Thoughts & Ideas

What Is Photography?

I’m a word buff, and I think I got that legally from my mother, who took the time to look up what the word actually means. We often consider a photographer as an individual who has taken the time to study, learn, and perfect their understanding of light, composition, film, post-processing, etc., but if we actually take the word apart, we might find something just a little different.

photo- means “light”, or “produced by light”, as given by Merriam Webster’s definition:

photo- (fōtō, -ə)

  1. Etymology: < Gr phōs (gen. phōtos), a light: see phosphorus

    of or produced by light photograph, photosynthesis

The postfix –graphy, means the following, again as given by Merriam Webster’s definition:

-graphy (grə fē)

  1. a process or method of writing, recording, or representing (in a specified way) calligraphy, photography
  2. a descriptive science or a treatise dealing with such a sciencegeography

Etymology: L -graphia < Gr, writing < graphein, to write: see graphic

So photography literally means “A process or method of writing, recording, or representing (in a specified way) light.” I like to think of it in a simpler term: writing with light. And a photographer is simply someone who writes with light.

Photography is simply a means to record (write) the light coming into the camera. There is a science to that, and an art to that, but in and of itself, photography is nothing more than making a record of the light present at that very moment in time. It’s how we manipulate that light, how we position our camera, how we post-process that record after-the-fact, how the photograph is presented to the viewer, etc., that embodies the art of photography. It’s the understanding of the physics involved in how light travels, how it is bent by lenses, how chemicals or silicon can record that light, etc., that embodies the science of photography.

We are in a world today where making a photographic record of an event is easier than ever – we have cameras in our cell-phones, we have small cameras we can slip in a pocket, we have cameras that can go underwater, and we have larger, more complicated cameras. We have cameras that record to film and cameras that record to a digital medium. All of this can be done without the art or the science of photography.

There is no definition of what makes a good or bad photograph. Unless there is something seriously wrong with the recording mechanism, the photograph represents the light the camera saw correctly (even if it is a shot of the lens cap). It is when we compare it to what the photographer wanted to express that we can move into the territory of “good” and “bad” – or more accurately, whether the photograph successfully conveys the story and context and ideas that the photographer wished it to express, or if it did not.

When a photograph is viewed by anyone but the photographer, any opinion is subjective – there is no right or wrong answer. One person may not like the image, while another may praise it as the best they’ve ever seen. Some may critique the image on its technical merits, but again, this is subjective – the photographer may have had something else in mind. Therefore there is no one “right” answer to what makes a photograph “good” and another one “bad” – it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

That said, learning the art and science of photography can help you become a better photographer – that is, it can help you more easily create a photograph that captured what you wanted to capture (not just what the camera wanted to capture). Rather than relying on the camera to make all the decisions for you, you can start to take control of the camera and record what you want to record. This doesn’t mean you’ll have to learn a set of rules and stick to them – no. Most photographic “rules” are made to be broken – but it helps to understand the underlying reasons of why a rule became a rule so that you know when to break it for the best effect.

Over the next few weeks, I hope to help you learn more about the science and the art of photography. I’ll try to avoid getting terribly technical, nor will I indicate any rules – just “guidelines”, that once you’ve learnt, you’re welcome to break!

With that said, let me present to you two very important guidelines. The first guideline in photography is this: experiment. Think outside of the box. You might be surprised what you create! (And the second guideline? Write what you did down – unless you happen to like not remembering how you achieved a certain look or effect.) You are welcome to break these if you wish – but try them out first – you just might surprise yourself!

So, until the next post – have fun writing with light!

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