When is a photo not a photograph, and does it matter?


I’m having a bit of a photography crisis at the moment.

I love taking pictures. I take them all the time with any instrument that comes to hand; phone camera, compact camera or DSLR, but I’m worried that my photos might not qualify as real photography.

When I set out with the specific aim of taking pictures I will use the ‘big camera’ but it’s heavy, bulky and needs all kinds of accessories such as flashes, filters and tripods. My compact camera, on the other hand, fits neatly in a pocket, or bag, and is barely noticeable if carried over my shoulder. Finally there is always the camera on my phone for those unexpected moments that need to be captured in a hurry.

So, given that it is possible to compose the same shot with three different devices, why is one a ‘photo’, and another ‘photograph’ and should I feel guilty calling a picture taken with my phone ‘photography’?

The first obvious difference is in the quality of the pictures produced by different cameras; the RAW files from the DSLR are enormous, but the resolution is excellent, and the pictures are have very high definition. They can be enlarged for printing without losing any detail or clarity, however I can take the same shot with my phone camera. The composition might be identical, but of course the resolution is not so good.   These small picture files are easily sent to family and friends by e-mail, Instagram, or Facebook, and interesting colour and filter effects can be added to enhance them. Does it matter?

Cameras these days are amazingly sophisticated and can cope with all kinds of conditions, but in the early days of photography, there was a lot of skill and patience involved in taking a picture. Without even going back in time as far as capturing images on glass plates, film cameras required not only the photographers artistic talents in composing the image, but their skills and craftsmanship in the darkroom, exposing the light sensitive materials, developing the print with special solutions, stopping and fixing the process at the right point it to create the best image. Photography was an art, a science and a skill limited to those who had the time, money and patience.

Cameras today still capture light and transform it into images, but there is no longer any need for darkrooms and chemicals.  Automatic settings allow the camera to point and shoot, though the  photographer can still manually control the aperture, exposure and sensitivity of the camera. So yes, there is still skill involved in handling the camera, and getting the best out of it.

Should a photographer be ashamed to admit to using the Auto function on the camera? Or does it only count if it is taken with a fully manual exposure? What about using a light meter? What about bracketing? I would argue that it is the ability of the photographer to ‘see’ the desired image in their mind’s eye, and to use the camera as a tool to capture that image that makes a good photograph.

In the end, photography is the art of observation, finding interesting ways to look at ordinary things and playing with light, shape and colour to create beautiful images. It is about the way you see things, rather than the things themselves. It’s not about which camera you use, it is about the way you see things with your own eyes.


What do you think?

6 thoughts on “When is a photo not a photograph, and does it matter?

  1. We all have the power to perceive, our own vision, the things we create make us artists. The tools are not the issue. Great photographers and artists years did not have advantages we now have in the smallest, cheapest camera.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think each camera type has its strengths. What I shoot with my iPhone is great for Instagram for example. Not just the quality but the subjects. Getting style and subject in harmony with the camera format is something we need to take seriously.


  3. Technically images made with light are photographs and photo is the short word, like a knick name. The question is whether they qualify as art or a snapshot. That question is only answered by the artists or snapshooters and the viewers. There is no right answer.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Sky’, thanks for your comment. I agree, there is no right answer to this question, but I can’t stop puzzling over it. Photographers can be very precious about their work, I guess they don’t want to be overshadowed by snapshooters! The images can speak for themselves. RW


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