When is Photography…Not?

“Photoshop is the best darkroom in the world, but I’m careful not to abuse the possibilities of Photoshop. I try to maintain the integrity of the negative. Otherwise, it’s a slippery slope to fabrication.” – Nick Brandt

When is photography…not?

Friends, I have an internal struggle.  I should warn you ahead of time that there are no answers at the end of this blog post – no treatise, no definite stand.  I wanted to find out your thoughts on it in order to help sort out mine.  Cheap online therapy, I suppose!

The basic question:  When is photography no longer photography, but some other kind of art?

I grew up in the film era.  Film was photography.  There were no such things as personal computers, the Internet or Photoshop.  Photographers were masters of their craft – they understood films, lighting, flash ratios, and nailing the exposure every time because their livelihood depended on it.  So that was my frame of reference and I admired their skill.  Taking that knowledge and turning it into art made household names out of Ansel Adams and the like.

Then came the digital revolution.  All of a sudden you didn’t have to be as precise in your exposure, you could “fix it in post”.  Cameras became computers with lenses attached, and if you weren’t able to get the photos you wanted, you upgraded to the latest version of that photocomputer, which inevitably did a better job.

Low light no longer became an obstacle.  No agonizing over the film choice when to adjust the colors all it took was the movement of a few sliders.  They had enough megapixels so you could crop severely and still have a presentable photograph.

To me though, those made sense.  I could equate them to their film equivalent.  Dodging and burning in the darkroom was similar to dodging and burning in Photoshop, saturation was like film choice, etc.

Then came things like HDR, Content Aware Fill in CS5 and programs that did more than anything film could ever do (well, easily anyway).  That’s when I started to have this debate in my head.

Was this still photography?  Was it still art?

I think I’ve come to the conclusion that the latter is definitely true.  It’s most certainly art.  The question is where does photography end and graphic artistry begin?

When you can add or remove skies, people, distracting objects, pretty much anything in a photo, change literally anything – is the initial capture then just like an artist’s canvas?  A place to start?  I remember that Photoshop started out as a program for graphic artists with minimal support for photographers. 

I also remember the debate that the magazine Popular Photography had when the digital revolution started – they agonized over the same thing and eventually settled on changing their name to Popular Photography and Imaging (as if it was something separate from photography, but similar).

As I said, there are no clear answers.  And with the rapidly approaching 3D revolution, things will change dramatically yet again.

Both are art, but are they both photography?  Let me know your thoughts.

Other news:

I’m  excited to share that three of my photos got selected for a show at the Lightbox Photographic Gallery in Oregon! More than 350 photos from around the country were submitted. I submitted 4 and had 3 selected! Now to get them printed and shipped. The show will run June 12th – July 7th.



  1. It’s a very difficult and interesting question Mark and one i’ve pondered over more than once or twice myself. I agree with everything you say so I don’t imagine i’m going to help your struggle much either. They are, as you say, both art so that bits easy enough. I think where I probably draw the line for the end of ‘strictly photography’ is when I start to construct things.

    Hypothetically, if you shoot Nikon and I shoot Canon then the two cameras and two lenses are going to reproduce the same shot slightly differently. In that case, colours, dodging, burning, etc are all fair game since who’s to say if either manufacturer reproduced the scene exactly as it was seen? Hdr, exposure blending, composites, when I do any of those I always feel I should state that the image has been manipulated so that people know exactly what they’re looking at. For the beginner it saves them the frustration I had starting out & wondering why my shots weren’t as good as the pros, for the non-tog viewer it lets them know that in the case of a cliched ‘flawless size 0 model’ look, it’s not a real image to aspire to.

    Apologies for the long reply, it’s an interesting question.

  2. Several things come to mind in this question Mark the first is who does it matter to and why. Defining an image as ‘pure photography’ has more to do with a process than the image so if it is ‘pure’ and boring the only interesting thing about it is the process it was made.
    Much the same argument when acrylic paint became available, the only pure painting for artists was done in oils, using the same old process that the old masters used , by golly. Carried out to the logical conclusion the only real art is charcoal on a cave wall.
    Confusing time saving by getting the image ‘in camera’ and needing little post doesn’t make an image better or more of a photograph it just saves time and shows some mastery of the technology.
    I wish more people would worry as much about the content and story than how the image was made. I have yet to find meaning or like an image because it was shot with a certain brand of camera, any more than I like a house because of the tools used to build it.
    Ever ask anyone what brand of pencil they used to make a drawing?

  3. Great points, Ian and Ray! And I especially agree Ray about your comment on the content being more important. Good art is good art, no matter what the tool or medium. And labels are definitely limiting in some ways, that’s why I normally disregard them entirely.

    Imagine though that you ran a photography-only gallery. Someone submits something for consideration to you that clearly (in your mind) bears no resemblance to a photograph whatsoever. And yet it started out as a digital capture in a camera. Do you hang it? Or does it more to an equally prestigious but more general art gallery?

    Or an even more general question: How do you define photography? While that may seem merely an intellectual exercise, do we now do away with the term “photographer” and just call ourselves artists instead?

  4. Use a computer…. your a digital artist. That’s it.

    And that’s a good thing, but people simply do not like that, they want that title “Photographer” as if “Digital Artist” was a bad title.

    But, then again, why do we have to have titles.
    There cannot ever, ever be an answer to this but you can come close listening to the Lenswork podcasts whereas this is discussed quite a bit intelligently.

  5. Galleries have a mind and definition of their own that generally fall under the label ‘what is its saleability’ or ‘can I move this for money’. How they label and decide on what they want to show in that gallery is more for the public and marketing than it is about art. After all you have to keep the lights on somehow. If the work doesn’t fit in one place then it will in another, no fit is universal.

    Photographer is a term that defines how something is made not what it is. Artist is a term that defines who a person is, not how they make things. I would suggest Artist photographer if it needs to be defined. The decision to define what a person does and is doing left me many years ago with one of two definitions. I make ‘stuff’ or I try to tell a story that has meaning. I kind of like to leave it at I just make stuff the rest of the labels, artist or photographer is for the marketing and in many ways for the market to decide what they want to call it.
    Good post again Mark

  6. For me, the main thing that makes this crazy thing we do called “photography” and what we produce a “photograph” is that doesn’t lose the constraint used to create it: the viewfinder. To be a photograph, it must be “constructed” within the frame and decisions made as to perspective, POV, what is left in and what is left out. This, to me, is the value of photography as an art form. It certainly doesn’t matter what kind of camera or lens you use—though they are certainly crucial in communicating what the photographer wants to say—or if it’s film or digital. Embracing the constraint of the frame is key.

    Once you cross the line of “constructing” a photograph outside the camera—i.e., adding an object or perspective that wasn’t within the original frame—you leave the constraints of the viewfinder behind, and it stops being a photograph.

    Again, this is my personal opinion, but it’s also the way I pursue the craft. Lightroom and Photoshop let me get closer to what I originally envisioned when I looked through the viewfinder (via dodging/burning, color enhancement, even cropping), but I draw the line at breaking the constraints of the frame.

    Great, thoughtful, and thought-provoking post, Mark.

  7. Stuart
    “but it’s also the way I pursue the craft”
    I believe this is the telling statement that creates the whole controversy in the first place. Some view it as a craft with art as a side benefit others see it as an art and the craft is used to create. Putting the final vision as the main point of the exercise, the message or the meaning of the photo, means that what ever it takes to make it so becomes more important that a purity of craft.

    To the audience, the nuts and bolts don’t matter to a well told story, just to other storytellers.

    (just a thought)

  8. Here’s my $0.02: (and I don’t have an answer either). Photography, like any art form has to evolve and grow and if you are considering photography equal to art (rather than a technique) then what makes it so is the content and emotion it can provoke which is unique and individual to the viewer. Technology (photoshop or whatever) doesn’t make it art in the same way that tools (fancy camera and lights) don’t make you a photographer. And you know how I feel on that topic.

  9. Personally, I think a photograph just needs to be something that was created, first and foremost, with a camera. After that, do what you want. We make final images, not processes. I don’t care if you spend hours in Photoshop on a picture, or if it comes straight from the camera. It’s all photography; it’s all art.

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