Tag Archives: Philosophy

Do you really understand what photography is?

A photography definition? The ramblings of a madman…

A photography definition is not easy. What we do with a camera is record part of the world where we point the lens. Right? Then again, you probably realise that is not true. Especially if you have been reading this blog for a while.

The lens does not faithfully record the world. The picture is always slightly distorted. Numerous technical processes are involved in the translation of a scene into a picture. These each add their own distortions and variations on the original scene. The unique approach taken by the photographer in framing the shot creates its own view of the world too. That view will be different to the next man. The perceptive filter of the viewer also affects what is seen. What is finally conjured up is an image beyond the mere recording.

So, what on earth is this thing we call photography? It certainly is not a mere technical record. Nor is it a simple interpretation of a scene. Those two roots are important. They are not the full story for a real photography definition.

Toward a good photography definition

I noticed I had not written a definition of photography in the “Photographic Glossary“. The latter is a collection of articles which has gradually grown with this blog. It’s now a good intro and background to a wide range of words, phrases, concepts and items of equipment. It is still growing. It’s on the menu at the top of every page. Or you can click this image and go there now…
Photography definition :: Link to the general Glossary

I wrote a definition of photography. In it I followed the conventions of most dictionaries. But there is more to a photography definition than technical sufficiency.


While researching a definition for “photography” I came across a whole range of explanations. They amounted to descriptive statements about:

  • derivation of the words related to photography;
  • the photographic act;
  • processes involved in doing photography;
  • post production processing of the image;
  • The history of the subject
  • the technical issues;
  • prediction about the future.

This is all interesting stuff. However, I found it sterile.

It is important for ‘meaning’ to be attached to feeling. A technical description of the process of photography (film or digital) is interesting but devoid of personal meaning. I am a committed photographer. I love to do photography and I invest a huge part of my life in its pursuit. To me it is not a technical process, although I go through a technical process to “do photography”. It is not just the statement about the meaning of a word (see – Definition: photography). Neither is it simply a picture. I am hoping that my picture will stimulate a living, three dimensional image in the mind of my viewers. If that happens then I will have created powerful image for them. That will be a successful image.

Photography is an attempt by the photographer to communicate with the viewer. Each picture may lie somewhere on the continuum between a “record” of the world and an “interpretation” of the world. No matter which end of that continuum the picture lies, it speaks to the viewer in a unique way.

My thinking…

I spent several hours trying to bring life to a photography definition. Through the technical mambo-jumbo, physical processes, history and so on, not one article adequately described our passion. So I resorted to trying to sum up how I feel. Here is what my photography definition is about…

Photography attempts to capture a view of the world with which the photographer communicates their particular meaning and perspective of a scene through a picture and, which if successful, will create a vivid, living image in the mind of the viewer.
Damon Guy, 09/06/2013 – Towards a good photography definition.

I expect to be shot down. What does “photography” mean? You tell me. Have you got a good photography definition?

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Damon Guy - Toward a photography definition.

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photographer 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 photogs.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
By Damon Guy see his profile on Google+.

Do you find it difficult to photograph art?


• The World Is A Different Place When Viewed Through Art •
Click image to view large
The World Is A Different Place When Viewed Through Art By Netkonnexion on Flickr External link - opens new tab/page

It’s all about interpretation…

We all have a little difficulty photographing art. We know that interpretation is important to the success of a piece – have we got the interpretation right? Should we hesitate when shooting art by others? Analysis paralysis could stop us doing anything. My view is we have to give it a try.

When photographing art there are two broad approaches. One way is to create a record shot which tries to represent the art as seen. You are producing a sort of factual postcard representation. The other is to take the shot putting your own interpretation on the piece.

Both these approaches are legitimate.

Some general points…

As with all photography there are some general principles that need to be established. In a nutshell we should try to…

  • Declutter the scene so the eye goes to the subject
  • Make sure our subject is the main focus of the shot
  • Ensure we have a clear purpose for the shot
  • Work hard to remove distractions (eg. bad focus or burnt out highlights)
  • Treat the subject with complementary light to bring out its best features

…these help us to ensure that we are conveying the meaning of our shot to our viewers.

The purpose

Clarity of purpose for a shot is an important part of crystallising our idea about how to present it. If we make a conscious decision about why we are taking the shot, it will help us to make the distinction between a record shot or an interpretation.

A judge at a photography competition once told me, “you should never put a picture of a piece of art in a competition unless you have put your own mark on the piece of art”. “Otherwise,” he said, “it is a record of someone else’s art”. For a judge that’s important. If it is a record of someone else’s work, what has he got to mark that is yours?

So, with photography of art I think you need a clear idea about your intentions. A record shot is about preserving the piece, ensuring that it’s essence is retained.

That judge I mentioned told a story. His friend was passionate about public art – pieces on public display in the open air. He travelled widely photographing sculpture. He always had something with him that he put on the sculpture. A scarf. A hat maybe. Sometimes a teddy bear. The strategic placement of that one thing was enough to add a new meaning. It was a sort of reinterpretation. The judges friend was creating a new work of art.

This clarity about “representation verses interpretation” comes up in many aspects of photography.

Often beginners are not aware of its significance. That is the reason there is often “something missing” in their pictures. The pictures of beginners often look sterile because they have tried to represent reality. The standard of their photography is not good enough to make the picture stand out. The picture itself is insipid because it lacks interpretation.

When someone has an artistic eye, even if a beginner, the interpretation they bring to a shot trumps the lack of technical skill. That is why some artists can create great images within a short time of first handling a camera. They know how to create an event in the imagination of the viewer – even if they lack the skill to create a great photograph. That event is the image that stays with the viewer.

Making the difference

Once we have established the purpose of the shot we should have a clear idea about some of the things that we can do to actually make the image…

Record shots: You are looking to create a clear, technically excellent representation. Work on sharp outlines and clear colours which are as close as possible to the original. Try to capture any essential textures, but also try to show the piece in its entirety. You will probably need to take a regimented progression of shots to do this. Typically a good record shot is one of a series. Record the full detail of the piece, capture it from all sides. Try not to embellish or exaggerate. Make a plain statement of its existence. Use plain light. However, if you only have time for one shot then make it as faithful to the original as possible.

Interpretation shots: You can let your imagination run wild. Anything goes. You are doing it to express how you feel about this piece. Get your feelings out there, exaggerate, magnify, close in, show it all or just enough… wild angles, odd views. You get the point. You are making the shot yours. You are doing some thing different.

Photographing art is one example

The principle of “expression versus representation” runs right through photography. Natural history shots are a case in point. We want our pictures of birds to be essentially record shots. We are looking for a faithful record of them. The trick with wildlife is to show them performing some behaviour which is peculiar to them.

You can probably think of other examples of the way this split affects your shots.

Once you become aware of this essential tension within every shot you can begin to work on the imagination or the representation in your own area of interest. It is critical to conveying meaning in your shot.

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’.

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The meaning in a photograph

 The upstream struggle

• The upstream struggle •
Does the meaning of the photo always come across? Has the photographer succeeded if there are different interpretations?
• The upstream struggle • By Netkonnexion (Flickr)External link - opens new tab/page

What does a photographer mean by their photograph?

Photographs are open to interpretation. In fact people see all sorts of meaning in photos as in other forms of media and art. So is there really meaning in photographs? Does the photographer really have a clear point to make?


Everything is open to interpretation. Art is a particular case in point. We see what we want to see in a photograph especially if the message is not clear. If the photograph is a good one however, then we understand it and it helps us to feel, know or understand something. That is what lies behind the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Nevertheless, a picture is only worth those thousand word if it speaks to the viewer about the point of the photograph. If every viewer understands the point, then the picture probably is worth a thousand words.

Fuzzy concepts vs. powerful meaning

We only feel compelled to push the shutter button when we have something ‘worth’ capturing. This ‘value’ is how strongly we feel about what we create and whether the photograph reflects the effort we made to capture the scene. For a photographer to feel that the picture was worthwhile they have to know, each time they look at it, what they felt when they took it. The meaning for them is in their connection to the moment of capture. The photographer, however, needs only a weak conveyance of meaning from a photograph. Their connection is supplemented by memory.

What about the general viewer of the photograph? They have no memory of the capture and so must find one hundred percent of the meaning in the shot. This a is greater and more intense problem than the photographers own satisfaction. For the viewer to get the message without a memory connection the message must be clear and on target.

I think this is where the true photographer departs from the happy snapper. Some people take joy in snapping merrily away at things they like. This is a great pass time and a fun activity. All photographers probably started with the sheer joy of capturing a scene. Then, later, feeling the moment come alive again when reviewing the pictures.

What makes a true photographer, I think, is in a question. When a photographer asks themselves, “How can I best capture this scene so viewers will understand what I feel right now”? Or, a similar question, “What is the best way to capture this so viewers know what I am showing them/explaining to them”? The photographer is essentially looking to create value in the picture so the viewer will find it worthwhile taking time to look at it.

Ansel Adams, the famous landscape photographer once said…

There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.
Ansel Adams

The fuzzy concept idea relates to how well the photographer answered the appropriate question(s) above. Adams is saying, “it’s all very well to be technically excellent, but if you cannot convey feeling or meaning the picture is worthless”.

By asking how to phrase the picture for someone else, who was not at the capture, you are actively looking for ways to clarify the message of your picture, to give it clear meaning. When you have a clear message, meaning, or can convey a strong feeling, you have connected with the viewer. The concept is no longer fuzzy.

This idea about the ‘worth’, or ‘value’ of a picture provides a defining concept. The happy snapper is pursuing the pass time of photography for self-gratification.

The photographer on the other hand is creating images. These are pictures that are designed to conjure up feeling or meaning in the viewers mind. The photographer is actively seeking to stimulate minds other than their own with clear ideas conveyed through an image. Ideas that are not supplemented by the capture-memory.

The upstream struggle for the photographer is clear. Their work is to distil from a scene a clear meaning or feeling that is readily understood by others. The photographer is gratified when others are satisfied, pleased or stimulated by the image.

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’.

A simple lesson in photography is the main study

Are your eyes wide shut?

Most people walk around with their eyes open. But not everyone sees the same things. Do people see the things that photographers see? What is it that photographers see that is different?

The way of seeing

After years looking through a lens I did not understand that photographers see things that other people do not see. Then I began a thorough study of composition. After a while of looking around at the world with my new insight I noticed two things. First, the lens distorted the view that my eye saw. Second, the compositional elements I had learned about changed my view of the world through the lens.

As I have studied photography, and in particular composition, I have found more and more insights. My view of photography as a discipline has completely changed from my early ideas. In my photographs I see many compositional possibilities that help me view the scene in front of me. The new things I learned about gave me new ways to see. There is nothing special about this. People go through rigorous professional training for years to get insights that affect the way they think.

The extraordinary thing is that I do not find it easy to explain what I see that is different. I just know that light, colours, lines, shapes, forms, colours and tones are all things I notice now that I did not before.

There are other things I see too. When we view the world we notice things that interest us and then filter out the clutter that is of no interest. Our brains simplify the world to make it understandable. That does not happen as readily in the real world. Yet when photographers get started they try to photograph everything as if the viewer can see past the clutter. In fact, in a photograph, the clutter gets in the way of the image. Photographers learn to distill the clutter from the photograph and present the image in a simplified way.

The other thing I have learned is that there is meaning in every image. That is something that is difficult to divine. Sometimes even the photographer cannot understand their own motive for shooting a picture or articulate the meaning in it. Yet there is always some personal, emotional, social or interest-based meaning underlying the shot. All sorts of hidden messages can be imparted by the image to the viewer – often in a subliminal way. These messages are readily open to being focused on by the photographer, amplified by the setting and the composition. The meaning becomes an important part of the image.

For me there are three dimensions in photography. The length of photography is seeing the light. By seeing and understanding light we see colour, dark, shadow, form – all the manifestations of the real world. The width of photography is the simplicity we bring to our images to make them understandable. By reducing the clutter and opening up the scene in the image for our viewer we let them in to perceive the point of the image. The height of the image is the meaning. By imparting a meaning, no matter how simple, we give the image a life which is detected by our viewers.

All the things which impact on a starter in photography become a sort of white noise. So it is difficult to see the core of what goes into images. Yet these three dimensions are there in every part of our work. It may not be easy to see straight away, but look for these things and your photography will improve.

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’.

Warning! Are You Breaking the Rules of Composition?

Colours, like most things, are interpreted by cultural convention.

Colours, like most things, are interpreted by cultural convention. Such conventions are not really rules. They exist as guidelines and to help us be understood by others.
Lanterns at Chinese New Year

In art the use of the term ‘rules’ is of limited use. Generally, nobody goes to jail for breaking the rules of art. There are however, perfectly acceptable ‘conventions’. Although they may overlap, these conventions are broadly of two kinds. They could be:

  • The established viewpoints of those who sign up to a particular school of art or come from a particular culture. This is a way of ‘seeing’ or interpreting the world through ideas.
  • The conventions that represent a way to describe how humans respond to their body and senses. These are guidance to artists based on observations of our behaviour as biological organisms in a physical, measurable world.

Photographers, as artists, are free to accept or disregard both these approaches. ‘Rules’, in art, are accepted by convention alone.

Cultural conventions and the viewpoints of a particular school of art are important. Western art is in contrast to many of the Eastern, Oriental conventions in art. In Europe the colour red is strongly associated with love, romance, anger and perhaps baudyness or seedy places. To be ‘in the red’ is associated with financial ruin or debt.

In Chinese culture, by contrast, red is associated with good luck, friendship and wealth. It symbolizes good fortune, joy and happiness. Red is found everywhere at festivals and especially the Chinese New Year and family gatherings. Red is associated with traditional and financial gifts. The colour is taboo at funerals as it represents happiness. To the Chinese, red is a different concept to the view that Westerners take.

How you use a colour imparts different meanings in your photographs. Context is important to conveying meaning through colour. Cultural background is important to the interpretation of the colours you use. Context and culture are different things in art. They can of course overlap too!

Violin and Candlestick by Georges Braque, A pioneering Cubist. (Wikipedia)

Violin and Candlestick by Georges Braque, A pioneering Cubist.
Click to see Cubism on Wikipedia

While culture affects the way an artist works, so do the various schools of art. For example ‘Cubism’ is the an artistic approach pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Subjects are broken down into angular and abstracted forms. A new sort of art results, displaying depth, space and surfaces in ways not seen in the real world. People who sign up to this interpret the world through the Cubist view – deliberately ignoring the ‘rules’ which reflect our understanding of reality like perspective and depth.

What are the rules of composition? The ‘Rule of Thirds‘, ‘Golden Ratios’, the rules of perspective, the principles of art… and many others are really just guidelines. We accept them by convention because they help us to make sense of the world and the art we view. They have two important foundations. First, many things we see in the world we can measure or verify. Secondly, if people around you respond to and understand something then that shared convention helps you to communicate with them artistically. These two things are important. Together they help people understand art.

Well known rules, like the ‘Rule of Thirds‘, have an accepted success in the visual arts because they produce pleasing, artistic results. The concept of having a picture slightly off-balance (to the thirds) seems to make a picture more interesting, dynamic and realistic. Things in nature are rarely perfectly visually balanced. Putting something on a ‘third’ is a good guide to being more ‘natural’.

Knowing that people share cultures and approaches, or apply measurable, verifiable rules is important. It allows us to understand what is going on and helps us to interpret things – like your picture and other art. Knowledge of something does not destroy it’s effect. It helps us to interpret it. Consequently, we accept and discuss these ‘rules’ as if they were powerful and absolute.

We are NOT slaves to these rules and conventions. Sometimes the symmetry in something is worth pointing out. If you have spotted a beautiful bridge your photo of it is a testament to lovely design, a beautiful setting, a symmetrical aspect, a wonderful geometry… whatever you feel about it. You do not have to make the picture conform to the ‘rule of thirds’. If you think the symmetry is worth highlighting, then use a symmetrical position. Break the rule! Throw away the convention.

The same disregard can be said of cultural conventions. If you step outside those conventions you introduce humour, disquiet or discomfort in your viewer. That disquiet can be an important form of emphasis or a message to the viewer. By breaking the rules you can speak very powerfully to your viewers.

The only understanding we have of the world is through our own senses and ideas. If it makes sense to you then fine… just do it. When it comes to art, sometimes the rules help to make things work. They even make the art understandable and sometimes impactful. Break the convention, the rule, the expected, or the norm and you could well be creating something new, emphasising a different approach. This can be equally, or more artistically effective than sticking with convention.

Know the rules… be prepared to break them. It can provide a new perspective for your viewers.

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’.

There is Art in Pushing the Button

Is this art?

The cedar in the centre here is a splendid specimin - magnificent. It is perhaps not an artistic view. Do photographers make art when they press the shutter button?
Click to view large.

Photography is quite a complex pursuit despite what appears to be merely the push of a button. Like any pursuit photography requires attention, practice, skill and thought. Accomplished photographers have a ‘good eye’, a ‘way-of-seeing’, developed through years of deploying skills, using techniques and gaining knowledge. Their defining marque is their ‘style’ – a way of seeing and revealing the insights their ‘eye’ has given them. These insights are ‘well seen’ and if they capture a pleasing essence of the scene make a ‘well composed’ picture.

Living in the context of photography for so many years I feel I know these concepts intimately. I hear photographic judges use these terms. I know photographers, who when in critical mode, apply them in conversation. However, are these terms identifying photographers as artists? Do these terms really just skirt around the subject? The ‘eye’ in photography is a wonderful thing. However, it is not the same ‘eye’ that a painter has – although there is a lot of overlap. The painter constructs a new ‘whole’ out of a myriad of individual brush strokes. They may have dissected the scene they paint or may have created it in their minds eye. Both would be an endeavour of art because they have created a new synthesis from something they have seen inside themselves or out in the world. It is that synthesis that is awesome. Does the photographer create in such a way?

In the depth of myself I don’t really think of myself as an artist. My captures of the world are a way of becoming engaged with it, a sort of conversation between inner me and the outside of me. Yet, I cannot deny that over the years my photographic eye has become affected by a way-of-seeing. It is a ‘way’ that other photographers and yes, artists too, have persuaded me is more aesthetically pleasing to my audience.

True, as a photographer I don’t always produce pictures just to please others. Sometimes it is just for me. The shot above is an example. I took it because I love that view and in particular that great cedar tree in the centre. In truth the picture is not really the essence of what I see when that cedar is before me in all its splendour. Yet, it does remind me of the wonder and awe I see when in communion with this magnificent specimen. However, the awesomeness of the subject of a picture is not about the art. Artistic success is when you engender the wonder and awe of your audience about the picture itself – the artistic interpretation of the scene portrayed. If you were awed by the picture of the tree (not the tree depicted) then I think I would have achieved art.

Photographers are sometimes awed by a picture because they do not know how it is done. Alternatively they may be awed because they feel a particular technique is beyond their own skills. Either way they are not awed by the art in the picture. There is something in the nature of an artistic picture that tugs at the heartstrings of the viewer about the picture itself and its impact. A new synthesis has truly been created by the photographer.

I continue to have a conversation with the world around me through my photography. However, on a very few occasions I have stepped beyond that conversation reaching to a new level. It is a level that has rendered my viewer speechless. They have been completely taken in by the wonder of the picture itself. I think in those few instances I probably did achieve art – through a new synthesis. I am not sure if I can do it again or if I ever will. However, it is a privilege to say that once or twice I have pushed the button and created art.

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’.

Can you write? Of course you can!
Write for Photokonnexion...

We would love to have your articles or tips posted on our site.
Find out more…
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