What is Photography?
March 06, 2012 • 2 Comments
With so many people today taking photographs with I-Phones, I-Pods, I-Pads, and who knows how many other devices, what can we really consider a photograph to be anymore? Webster's defines photography as "the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (as film or a CCD chip)". In simple terms, it's the act of producing images via a light sensitive medium. The definition of a photograph, as defined by Websters, is "a picture or likeness obtained by photography". Those are great scientific definitions, but they don't really help much, do they? With the popularity of digital cameras in all their forms, photography, and even what a photograph is, will be defined differently by the person who created the photograph. Someone taking a snapshot of a group of friends at a party and posting it on Facebook will consider their "process of producing images" as something totally different than the wedding photographer trying to create a pleasing end product for a client. The "Facebook" shooter isn't likely to put much thought into the composition of the shot, the lighting, or other factors, except whether everyone is in the frame. The end result, or photograph, will get uploaded immediately to Facebook and viewed for a few seconds by a few people. I wonder if these images really even have the impact that similar photos had when they were shot on film. Often with film, the images sat on a roll undeveloped for an undefined length of time, then were printed and the memories they brought back were often cherished. Any of us old enough to remember the shoe box full of photographs, remember if fondly for the memories it held, but how many of us think the same way about a hard drive full of snapshots? Today, they are uploaded to the internet and viewed within moments of being taken, which doesn't allow for the same emotional impact as they once would have had. After all, who is going to be nostalgic for an event that happened a few hours ago? The wedding photographer, in comparison, puts thought into the lighting, the composition, the emotion of the moment, tries to capture it in a photograph, then tries to perfect those moments in post production, providing their clients with memories intended to last a life time. At least the good wedding photographers try to do that!
And then there are nature photographers. Wow, so where do nature photographers fall into these extremes? My experience suggests that they run the entire gamet. A nature photograph can be anything from a snapshot to a documentary shot to something worthy of any art gallery, as well as everything in between. I think we all, as nature photographers, at least start out as "snapshooters". We see something cool, we aim our lens and push the button, without any thought as to what will be the ultimate end result. Some times we are "documentarians" as we see something unique, different, or behavorial. As an artist, we know the light isn't right or the subject isn't something that people will hang on their walls. Or maybe the event itself, such as a grizzly killing an elk calf, which may have appeal as documentation , but probably isn't going to be considered "art". Some nature photographers prefer this style of shooting and there's nothing wrong with that, I've shot many photographs for the purpose of documenting what was happening, though I don't consider myself very good in doing so. Then there are nature photographers who try to create something different. Perhaps the light isn't right today, so they will shoot another day. Perhaps the flowers aren't just right. Someone in this category is going to wait for everything to come together perfectly in order to get the shot just right. Some times that can take hours, some times weeks, some times years. I strive for my work to reach this level, though often fall short. It requires a lot of patience and endurance to create a photograph that creates an emotion in the viewer. It requires taking a lot of photographs that fail, learning why they fail, and trying again. In the end, if you fail and learn from it, and eventually, you will develop your own style and you will be able to create of your definition of what is photography. But only if you put in the hard work and effort to develop it.
In the galleries where my work is displayed in Yellowstone, occasionally I hear someone say, "I could take a photo like that". I want to reply, "if you could then why don't you?" But I already know the answer to that question. They can't because they aren't willing to spend hours in the field, they don't take the time to creatively see the composition, and they can't read the light and know how it's going to look in the end result. This isn't necessarily because they don't have the ability to do so, but it's because they haven't learned the process. Of course, some folks are just "creatively" challenged and may never have the eye for photography. For me, I have no musical talent whatsoever. No amount of trying will ever turn me into any sort of musician, singer, or dancer! This can, however, spark up a conversation about photography where the person walks away with a new appreciation about what it can take to get a photograph. In the end, we are all learning, myself included. I still have a long way to go to get where I want to be. But as long as we know why we are shooting, then we know what we can achieve. Do you want to take photos and share them with friends? Do you want to document interesting moments? Do you want to do both of those and also create images with emotional impact? Once you know the why, learn the how. How will the light look in the final photo? What composition best reveals my subject? Is the subject interesting in the first place?
The photo above, "Morning Mist", looks simple enough. I had this image visualized in my mind for a long time. My goal was to photograph a bull elk in morning fog back lit by the rising sun. I knew the best time to try to get this was in September when the elk were in rut. September would be cool in the morning, creating a mist coming off the river. The elk would look their best and they should be active. Sounds simple, right? It took me seven years to get this shot with the conditions just perfect. Granted, I might have taken this shot sooner, if I had tried even harder, invested even more time, and so on. But it didn't take seven years for lack of trying. Some times the fog was too thick, sometimes not thick enough. Some times the angle of the sun was wrong. Or other times the elk weren't active in any areas where the conditions were right. But finally, after six failed Septembers of trying, it came together in the seventh. Ultimately however, I decided I wanted to try to create photographs with an emotional impact and felt what I had visualized would have such an impact. So for me, this is what I want from my photography. What is photography? In today's environment, there are many definitions of what photography is, but it's ultimately up to you, the photographer to define what you want your photography to be.
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