Tag Archives: Philosopy of photography

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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