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8 Tips to Improve Your Photography by Creating Instead of Taking Photos

If you’re like most photographers you use your camera to capture a moment; you see an interesting subject, so you photograph it to the best of your ability. But a worthwhile experiment is to try staging a photo. Rather than waiting for all the elements to perfectly arrange themselves, take control and create the moment yourself.

It’s an important lesson in thinking about the story and composition, and it’ll improve your photography in no time. I spent three years photographing everything in sight, but it was only after taking control of my images that I was able to turn my hobby into a profession.

Field of Dreams

Creating a photo can be as simple, or elaborate, as you wish. If you’re interested in street photography, this could involve asking an interesting stranger to pose in a particular place or way. For macro photography, setting up a backdrop behind a pretty flower can make the subject more dynamic. For portraits it could be a photo of your child dressed in their favourite costume, acting out a scene in your backyard. As long as you have actively directed the subject in some way.

Elements to consider are:

  1. Story
  2. Subject
  3. Setting and location, era, time of day
  4. Props
  5. Wardrobe
  6. Pose
  7. Lighting
  8. Framing / Composition and angle, lens used

Let’s break these down one by one.

#1 – Story

What’s happening in your photo? What’s your subject or character doing? A story isn’t always necessary, but having answers to these questions certainly helps make it more engaging, and gives you an idea of what extra elements can help enrich the story.

In “Return of the Sword” (below) I was playing with the idea of King Arthur’s Excalibur, and I wanted my character’s reflection to look as if it were offering her the sword. To be able to tell this story I needed to have the right prop, costume, and location, to help the viewer understand what was happening, and associate it with the original story.

Return of the Sword

#2 – Subject

Who is your character? What physical attributes do they need to have? If you have a willing family member or friend on hand, that’s great! Otherwise you can recruit models through places like ModelMayhem. However, your subject needn’t be a person, an object or an animal are fine too.

I shoot self-portraits, primarily because it’s convenient, but I’m certainly no classic beauty, so I try to disguise my face as much as possible. In “Red Runs” below, I wanted to show Red Riding Hood running through a forest, followed by a wolf, so my character needed a red cape and blonde hair. This was easily achieved with the help of a blonde wig and my dog, Koda.

Red Runs

#3 – Setting

Where and when is your story taking place? To find interesting locations, assess your local area for unique landmarks. Use Google Maps to discover what’s nearby, then use your car and your feet to explore further. If your goal is to photograph an interesting insect, your where might be in front of some black cardboard to cut out the background clutter, and your when might be early morning when the light is soft and appealing.

In “Siren’s Sorrow” below, I used an impressive local relic, the Gayundah Shipwreck, to tell the story of a regretful mermaid. I shot at sunset to add interest to the sky, and I wanted the time period to be non-specific, so I was sure not to include any objects in the shot, that would anchor it in time. There were many walkers passing by, and an active construction site overlooking the area, but you’d be surprised how quickly you stop being self-conscious when you start doing self-portraits.

Siren s Sorrow

#4 – Props

Having your subject interact with something will make your shot more interesting and further your story. You can buy props from cheap used clothing shops, eBay, or just use things you have lying around the house. If you’re going for something simple, spraying water on a flower adds interest, as does adding people to a landscape.

In “The Blue Girl” I wanted to tell the story of a girl who had cried for so long, that she filled a room with tears, and turned it into an ocean. I placed polyfill behind her head for the clouds, and added birds and a friend’s model ship, to give interest to the scene.

The Blue Girl

#5 – Wardrobe

What would your character be wearing? I have a rack full of costumes, specifically to be used in photoshoots, that I’ve bought from eBay and op shops, but you needn’t get this involved. My main considerations are usually whether the outfit suits the story, and if its colour will contrast with the surroundings, to make it stand out. If my face will be seen, I generally wear basic make-up I’ve applied myself.

In “Dance of the Jacarandas” I used a $30 wig from eBay, and a $5 dress I bought at a local theatre’s costume sale. The dress was the perfect colour and shape, to make my character look like a Jacaranda flower.

Dance of the Jacarandas

#6 – Pose

What would your character naturally be doing in their story? Are they powerful or submissive? I tend to shoot the main pose, and then do a few variations so I have options to work with.

In “I Tried to Drown My Sorrows”, I wanted to show a girl who looked like she’d fallen into a glass. The pose had to be compact to fit in the glass, yet rigid to show the shock of the fall. I did this by jumping around in my backyard, then flipping the image upside down so I was falling instead of jumping. The movement caused by jumping makes the pose more dynamic and my hair look like it’s floating.

I Tried to Drown My Sorrows

#7 – Lighting

Lighting can be tricky, and expensive, so it’s always best to start out with natural light, positioning your subject so the light sculpts their features. Shoot early, or late in the day, and aim for overcast or cloudy days to avoid harsh shadows (unless that’s what you want). You can start experimenting cheaply with lamps and candles.

I usually like to work with natural, overcast lighting, because it makes compositing easier. But, in “Self-Destruct” I wanted the character to look as if she were burning the world down, so I shot as the sun was rising which would make the landscape a warm orange.

Self Destruct

#8 – Framing

Do you want a wide shot to see the location, or a tight shot to really focus on your subject? Do you want to shoot from low down to make them look powerful, high up to make them look submissive, or straight on to let the image alone tell the story? Do you want the whole scene in sharp focus, or do you want the background to be blurry?

I shot the three elements (sky, character, flowers) of “Time Flies” straight on, so they were easy to composite together. I cropped the image so the girl filled the frame, but removed her face to add mystery to the image. The loosely pointed hand directs the eye around the scene.

Time Flies


When planning your image, try sketching out your idea beforehand, as this helps you visualize what it will look like, and if any extra elements are needed to strengthen your story. My images often take on a life of their own, different from my original concept, so don’t get too disheartened if your shoot doesn’t work out. You’ll still have learned a ton of things from the experience that you can use next time.

Naturally your concepts don’t need to be as involved, or as heavily Photoshopped as mine, but I’m certain you’ll find the process of creating something from your imagination incredibly fun and rewarding. I’d love to see the results of your own staged shoots, please share in the comments below.


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Hayley Roberts
Hayley Roberts

is an Australian conceptual artist, and travel photographer. Using trick photography, and Photoshop manipulation, she creates illusions that blend fantasy into reality. Through the use of costumes, props, and posing, her conceptual portraits tell imaginative stories that could easily have leaked from the pages of fairy tales. On her website, she runs the Exposing Illusions project, where she regularly studies and emulates creative photography techniques, while teaching others to do the same.

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