Photography – Are We Capturing Or Creating?

Some would argue that photography is more challenging than another visual art form where you’re able to start with a blank canvas, and lay down whichever marks, shapes, words and colours you wish.

Indeed with other art forms like writing or composing music, you can start from nothing but the potential of the language you have – and even then, you can expand, distort, embellish and reinvent that language, using words with no previous meaning or sounds without a familiar structure.

But with photography, you have to use what’s there in front of you.

Perhaps then, the largest aspect of creative work for a photographer, is simply choosing where to point your camera.

Because every scene we immortalise as a photograph has to include the raw elements already there – the light, the objects, the shapes, the textures.

With more studio based photography, there is arguably more creative control, and perhaps it’s more akin to the other art forms mentioned above, in that you can start with a blank canvas, and add in the elements you want.

You can change the background, the objects, the lighting, and so on, before you commit to any shots.

But out in the field, wandering with camera, there is no such luxury.

For me this is one of the great excitements and challenges with photography – the hunt for compositions that I find beautiful and interesting, without constructing them artificially myself.

Of course whatever you find out on your ventures, you still have the freedom to position your camera in an almost infinite array of angles and positions before you release the shutter.

Plus you have an equally wide range of options with how you set up your camera.

The aperture, shutter speed, focus and so on, can each have a significant impact on how the final image will look.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s put to one side the world of post-processing, which at its extreme, allows you to take virtually any initial image and contort it into almost any other.

We’ll stick here with just the creative choices you have at the point of making the photograph in camera.

And whilst they are plentiful, the scene there in front of you is still the most dominant factor in how the final photograph will look.

So, when we photograph, are we creating something afresh? Or just capturing what’s already there? What’s your take on this?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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6 thoughts on “Photography – Are We Capturing Or Creating?”

  1. Indeed, those are good questions…
    Most of the “photography as an art” efforts that I see, seem to be directed towards post processing, but as you said, we’re leaving that aside…
    Still, we are not always “just portraying what is there” even when we just snap a picture… that small in-focus area surrounded by bokeh is not something our eye sees without the camera. The subject isolation (like in your picture) doesn’t either – it is created by the lens (it’s mostly a combination of focal length and aperture). So in a way, even if we are not post-processing much, we are still rendering an interpretation of something we see… and it ends up being a mix of portraying what is there, but also creating something new.
    Shooting at f8 or so with a normal (50mm equiv) lens is the closest we get to portraying what our eyes are seeing. But that style of photography, common in the film days, seems almost like a forgotten art now. So the great majority of our pictures includes a big amount of adding something to the image, that isn’t there when we see it with the naked eye, and we do it optically or in post-processing (or both, for most people).
    I hope that makes sense…

    1. Ah thank you Chris, I’m glad someone has responded, I thought this one would stimulate plenty of conversation but you’re the first to comment.

      Interesting talking about the depth of field and so on. In other threads here (often about colour), a number of people say “I just want the camera to capture the scene exactly as I saw it” – the colours, the light, the focus and so on. But I nearly always don’t want this. I want to use the particular features of a camera to make the scene more interesting to me, like the way the Pentax CCDs render colours more like it’s a warm autumn evening, or the way the high contrast b/w modes of some cameras give extra grain and contrast and drama, or like you talked about, subject isolation, narrowing focus and depth of field and creating lovely blurry backgrounds.

      I do these things often because it allows me to create something beautiful I can’t do with my naked eyes.

      Of course I still need some decent raw material there – ie the scene I find and want to capture, I can’t just point the camera at blank sky or a blanket of snow and get the same effects. I don’t know, maybe in musical terms it’s more like a remix or a reinterpretation of someone else’s song. You didn’t start with nothing, but you shaped it enough with your creative will and style to make it your own.

      I used to write a great deal of poetry and went through phases of cutting up my own poems (printed out) and rearranging them to make new poems with perhaps very different meanings and moods. I love this cut ups approach, and again it is perhaps akin to photography, starting with something (not a blank page), but then shaping it into something quite different. There’s still creation there, but again a kind of remixing rather than drawing something out of absolutely nothing.

  2. Hi Dan, I’m sorry my dear friend but I just have to pull you up on your answer to Chris’s comment…. only slightly mind… but it made me shudder and I felt it down to my toes …. and its only a few words… and its these….

    “I can’t just point the camera at blank sky or a blanket of snow “….

    Now forgive me for thinking but there is no such thing as blank sky or a blanket of snow…. both are “moveable objects” in so much as give it less than 5 mins and they have changed… sometimes even that is 4 mins too long in time…For me on this colour quest that I am on… taking just the sky on its own… sometimes accounts for 80% of the image taken, never mind the fun I have had with snow… and again being frank about it… for every superb image I see on the internet I see 100 washout sky images or even what we would call the wrong colour snow…. I was recently reading somewhere…( dont ask as I have slept a few times since) about how the so called “great landscape” painters knew when they had made the cut..as there snow and sky looked real…. which also made me look at lets say more than a few images and concede that the images that are fabulous all have real “colours” when it comes to snow and sky…. as I say… not a biggy, but it got “under my skin” or should that be skintone… hihi…. which is a all new ballgame to me….

    1. Thanks Lynd. I didn’t mean I don’t ever shoot sky or snow (actually clouds are one of my favourite subjects!), what I meant was a scene that was completely flat and uniform, without any varying textures or patterns or colours or depth from different layers of objects.

      Skin tone is an absolutely mine field. Most of my portraits are of my immediate family, taken with my phone camera, and the ones I like most I give a little tweak in Snapseed, usually to up the contrast, saturation and warmth, so they look more like the kind of sunny autumn photos from the 70s and 80s, ie my childhood. I don’t even attempt to get an accurate skin tone, just an overall look that I like.

      1. Thanks Dan, I know I know….it wasn’t criticism, and as for skin tones…. absolutely… a minefield… I tend to just put everything on auto and then try and work it out after… One thing I would say mind… is that the so called retro look … is far harder to try and emulate even with the aid of the various different film adjustments available on my Fuji XE1… you just cannot get the same output that we did get back in the day when you went to pick up the photos from the chemist… take care..BR Lynd

      2. No, it’ll never look quite the same, and I don’t go for a 100% authentic look or I’d be spending hours a week post processing. I think something we forget is that those photos have also aged for decades and didn’t look like that when they were fresh prints!

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