why take a photograph?

Discussion in 'Open Discussion' started by kevinparis, Jun 28, 2013.

  1. kevinparis

    kevinparis Cantankerous Scotsman Subscribing Member

    Feb 12, 2010
    Gent, Belgium
    There have been several threads recently here, and indeed on other forums too, that have got me thinking about the question of why do we take photographs and who do we take them for.

    Some of the threads relate to the constant angst ridden chatter about what camera to have, whether to add an other camera system to the one you already have, or whether the vague promise of a new model rumoured in 6 months should delay buying a camera today.

    Others are the old 'which lens is best for….' thread or indeed any thread that declares or implies Product X or any of its features and capabilities are clearly inferior either to Product Y or just in some sort of all encompassing sense completely useless ( yes I am looking at all of you who declare the 12-50 a bad lens, or bemoan the slow AF of the 20mm, or declare Lightroom to be 'vastly' superior to Aperture)

    Anyway i digress (partially) , because it was another thread that got me thinking a little more about the reasons for taking a photograph.


    on the last couple of pages there is a post by an oddly robust character who has recently joined the forum.
    In this post, apart from lavishing on me the faint praise that my photos were 'basically tolerable', and referring to the forum as a whole as a 'hack forum', he, a self avowed former 'pro', brought up the old phrase 'a picture is worth a 1000 words', and declared that a photograph should tell a story. While I agree with some of this up to a point, he kind of shot himself in the foot by illustrating this with three rather mediocre shots, which he proceeded to tell a story about, none of which were enhanced by the presence of the photos.

    Still he got me thinking, and what I came up with (I am sure others have probably come up with it too) is that the purpose of a photograph is to communicate something to an audience.

    To me this is a universal truth for for any branch of photography, though what is being communicated and how the audience interact with the image can be different, indeed there can often be a series of audiences.

    Take forensic/scene of crime photography, there the purpose is to accurately record a scene, so that policemen/lawyers/judges can make decisions based on that information. In this case the communication has to be reliable and unambiguous, and the audience needs to have absolute confidence in that.

    In product or fashion photography, it is a exaggerated form of reality that is being communicated ( your camera/car/ will never look as flawless as it did in the brochure), and you may being having to satisfy a couple of audiences, the client, who will obsess more on the technical qualities and projecting the 'correct' image/marketing message, and the ultimate audience who will react on a more visceral/emotional level.

    In the above examples, technical qualities relating to the actual taking of the image are paramount, but this is not the case in all photography. Often the audience will forgive or even ignore technical shortcomings, provided that the something being communicated is compelling or highly relevant to them.

    Robert Capa's D-Day photos despite all their technical flaws (some of which were beyond the photographers control) remain compelling, as does the work of Cartier Bresson, which if you look closely at would probably have him ridiculed for grain and lack of sharpness in any photo club or forum

    So where am I going with this… well I think what I am trying to say is that, especially with the kinds of photographer that frequent forums like this, is that it is easy to lose sight of your audience. If your audience is just you, then it becomes easy to become obsessed about technical minutae. and lose touch with what it is you are trying to communicate in your photos.

    Understanding your audience can be both liberating and encouraging.For example, last weekend some family came to visit with their 1st grandchild. Over the afternoon I took maybe 150 pictures, some of which worked from a technical standpoint, and some that didn't. But I still got a set of 30-40 images, that when delivered that night to the happy grandparents absolutely thrilled them. They didn't obsess over the slightly missed focus or tricky lighting/exposure issues… they were just pleased to have a lasting record of a particular point in time.

    I am not saying that striving for technical excellence should be ignored, but there becomes a point at which it should take a backseat to better understanding what you are trying to communicate, and who your audience is.

    Anyway… thanks for listening to my ramblings… Do I make any sense?

    a "basically tolerable" photographer :) 
  2. madogvelkor

    madogvelkor Mu-43 Top Veteran

    Feb 22, 2013
    Well said. I think the same issue comes up in every art. Writers, for example, often face the same question.
  3. RobWatson

    RobWatson Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    I photographed my neighbors kids birthday party. Mostly the photos were all crap but one was nice and I had it printed and framed for them. They rave about all the nice photos so it evidently didn't matter to them that I thought all but 2 were junk (and they really are junk - harsh direct sunlight is, well, harsh).

    Not one comment about my spork photos ... trust me, I brought sporks to the party.

    Evoked memories are amazing and even a crap photo can stir powerful memories.
  4. phigmov

    phigmov Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Apr 4, 2010

    I take images for any number of reasons -

    * Pleasure and relaxation (as Robin Wong sometimes calls it 'Shutter Therapy')
    * Images to capture personal memories
    * Images to share with friends and family
    * Images to share with like-minded people, primarily forum members
    * Images taken on purpose to fit certain genres, primarily to hone whatever meagre skills or eye for composition I have
    * Images taken as experiments, often inspired by other photographers

    Theres probably a venn diagram in there somewhere.
  5. monk3y

    monk3y Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    May 14, 2013
    in The Cloud...
    I understand my audience very well... The most important audience for me is myself :biggrin:

    If I like what I took, that's all that matters, don't really care what the pros think about my photos... I enjoy shooting and finding subjects to photograph, I believe I have enough knowledge to satisfy my own. Instead on debating about something, I just enjoy whatever I have and be glad I could afford to waste money on something like this. :biggrin:
  6. kevinparis

    kevinparis Cantankerous Scotsman Subscribing Member

    Feb 12, 2010
    Gent, Belgium
    I didn't say anything about caring what pros think... they are not relevant unless they are your audience.

    I can't help thinking that exclusively playing to a single audience, especially when that audience is yourself would be rather unchallenging and unsatisfying.... but hey each to their own

  7. ivoire

    ivoire Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Aug 6, 2011
    Naperville, IL
    For something to do; to bring an idea to fruition; just to see if i can capture a moment in time; for money; as a favor for people that ask; to have an image to alter and manipulate; to make me slow down and see/notice the world i live in; to share what or the way i see things (and all whether others like it or not).

    And thanks to those that shoot and post as i enjoy seeing how others see the world
  8. monk3y

    monk3y Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    May 14, 2013
    in The Cloud...
    For sure it's boring and unsatisfying, I just meant I am my most important audience, but I am not my only audience otherwise I wouldn't be in forums like this sharing photos .:thumbup: Also, the reason I take photos is to preserve memories of my trips, travels and life for me to look back at them in the future.

    As for the "what the pros think" comment, I read your exchanges with the other guy on the thread you mentioned and I was reacting to his comments when I posted my reply here. sorry about that:redface:
  9. ivoire

    ivoire Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Aug 6, 2011
    Naperville, IL
    The unique thing i find is that i can look at a posted photo and not think much of it (including my own). Then someone makes a comment from their point/angle of view that completely changes the way i see it. I used to wonder why i visited forums (other than for info) until i realized this.
  10. Narnian

    Narnian Nobody in particular ...

    Aug 6, 2010
    Richmond, VA
    Richard Elliott
    Kevin, I have always found your photos very tolerable :D  Your pictures are very high on my list of ones I look for when I am on the forum. You shoot what I do not.

    I shoot photos for several reasons:

    1. I enjoy good photography (like I see on this forum) and nothing satisfies me more than taking a photo I like - I am my first audience. They are few and far between but often enough to keep me going.

    2. My wife is my next most important audience - when she says "I really like that shot" my heart goes a flutter. ;) 

    3. Anybody else - I like "likes" here - I confess I am not beyond a little ego stroking when I post something that someone likes because it is a good shot in their eyes. If I can bring a smile out there it is a small accomplishment.
  11. RT_Panther

    RT_Panther Mu-43 Legend

    May 4, 2011
    Because I'm terrible at in-camera video....:tongue:
  12. GaryAyala

    GaryAyala Mu-43 Legend

    Jan 2, 2011

    You opened an giant can of worms for me. Could go on for ages on his stuff.

    1) I am my worst critic. I know that if I am satisfied with the image ... then most everyone else, including my editors, are pretty satisfied.

    2) Even if I am satisfied, I do care what others say. Photography is communications, the greater the communicative properties of the image, the more successful the image.

    3) While I rarely keep an unfocused image, I recognize that sharpness isn't a deal breaker. A powerful image doesn't have to be sharp ... but a sharp and powerful image is even better.

    Gotta Go More Later ...

  13. kevinparis

    kevinparis Cantankerous Scotsman Subscribing Member

    Feb 12, 2010
    Gent, Belgium
    thanks everyone for the responses and kind words. Look forward to further input from Gary and the rest

    the thread title was meant to be a more philosophical question about why a photo is taken, rather than why you as an individual take your photos, though asking yourself that question can be enlightening. Photos to me are for sharing and not to be locked up inside a computer and endlessly analysed

    I suppose the post comes from my personal realisation that I am at a place where I have a very good camera and lenses that delivers pretty much all I wish for , and have easy access to other cameras like Leica M9 (my girlfriends) and Canon 5D's if their marginal (to me) advantages are needed... to be honest I doubt I will ever fire the canon again, and the Leica shooting is more an intellectual exercise than a commitment to that platform.

    My technical skills have reach a comfortable level of competency, and I find my confidence growing. Much of that confidence has come from seeking a wider audience, whether it be here, on Flickr and Facebook, through getting out and shooting in new areas.

    The skills I wish to grow are no longer reliant on a particular camera, but are of a more general nature, some of them technical like lighting, and others more social, like how to work with people to create images.

    I am not immune to gear lust, and will always remain part geek, but my pleasure in photography comes from finding that elusive audience... the people of this forum have been one of my more receptive audiences and I thank you all for your support.

  14. Narnian

    Narnian Nobody in particular ...

    Aug 6, 2010
    Richmond, VA
    Richard Elliott
    I am not certain there can be an abstract philosophical answer to why a photograph is taken - your own exposition above is very personal.

    I see two reasons for photography:

    1. Historical/journalistic
    2. Artistic

    These are definitely not mutually exclusive.

    95% of my pictures fall into the first category as I mostly shoot events: family, vacations, church, by request for organizations, etc. Capturing that moment in time for history. I started shooting back in 1970 and it was great to see my pictures in the school newspapers and yearbooks. I worked in the National Zoo Animal Hospital, my friends an I built a log cabin, I was a caver, etc. and it was satisfying to see my pictures added to collections, displayed and published documenting those. Great photographs? Few, if any. But I have a visual history of my life and the events around me that I participated in that I have been able to share. It is great to add to the documentation of history.

    Ralph the Tiger Cub at the National Zoo Hospital, 1973

    To me these types of photographs are little snippets of truth.

    On the other hand artistic photographs are little snippets of beauty - something I am trying to learn more of and get better at.

    So to me, in a nutshell, photography is about adding truth and beauty to the world.
  15. GaryAyala

    GaryAyala Mu-43 Legend

    Jan 2, 2011
    Richard just beat me to the answer.

    Freezing a fraction of a second in time, capturing the emotion and impact of an event is what drives me. The photographs ability to rely a story as clearly and as importantly as the written word drives my need to document events to enrich society's need to know.


    Even if I shoot something abstract, it is still a moment in time as all thing change and evolve. I love capturing a "truth" (as Richard so eloquently stated), yet make it my "truth" ... manipulating/managing/spinning/selecting my "truth" from the clutter of the greater world though the camera. My lens selection, aperture selection, shutter selection, camera position all affect the final image ... changing the "truth" of a photograph into my "truth". I love the challenge of attaining a more interesting, appealing, impactful "truth" through the camera's eye, then what our own eyes convey from the same experience.


    Gotta Go Again-
  16. Ian.

    Ian. Mu-43 All-Pro

    Mar 13, 2013
    I'm not sure why I enjoy doing artwork or taking photos and post processing them. I do it for my own fun. But having an outlet for showing pictures, like competitions or here on the threads also helps drive me to take more.
  17. drd1135

    drd1135 Zen Snapshooter

    Mar 17, 2011
    Southwest Virginia
    I know that I often shoot for my own pleasure, e.g., flowers and other still lives, and I do dwell on the technical quality of these shots much more. When I'm taking a camera on vacation, I am more concerned with the story line they present as a whole, because they trigger memories. I was with a younger friend a few weeks ago and we started looking through old photo albums of trips we had taken to Africa and the UK. It was the quintessential old photo experience, sharing a moment otherwise lost to time. It also made me give serious thought to the archival robustness of my digital photos.
  18. robbie36

    robbie36 Mu-43 All-Pro

    Sep 25, 2010
    rob collins
    I am sort of with Monkey on this one.

    I generally think that most peoples 'actions' are determined by 'your own opinion of other peoples reactions'. My GF when she looks in the mirror turns to me and asks 'do you think people will think I look good in this dress?'

    Now my theory is that it is pretty much difficult for me to work out what I think. If I am supposed to tailor my actions to what other people think (when I really dont have a clue) I am likely to be in big trouble.

    So with something like photography my approach is to create whatever I like the way I want to and hope that other people like it - there is always someone who does, somewhere.
  19. ddekadt

    ddekadt Mu-43 Regular Subscribing Member

    Aug 30, 2013
    Central California
    I'd say photography is an attempt to represent reality in a way that reveals some otherwise hidden truth. That truth can be anything -- something as "profound" as the value/worthlessness of a human life (war-time photography?), something as "banal" as the bonds that bind a family (family photographs). What makes a photograph "good" to me is that it shows me something I couldn't ordinarily have seen. A snapshot is a rendition of reality that reveals nothing new. A photograph is a rendition of reality that shows me, perhaps just fleetingly, a glimpse behind the veil.

    EDIT: And I'll be slightly mean and say I agree with the motivating paragraphs of OP plus -- too much conversation about gear this and gear that, not enough hard work and concentration on producing better photographs. ;) .
  20. uscrx

    uscrx Mu-43 Top Veteran

    Aug 26, 2011
    Shasta Cascade
    If belief is "a photograph should tell a story," then the former pro's approach is very elementary. A story tells a story.

    A photo does a lot more than that.

    Photograph provokes questions and thoughts in audience mind's eyes.

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