Behind the Camera: Is Photography Art?

· Reading Time: 35 minutes

Photography:  Noun, The art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (such as film or an optical sensor)

— Merriam Webster


Art:  Noun, The conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects. Or works so produced.

— Merriam Webster

Welcome back for another installment of my monthly Behind the Camera feature.  It is here that I will take a topic that has come up during the past month, or possibly just a topic that came to mind and discuss it.  This month’s topic actually came to mind during the month of December when I started to see and hear a lot of opinions surfacing as to whether or not photography can be considered an art.  I wanted to weigh in on that topic, but needed to get my year end wrap-up done first.  I was then tasked with another topic of using filters in photography which I covered last month.  With all of that behind us now, I am finally able to delve into this topic just a bit.  As you can see from the definition of “Photography” above, it is actually defined with the term “art” in the definition by Merriam Webster.  I could take the easy road here and call it a day, point proven.  But…that is not my style and I wanted to get into this a little deeper.

I’ve noticed through the years that photographers are seen imposters in the artistic community.  We are looked down on by other artisans as if we don’t belong.  Why is that?  Well, from what I have been able to gather, photographers aren’t viewed as artists because we don’t create art, we just capture what is already there with a camera.  It takes no special skill to point a camera in a general direction and document what has been seen.  For the purpose of this argument, we will not include photographers that do composite images and complex manipulations with their photographs as this gets more into the digital arts than photography.  For the rest of us who use a camera to capture a scene, and then possibly do routine post processing to it afterwards, I suppose there is a bit of truth to this stereotype.

What we are doing is capturing a scene that already exists.  That is very true.  A painter, on the other hand, will take a blank sheet of paper, or canvas and apply brush strokes to create something that exists only in their mind, or a scene that is fully interpreted by their mind.  Is that art?  Most definitely it is; and I have the utmost respect for those that can create something from nothing.  I don’t want to take anything away from them as artists and I don’t pretend to be talented in the same way as that painter, or one who draws, or even sculpts.  Nope, I’m a simple guy with a camera that captures what I see.  Does that make me any less of an artist?

If we look back on the beginnings of photography; photographs were considered something very special.  It was new technology, and those that knew how to work them were considered artists.  We have all heard the names of Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier Bresson, and Dorothea Lange just to name a few.  They are still considered artists by today’s standards, but what about the current crop of photographers out there?  Yeah, there are a lot more photographers (those that have cameras) than ever before.  Everyone with a cell phone has a camera and we are inundated with pictures daily on social media to the point where they just don’t have the same value anymore.  Does that mean that photographers are no longer artists in today’s world?

This is an image that I shot many years ago from a cabin that Toni and I were staying in.  It was a scene that was there, captured with with camera which imprinted the scene onto a sensor.  According to Merriam Webster, this is photography.  But is it art?  Since I took the image, I can pick on myself here.  It is not art, but it is a photograph.  Hey wait a minute!!!  Didn’t I just imply that a photographer is, in fact, an artist?  I did, and I also said that this photograph isn’t art.  There is an ever so subtle change that happens in the process that makes a photographer an artist and the photograph a piece of art.  That change is not present here.  It was a random picture through a window with my cell phone just to show that the snow had fallen the night before.  There wasn’t any thought to it other than to capture the scene.  I didn’t pay any attention to where I stood, or how I pointed the camera.  I just pointed it in the direction that I could see through the window and hit the shutter button.  That was it, it was a photograph and it served the purpose that I wanted it to.

I truly believe that a photograph becomes art the minute that the person capturing it tries to make it better through conscious choices.  The photographer becomes an artist through these choices based on their skills and abilities.  Look at it like this, I was a guy with a camera that just shot a picture of some snow in the mountains.  I gave no regard to the lighting, the deep shadow of the cabin, the fact that the road was stretching through the lower half of the frame.  What I found most interesting in the photograph only took up a very small part of the entire frame.  Had I taken the time to compose the image, and wait for the right light to grab the photograph there would have been more thought associated with it and the intent to make it better.  Had I put that thought into the image it could have been better classified as art rather than just a photograph.

Alaskan Spring“, Canon 40D, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk1, B+W KMC Polarizer, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad

Here we have an image that was shot four years before the previous image.  You can already tell a huge difference in how the image is presented.  The subject matter is still very similar between the two with the distant snow covered mountains, but one is much more pleasing to look at.  Why is that?  They were both shot by the same person (me) with roughly the same skills and abilities.  What was the difference?  It was the intent behind the two pictures that makes the difference. That intent behind the image is what makes a photograph art, and the person holding the camera an artist, not just a photographer.  At least that is what my experience tells me.

The second a person tries to create something special or artistic with a camera, the image that results becomes art.  Whether or not it is a successful piece of art is a different discussion entirely though.  When I teach photography, either in the field or in a classroom setting, I am trying to further that separation from the simple snapshot.  The more a person does to make an image better, the more it will become art and the less it will become a snapshot.

That is the focus of today’s Behind the Camera.  I hope that by the end of this entry that I have opened some eyes and possibly increased your own personal enjoyment of photography whether you are viewing it or capturing it.  I will talk a little bit about the process, but since I have covered that in many other ways here in the blog, I will do a lot of referring back to previous entries to keep this flowing smoothly.  I just really want to talk about the moment of creation of an image and the difference between a snapshot and a photograph….or piece of art.


The Difference Between a Snapshot and a Photograph

If you go into your own photo album (for those born in the ’70’s or before), or look in your phone’s camera roll (Born after the ’70’s) take a look at the pictures that you have.  They will probably mostly be of your family, trips you have taken, pets, or yourself.  How much thought was put into these pictures?  If it was a matter of point and click to capture the moment, then it is a snapshot.  If you gave no regard to the background or lighting in the picture, it is a snapshot.  If you look at the picture and remember that you had somebody move to change the lighting or the background, this is more along the lines of art than a snapshot.  Your intention was to improve on the scene and have it fit into your vision for the image.  Make sense?  That is about as plain as I can make it, and I have pictures that fall into both categories in my collections although, in the last 10 years or so, I have been a little more particular about my snapshots for the most part.

It is this beginning process of making changes to a scene that will open up the artistic world for a photograph.  One of my favorites examples that I like to use for this concept is a scene that I came upon about a year ago during another anniversary trip with Toni.  I had seen a Ford Maverick on the side of the road.  My eyes locked onto the car and drew my interest.  Part of what the human brain does at this point is it will not recognize the objects around what your interest is drawn to.  That means that when I looked at the scene, all I saw was the car.  If I were going to make a snapshot of this scene to document what drew me to the car it would look something like this.

Note 9 capture of a scene

This is what I see posted so many times on social media when somebody sees an interesting car or other subject on the side of the road.  It is the quick snapshot and my eyes do go right to the middle of the frame and I see the car.  It serves the purpose of a photograph to document the fact that I was there.  The distractions come in very shortly after and my eyes start going all around the image frame which then detracts from the car.  How should I handle this and make the picture better?  I have covered this topic a while back and you can read through the entire process here if you like.  The short version is I start to look critically at the scene and I begin to determine just how I want to present my vision.  I ask myself what I like about the scene which in this case is the Mavrick (of course), the tree beside it, and the sapling growing up through the bumper on the passenger side.  I then ask what I don’t like about the scene which includes the RV’s, the later model car, and the blank sky above.  With all of that in mind, I then figure out how to best capture the scene in front of me.  This is where the “art” comes into play.

Quiet Defiance“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

By picking my location to place the camera I was able to eliminate the distractions to the image and minimize the importance of the blank sky by filling it with tree limbs.  I further changed how the scene looked to my cell phone by converting it to monochrome so that I had more control over the tones to help the car compete better with the brighter parts of the image.  If you take a minute and go back and forth between the two versions of this scene you will see the difference between them.  They were both captured by the same photographer (me), on the same day, and in the same lighting.  The difference was the thought that went into the actual photograph.  The cell phone image took me longer to get the camera turned on than to actually capture the image.  In the black and white version, I spent about 15 minutes finding that perfect place to put the camera in a light rain, and then another 30-45 minutes to process it in Lightroom.  Art is not a product of the time you spend, but of the effort that you put into the thought and execution of a scene.

Compare this to somebody doing a pencil drawing of this same car.  They would start with a blank sheet of paper with the intention of drawing a car with this great texture on it.  It takes talent to be able to create that car, but once that car is created they have an infinite number of possibilities before them as to how to add the environment around the car to tell the story.  They could put that car into a parking lot, in front of a barn, in a garage, on a beach, on the moon, in a spaceship, or sitting on a cloud.  Only their creativity limits the possibilities.  This is another area where photographers need to receive a lot more credit than they do when it comes to their photographs.  We are very limited with how we can capture a subject that can’t be moved.  In the case of this Maverick, I would have loved for it to have been in a much different setting, but it wasn’t.  I had to make due with what was there and the “artist” in me allowed me to compose a scene that took my likes and dislikes of a scene into consideration.

It has been said by more than one person that photography is more about what you exclude from the frame rather than what you include.  This is sometimes easier said than done, and where the more “typical” artisans have it easy.  With a painter, what is included in the picture is all that they have to worry about as there is nothing to exclude.  The main subject is the focus of their work and everything else just adds to that.  In photography, finding the main subject is the easy part, but capturing it in a way that makes sense and tells a story is so much harder and at times impossible to successfully accomplish.  A photographer’s art begins with the elements that can fit within the frame and how well they deal with those elements.


Brushes, Chalks, Pencils, and Filters

When we look at artists, we will define what type of artist they are by the tools and materials that they use.  You wouldn’t say “look at that painter over there spinning the clay into a vase would you?”  Of course you wouldn’t.  You are clearly looking at somebody engaged in pottery.  If they were holding a paint palette and applying it to a canvas, they probably aren’t a sketch artist.  The point is this, each artist has their tools that they use to create their vision.  There is usually more than one tool which an artist goes to for different effects and different looks.  Even a sketch artist will have different types of pencils for the different lines and shading that are required to turn their vision into a piece of art.  Photography is no different in that respect.  For those looking for that snapshot, all they need is a camera and that camera could be anything from a Polaroid, a Brownie, a digital camera, or a cell phone.  That is the only tool used and it is used out of convenience more than anything else.  It is what they have in their hand at the time.  A photographer that is focusing on the “art” of photography will have more than one tool at their disposal.  It could be several different types of cameras, it could be different lenses to create different perspectives, or it could be filters.  It could just be the knowledge of how to get every bit of potential out of their chosen point and shoot camera.

Just last month I covered all of the filters that I use in my photography.  Would somebody interested in taking a snapshot care to use a neutral density grad filter?  Most likely not, but those wanting to improve on a photograph would be very interested in what it could do for them.  This is a valuable step for those that want to make a photo better, although there are many that choose not to use filters for the look that they are after, but the intent to make the photograph better still applies.

RAW File Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer only
Stone Mountain Expression“, Canon 5DS R, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 3-stop soft ND Grad, Mor-Slo 10-stop ND, 200 seconds, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

This is the same image that I spoke about at the end of the filter piece last month and I think that it does a great job at showing what the different filters can do to an image.  When looking at it in the terms of whether or not photography is art, you can really see what the division would be.  With the composition, lighting, and sky the same between the test image and the final image, the only difference is the addition of filters and a conversion to black and white.  This is part of that concept of taking steps to make an image better which elevates it to art.  When I saw the scene, I had a vision for how I wanted it to look.  I could have very easily drawn this or painted it had I possessed the talent and skill to do that.  If I did, I would not have needed any specific conditions to make the image happen, I would have just needed to sit down and spend some time with my tools to create this.  As a photographer though, I had to visit here many times and wait for the conditions to be right for what I had in mind.  That patience is another often forgotten tool that a photographer possesses that helps to make them an artist.  We are reactive to our environment, but the ability to wait until the environment gives us what we want is what sets us apart from those creating snapshots.  The simple fact that we can envision different conditions in a scene is also part of that artistic method.

Referring back to the definition of art above, would you say that finding this composition, and then applying three different filters to the lens before creating this image falls in the realm of the conscious use of skill and creative imagination to create something?  Would you be able to see the puffy clouds in full color with your eyes and come up with this monochrome long exposure image before even setting the camera up?  This is why I firmly believe that a photographer is an artist.  Those that can previsualize a scene and then capture what they imagined while waiting on the very unpredictable elements to line up are most definitely artisans in their fields.

Facing Off“, Canon 5D Mk2, 24-70mm f/2.8L, No filters

I don’t want to leave out those that do product photography, or other types of studio work.  They are not at the mercy of natural conditions, but they have their own set of tools that help them create their vision.  Years ago, I did a lot of studio work when the weather was bad outside.  I learned a lot from it as a matter of fact.  One of my favorite tools for this type of photography was lighting.  I had to learn how to create my own look through lighting and that was part of the art.  This image was one that I shot to highlight the light and dark in a confrontational way.  I was very specific on how the light was applied to the scene and paid particular attention to composition and depth of field.  There are things that I would do differently now, but that is a product of 11 years of experience since shooting this scene.  The fact still remains that I wanted to get a picture of this oversized chess set and I made choices to create a better picture than just a snapshot.  It is that intention which makes this “art” rather than just a snapshot, even though both are considered a photograph.


The Wait

If your biggest argument that photography is not art falls in the amount of time that it takes to create an image then you will likely say that a photograph is created with a simple snap of the shutter while a painting or sculpture requires infinitely more time to create.  In a simplistic view, that would be correct, but lets look at the time that it takes to create a photograph many times based on the artistic vision.  There are times when I see a scene and have an idea of how the image should look which isn’t exactly what is there at the time.  While a painter would just create the conditions in the scene that fit their vision, a photographer must previsualize those conditions and then wait for those conditions to materialize.  This can take multiple trips to a location in order find those conditions, and then could require hours of waiting until the clouds move into position or some other element falls into place.  Photography is a lot like fishing in that respect.  It takes a great deal of patience and multiple tries to get an image that fits with the idea that the photographer had to start with.

Quietly Resting“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, B+W Polarizer, Singh-Ray 2-Stop soft edge ND Grad

Lets take for instance this old Pontiac that I have shot a number of times over the years.  This was actually the second time that I had attempted it.  I thought that the conditions would be right for the concept that I was after, but it turned out that the light was still much too harsh, and the colors were not represented well at all.  It was better than the first time I had shot it when the car was in total shade, so I was getting better at it at least.  Is this picture art?  Yes, because I tried to make it better than just a snapshot.  Did it succeed as my vision, not at all.  This is part of the artistry that is photography though.  Just as a painter or sculptor makes mistakes in their art, so does a photographer.  The part that they both share in this regard is that they will push themselves to correct the mistakes and shortcomings of previous attempts.

A Rusty Streak“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad

On a subsequent attempt to photograph this same car I went in different conditions with much thicker clouds which softened the light and helped to make the colors pop a little more.  The fact that it was Fall at this point added some more color to the trees in the background as well as showing the field in a much more colorful state.  I had lived with the previous composition for a while and had decided that I needed to alter it just a little bit which you can see here.  The resulting photograph was shot around a year after the first one and my post processing skills had become better which allowed me to achieve an image that went on to win a local photography competition the following year.  It was a much better image all around and one that fit my visualization of what I wanted to capture.  The first time that I shot this old car was in 2014 if memory serves, so in order to get to this point, I had spent three years to arrive at the perfect blend of conditions to make this happen.  If a sculptor took three years to make a piece, it would definitely be considered art and would garner attention from across the globe.

There are just so many factors that go into creating a simple photographic image.  It can be reactive, and it is a lot of fun to capture those fleeting moments, but the most satisfaction comes when you find the conditions that fit the scene that you have been waiting for.  There is a lot of planning involved in this type of situation and a good bit of previsualization that all goes into making the image.  That 1/250 of a second exposure is usually the result of a lot of planning and waiting.  A painter gets to create whenever they are motivated to do so and can create an endless set of possibilities on that blank canvas to match their mood and desires.  Yes, they are creating something completely from their mind, but the photographer has to work with the variables of nature to achieve their vision which can take much more patience to deal with.  Each medium has their own characteristics, but the “art” should never be taken away from either.


The Capture is Just the Beginning

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the process that differentiates the snapshot and the photograph for art’s sake as it deals with the actual capture of the image.  That is a really big part of my argument that photography is “art,” but is only a part of that argument.  Something else that sets the two apart is what happens after the shutter is released.  This is what happens in the dark room for film photography, or in post processing for those that work in a digital workflow such as myself.  I hope that by now you realize that the capture of an image is a bit more involved than just point and click.  That is just a portion of the process though, and once the shutter is released, you have the raw material that can then be further improved on through your artistic vision.  Again, it is that intent that creates art through a camera.  I love using this next image to showcase the power of post processing of a RAW image.  I found this church on a wonderfully cloudy day with a lot of drama in the sky which I loved.  However, the sun was actually sitting right behind the clouds, just above the church.  That made the sky much brighter than I would have wanted it, while the church itself was sitting in the shadows.  It was that wonderfully dramatic sky that excited my artistic eye so I had to give it a try.

RAW capture from Canon 5DS R

Here you see the straight out of camera RAW image.  You can kind of see what I was dealing with as far as the lighting went.  To set this up I had composed an image that eliminated a tree limb which was right above the frame to simplify the scene.  I had positioned myself in a way that the shelter to the left of the church was minimized in the shadows while watching the supports for the entry canopy to make sure that they didn’t block the doorway to the church.  A lot went into the composition to match my vision for this scene.  I then added a polarizer to reduce the glare on the roof from the bright sky and added a 3-stop ND Grad filter to help control the exposure in the sky.  It is safe to say that up till now, I have met the requirements for this being a piece of art.  I have sought to improve on the picture so that it more matched my vision for it.  Am I there yet?

No, the capture of this church is just part of the process.  For my creative workflow, I know that I will be capturing a RAW file which is just raw information of a scene without any improvements made to it by the camera.  For those that choose to shoot in jpeg, they have set the camera up to apply certain changes to the file to get the image closer to their own preference so that they don’t have to bother with the next step.  However, for my “art”, the processing of the image is as important as the capture.  I have written about my feelings on post processing and at what point it becomes too much so I won’t bore you with that rant now.  I will sum it up with a quote that I kind of remember that goes a little something like this.  “The RAW file is the score while the processed image is the performance.”

Simple Worship“, Canon 5DS R, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 3-stop soft ND Grad

Here we have the performance from that RAW file.  It looks completely different and has a much more direct impact.  This is a tool in my toolbox that helps to create my “art.”  When I was capturing this image, I knew what I could do with it in Lightroom and captured the RAW file accordingly.  This is not to say that I shot the image knowing that I would be fixing it later as there was nothing that needed to be fixed.  I had sorted out the composition to include only what I wanted in the frame.  I had added filters to fine tune the image and give me that raw material that I needed in order to complete the performance.  Just as Bob Ross starts with a basic canvas and two colors.  He adds elements along the way that we don’t necessarily understand, but I’m sure that he has a completed scene in his mind that we just don’t see yet.  The part of my photography where I add the post processing step is kind of like adding a “happy little tree right here” in a scene that we might think is completely finished.  After he adds a half dozen happy little trees, and a mountain, and a lake, we are looking at an image that we would have never seen when we thought he was done.  That is what the edit does to the image.  It will take an image that you as the viewer might think is finished and it takes it to the next level which is what the artist had seen all along.

cell phone test shot

The difference doesn’t always have to be so dramatic, but I love showing that old church as an example of what can be done through post processing.  Here is another example that is fun to post.  This image was one that I shot with my phone (as a jpeg) as a teaser shot because I was so happy with finding this boat in a very unlikely environment.  It shows the colors for pretty much what they were, although a bit muted in the evening light.  This is kind of a snapshot, but I had put a lot of thought into the composition and was using this as a test shot before I got the camera out of the truck to capture the “real” image.  The thought behind the composition brings this more into the realm of “art” because there was a conscious thought process to make this image better.  I guess there was too much thought put into it because it actually had a very positive response on social media.  Sure, I had put the thought into the composition and wanted to improve the look of the scene to capture what I saw, but I had not improved the image through exposure or any other part of the process.  The sky was blown out and very uninteresting which pulled the eyes out of the frame.  There was still a lot of clutter in the scene that I didn’t like.  In short, there were improvements that still needed to be made in both composition as well as exposure.

Dammit Gilligan“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 3-stop soft ND Grad

This is the image that I ended up with.  I had further improved my test shot by changing to a vertical composition and focusing just on the boat.  I was able to get more sky into the frame and thanks to a grad filter, I was able to bring detail back into the clouds which was so important for my vision here.  The extra exposure on the foreground allowed me to give the colors a good deal more pop than they had in the test image as well.  This file was then processed in Lightroom for the actual performance.  There was not a huge change in the overall image, but the subtle changes were all designed to improve the photograph which completed the transition from photograph to “art.”  Whether or not you like one image over the other is unimportant for this particular argument.


Audience Reaction to Art

There are a lot of pieces of “art” out there that are universally recognized as fine art that I just don’t get, nor appreciate.  I still view them as art though.  I think that many times audiences get confused about the definition of “art” and start to define it as whether they like it or not.  There were several folks that gave me feedback on the above image and said that they liked the cell phone capture better.  I took no offense to that, and in fact, went back to look at the initial composition that I had shot after the cell shot.  I did end up making it a black and white image which I liked, but this one is still my favorite because it was most true to my vision.  It did get me thinking though about how “art” is received though.  We each bring our own values and interpretations to a piece of art that we see.  There are three different types of basic reactions that I think art should have.  The first and probably the one that happens the easiest is whether or not we like the piece in the first place.  The second, and more meaningful is whether or not we understand the piece, and lastly is whether or not we had an emotional reaction from the piece.

Looking Into the Morning“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

I’m going to pick on myself once again here because…well…it’s the easiest way to illustrate a point without offending anyone.  The first reaction to art is the easiest and one that will come automatically.  Take for instance this image from Topsail Island.  When I captured it I was very excited about the possibilities that it had.  After I processed it though, I decided that I didn’t like it at all.  That was my gut reaction.  When Toni came in to look at it, she loved it and insisted that I post it in the blogs along with the other keepers from the trip.  That didn’t change the fact that I still didn’t like it, but I did it anyway.  I could see what I was trying to accomplish with this, but I just didn’t like how it ultimately came out.  Does this mean that it isn’t art?  No, it is still art because the intention was there to create something better than just a picture.  Remember, I said that art has nothing to do with whether or not we like it.

Verticals“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

The next step in the appreciation of an art form is whether or not you actually understand a piece or not.  This can be completely separate from whether or not you like a piece, or even if you fully know what it is.  Here is a recent example and one that Toni and I both agree on.  It was designed as an abstract piece and one that invites you to look deeper into the image.  In fact, you might not even know if you like it or not when you first see it, but your eyes start to explore the image to determine what you are actually looking at.  It is this exploration that leads to an understanding of the image and then whether or not it is meaningful to you.  It was the patterns here that were meaningful to me, but not just the patterns as much as the reflections of those patterns.  The more you look into this one the more you realize that your eyes are drawn to a series of reflections and shapes which you just can’t define.  Is this something that you grow to understand and appreciate regardless of whether or not you liked it in the first place?  Once you understand the piece, does that change your opinion on it?  Is this art?  There was a decided attempt to improve the picture by positioning the camera in just the right place and then framing the image just so, in order to create this visual abstract.  I would dare say that this does fall in the realm of art.

All To MyselfCanon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2

The last consideration is whether or not a piece brings about an emotional reaction.  After you have decided whether or not you like it, and then if you have taken the time, figured out if you understand it or not, you are now ready to react to it.  A snapshot is just a documentation that you were there.  A photograph that is art, should really cause an emotional reaction of some sort, or at the very least an engagement in senses other than your eyes.  This is one of my favorite images to illustrate this point.  It is a pretty simple image that includes the ocean, a large white cloud, and a lone person sitting on the chair.  Sure, this was captured from the deck of the motel room we were staying at, but there was a lot that went into this image to make it better and to bring about an emotional response.  What caught my attention here was not the landscape.  The clouds were a part of my interest and I captured a number of frames dedicated to that main cloud, but this scene was all about emotion and feeling something.  The most important element in the whole scene was the lone beachgoer sitting in the chair.

Had this been a snapshot, I would have captured a zoomed in picture of him sitting there so that you could see all the detail and fully appreciate the fact that he was sitting on the beach.  That would have been the snapshot, but there would have been no real emotion to be had from looking at that image.  The situation had presented itself after a pretty hard downpour that afternoon to really include emotion in this image.   He was the last remaining person on that section of the beach when everyone else had cleared out.  There was nothing around him but the sea and the sky.  Looking at that scene, the sense of scale that he gave the whole scene became just too important.  I wanted to capture the emotion of loneliness and solitude against something that is bigger than we can imagine.  There are hundreds of miles of horizon represented here and a sky that reaches up into the heavens, yet there is one lone figure that is anchoring the entire thing and you can barely see him.  Of course, in the full resolution image, you can make out the detail on his ball cap.  It is this dichotomy in scale that lends itself to an emotional response.  Is this art?  I really hope that it is because nearly three years later I still feel that sense of insignificance in world looking at this.

Emotion is a big part of art no matter the medium.  It is that subconscious response from deep in our minds that outweighs whether or not we like something that truly makes something art.  Contrary to what you might think, I really appreciate when people give me honest feedback about why they don’t like a photo of mine because it usually is based on the emotions that they feel after looking at it.  To me, this is actually a very positive response because I have moved somebody to give feedback when if it didn’t affect them on an emotional level they wouldn’t have given it another thought.  If I can capture an emotion with my photographs then I have succeeded as an artist whether or not that person likes the image.  I hope that makes sense.  Of course, I am always trying to create images that are enjoyed and liked as well as having that emotional and subconscious reaction.


Is Photography Art?

Cell phone capture of the scene


Mossy Trim“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I’m cheating here by showcasing a VW Beetle for this question.  You just can’t help but feel happy when you see one.  Then you see the condition of it and likely will feel sad.  Either way I have the lock on the emotional response with this picture.  You can see from the cell phone capture of the scene that I had to do quite a bit to improve the image through composition in order to include what I wanted while excluding what I didn’t.  There were filters added to the camera to richen the colors and remove glare, and then ultimately the RAW image was processed through Lightroom.  This image took probably an hour to an hour and a half to create between capture and processing.  All of that time was spent improving it with the intention on making it art.

I really think that the effort that has gone into this image is what classifies it as art.  Again, whether or not you like it is a different story, but if you have a reaction at all to it, that is a good sign that it is art as well.  Art is meant to affect people on many different levels.  If I can resonate with one of those levels through a photograph of mine then I consider myself an artist.


That Would Make a Good Painting

This is one of those comments that I get on my images, especially on Facebook that grinds my gears.  Let me backtrack for a moment first.  I totally get where folks are coming from by making this comment and it is meant as a compliment to the photograph.  I get that, but I would like to put this out there….What if the comment was about a painting that you had worked hard at creating?  What if I came along and said that your painting would make a great photograph?  Sounds odd doesn’t it, but take a minute to think about it.  What I am actually saying is that I love your concept, but I don’t see the painting as art.  If I could take you vision and execution and turn it into a photograph it would then be art.  That is what I hear when I see this comment showing up time and time again.  They are saying that my artistic vision is spot on and that they love what I have come up with, but only a painter could make it be actual art.

Boulders and Branches“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

Is this photograph less artistic because it is a photograph?  Would it be better as a painting?  Why is it so hard for folks to recognize photography as an “art” and give it and the creator of the piece the same respect as a painter would have?  As a photographer who tries to create art out of scenes that he sees, I often feel as if I am the red-headed step-child of the art community and somehow not as good as a “real” artist.  My creative voice has to come through by way of a camera because I can’t draw a lick, and my painting ability is even worse.  I could never sculpt anything out of clay and wouldn’t know where to begin there.  Because I am somehow less than, does that mean that my voice is not worthy of being heard?  Does what I create only have merit if somebody is willing to paint it and turn it into art?

These are all questions for you to decide.  I would imagine that since you are here reading this you are probably more apt to say that photography is art and I really do appreciate that.  I am a firm believer that what I create is art, and I do see photography as an artform.  The only qualification that I see as being necessary is the intent behind the photograph.  If you try to improve on a photograph, you are creating art regardless of anything else.  Art is something that is created, and as you can see here a photograph can be created through many different steps.  I can still take a quick snapshot and have done so many times, but the intent behind the image is much different than when I break out the big camera.

Art has so many different personalities and mediums and I think that they should all be embraced and enjoyed.  Creativity is too easy to stifle because of insecurities that can come up, so we need to do our best to support those that are creating art.  I am actually in the middle of a two part virtual workshop where I am teaching “The ‘Art’ of Photography” and trying to show the importance of making the picture better as well as how to do just that.  These are the same things that I teach in my workshops as I think that it is vitally important to give the tools to those that want to use them in their own photography.  Anyone with a camera, even a cell phone, can become a photographer that creates “art.”  I only hope that eventually the world will start to appreciate photographers as artists as they once did a century ago.


Thank you for joining me for this rather deep Behind the Camera.  I have to admit, it was nice to get this off of my chest for once. It has been bothering me for quite some time and it was therapeutic to get it written down finally.  Will it make a difference in the world?  Probably not, but will it have an impact on how you view photographs in the future?  I hope so.  I can appreciate all art based on the fundamentals that I have alluded to here whether or not I like it.  Art is simply a thought being made into something that can be shared with others in a way that sticks with the viewer.  It doesn’t matter how you choose to share that thought or concept as long as the intent is there to make something better.

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