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.


Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

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.

  • George Citizen

    This typically isn’t my genre, but I really like your photos here. Besides admiring the creativity which I don’t have, this takes an immense amount of planning and hours of work. Good article! When I first saw your “Blue Girl” I thought of the song, “Absolutely (Story of a Girl)” that was covered by several bands in early 2000. “She cried a river and drowned the who world!” I was captivated by “Self Destruct”. It’s Escher-esque! The beauty of art is it’s open to interpretation, so I see the girl burning HER world, but not THE world. Only her world destructs as it hangs on the wall in another world. Loved the butterfly. As the girl’s world turns to ash, life going on without her. Great pictures!

  • Thank you so much! What a thoughtful comment. It’s my aim to get people thinking about my images exactly as you have and I really appreciate your thoughts. I’ll definitely check out the song you mentioned. πŸ™‚

  • Olivia White

    How creative! Thank you!

  • Lily Sawyer

    I love your images and concepts! Very creative!

  • I’m glad you like them. πŸ™‚

  • Thanks Lily! So nice of you to say.

  • naseer

    I really appreciate you excellence psot.I love to read it more again and again.

  • naseer

    I really appreciate you excellence psot.I love to read it more again and again.

  • Josh

    I’ve more recently felt the urge to start doing something a bit more creative and staged. Since I started with action photography many years ago and then later branched out to shooting anything and everything, participating in groups, entering contests and challenges, taking courses, reading, learning all the technical aspect of my DSLRs, I’ve gotten bored. I actually just discussed an idea with my 9 yr old just last weekend. Enjoyed the article and looking forward to getting out and shooting again and trying something new that let’s my creativity speak, rather than just trying shoot what I see creatively if that makes sense.

  • Joe Sobotka

    Absolutely Beautiful photo art! Truly inspiring. Thanks so much for this article and sharing your photos.

  • Rab McLaughlin

    Stunning images, thanks for sharing! I have a few still fairly vague ideas for shots I’d like to try, and your work is just the impetus I needed ?I

  • Fantastic! It’s a lot of fun, you’ll love it. πŸ™‚

  • Thank YOU Joe!

  • That’s exactly how I started out. If you need any advice I’m happy to help. Good luck!

  • I’m also a novelist. These photos would make great material for book covers. Beautiful work!

  • Vaun Fiedler

    Very interesting artwork. I appreciated your explanations of how you created the pictures.

  • Lisa Moyer

    Not normally my genre or interest, but I appreciate that you put so much time in the artistic side of photography! Well done!

  • robert

    great article, appreciate you sharing it

  • Ivor Morgan

    WOW! Simply, WOW! If I were able to come up with images half as lyrical as these I would be over the moon.

  • Marc Thibault

    do yu use L.R.or P.S..for post traitment…..

  • Thank you! It’s lovely to hear comments like these. Nothing stopping you from giving it a try!

  • Thanks Lisa πŸ™‚

  • Thank you! I’d love to get my work on a book cover. I work in a library so it would be wonderful to see my work and my photography merge.

  • Appreciate your comment. πŸ˜‰

  • Thanks Vaun. It was fun to write.

  • Mainly Photoshop for this kind of work. I’ve used Lightroom for years and bought the $9.99 monthly deal from Adobe which includes Photoshop so I figured I might as well learn it! Phlearn.com is the best place to learn Photoshop if you’re interested, but I still use Lightroom for a bunch of other things like my travel photography.

  • Heather

    These are absolutely amazing! I have a question. How do you shoot self-portraits? Do you use a timer or a trigger? I’ve never thought of trying to use myself instead of grabbing my friends to by my models.

  • Thanks Heather. I use a cheap remote from eBay and a tripod. I talk about it more in this blog post (skip down to the bottom for the numbered tips). http://hayleyrobertsphoto.com/how-to-photograph-a-self-portrait/

  • Heather

    Thank you Hayley! I have been completely inspired by your work. I really want to try this now!

  • Nicci Carrera

    Great article. You started me thinking about possibilities! I have tried to add people to photos of a path, but it’s hard to make the feet look connected. Anyway, you’ve certainly expanded my thought process a lot wider than that! Thanks.

  • Great to hear Nicci! Have you been adding shadows to your composites to connect the person to the scene? This post might help. πŸ™‚

  • Rajesh Mohile

    Very Creative…..just amazing the way you have clicked self portraits….props, costume & locations very interesting….

  • Thanks Rajesh!

  • Steven

    How amazing. Really love these images.

  • Chandler Harris

    Well … with Photoshop it’s possible to make banana from potato and this is obviously the case here also. Unfortunately no information how to make your REAL shots better. Presented pictures are awesome, no questions about that … but it’s PhotoShop, not 100% real takes πŸ™

  • Thanks Chandler. The main point of the article is to be more mindful about your photography and get involved in creating the scene. Pro photographers very rarely shoot a scene exactly as it is without getting involved in some way. Yes I used Photoshop in the images to illustrate the article, but they were merely for illustration, the points are what matters. This website is chock full of articles about how to make your real shots better and is exactly how I learned photography. I may Photoshop my work but I had to be a good photographer to capture all the elements in the first place. Good luck.

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