I am lucky enough to have hosted or been a part of workshops around the world. One thing I teach in my workshops is that photographers should not look at other photography to be inspired.
They should look at art. Now I know right at this moment, hundreds of photography purists are probably waving their overpriced zoom lens in the air angrily. But I honestly believe you will get more from studying paintings, sketches, and digital art than you ever will from other people’s photography.
If you boil any kind of imagery down to its core, all you are left with is the arrangement of specific elements in a pleasing way. This is composition. If you can learn the science and technique of composition and apply it to your images, you will be away from the starting blocks with distance to spare. In photography, because we have less control, the rules of composition have been simplified down to the golden ratio, which if you rotate, you can usually get to line up with something, so I am not a huge believer. And then, we have the good old rule of thirds, which you should not use. I can not tell you how many times I have seen an image composed with the horizon on the bottom line and a lighthouse on the right third. If you only look at photography, this is where the problem lies: you will only see the simplified compositional techniques unless you follow one of the few photographers who have learned the more advanced techniques.
In art, the person with the brush or pencil has studied art, has learned from the old painters, and applies all the techniques to compose an image. This is why most of the time, if you hold a painting next to a photo, the photo will seem flat composition-wise in comparison. These composition techniques are not exclusive to the artists, though; we can also apply them to our work, but most photographers probably do not even know they exist. Instead of the rules of thirds, learn about armature grids, arabesques, leading lines, triangles, ellipses, radiating lines, and the plethora of compositional techniques used by artists. Anyone can take a photo of a pretty girl on a street with a strobe at a low f-stop and blur the background. Not many, though, can compose multiple elements in a scene using compositional techniques.
Depth is another reason why you should look at art and not other people’s photography, but I do not mean the depth of field. I am talking about hidden themes, deeper meanings, and metaphors. The thing about most art is that it has multiple levels. Yes, it looks beautiful and is composed well, but between the lines and the brush strokes of oil lie emotion and stories that one must linger on. Art trains your eye to look for these clues, to stare at the work longer, and to put all the pieces together to create a fulfilling experience. Now, I am not saying this does not happen in photography, but it is not often applied.
When I browse my Facebook or Instagram feed, I am inundated with images that all look similar. While the rise of social media and the ability to show your photos to all your friends and followers which is great, there is one drawback, that being everyone is seeing the same images and then basically copying the image they saw and re-purposing it as their own. There are even accounts specifically highlighting this on Instagram now. It is great to be inspired, but take an idea, change it, and then, add your style. If you repurpose the very same concept and idea, you are gaining nothing. It is very hard to create something new these days, but it is about your voice and your style. The same applies to art, but if you at look what painters do, they may take a well-worn concept, but they then paint it in their voice with a completely different style and make it their own. As a creative, you want range; look at how a graphic designer pieces artwork together or how a sculptor creates depth by curving certain elements on the stone.
There is a whole world of art out there to learn from, and you need to broaden your horizons if you want to grow as a photographer. So many times, I will see an image, and all the comments do is focus on what lens was used or what ISO they were on. Yes, learn how to use the camera, but do not focus on numbers. Who cares what aperture it was shot at? After three weeks of using a camera, you should be able to work that out. Instead, focus on the art of the image, the voice of the image, the message. You can learn to do this by looking at art. No one cares about your fancy telescopic lens or your $5,000 camera; they care about the vision inside that brain of yours and the way you release it into the world. Do not take an image, create an image.