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Jeff Harmon over at the Master Photography podcast posed a great question this week, one that all photographers should stop and think about.
If you’re not familiar with it, the Master Photography podcast is a straight-to-the-point podcast helping beginner, hobbyist, and even professional photographers with technical and sometimes creative aspects of photography. Jeff humbly categorizes himself as a “hobbyist” in love with the technical aspects, but he’s a great portrait photographer and educator. It’s one of my top five recommended photography podcasts to improve your photography.
Okay, so what was the question? Jeff asked the audience how they would fill in the last word of this statement:
“Photography is all about ____”
What is photography about, really?
Jeff proceeded to give a few answers that he thought others might provide, and brought up some great points as to why they might want to reconsider these answers. Then he gave his answer.
And of course I’d like to give my answer for your and his consideration.
First, here’s three of the “to reconsider” answers followed by Jeff’s answer.
Sure, photography is all about gear to some people. The rest of us thank them. We don’t have the patience to sit in our homes all day and take pictures of our kids’ stuffed animals for detailed sensor noise comparisons and lens diffraction analysis.
As Jeff said in the podcast, yes, gear is an important tool, but understanding how to use it is more important to the craft. You need more than a great camera to create a great image. The gear is almost never what’s limiting your photography.
Aperture, Shutter, and ISO. The basic Exposure Triangle. It’s important to understand the relationship between these three things so that we can record the vision we have in our minds. Soft backgrounds, intentional motion blur, and so on. It’s all based on our understanding of the exposure triangle.
But it’s not what photography distills down to. There’s so much more to photography than exposure. Like gear, good exposure doesn’t make a good photograph.
Arranging what’s in front of us in a way that makes the photo sing is what we’re all after. It’s a discipline that has its rules, its non-rules, and can take a lifetime to get a hang of. Painters, sculptors, and musicians all need to master their own respective versions of composition to create art that people will pay attention to.
However, composition is just one component of a great photograph. Exposure, moment, and light are all equally important. So photography can’t all be just about composition.
So here was Jeff’s answer. Light. Photography is all about light.
Yes, in an academic and literal sense, photography is about light. In fact, photography means writing with light. So it’s gotta be important.
I absolutely agree that an ability to understand and craft light is vital to photography. The other things – gear, exposure, and composition – are all components of how you capture the light.
Capturing the light how we want it is ultimately what we’re trying to do with our physical photograph. We need to understand how to expose, compose, and use our gear to get there.
However…I still think there’s more to it.
Photography is all about…
We’re trying to craft the light in the way we want it because we’re expressing ourselves.
Most photographers – if you’ve studied a photographer long enough – have a thumbprint. A unique characteristic to their photographs.
Photography is a window into their soul, and their photographs are a manifestation of that. How they craft the light is ultimately an expression of their mood, their upbringing, their values, their victories, and their losses. It’s happening to you when you press the shutter button whether you realize it or not. Even if you’re only creating photographs simply to make money or to gain validation on social media. Even if you’re only being hired to take family portraits, you’re being hired by clients who like the way you express yourself in your photos.
The other answers – light, composition, exposure, gear – are more quantitative. The exposure is good. The composition is good. But what is good? Good is objective; photography is subjective. Photography is individual.
You use gear, understand exposure, practice composition, and control light so that you can express yourself. And that’s the essence of photography. At least to me.
Some of my favorite photography quotes are all about expression.
- “We are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us.” — Ralph Hattersley.
- “Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.” — Don McCullin.
- “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” — Elliott Erwitt.
- “The picture that you took with your camera is the imagination you want to create with reality.” — Scott Lorenzo.
- “The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.” — Elliott Erwitt.
- “I think good dreaming is what leads to good photographs.” — Wayne Miller.
- “Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.” — Yousuf Karsh.
- “Great photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.” — Peter Adams.
- “When I photograph, what I’m really doing is seeking answers to things.” — Wynn Bullock.
What is photography to you?
The nice thing about this question is that it’s entirely subjective, just like photography. It’s all an interpretation. (Which is why my answer was expression, but this could devolve into some kind of circular argument real quick). There is no right answer, and we can all learn something by how others see things.
Photography is about gear. Photography is about exposure and composition. Photography is about light and post-processing. But in the very end, why do we care about any of that?
What are we trying to say? If we have nothing to say, neither do our photographs.
Anyways, that’s my answer. What is photography all about to you? Big shout out to Jeff for making me think about this.
Monday 4th of May 2020
For me, Photography is the way to capture everything! it means a lot to me such as a place to pull experiences, emotions, and stories to share in the world we live in.
Saturday 21st of March 2020
I thought about this a lot while listening to the podcast, listening to downloaded version while on an excursion in Death Valley. I ticked off the first few things, as you did, somewhat mechanical or quantitative = good. Light and composition take us beyond good, becoming qualitative and personal. It's sort of an apex-down triangle, and your triangle supports your 'expression'. I heartily agree. But my answer was 'experience'. Not defined as 'I've been a photog for 20 years" but experience of the things that lead to (and follow) capture. It's probably about the same thing as 'expression' (heck, both words start with 'exp'!), but I think it highlights something of the journey that gets you to and from your image.
Abstract or minimalist images might come from your emotional experience. Documentary and portraits try to 'express' (there it is!) the experience of people or other subjects (wildlife) in their lives or places; these may not even relate to the photographer's experience, but just as significant. As a landscape photographer primarily, I cherish the walks in/out, weather, etc... and then work, if I'm lucky, to share that experience with others or simply with my memories.
Thanks for the thoughtful post, as always. Keep going... dcraig
Saturday 21st of March 2020
I love "experience" too! There are so many facets to that. Maybe I'm just expressing my experience :)
Tuesday 25th of February 2020
Well said John. Will most definitely listen to the podcast.
Wednesday 26th of February 2020
Thanks - there are so many ways to answer this.