The Photograph as Art :: Digital Photo Secrets

The Photograph as Art

by David Peterson 4 comments

What's the difference between art and a snapshot? The answer is not usually very obvious. Art is subjective, and sometimes we recognize it subconsciously rather than consciously.
How does a photo make you feel? Does it make you think about a concept or an idea? Is it technically beautiful, and if not, does it break those technical rules beautifully? Taking fine art photos requires a lot of skill, experimentation and careful thought - but it is a pursuit that can be very rewarding. In this article, I want to explore the difference between a photograph as documentation, and a photograph as art.

Back in the 1830s, no one really knew whether the camera was an artistic tool or just a tool. That was photography's infancy, of course, when portrait artists suddenly realized that they could set aside paint and canvas and use a camera to make short work out of what used to be a long, sometimes painful process. With a camera, explorers could document their discoveries, the police could record the details of a crime scene and those artists who still loved their paintbrushes could capture a scene or person and paint directly from a photograph in the comfort of a home studio.

The first permanent photographs were created in or around 1826, when French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce developed a light-sensitive material that could permanently retain a photographic image. But it wasn't until the last decade of that century that any photographer dared to think of himself as an artist; until that time, photography was seen as a documentary tool (sometimes even a novelty). Portrait photographers, for example, weren't capturing art, they were simply documenting the appearance of a person or a family. After all, a photographer simply needed to point his camera, focus, and take the picture - a portrait artist, on the other hand, spent hours with his paints and subject, capturing by hand the subtle variations in color and light. The portrait artist was skilled; the photographer was not. This was one of the reasons why no one took very seriously the idea of photographic "art".

Heinrich Kühn, Miss Mary and Edeltrude at the Hill Crest, ca. 1910
(courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

There are several people credited with changing this perception of photographers and photography. In Europe, Heinrich Kühn was one of the first self-proclaimed "art photographers." In America, the movement's pioneers were Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, who experimented widely with photographic techniques and theories in their pursuit of this new art - it was Stieglitz who first helped convince museum curators to include fine-art photographs in their collections.

Other photographers helped to forward these ideas, too. Columnist Peter Henry Emerson believed that any photograph that brought "aesthetic amusement to the viewer" was art. Founded in 1889, Emerson's photography movement was called "naturalistic photography," and it was one of the pioneering philosophies of fine-art photography.

Photo vs. Snapshot

Today we know what these pioneers had to convince the rest of the world: photography is not just a technique for saving time and documenting our surroundings. Photography is an art, and the camera is an artist's tool, just like paintbrush and canvas. So why do some of your photos still look like documents rather than pieces of art?

  • Canon PowerShot G7
  • f/3.2
  • 0.001 sec (1/1600)
  • 14.8 mm

Happy Bokeh Wednesday! by Flickr user kevin dooley

The answer is not really a simple one. A photograph of a beautiful scene may not necessarily be a work of art, and a photograph of something mundane might be. No matter how you look at them, some photos are just snapshots - those pictures of you and your buddies at a frat party in 1992, for example. Or that picture of your dog lying in front of the fireplace. Sure, he's cute, but you're probably the only person who is going to have an emotional response to that image. So is it art? To you, perhaps. But real photographic art should speak to many people, not just one or two.

So what's the difference?

As it turns out, those early dissenters, who believed that art requires skill were at least partially correct. Art does require skill, and photography - as anyone who's ever dabbled knows - requires a whole lot of skill. What those dissenters didn't take into account was that skill isn't just found in actions that take time and patience. Skill can be found in the way a photograph is composed, the way the message is conveyed and the way the image is printed.

  • Nikon D50
  • 800
  • f/22.0
  • 0.067 sec (1/15)
  • 200 mm

Blue blur by Flickr user amycgx

The very first thing a fine-art photograph needs to do is make the viewer feel something. There doesn't necessarily have to be a clear message in every image, and it doesn't have to be a profound message, either. But it should have some quality that makes the viewer either feel and emotion or think about a concept. As with all art, the viewer doesn't necessarily have to connect directly with the original thinking of the photographer. An image of a horse and rider may mean something completely different to you, who may not have ever ridden a horse than it does to the photographer, who grew up on a thoroughbred farm. But that doesn't mean that both of you don't have an emotional reaction to that image of a horse and rider.

Lines of a wave I by Flickr user somebody_

The second thing that an art photograph needs to have is good composition. Start by reviewing the six classic elements of design to see what I mean. There are certain elements that you can include in your images that will automatically create a sense of mood or emotion. It's not critical that an image includes any of these elements, but fine art photographs often do. Good composition can also be found in a photographer's use of other techniques such as the rule of thirds, or the way he or she captures light. All of these compositional tricks can help inspire emotion or contemplation in a viewer.

The third thing that makes an image a work of art is the way it has been finalized for display. Before digital, this was the technique used to make the print. Today it isn't really necessary to print a photo, but the final digital image does have to have certain qualities that attest to the care that the photographer put into its creation. This might mean altering the contrast or color in post-processing, it may mean cropping, or it may even mean adding artistic effects - colorizing parts of a black and white image, for example, or applying a subtle filter.

A Final Test

It's actually fairly simple for a viewer to separate fine art from snapshot, and the process is almost subconscious. Visit Flickr and try the following experiment: page through a series of images and then ask yourself which one of those images made you pause. Chances are there were a few, but it probably wasn't all of them or even most of them. But those images that you paused to look at for a few extra moments are at the line between art and snapshot. The ones that you looked at for a much longer period of time are squarely in the realm of art.

  • Nikon D2Xs
  • 100
  • f/8.0
  • 0.006 sec (1/160)
  • 18 mm

The Lonely Road to the Dinosaur Dig by Flickr user Stuck in Customs

Photographic art speaks to the viewer on an emotional level. Art of any kind should make us think. That's why an image of a field in the middle of the day might inspire the ho-hums, but an image of a field at sunrise with a road running through it and into the distance might inspire us to think of possibilities.

Does every photograph have to be a work of art? Of course not, but for most of us isn't that the ultimate goal? Snapshots are great documents of life, but a work of art is a testament to life.

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?



    Am so grateful for this teaching , it has added great ideals in me ,am aspiring to be one of the greatest photographer in my generation , more of this will be much welcome, thanks

  2. Derick says:

    Good article. I am a fine artist as well and photography has taught me a lot of stuff like composition, colour etc. I do not distinguish between fine art and art photography as far as expression of ideas are concerned. I like to use digital photos and then using Photoshop to create a hybrid.

  3. Ginny Foster says:

    I have loved photography since as a child, 6years old, viewing the sticky, pink blooms of a tobacco plant, while looking up at it with the at hot blue sky above it, Ii saw a lovely picture. I was short. I was in a tobacco field suckering tobacco, it was our money farm Income in Georgia! I so appreciated this article. For photography is a talent and is art. Not everyone sees a picture, but real artists do. The editions you speak of in art. Beautiful article.

    Thank you for sharing it.

    Ginny of Orange Park, Fl. July 28, 2016

  4. Frank Argotti says:

    Fantastic !
    Well put. I'm a fine artist that use a camera for reference for my portrait paintings. I sold more of my photographs then my fine art by 2 thirds. Studio and Location Photography. I can say that I'm an artist.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.