What are the different genres of photography?

Thu 21 Apr 2022

Do you know the difference between contemporary portrait, documentary and landscape photography? Find out in this blog post. 

This post is by Catarina Fontoura, Module Leader for Falmouth Flexible's BA(Hons) Photography (Top-Up)

This glossary aims to provide an introduction to the activity and languages within contemporary photographic practice.

The key concepts you will find explained below can begin a conversation about photographic conventions and the ways in which diverse photographic images operate in the current visual and cultural worlds.

As we know, photography is now part of everyday life for most people on earth. Even if you do not have a camera phone, if you want to travel you will need a form of ID with a photograph in it. We use it to communicate, to buy and sell, to record our lives, to carry out justice, to make science and more.

Although photography as a practice and technique could be introduced in many ways, we shall focus on well-known categories which can and do exist across purposes and institutions.

These categories have also been known as genres. In his book ‘Photography: Key Concepts’, David Bate explains that in photography the use of the genres hasn’t been as used as in literature and film.

Bates sees genres as places of convention, social and cultural meaning, which create expectations in their audience. Genres are therefore a useful category for the study of photographic practice and theory because they organise photographic values. (Bate, 2016, p.4-8).

What is portrait photography?

According to Lucy Soutter the focus of photographic portrait is the individual, the person being depicted. At the same time, the portrait invites the audience to ‘relate to the person or people in the image’ (Soutter, 2013, 18).

In a photographic portrait the photographer will make a series of decisions based not only on the appearance of the sitter, but on lighting, location, focal length and framing which will allow for the image to capture not only the likeness of the sitter but their social identity, a sense of who the person is and what they are like. A good photographic portrait will allow for the viewer to feel a connection to someone they have never met. 

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What is documentary photography?

In the past, documentary photography distinguishes itself from other photographic genres by obscuring its craft. The twentieth century saw a rich debate arguing for documentary photography to have strict fidelity to real events happening in front of the camera, seen as an instrument of truth.

Contemporary documentary routinely questions and evaluates photography’s credibility and objectivity. From the development of ‘in-between’ categories such as fashion documentary, to thinking about digital technology and surveillance, to new ways of engaging with storytelling, contemporary photography could be said to be at forefront of experimental and innovative photographic practice.

The subjects, stories and issues currently addressed by documentary photography are incredibly diverse, from social justice, environmental crisis, health and wellbeing, personal stories, economic and political issues, conflict, and war and more. Colin Pantall, “All Quiet in the Home Front’, Book published 2017 MA Photography Module Leader

What is still life photography?

Still life photography as a genre is intimately connected to the long tradition of still life in the history of painting. A still life is a visual representation where the subject matter is inanimate, does not move or is dead. It can include man-made objects or natural objects, such as flowers, fruit, vegetables, or other natural treasures.

Within the core of still life painting and photography is the theme of the time. Traditionally objects are used in symbolic ways to refer to the ephemeral nature of life.

Still life has been a part of the history of photography since its inception, but naturally, contemporary artists and photographers have used new visual languages and tools to bring the genre to contemporary times.

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Wendy McMurdo, ‘Indeterminate Objects: Flora’, 2020 MA Photography Module Leader. Watch a short film about Wendy's work.

What is fine art photography?

Fine Art photography broadly speaking could be said to be any photographic image that operates as art. Souter describes various positions one can take in the discussion of how photographs gain value and meaning as art objects. One of these positions is that ‘photography has aesthetic, expressive and craft value for its own sake’(Souter, 2013, 2) .

Another important consideration that photography is now generously found in Fine Art contexts, galleries, museums, art books, art collections and more and this can help categorize images as fine art photographs. In this sense, other genres, such as portraiture, landscape, documentary and more, can in considered to be fine art photography.

Fine Art photography often delves into themes explored by Fine Art with some medium specificity and it tends to have a conceptual drive, whereby ideas and intentions help the photographer and artists to navigate decision making in the process of making the work. 

What is landscape photography?

Contemporary landscape photography goes beyond the straight representation of a place to include themes of identity within place, territory and politics, environment, and ecology, longing and belonging and historical narratives attached to a specific geographical place.

Looking at the medium’s history, many photographers ‘have studied both the town and the country as their subjects, and every conceivable kind of terrain between the two, as well as beyond’ (Alexander, 2015, 13).

The territories in which landscape photography can be made is as wide as the possibilities of this genre to intermingle with others. In the contemporary photography world many documentary or fashion photographers include the study of landscape as a way to give depth to their projects ‘contaminating’ in an exciting and innovative way the way landscape photography is disseminated and consumed.

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Jesse Alexander, ‘Silent Land 2017-20’, MA Photography and BA Photography Top Up Course Leader


ALEXANDER, Jesse. 2015. Perspectives on Place Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography. London ;: Fairchild Books.

BATE, David. 2016. Photography : The Key Concepts. Second edition. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

SOUTTER, Lucy. 2018. Why Art Photography? Second edition. London: Routledge.

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