What Makes Contemporary Photography Special?

Contemporary photography is a field that covers all relatively recent photographic art. The “contemporary” is ever changing, and our current moment is particularly exciting.

When looking at the world of photography as contemporary art, you will notice that many of the same trends are occurring there as in all art fields. New technologies are continuously expanding what is possible, and while this drives some artwork, it also causes other artists to look back with nostalgia at previous decades and techniques. Meanwhile, mainstay genres in the field are continued and developed by new generations of photographers.

Columbia College Chicago has a contemporary photography gallery and museum where you can browse many current styles and a variety of artistic photography images. As you can see from a brief look around, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Capturing magnificent images of nature’s beauty a la Ansel Adams can still command attention. But that being said, changes in society are always driving new types of contemporary photography. Below are some of the trends and styles that are making this such an exciting part of our culture.

New Technologies

Most if not all contemporary art styles have been impacted by new technologies. Photography is no different.

Contemporary fine art photographers have more power in their hands than ever before. The availability of drones are giving people easier access to new and exciting vantage points. Awe-inspiring overhead shots of earth no longer require a helicopter, and so these kinds of photos are experiencing a boom.

The role of photography in art has often been on the technological forefront, and the last two decades have proven this especially true. The ubiquity of digital cameras and inexpensive photo editing software have driven down initial costs. This has given rise to an enormous generation of young photographers with new ideas.

Meanwhile, the ability to promote and sell your photography online is lowering barriers for modern day photographers to start their careers. Contemporary photography prints are a growing market inside the art world, and young talent has an easier time than ever before reaching interested buyers.

Due to lower costs to get started and self-promote, this new generation includes voices that have traditionally been excluded due to poverty, racism, and sexism. This increasing diversity of photographers is driving a diversity of narratives and approaches to their field.


As mentioned above, nostalgia plays an important role in contemporary art photography as in all other fields. A return to and appreciation of traditional film stock and subject matter has made its mark. The allure of dark room development and process is a part of this trend for photographers themselves, but the particular qualities of film stock is a major factor in its success with the art world.

But modern digital photographers are exploring nostalgia as well. Digital photography has now been around long enough to give our culture a perspective on earlier forms of the technology, and artists are exploring these artifacts of an earlier digital age.


One of the most exciting developments in contemporary artwork is the use of hybrid forms. Modern photographers and their works are often breaking out beyond the traditional idea of a picture on the wall.

Photographers are using their photos to skin sculptures, staging multiple complex photos to create collage, and projecting photos inside of installations. These are only a few examples of the ideas that are continuously revolutionizing how we see photography and its interaction with other art forms.


Modern art photography uses the frame of the photograph to express the world in so many ways, but what about photography that isn’t trying to show us the world as it is? We used to define composition in photography as placement of items in the frame. Those items used to be objects in the real world. Abstract photography breaks that discussion open to include surprising colors, bizarre shapes, and strange light effects.

While there is a long tradition of artists using the camera to create purely abstract works, that rich tradition has blossomed today. While dark room techniques have been around as long as photography has existed, the rise of photo editing software brings near limitless possibilities — and artists have taken notice.


Similar to abstract photography, surreal photography eschews the real world as its subject matter. Surrealists use staging and digital manipulation to create strange perspectives and entire worlds using their camera.

Surreal photography pushes contemporary photography ideas to include images that often break the rules of what’s possible. With a sophisticated eye and technical know-how, photographers are able to bend minds with their compositions. The effect can often be as unsettling as it is beautiful.

A Great Time for Photography

There’s never been a better time to get into photography. The internet has, over the last few decades, exploded the amount and kinds of contemporary art for sale — and the world of photography has benefited perhaps more than any other form.

Whether you enjoy traditional styles or the latest breakthroughs in the field, it has never been easier to discover what you like and purchase prints.

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