Definition: Photography

Definition: Photography  | Glossary entry


The word photography appears to be a combined word-form stemming from the Greek word “phos” for light and “graph” which means to draw. However, it probably entered the English language through the French “photographie” for which references exist as far back as 1839. The word itself is also pre-dated by another French word “photographique” which appears in references since 1836 and relates to the study of light.

The first primitive experiments with photo-sensitive chemicals were a long way from the later use of a whole range of complex chemical processes and even further adrift from modern concepts associated with digital photography. Drawing up a strict definition for a word leaves out the baggage that goes with the actual practice and the whole body of knowledge associated with it. In rather strict terms this is how the Oxford English Dictionary says…

Noun: The process, practice, or art of taking photographs; the business of producing and printing photographs.
Adjective: Of or relating to photography; used in or produced by photography; engaged or skilled in photography.
Oxford English Dictionary, Seen online: 09/06/2013

Alternative definitions of photography:

Most photographers understand that there is a wider definition to photography. This in itself has been the subject of much philosophical thought and psychological analysis. From this broad research we can crystalise a range of possible definitions for photography. Broadly speaking they might fall into one or all of the following categories… Photography as:

  • Art: Using the camera to express aesthetically pleasing imagery.
  • Communication: A way to pass a message of some sort to the viewer.
  • Entertainment: Providing images to amuse, please or attract the eye and interest.
  • Reportage: a way of telling a story, documentary or journalistic message in images.
  • A record: Capturing a realistic representation of objects and people for posterity.
  • An abstract: a way of showing the shape, form and essence of an object.

It has been said that photography is “painting with light”. A good photographer can produce an exposure that radically differs from the “scene” as “seen”. Photography in that sense is an art. To make a picture which is not a reproduction of the scene-as-seen can be done using a number of methods…

  • Make a mistake (blur or handshake)
  • Under or over expose the image.
  • Introduce bokeh or change depth of field .
  • Distort the image by use of a filter, lens or other interference.
  • Change the image in post production or developing.
  • Allow or create digital noise.
  • Blur the scene by intended camera movement.
  • Create the impression of movement in the image by panning.
  • Allow a long exposure to blur fast moving subjects and leave the rest of the image sharp.

A good photographer will use these methods, and others, to deliberately create a new image of the scene. They will know the limits and abilities of the photographic tools. These abilities become ways to change the outcome of an image. They become the “brush” with which to create the new image. This new synthesis is not a reproduction, but the camera-affected representation or interpretation. This skill of translating the scene into something new is one aspect of photography that extends past the purely “technical”. It moves from the image as a ‘record’ toward the image as ‘art’.

A true definition of photography is related to context

A rigid, technical definition, of photography has its place. It does leave out much that is in the art of image-making. There are many ways we can define photography. However, the true definition is probably a reflection of the circumstances where it is used. In each of the list of photographic categories above there are infinite ways to express ideas. But each one broadly defines the approach a photographer will take. It is in these categories, or styles of photography that we will get closest to being able to define the different facets of photography.

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By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.