Why do we Photograph?

writer: russell j.t. dyer; posted: jul 2009; revised: mar 2018; readers past month: 878

This photograph was taken at the castle in Milan, Italy with a Canon 400D camera using a Canon EF-S 17-85mm telephoto zoom lens. The shutter was open for 1/400 of a second; the aperture was at f/4; the ISO sensitivity was set to 100. That’s all of the settings, but the point of this photograph (and this musing) is the subject of this photo. The castle in Milan is impressive in many ways. However, probably almost all visitors overlook details like this iron grill over the windows and other hardware and stone works of the structure.

Most people aren’t really photographers. You could loosely define a photographer as anyone who takes or is taking a photograph. Meaning, if a person doesn’t own a camera and walks past two people in a public place and they ask him to take their picture using their camera, when he’s holding their camera and pressing the shutter release button, he’s a photographer. Perhaps for that moment he is technically a photographer. In that sense, though, everyone who occasional writes something with a pen is a writer; everyone who wonders about things in nature or the world around them is a scientist; and everyone who offers his opinion in a bar is a philosopher. However, I think a better connotation of the word photographer is someone who is at least interested in photography and takes photographs regularly, albeit on an irregular basis. That’s still a pretty loose definition without extending the term to be applied to all people in the world except bush people who’ve never encountered a camera. Still, that definition only requires an interest in photography and the action of taking photographs.

The addition of the adjective professional would include persons who are paid for their photography work. One might also include persons who have a high level of proficiency in photography that one would expect to find in a person whose occupation is that of a photographer. However, I wouldn’t necessarily include those people. Setting that dispute, let’s consider what is an amateur photographer. I think when you consider that you will see that both types of photographers can be proficient, except that one photographers for money while the other strictly for passion. To me being an amateur is equal to or greater than being a professional photographer. Being a photographer for the passion of the art, with no concern for money, is admirable.

To be a good photographer, you should be able to take better pictures than a person who knows almost nothing about cameras, a person that just uses fully automated settings on their camera. To do that, I believe that you need to be able to come upon a subject, see something that you want to photograph and know how to set your camera not only to take the photograph that anyone can take, but to take the one that you see. You need to be able to express what you see in the subject. Photographs can be taken of any subject from an infinite number of combinations of camera angles and settings. Most combinations reveal very little; they show no passion or insight into the subject. If you don’t believe that, look at the thousands of photographs of any famous person, building, or other public place or thing. Then compare those photos to the few taken by good photographers. You will wonder if you’re looking at photos of the same thing.

As photographers we take many photographs to learn, to experiment, to practice photography. However, when we take a photograph of something wonderful that we see — a child playing with his dog, an old lady sitting on a park bench thinking about her life and sighing, the rain changing the tone of a city street — our goal is different. It’s making art. Art is the root word of artificial. When we make art, we are making a copy of something profound that we see so that others may see what we saw. We make photographs so that later we can hand someone one of our photographs and say, There! That’s what I saw. That’s what I saw that I could not explain and could not show you by any other method. Now, do you see the wonder that I saw? It is then that you are an amateur photographer in the best sense. It is then that you are a photographer who photographs for passion. You may not have considered why you have a compulsion to photograph, but I imagine it is because you see the world in a way that you cannot resist recording to show others, or to remind yourself how beautiful the world is. I suspect that this is why we photograph much more than is necessary, more than required for a simple party or family gathering, more than is needed to tell people about our vacation. I think we have a need to seize beauty, to have a copy for ourselves and to share others.