that help you design your own photo books?
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