Nat Coalson, Photographer & Author




A simple definition of fine art photography could be “pictures intended to be hung on the wall and appreciated, as opposed to the type of disposable images used [and quickly discarded] in the daily routines of news reports and other ephemeral media”.

Fine art photography is simply a more specific sub-category of photography. If photography, in the general sense, is making pictures that are captured and reproduced with mechanical devices, fine art photography just refers to those pictures intended to be viewed as art (as opposed to journalism, forensics, personal records, family scrapbooks, etc.). It all comes down to the intended purpose of the picture and how it’s presented and viewed.

I believe anything can be labeled “art”; this is nothing more than an agreement between the maker and the viewer. Traditionally, most fine art photography has been conceptual in nature, seeking to convey a meaning and message, or provoking deeper thought (often in a controversial or uncomfortable way). But some of the most valuable fine art photographs ever made don’t ask any questions; they are very documentary in nature. The important characteristic is how the viewer perceives the image.

EWWAs a follow-up from the last question, when does a photograph move from being purely documentation and move into being a work of fine art photography?

Nat: History has clearly shown that a picture moves from being pure documentation to fine art when influential people decide it so. Many documentary photographs have become valuable fine art through this process; this is especially true with war photography. It often happens with an endorsement from a prominent art critic or gallery owner; sometimes it’s an auction house that promotes a picture as fine art for the first time.

To me, a picture can also begin its life as a work of fine art photography, if the maker of the picture does so with care, intention and a clear vision of what the work is meant to be. (Cindi Sherman’s and Gregory Crewdson’s work come to mind.) Still, the acceptance of a photograph as a work of fine art must be agreed upon by the people who would view (or seek to own) the work. A family snapshot from a summer vacation could become fine art if the right people agreed on it. I suppose, with all this in mind, the most important factor in “what is fine art?” has to do with the attitude of the collector/buyer/dealer—everyone except the photographer! Still, if any photographer chooses to call their work “fine art”, this position should be considered valid and respected.

EWWIf I were to walk into an exhibition that included many works from many photographers, could I immediately know which ones were yours? If so, how?

NatIt depends on the exhibition. I exhibit different work based on the theme or context of the show. In many situations, my work may not immediately stand out, because my subject matter and compositions are often subtle and quiet. So if you wanted to identify my pictures, you’d look for the unassuming ones. I don’t make pictures of shocking, unpleasant or disturbing subjects. Often, though, I show work with bright, vibrant colour, so my pictures may be the “loudest” of the bunch! My abstract photographs definitely stand out. And almost always, my work is characterized by a strong graphic quality, certainly derived from my long background as a graphic designer.

EWWDo you have any style in your photography that seems to repeat itself from one work to another? (I.e. color. perspective, types of shots, movement, etc.)  

Nat: My photography is all about design. Every composition is carefully considered. When I’m shooting, I aim to construct pictures by deliberate placement of objects within the frame. For this reason, regardless of whether I’m shooting in an urban or natural environment, I usually photograph still subjects (except in the case of flowing water, leaves in the breeze, etc.). I like to juxtapose motion and movement with stillness.

Many of my pictures are structured around a clearly defined center of interest and a single focal point, often placed at, or near, one of the Rule-of-Thirds intersections. I also go for minimal, simplistic backgrounds. My scenic images, more often than not, are characterized by a relative lack of depth—I tend to prefer compositions that appear quite flat (again, from my graphic design), though, of course, there are exceptions. With my abstract photography, I’m mainly looking for strong contrast and defined shapes.

Click on an image to enlarge it.


EWWWhat are your feelings about the growing interest in HDR in photography?

NatI think the interest in HDR (High Dynamic Range) imaging is understandable, given the limitations of current camera technology. It’s quite natural for people to want to present images that look very much like what they saw with their own eyes. A camera doesn’t have the ability to render the same range of tones as the eye, so within a single capture, you often end up with blown-out highlights (pure white) or blocked up shadows (solid black). Both result in a loss of perceptible detail. Even the best cameras can’t yet match the optical performance of the human eye; HDR presents a workaround. By combining multiple exposures, a composite image can present more detail in the highlights and shadow areas of a scene. Unfortunately, the resulting effect very often looks unnatural.

Personally, I have little interest in HDR photography. Even though my background in digital imaging allows me to achieve any effect using digital images in the computer, I strongly prefer to make my photographs as much as possible in the camera. On rare occasions, I might make an HDR composite if it suits my vision for the image, but I’d rather work within the parameters of what my camera can do itself, and make the best pictures I can, based on those limitations. This is partly because I enjoy working with my camera more than I enjoy sitting at the computer, but more so because, from a purist standpoint, I want to maximize what I can do using the camera’s sensor, and most importantly, its optics. For me, this is one of the most enjoyable challenges of photography—understanding the capabilities and limitations of the equipment and making pictures I enjoy without having to resort to all kinds of special processing. I believe a minimalist approach to photography technology can often result in stronger pictures. But when the situation truly calls for it, being able to apply the latest digital technology to perfect an image can make all the difference. The day may come when cameras can capture what our eyes can see; until then, I’m usually happy working with a single capture to make each finished picture, complete with all its flaws and limitations as a medium.

EWWWhat is the process that you go through in deciding what images to work with as abstracts?

NatFor my abstract photography, true abstraction is the ultimate goal. This means making pictures in which the subject matter is not identifiable. I’ve found this to be more challenging than I first expected. A camera is made to precisely capture visual reality, not to distort it! My abstract work is straight photography, with no compositing or special effects applied in the computer—all my abstract photographs are shot that way. I don’t significantly change the pictures to make them abstract in the computer.

I look for subject matter with clearly defined lines and shapes, strong tonal contrast, and, usually, a few bright bits of color. Most importantly, the subject needs to appear such that I can render it unidentifiable simply through composition and, in some cases, camera motion. (I’m developing a growing body of work made by moving the camera during long exposures, or allowing the subject to move, which produces imagery that couldn’t be seen by the unaided eye.)

As with all my work, I believe a strong abstract photograph must present an identifiable focal point or center of interest. For example, if there is a strong pattern, I try to break the pattern in some way.

When I’m done shooting, I usually have many captures of the scene or subject to sort through. Editing my abstract shoots is very time consuming. I have to choose the one best shot from lots of very similar images! To do this, I keep referring to the important questions of photography: What is this picture about? What do I want to show the viewer? What’s the center of interest? How can I eliminate distractions to make the picture stronger?

EWW: Tell us about your training in photography?

Nat: I’ve learned about photography over many years studying the work of masters of the craft. Before I started doing photography full-time, I spent twenty-plus years working as a graphic designer, during which time I worked with untold numbers of photographs in my designs. As I became more interested in photography as both an art and a profession, I attended a few excellent workshops; more importantly, I read every good book about photography I could get my hands on. When I started to get comfortable with the technical aspects of using the camera, I began focusing on the creative and philosophical points of photography as a way of life. Important artists that influenced my early development as a photographer were Freeman Patterson, John Paul Caponigro, Tony Sweet, William Neill and Man Ray. I also participated in many online forums, where I learned the art of critiquing images. This eventually led to my being asked to judge prominent photo competitions from which I also learned a lot, both from the other judges and from the makers of the best images.

Click on an image to enlarge it.


EWW: What do you see as major challenges for photographers today?

Nat: I believe the most significant challenge to photographers working today is to develop an individual voice for your work amid the intense noise created by the widespread popularity of the medium. With so many practitioners of the craft, it’s more difficult to create truly original work and even harder to gain visibility for that work. This means we each have to improve our work—and workflow—significantly.

Other key challenges for photographers today include

  • Enforcing copyright protection for the work
  • Restrictions when traveling, e.g. airline regulations limiting carry-on luggage
  • Threat of theft; maintaining adequate insurance coverage
  • Keeping up with technical advances, both in terms of understanding the technology and affording new gear

EWWWhat do you see as major challenges for photographers today, in terms of promoting and marketing their work?

Nat: People enjoying photography as a hobby have vast opportunities for sharing the work, mostly made possible by the Internet. The challenge here is getting the work seen when there are so many images online.

For photographers wanting to earn a living from their work, the challenges are more difficult. Unfortunately, the perception of photography as a profession has diminished and it’s harder than ever to make a living with pictures. To remain competitive as a professional requires a much higher level of commitment than in years past but, in the end, this is a good thing for the industry. Finding new and unusual subject matter to work with, communicating effectively and directly with people interested in the work, maintaining a professional image… all are all crucial aspects of success. In the end, the most important thing is to develop and maintain healthy, productive relationships with clients and other professionals who will help support the business. It’s not enough to just make great pictures.

EWWHow are you managing these challenges?

NatWhen I first decided to go into business as a photographer in 2003, I spent six months developing a business plan. Since then, I’ve continued to work to a plan, which I’ve updated every year or so. I believe having a well-conceived plan is crucial for any business to succeed.

One of the most important parts of a business and marketing plan is research. You need to know as much as you can about the business environment you’re working within, in terms of both competitors and client prospects.

Knowing exactly where you want to go and understanding what’s required to get there is only the first step. After that, it’s all about staying focused on the current task at hand.

Every day, I ask myself “what can I do right now to move my art and my business forward”?

EWW: From your perspective, what are the minimal activities that a photographer should be doing in terms of promotion and marketing?

Nat: You need to find a way to stand out; to make a positive impression in the mind of your target buyer or dealer. Although you can do this through traditional methods such as print portfolio submissions, these days it’s all about what you do online. There’s still a place for mailed postcards, personal letters and certainly in-person meetings, but promoting your work through electronic media and the Internet is essential. Below are some of what I believe are the most important promotional activities:

  1. Create buyer personas that describe your ideal client(s). All your marketing messages need to be created for these people!
  2. Build and maintain your own web site. (Get help when you need it!)
  3. Use a blog and/or social media presence to share new work and other updates.
  4. Send out regular email newsletters—your contact list is your most valuable asset!
  5. Exhibit prints in public whenever you find a good opportunity. There is no substitute for someone seeing a finished piece, in person.
  6. PDF brochures, iPad portfolios, etc. can also be useful, but these are only supplemental to the other materials.

Lastly, writing and talking about your photography (and the work of others) as often as you, can will help promote the work more effectively and will also help you improve your photography.

EWW: Do you use social media to market your work? If you do, which one(s) seem to work best for you?

NatI use many social media platforms, each for a slightly different purpose. Here are a few examples:

  • LinkedIn, especially industry-related groups, helps make meaningful business connections.
  • Twitter allows me to share quick links to my new work and writing, along with other cool things I find online.
  • Facebook helps promote my classes and workshops as well as presenting the more personal side of my business.


EWW: Is there anything else Nat that you think would be important to know about you or your photography?

Nat: Photography means many things to different people. For me, making pictures is a way of life. Photography helps me connect more deeply with the world around me by reminding me to slow down and pay attention. I make new pictures every chance I get, but even when I’m not making pictures, being a photographer makes life more interesting and provides more joy in everything I do.





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