A2 Photography Essay Ideas For Middle School

Students taking high school photography qualifications such as A Level Photography or NCEA Level 3 Photography often search the internet looking for tips, ideas and inspiration. This article contains well over 100 creative techniques and mixed media approaches that Fine Art / Photography students may wish to use within their work. It showcases student and artist examples along with brief descriptions of the techniques that have been used. Approaches relate specifically to mixed media photography techniques, technical / trick photography ideas and interesting, fun or unique compositional strategies.

Note: The creative photography ideas listed in this article should not be explored haphazardly within a Photography course, but rather selected purposefully, if appropriate for your topic or theme. These approaches may or may not be relevant for your own photography project and should be chosen only in conjunction with advice from your teacher. The techniques listed here are created using a range of different cameras and devices, such as a digital SLR/DSLR camera, traditional camera, pinhole camera and/or camera phone. 

Stain, smudge and erode photographs using water, like Matthew Brandt:  

Print photographs onto a flexible surface and stretch or distort them, as in these works by Michal Macku: 

Burn photographs, as in these examples by Lucas Simões:  

Sew or embroider photos, as in the stitched vintage photography of Maurizio Anzeri: 

Stitch photographs together, like Lisa Kokin: 

Wrap torn plastic or other materials around the edge of your camera to create hazy edges, as in the photographs of Jesse David McGrady (via PetaPixel): 

Use a hand-held glass lens or prism, to create blurred, abstract forms, like this photograph by Sam Hurd:

Deliberately unfocus lights to create ‘bokeh’, as in this beautiful landscape by Takashi Kitajima:

Photograph scenes through visible hand-held lenses, as in this A Level Photography work by Freya Dumasia:

Abstract an image completely through three mirrors, creating a vortograph, like Alvin Langdon Coburn:

Fold a photograph and make a installation, still life or sculpture, as in this example by Joseph Parra:

Create 3D photography collages, as in these works by Midori Harima:

Collage mixed media materials onto images, as in Vasilisa Forbes’ photography:

Splash, smear or throw mixed media upon photographs, as in this A Level Photography sketchbook example by Jemma Kelly:

Simulate the effect of the wet collodion process used by Sally Mann via Edwynn Houk Gallery:

Paint developer sporadically onto photo paper to expose only parts of the work, as in these portraits by Timothy Pakron:

Paint directly onto photographs, as in these works by Gerhard Richter:

Combine paint and photographs digitally, like Fabienne Rivory‘s LaBokoff project:

Redraw part of a scene with paint, as in these works by Aliza Razell:

Write on objects and photograph them, as in this A Level assignment by Hallam Girardet of Monmouth Comprehensive School:

Paint onto objects and then photograph them, as in this IGCSE Photography piece by Rachel Ecclestone:

Mark or scratch negatives or photos, as in this 100 year old vintage print by Frank Eugene:

Use a CNC or Laser Engraving Machine to etch a photographic image onto glass, wood, aluminium or another similar material:

As technology progresses, it is possible for digital images to be engraved upon various surfaces (such as stone, timber, fabric or leather); on or within glass, as in a 3D crystal engraving; or around cylindrical items, such as a rotating bottle. A laser is used like a pencil, with a controlled beam moving in different directions, intensities and speeds, delivering energy to the surface, heating up and vaporises areas or causing small pieces to fracture and flake away. Although the majority of laser photo engraving examples online seem to be uninspiring commercial shots, laser engraving offers new possibilities for high school Photography students – not just in terms of printing images onto exciting materials, but as a way of creating a textured plate which can then be printed from. It should be noted that although most high school Art Departments are not in a position to purchase a 3D laser engraving machine to experiment with (although this may change in the future) some Design and Technology Departments are beginning to. Many companies also offer a custom laser engraving service that students may make use of. Remember that those who must post work away for assessment are not able to submit heavy, bulky or fragile pieces (such as laser wood engraving or laser engraving on glass).


Use an ink transfer method to print photograph images onto other materials, as in this video by Crystal Hethcote:

This video shows a simple image transfer technique using gel medium, which could be useful for applying a digital image to any number of creative surfaces.


Add sculptural elements that protrude from the photograph, as in this example by Carmen Freudenthal & Elle Verhagen:

Take photos using a scanner, like Evilsabeth Schmitz-Garcia:

Place objects on top of a photograph and scan it, like this example by Rosanna Jones:

Put objects on top of photographs and rephotograph them, like these images by Arnaud Jarsaillon and Remy Poncet of Brest Brest:

Project images onto textured surfaces and rephotograph them, as in these experimental images by Pete Ashton:

Project images onto people or scenes, as in these examples by freelance photographer Lee Kirby:

Create a photogram, as in this example by Joanne Keen:

Create pinhole photography, making your own pinhole camera from scratch like Matt Bigwood (via The Phoblographer):

Note: some teachers purchase a make-at-home pinhole camera set for their students, such as this one from Amazon US or Amazon UK (affiliate links).  Matt Bigwood‘s DIY pinhole cameras are made from ordinary aluminium drink cans:

Deliberately overexpose a shot, creating ‘high-key’ photography, like this portrait by Gabi Lukacs:

Experiment with underwater photography like Elena Kalis:

Use a homemade light box to create uncluttered backdrops for photography, as in this YouTube video by Auctiva:

Art teachers and students frequently take photographs upon cluttered classroom tabletops, often with less than optimal lighting conditions. Light box photography can be especially useful in this situation, helping those who wish to create professional product shots (Graphic Design students creating promotional material, for instance) or those who want to photograph sculptural or design pieces, create composite works from several elements or just to have a simple backdrop for their images. Tabletop photography becomes infinitely easier when you can light a subject well, and capture true colour and details, in a reliable, uniform way. If you are looking for other less time-intensive tabletop photography ideas or backdrop ideas, it is possible to purchase inexpensive light box kits and light tents from Amazon.com and Amazon UK (affiliate links).

Experiment with camera filters, like the neutral density filter that was used to photograph this beautiful seascape by Salim Al-Harthy:

Use specialised photography lighting to achieve dramatic contrasts, as in this portrait of two brothers by dankos-unlmtd:

Use a transportable photography reflector (i.e. this one from Amazon.com or Amazom UK – affiliate links) to create better lighting within your shots, such as in this outdoor portrait by Toni Lynn:

Take unfocused shots and create semi-abstract photographs, like those by Bill Armstrong:

Create 360 degree 3D panoramic photography, as in this image by Nemo Nikt:

Use kites to create aerial photography, as in this image by Pierre Lesage:

Produce High Dynamic Range Imaging (HDR Photography), as in this example by Karim Nafatni:

SmartPhones with HDR Camera include (affiliate links):


Use tilt-shift photography to make real things look miniature, as in this example by Nicolas:

Use a tilt-shift effect to make paintings or drawings appear real, as in these photographs of Vincent van Gogh artworks by Serena Malyon:

Photograph things with extreme macro lenses, like these photos of water drops by Andrew Osokin:

Photograph things without contextual information, so objects become almost unrecognisable, as in this example by Peter Lik:

Take photos from uncommon or unexpected viewpoints, like these birds eye view photographs commissioned by the human rights organization Society for Community Organization:

Use frames within frames to create intriguing compositions, such as these photographs by Chen Po-I:

Photograph forms inside other forms, like Per Johansen:

Emphasise reflections, rather than the objects themselves, as in the urban landscape photography of Yafiq Yusman:

Play with shadows, like Russ and Reyn Photography:

Create illusions using forced perspective, like these photographs by Laurent Laveder:

Arrange compositions as if they were a beautiful still life painting, such as these food photographs styled by Maggie Ruggiero and photographed by Martyn Thompson (left) and Marcus Nilsson (right):

Create candid documentary photography, like these emotion-filled black and white football fan shots by Christopher Klettermayer:

Create a composition that tells a narrative or story, like Dan Winters’ photography featuring Brad Pitt:

Capture the same scene at different times, as in this photography series by Clarisse d’Arcimoles:

Photograph things that are submerged in coloured liquid or milk bath, such as these shots by Rosanna Jones:

Use mirrors to create illusions, as in this self-portrait by 18 year old photographer Laura Williams:

Create a complex ‘unrealistic’ setting and photograph it, as in this composition by Cerise Doucède:

Collect many similar items and produce typology photography, like Sam Oster’s apparatus series:

Organise subject matter into patterns, like Jim Golden:

Digitally create patterns, as in this artwork by Misha Gordin:

Overlay multiple photos from slightly different angles, like these experimental photographs by Stephanie Jung:

Digitally erase parts of objects, as in this A Level Photography work by Leigh Drinkwater:

Colour select areas, as in this example by Locopelli:

Apply a digital filter to create an illustrative effect, as shown in this Adobe Photoshop tutorial:

Digitally overlay textures onto photos, as illustrated in this tutorial by PhotoshopStar:

Digitally combine paintings with photos, as in these examples by Dennis Sibeijn and Iwona Drozda-Sibeijn of Damnengine:

Digitally draw over photographs, as in these portraits by May Xiong:

Repeat or stretch pixels, as in these examples by Maykel Lima:

Digitally superimpose photographs onto other products, as in these watches by John Rankin Waddell:

Digitally merge images to play with scale, as in this photograph by Katherine Mitchell:

Create fantasy scenes like Lorna Freytag:

Combine objects in unexpected ways, to create something new, as in Carl Warner’s foodscapes:

Make sculptural installations and then photograph them, as in this A Level work by Kim Seymour:

Photograph things pressed against transparent surfaces, as in these photograph details by Jenny Saville:

Photograph things through transparent sheets, as in these works by Flóra Borsi:

Photograph objects through mottled or translucent screens, like this work by Matthew Tischler: 

Overlay tracing paper, obscuring parts of an image, like this photograph by Gemma Schiebe:

Cut, fold and manipulate photos, like these examples by Joseph Parra:

Rip and layer photographs, as in this example by Mark Jacob Bulford:

Cut through photographs to expose other layers of photographs below, as in these images by Lucas Simões:

Note: If you are interested in laser cut work, you may wish to see the excellent A Level Art project by Lucy Feng, which has been featured on the Student Art Guide.


Create layered handmade collages, like these works by Damien Blottière:

Cut out shapes and insert coloured paper, as in these photographs by Micah Danges:

Collage photographs and found materials together, creating mixed media art like Jelle Martens:

Ah, the A2 Personal study. For all our good intentions – get it done before Christmas; embed it throughout the year; condition students during the AS year (or earlier even) – it usually ends like this: Post-exam time and – despite the light at the top of the tunnel – I’m asking students to dig a bit deeper.

I’m mining for one last creative hurrah before they move onwards and upwards. Hopefully this post might help…

Emma’s Personal Study was presented as a concluding essay to her printed coursework book

What is the Personal Study?
For the official line – and if you like untangling word puzzles – see Page 29+ of the current specification. Teachers introduce this in different ways though, with some placing more emphasis on accompanying practical work than others. Personally, I’m all for art students developing their writing and research skills, so the following notes focus on this – the ‘continuous prose’, to coin a term from the forthcoming changes. For current students, let’s just call it an essay and crack on.
Your essay should:

  • Be a minimum of 1000 words (short and punchy is better than drawn out and draining).
  • Focus on a specific artist / photographer or art movement.
  • Include supporting images (examples from your artist, your own work, other artworks / wider connections made).
  • Be related to your coursework (Unit 3).
  • Be personal, informative and inspiring.
  • Be a labour of love (and a pleasure for others to pick up and look at. And read, obviously).

Your writing should reflect your creative nature: Provide subtle insights into your thinking, provoke interest; tempt curiosity. Use quotes and challenging questions to engage the reader.
Here are some practical suggestions:

Give it a punchy title
A decent title will set out your focus in a concise, ambitious and punchy way. A two-part title or question might help. For example:

  • Liar! Jeff Wall, photography and truth
  • Modernism, Abstraction and the work of Barbara Hepworth
  • Painting portraits: Jonathan Yeo and Me
  • The Human Figure: Sizing up Euan Uglow

Pretentious? Don’t worry about it. Devise a relevant title that inspires you to then fill it’s boots. Exhibition titles are devised with similar intentions. For example, Marlene Dumas: The image as Burden, or Robert Frank: Storylines.

Tonie, who completed her A2 in Year 11, thoughtfully sets her stall out

Write an introduction that leaves the reader wanting more…
Your introduction should explain your interest in the subject and the personal connection that you have to this. Use it to narrow down your focus and make it more specific. For example: “I am choosing to focus on… (Artist / art movement) because…it astounds me how…/ I find it fascinating that…/ I’m curious to know why…/I hope to show / share / highlight / discover…”. Aim to draw the reader in with each step.

Other aspects to consider:

  • What is the relationship that you want to establish with the reader?
    For example, do you have a deep understanding of this subject that you will share? – Is your tone that of an expert sharing insights? Or, alternatively, is the reader on a journey of discovery with you? – Are you using an investigative question at the start that you then set out to answer?
  • Introducing key aims or investigative questions
    For example: “I’m particularly interested in how moving to the coast influenced the work of Barbara Hepworth; living by the sea has had a big impact on my own creative development…” Doing this will also help when it comes to writing a conclusion, planting markers to revisit.

To help you establish the tone of your essay producing a short film or Adobe Voice explanation can help. Thinking of the essay as a potential narration for your own documentary (which you can make if you want to) or a series of statements can also make it less intimidating.

The meat in the sandwich
In this main section you might wish to:

  • Focus on specific artworks  – analyse and unpick these in depth, in relation to your own work and experiences.
  • Reference wider contexts – this might include other works (by your chosen artist, yourself, or relevant others), or other significant moments, events, or  connections – for example, of personal, historical or cultural significance (see below)
  • Include explanatory illustrations – for example, overlaying artworks with explanatory graphics / text to support your insights.
  • Consider where to place most emphasis – for example focusing on TECHNICAL, VISUAL, CONCEPTUAL or CONTEXTUAL analysis. (You might cover all of these but, for example, if your focus for the year has been developing observational and technical skills with painting, conceptual insights might be less relevant).

An example of a student making her own connections between artists, and across time and place

But how do I analyse artwork?
Year 13 asking that? Really? Ah, you’re winding me up. Nice one.

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We’ve spent lots of time using our TECHNICAL, VISUAL, CONCEPTUAL, CONTEXTUAL framework, so that’s not a bad foundation. Below are some ‘levels’ of analysis which might help further:

Level 1 has its place, but only as a foundation. You’ll need to dig deeper…

Still, to demonstrate yourself as an art student who can “express complex ideas with authority“, there’s a need to get beyond the TECHNICAL and VISUAL to address CONTEXT and CONCEPT.

download PDF here

Writing your thoughts
When writing personal opinions there is a danger that these can be too simplistic. Consider the progression in the points below:

  • Your initial reaction– informed by instinct, taste, likes and dislikes, interest in / relevance of subject matter.
    This can offer valuable insights when justified E.g. “I like this because…”. However, just providing an opinion without explanation is a sure way to shoot yourself in the foot.
  • A basic / superficial understanding of wider contexts. This might demonstrate growing understanding but can be even more dangerous: “I’m interested in Cubism because I like how Picasso’s artworks are made up of cube-like shapes”; “I like Pop Art because it uses bright colours and film stars”. Not good; quiet despair.
  • Based on a deeper understanding / complex grasp of wider contexts – demonstrating a confident stance and justified, well-informed opinions: “I’m interested in Cubism, particularly how the depiction of multiple viewpoints – stimulated by Cezanne’s explorations of form – revolutionised…”; “I’m interested in how Pop Art emerged as a response to Abstract Expressionism, it strikes me as a mischievous movement that counter-balanced…”
  • From an alternative perspective – Perhaps more of an expectation at degree level, but are you able to place yourself in sombody else’s shoes? For example, can you argue or justify an alternative viewpoint e.g. from a feminist, modern, or post-modern perspective? “Whilst appreciating Rothko’s intent to provoke with his Seagram Restaurant commission, I can imagine a dining capitalist might have been entirely less sensitive to the sense of claustrophobia he envisaged…” 

Concluding your essay
This is an opportunity to:

  • Summarise your study and show the benefits of doing it.
  • Revisit your introduction – specifically the aims or investigative questions set out at the start. (You do not need to have definitive answers though; reflective, new, unanswered questions can have value too).
  • Summarise key findings that have come from your research and analysis.
  • Offer reflective, personal opinions on your research, and how this has shaped your own practical work.
  • Share thoughts on potential opportunities for future exploration – themes / artists / experiments you might explore if given more time.
  • Include a short reflection on the process of the study itself – the research and thinking skills that you have developed.

No need to cover all of these in your limited word count. Identify the insights that resonate most; don’t let your hard work whimper out in these final stages.

Including a bibliography

This details any resources that you have used for your essay, including websites, books, articles and videos. Try to list these as you go along rather than having to back-track. Set it out like this:

  • Author – put the last name first.
  • Title – this should be underlined and in quotation marks.
  • Publisher - in a book this is usually located on one of the first few pages.
  • Date – the date/year the book/article was published.

For example: Cotton, Charlotte, ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’, Thames & Hudson, 2009.

Can I put a bow on it? How best to present your essay
Your personal study can be creatively elaborated on, and some schools go to town on this. Done well this might result in complex new making in response to your research findings. But there is a danger that practical responses at this point can seem ‘bolted on’, plain rushed and superficial. Before we get to any bells and whistles it’s best to complete a straightforward formal essay.
Suggested format:

  • word-processed and double-spaced.
  • All imagery should be clearly referenced within text (e.g. Fig. 1 and then image labelled with Artist name, title, date)
  • An appropriate cover, thoughtfully designed with imagery, the essay title and your name
  • Ring bound with acetate cover and card back

Once this is done, if time allows, it is over to you. Why not produce a short summary film, like Becky’s below?

Helpful? Have I missed a trick? Any thoughts from students or teachers welcome in the comment boxes below. 

About The Author

chris francis

Senior Leader Teacher of Art & Photography @DevNicely

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