Plugged In: Choose concept, content, style for photos

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Although technical excellence is a necessary first step in choosing your best photographs, it’s not sufficient. Your best photos should stand out for their strong and unique content, concept and personal style.

A photo’s content is nothing more than its subject and, as appropriate, the subject’s surrounding context. Documentary photographs usually include more surrounding context. Abstract ­appearing photographs often achieve their sense of abstraction by eliminating as much surrounding context as possible, focusing on only the most interesting portion of the subject and eliminating the visual cues that identify the subject.

Extensive post­-processing of supposedly documentary photographs raises a number of ethical issues. On the flip side, “Photoshopping” more abstract ­appearing images is both useful and a generally accepted path to a visually interesting final result. As with the photographs themselves, it depends on the context. The popularity of various subjects routinely waxes and wanes. As an example, documentary photographs were rarely seen among “art” photographs a decade or two ago, but are now the norm, while abstract-appearing images are currently out of vogue.

Even something as seemingly mundane as family photos and “snapshots” periodically have their day as the height of fashion. There’s little benefit in chasing the current trend by molding your photos to resemble something that’s currently popular. By the time you amass enough good photographs in that genre, it will be out of fashion for a decade or two.

Rather than emulating others, choose what most deeply resonates with you, while avoiding at least the most common cliches so prevalent in our visually inundated age. Try to see the reality of daily life in its true depth and infinite variability. Many urban residents dream of traveling to Alaska to photograph, yet we already live here and have daily access to what others only dream of photographing. I suspect that one reason people often take more interesting photos while on vacation is that subjects seen while traveling are fresh to the traveler’s eye, rather than so commonly seen as to be dulled and overlooked.

One time­-honored approach to expanding and improving your ability to perceive strong photographs — an approach I was taught in MIT photography courses more than 40 years ago — is the now­-popular concept of mindfulness, a sort of quiet meditative opening one’s mind to our daily surroundings and potential subjects. Of course, all too many photographers “talk Zen” incessantly rather than actually doing it, proving they’ve missed the entire point. Rather, simply be still in your mind, set aside your preconceptions and plans, and allow potential subjects to come to you.

As an example, I once saw some people walking on the sands of the Homer Spit during an ebb tide as the fog rolled in. By the time that I could stop my car, they were enveloped by that fog and my intended photo was gone. However, I must have had a reasonably open mind that day because I soon saw a number of photos of foggy beach literally at my feet. Two of those unplanned photos were later accepted into statewide juried exhibits and remain among my favorite photos.

In the same vein, there seems to be a notion prevalent in Western cultures that the most “artistic” subjects are those which show strong, sad or dark emotions. That’s actually very limiting and potentially superficial. As with perceiving the deeper realities of our lives, photographs that reflect quiet satisfactions and beauty found day to day are just as valid. Again, though, avoiding cliches is a challenge, one best met by practice and exposure to a multitude of photos.

The Internet is most helpful in this regard. Two books that I’ve found useful as guides to developing an ability to see good photographs are “The Photographer’s Eye” and “The Photographer’s Mind,” both by Michael Freeman. I’ve also found helpful suggestions in two blog postings on “seeing” by Ming Thein, a well­-known Malaysian photographer from England’s University (

Once you’ve perceived a strong image, your next task is bringing it to fruition. That’s where concept, personal style and treatment come into play. In a sense, these are inter­related. Consider concept as what you want the final image to convey and your “mind’s eye” visualization of how the final image should look in order to convey that concept. Keep an open mind to other possible final results as you work with the image over time. Treatment would include color or monochrome, saturation, sharpness, background isolation through controlled depth of field, and other techniques brought into play in order to achieve that final look. Together, a consistent approach to subject, concept and treatment define your personal style. Next week, I’ll describe how one personal style evolved for me.

Swap and Sell Meet

ARTSpace is sponsoring an art supply and photo gear swap and sell meet at the Soldotna Public Library from 1 to 4 p.m. Feb. 6. There’s no fee, no commission and it’s open to the public, with refreshments courtesy of Sweeney’s and the Soldotna Elks Club. Space is limited, so email me at or call 398-0480 for more information and table reservations.

Homer Photography Exhibit

If you’re in the Homer area Feb. 5, stop by Kenai Peninsula College’s Kachemak Bay Campus between 5 and 6:30 p.m. for the opening reception for my solo photo exhibit, “Promises of Spring,” which hangs at Kachemak Bay Campus through March. The reception is free and the public is invited.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website,



Filed under photography, Plugged in

2 responses to “Plugged In: Choose concept, content, style for photos

  1. jack

    I suppose that “style” could be described as being a pattern. A pattern is
    of course/supposedly ok. it streamlines production, ensures outcome.
    it is a good place to be as we are beginning. as we progress we need to consider our pattern and to consider rearranging our pattern, add new thoughts to find new patterns. sometimes we need to stay with the same pattern as that is what obtains the resources needed daily. it is
    boring to me and lifelessness when the pattern becomes like ground hog day
    I choose not to shoot just to be shooting, of course, I could very well be wrong.
    it is a pattern after………all.

  2. jack

    also…..I neglected to mention that I look forward to Wednesdays, as reading your “spot on” commentary is enjoyable and informative.

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