Ten Reasons to “Shoot to a Theme”

The assigned theme was “Benches.” I probably would have never otherwise seen and shot this interesting abstract of shadows falling across the aluminum bleachers at a baseball field. – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

Often photography is about grabbing your camera, going to an interesting place, and looking for subjects that catch your eye.  No real plan, grab your camera, take a walk, and see what photo opportunities present themselves.  There’s nothing wrong with that. Often serendipity will meet your skills as photographer and a good shot will result.  This is usually how I approach landscape photography.  Go to an interesting place, try to be there when the light is nice, look for compositions and make some shots.  I often enjoy this “seat-of-the-pants-approach.”  But I’ve also learned there is something to having a plan, a “theme” to guide my shots.  Let’s look at ten reasons why.

1 – Gaining Focus

Photographers use the term “focus” to mean adjusting a lens so that desired objects in the image are sharp and receive the most attention.  Let’s think about that another way however.  When you go out to shoot with no specific plan or theme, you are faced with many decisions: what to shoot, how to compose the shot, where to stand, camera angle, use of the light, and perhaps most importantly – what is it you are trying to communicate with your shot?  When you instead go out with a theme already chosen, now you can look for good examples of that theme, already having an idea of what your subject will be and maybe even pre-visualizing what you want the shot to look like.  Now rather than just “shot-gunning” a location, hoping to get a good image, you can zero in as you would with a rifle, finding your target and aiming specifically to get the image you visualized.  When you already know what you’re looking for, it’s much easier to find it!

2 – Better, Faster, Stronger! – Increased Efficiency

For many professional photographers, time is money.  They have a fashion shot to capture, a product photograph to make, a publication with a deadline, a client who needs that certain shot – now!  There isn’t time to waste hoping a shoot might produce what they need, making shots until they get a good one.  They need to know long before the camera is picked up what they want to create.  They then draw upon their talent, training, and artistic eye to make that shot – the one they’d already seen in their head.  The camera is simply a machine that translates that vision into a tangible photograph.

I “saw” this image in my head before I made it. The assigned theme was silhouettes. The bear, balloons, and clouds were three separate images later composited in edit. – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

This is what having a theme can do.  Decide what you want to shoot beforehand.  Think about how you will light it, the camera angle, the lens, any technical details necessary.  Pre-visualize the image, then make the photo – efficiently.  No wasting time wandering around hoping to see a shot.  Remember,

Snapshooters Take pictures. 

Skilled Photographers Make Photographs.

3- Seven Days without Photography Makes One Weak

How often do you shoot?  I’d hope that as a photo enthusiast you’re getting out with your camera at least several times a week.  Now, most of us have decent cameras in our cellphones and can practice more frequent photography.  The images may not be as good as we can get with our DSLRs, (though the gap narrows each day!) but it’s still practicing photography.  Like exercise or learning any other skill, it’s frequent repetition that builds “creative muscle” and expertise.  So how can you use the technique of  Photographing to a Theme to enhance this?

Last December I wrote an article, “52 Weeks to Becoming a Stronger Photographer in 2018.”  It was about how I used a “Project 52” to enhance my photo skills.  The term is based on an exercise involving taking a themed photo once a week for an entire year.  52 weeks, 52 themes, a weekly exercise with lots of photography during the year.  The article describes how I did it and the “ground rules” I set for myself.  There are three major reasons this can be such a boost to your photo skills –

  • When my weekly assignment theme was “technology”, I went to a computer scrap yard, picked up a hard drive and some other components, and made this image. Shooting to a theme will challenge your creativity and cause you to make photos you never thought of doing before. – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

    If you treat this with discipline and faithfully complete your “assignment” each week, you will be getting lots of “photographic exercise.”

  • Having a collection of random themes will force you out of your comfort zone and into trying things and photographing subjects that you might otherwise never have explored.
  • Your creativity will be challenged. You may encounter a theme where you will say, “How do I make a photograph of THAT??!!”  That will be a good thing.  A little creative struggle is good for the soul, and for teaching photographic creativity

4 – Developing Collections

If you ever plan to show your images in a gallery, make a photo book, or even create a slideshow, a hodge-podge of unrelated images, however good, misses the mark.  If one photo is worth 1,000 words, a series of photos all relating to a theme is an essay, a photo book, a statement, a “work.”  Shooting to a theme will help you create such collections. Something else you may wish to do is use the “Collections” tool in Lightroom to create virtual groups of related images, even if they weren’t shot at the same time.  Then, should you have the opportunity to present your work, you will already have images to choose from that all fit a common theme.

Out Standing in the Field? When the theme was “Abandoned,” I decided to visit an old tractor scrapyard. I now have a nice collection of old tractor photos. Not sure about the market for these, but it was fun. – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

Another good reason to shoot and create themes is to be able to quickly offer clients a specific image they may be looking for.  In the world of stock photography this is key.  Say you made it a point to go out and shoot the covered bridges in New England.  If you built on this theme, adding new images as you could, carefully keywording them and putting them into collections, you could quickly locate them. Then, when there was a contest for the “Iconic Covered Bridges of Vermont” or an editor contacted you to see if you had a shot of the “Greenbanks Hollow Bridge” near Danville, with a few clicks you could find your shot and cash in.

5 -A Signature Style

I like to create, light, and shoot still-life images like this. I have quite a number with a similar look. Is it my “signature style?” I don't know yet, but it could be. – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

If your images were mixed in a pile with those from other photographers, could observers not knowing which photographer had made which shot group yours together?  Do you create images that have a certain, “look,” “style,” “editing technique” or even common “theme” that is your signature?  Most of us know the work of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Anne Geddes, or Art Wolfe at a glance.  They have developed such individualized styles that consistently run through their images that we just “know” their work when we see it.  They have developed a “signature style” and we know their photography much the same as we know a Monet, a Rembrandt, or a Van Gogh painting.

It takes a while to find your style, but shooting to a theme is a good way to seek it.  Perhaps you find you have a knack for still-life images and even more specifically, still-life flowers.  Maybe you have found a niche, a specialty such that when people look at the image they will know it’s yours.

In my photo club we have a member who has bought the equipment, trained himself, and put in hours of practice learning image-stacking techniques.  When we see a razor-sharp macro with precise technique, we know immediately who made it. No one else, at least not in our club, has the skills to produce such shots.

A member of my camera club has developed his “signature style” mastering the technique of focus stacking. This shot, razor sharp through the shot, (which is tough to do in a macro image!) is actually 118 shots combined with the program Zerene Stacker. This online image doesn't do it justice. As a print, it is absolutely stunning! – Photo by Robert Riddle

There’s nothing wrong with being a “generalist” and having your images cover a wide array of subjects, looks, and techniques.  But, if your objective is to become better known in huge world of photographers, developing a specialty and a unique look that is your signature is the way to do it.

It was bitter cold the winter I shot this ice-encrusted chain. I wanted to work with the theme “Cold.” I think the ice and the cold blue color help communicate the concept. – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

6 – Developing Your Visual Vocabulary

Having the ability to use well-chosen words which precisely describe the place, thought, idea, or concept you wish to convey is a sign of having a mastery of vocabulary.  We speak and write in words, but as photographers, we use images as our means of expression.  Much as we can expand our verbal and written skills, there are ways to increase our “visual vocabulary,” the way we use composition, light, and the other photo techniques to communicate.  One good way to use the Shooting to a Theme technique is to pick themes that are not “things,” but instead concepts.  Rather than pick the theme “leaves,” perhaps shoot the theme “autumn.”  What might you choose to shoot, how would you use the subjects, light, and color to communicate that concept?

7 – Seeing with New Eyes

The assigned theme was “Circles.” I learned to look at objects I'd normally pass right by as photo opportunities. Shooting to a Theme can give you “new eyes” and cause you to look at the world differently. – Photo collage by Rick Ohnsman
The weekly assignment theme was “Hands at Work.” I'm really glad to have made this shot with my now departed 92-year-old father-in-law which I called “Old Hands, New Life.” This is also a good example of “Creating Story” with an image. – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

During my Project 52, one of the weekly assignment themes I had was “Circles.”  I was delighted to learn how it became an exercise in seeing, in taking photos of things I’d normally pass right by, in finding interest in the mundane and art in everyday objects.  Another time the theme was “Hands at Work.”  I had so many ideas I wished I’d had more than a week to explore them!  The week the assignment was “A Lone Tree,” I spent most of my time driving around looking for one that would make a nice photo.  Running out of time toward the end of the week, I finally found one, about a mile from my house.  I’d driven past it dozens of times and never noticed it!

Until I had the assigned theme of “A Lone Tree” I never looked twice at this scene only a mile from my house. Once I had the assignment, I started looking, found the tree, went there one evening for the sunset, and made the shot. When knowing what you want meets preparation and a dose of serendipity, good things can happen. – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

8 – How Does it Feel?

 “Don’t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like.” – David Alan Harvey

A novel, song, film, performance, meal, artwork, and yes… a photograph, to be truly great, need to move us at a much deeper level than a surface impression.  They need to evoke an emotion.  What is our gut response to the image?  How did the photographer use the art they created to convey not just what they saw, but how it felt to be there, the emotional experience of the moment.

Yellowstone National Park in the dead of winter. 15 degrees. It felt cold, stark, and harsh… a tough place to survive. This tree looked like a victim. Did I communicate how it FELT in the photo? – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

Sometimes the event just happens, say a spectacular sunset over a mountain scene.  If the photographer has the talent, they can capture the scene and perhaps the sense of awe they experienced.  Using the technique of shooting to a theme however allows you to first think of the emotion you want to create, and then design your photo to evoke that emotion.

I sometimes wonder when showing images to non-photographers how they react most to images that are “pretty.”  Yes, I suppose I have achieved my objective if my photograph evokes that emotion but would an image that was disturbing and elicited an “Ugh!” response not be as “good” a photo?  You, the photographer, need to decide on the emotion you want to convey and then use your visual vocabulary to communicate that.

Say you decided your theme was “loneliness.”  What might be your subject?  How would you compose the shot?  What colors might you want to emphasize or might you use monochrome?  What if the chosen theme were “joy,” or “wonder?”  Ask yourself the same questions.  These will be harder images to make as they will require you to use extra measures of creativity, but you will find them to be great ways to grow your “visual vocabulary.”  When all your image evokes from your viewer is a “Meh” response, consider that photograph a failure.  But, when you really communicate the emotion through the photo and your viewer truly “feels it” – then know you have made a great shot!

9 – Be a Story Teller

It’s said that every picture tells a story.  Maybe, but then some stories are far more powerful than others.  As a photographer, you will find the images that most involve your view are those that as I’ve said, 1) Create Emotion and now 2), Tell a Story.  How have you crafted you photo so that the viewer relates to it and finds a personal connection?  Can a viewer look at your photo and then describe what’s going on in the photo, building a story around it?

I used to think when I was out photographing landscapes that if a person wandered into the shot I should wait until they left or ask them to please “get out of my shot.”  Now I’m finding more reasons to include people in my shots.  Sometimes, it’s to show scale.  We know how big a person is and so if we include a person in a shot it may show how really big that mountain is.  Other times it’s a good idea to include a person in the shot because it “Creates Story.”

A nice autumn shot in the San Juan Mountains near Ouray, Colorado. For me though, the icing on the cake is the inclusion of a person and their dog walking along the dirt road. That tiny touch adds “Story” to the shot. – Photo by Dan Mottaz

The photo above of an awesome Rocky Mountain autumn scene near Ouray, Colorado would be good without a person in the shot, but add the person taking their dog for a walk down the road and we’ve created both scale and story.  Travel magazines know this and invariably when they show a picturesque scene there will be a person in the shot too, probably doing something.  Their intent is to have you visualizing yourself as that person in that beautiful place and wanting to go there.  The photo below, by the same photographer, has been taken by many people and is an iconic spot.  In this case however, he stitched several images together, creating a panorama into which he included himself and thus created both scale and story.

Kanarra Creek Falls in Utah is a much-photographed location. By thinking about the desired result before he made it, photographer Dan Mottaz was able to create this stitched panorama. The self-portrait gives scale and adds “Story” plus creates an image different than the standard shot most photographers make. – Photo by Dan Mottaz

10 – Sailing Uncharted Waters

“A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.”

― Franklin D. Roosevelt

It was Halloween and the theme was “Something Spooky.” I cooked up this idea. The only light for the shot was from a couple of chemical “Glow Sticks” mounted behind the jar. – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

Perhaps the best reason for shooting to a theme is it can take you into “uncharted waters.”  If you always photograph the same things, in the same way, using the same techniques, your work will become stale. You may even grow bored with photography.  You certainly won’t grow beyond that point.  Taking on a photographic theme, (and even better, a randomly-assigned one with little foreknowledge of what it will be and a deadline in which to accomplish it), will be hard.  It’s also hard learning to communicate an emotion using the visual vocabulary of photography.  But that’s exactly why you should do it!

It’s rough seas that make skilled sailors and it’s tough challenges that will grow your photographic skills.  After all, this is called the Improve Photography website, right?  That’s why you’re here, correct?  So pick a theme, (or better yet, print this list, cut the list into pieces, put the pieces in a jar and then without looking, pick one.  Then… go get ‘em!   Shoot, edit, and repeat often.  Let me know how it works out and thanks for reading!




4 thoughts on “Ten Reasons to “Shoot to a Theme””

  1. Hi, Rick Ohnsma
    Let me first congratulate you for the excellent article, I really endorse all your points and insight and deep interest in your passion.
    The kind of work you show to others is your personality your within without.
    Photography is meditation with camera.

  2. Pearl Devenow

    Rick..poignant, perceptive, passionate…and productive…all the things i need bec as use my camera was collecting dust for so long i sold it..now regret it so looking to get a new one and you reminded me about the why and gave me a way

  3. Great and thought provoking. I struggle with the thought of a style. Who knows maybe something will slowly emerge as I explore new subjects. I do have a theme in mind many times when I go out after birds. One has been what I think of as plumage for all seasons with Wood Ducks. My theme varies for birds in flight do I want frozen detail or the eye in sharp focus but movement in the wings and or the background to tell the story of motion. Now to work on themes for my other photo topics/subjects.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top