Photography – time for a new definition?

My office is located between many tourist hotels and one of Warsaw’s hottest tourist icons, the Palace of Culture. As such, I get to witness instances of what might be called “bad photography” every day. What do I mean by “bad photography”? Can there be there such a thing anyway and does this explosion of bad photography require us to either adjust the existing definition of the word or to create a new word to cover what these people are doing? Snapography, perhaps.

Many definitions of the word ‘photography’ actually include the root of the problem, here’s one example:

the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (as film or a CCD chip)

I’ve highlighted the point of interest, that the definition of photography suggests there is art or process (often both) involved in producing an image.

For example, to capture the image he had in his mind, Ansel Adams would trudge through the wilderness of Yosemite National Park with a heavy weight of equipment, find the right vantage point, spend days camped out waiting for the right light and then spend more days back in the darkroom processing the image. This would often result in just one print he was happy with, sometimes not even that. The resulting images can be called ‘art’ because they display magnificently the beauty of nature and are things you’d be happy to look at just for the sake of it, irrespective of their value as a documentary or record of the subject at a certain point in time but Adams also paid a lot of attention to the process and is not alone in his attention to detail, in the time he took to get the end result just right, nor in his ability to produce an image in such a way as to make it more than just a simple record of a place and time. I believe this is the hallmark of all gifted photographers, professional and amateur alike, the ability to add that special something that enables a picture to speak to your soul and not just your eyes and mind. Some do this naturally, some via the subjects they choose, some by technique, others have a knack for being in the right place at the right time but they all add something, somewhere along the production line. Some work all their magic at the front end in capturing the image and allow others to finish the process while others, like Adams, work hard at both ends, capture and processing.

Ansel Adams

The move from film to digital has not really changed any of that, not for gifted photographers. The capture is almost identical, a little easier perhaps, the processing is now on a computer rather than in a darkroom and the end results just as good one way or another (although some purists may wish to debate that). So, for the top end of the photographic skill tree nothing much has changed.

What digital has changed, out of all proportion, is the ease with which the non-gifted can capture an image both in terms of the process and the devices used to do that. Not too long ago you’d need to carry around a large and heavy camera, buy, store and load film, then go through a relatively complex process to record the image before waiting a while for the prints to come back and see the results, usually average at best. The relative complexity of this and I think more importantly the deflating effect of having waited ages (and paid real money) for the prints to come back only to find half of them need binning, meant that the majority of the great unwashed just didn’t bother taking photographs in anything other than exceptional circumstances.

Now it is as easy as getting your phone out, pointing and shooting. It need not cost you anything for equipment as you need a phone and memory card anyway and any utterly useless shots are easily deleted without having paid for any processing. Gratification, if you have any, is instant as you can see your results as you go. The more adventurous might invest in a small but powerful compact camera and others with a bigger budget, ego or desire to improve might go further with a digital SLR. Whatever your level of equipment, taking a photograph has never been easier. Here’s what Adams had to say about that:

“I have often thought that if photography were difficult in the true sense of the term—meaning that the creation of a simple photograph would entail as much time and effort as the production of a good watercolor or etching—there would be a vast improvement in total output. The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster.” Ansel Adams (1902-1984)

A bit elitist perhaps but he was a man who really valued the art and process of photography and dedicated most of his life to it so it’s perfectly reasonable for him to warn against creative disasters. It also clear from this statement that he considered that the end result of any photographic process should be the creation of a good and creative image. This is clearly not a view shared by almost all the tourists I encounter near my office.

Of course, we shouldn’t expect your average happy snapper to be striving to reach the standards of Adams or indeed any other gifted photographer. Everyone is free to capture as many images of whatever type and quality they like and we can’t expect them to be hanging around the Palace of Culture waiting for the light to change but having seen their technique I really do wonder how Grand-Canyon-wide is the gap between their expectation of the final image and what it actually looks like.

The most common mistake is having too high an opinion of the ability of their equipment, or perhaps not having a clue what their equipment is capable of. They wave around tiny cameras or phones attempting shots in the most challenging of situations apparently oblivious to the fact that what they are attempting is impossible without the addition of about €3,000 of equipment to their arsenal. Second most common problem is composition. You know that from the way they have this set up, camera in relation to people & buildings, that the shot is not going to capture a worthwhile image of either. Lastly is light, a complete misunderstanding of it and of how it will influence your photo. Half the time, the best they are likely to achieve is a silhouette of what might be some people in front of what might be a big building.

Without doubt, these happy snappers are applying neither art nor process to their “photography”. They sometimes check the results on the screen and you can hear them saying to themselves “I’ll probably look better on the computer”, but it won’t. So if they don’t understand even the most fundamental principles of photography, have no idea what their equipment is capable of and therefore are unable to produce any satisfactory results – why do they do it? Is there some pleasure to be gained just by triggering a photographic device irrespective of the outcome or are they living in the hope that from the 500 pictures they take one or two of them might be alright?

I don’t think it is right to call this activity “photography”, but I’m not really sure what it should be called.


7 thoughts on “Photography – time for a new definition?

  1. Nice article.

    Commenting as I work from home most of the time and am looking at a framed poster of Clearing Winter Storm (I lived near Yosemite for a year in the 90’s).

    Somehow the new stuff never quite looks as atmospheric.

  2. I remember the days when what seems to be your ideal of a photographer went round with a big box, two or three cameras, six lenses, twenty filters and told us that they only ever used black or white film or slides. They never seemed to produce anything worthwhile, though, and sitting through slide evenings was not something to look forward to. The technology may have been changed, but the attitude seems to be the same.

    I only use cheap cameras and quite like the idea of being thought a ‘happy snapper’. I do take several pictures so that I can choose the best, but my inspiration was envy for top class commercial artists who could afford to take two or three rolls of film (72 to 108 pictures) to get a good picture. Has this changed? Although nothing I produce is art, I think my pictures are acceptable and come well within any sensible definition of ‘photography’.

    Perhaps what you need to do, therefore, is change the word for ‘quality’ photography. Perhaps something like ‘snotography’, combining ‘snob’ and ‘photography’ would be more appropriate, with the definition that pictures must be taken by someone with equipment worth at least €3,100, owning Photoshop and subscribing to a photography magazine. Sorry if the latter excludes you, but it was essential for the old time camera bores.

  3. Steve, it does exclude me with the exception of owning Photoshop. By the sounds of it, you’re not likely to be one of the people I see committing photographic sins outside my office. Taking several pictures is fine, I do the same myself, but these people could take hundreds and probably still not get a shot anywhere near what they were hoping for because they have no clue how it works.

    I’m not really trying to have a go at such people either, although clearly it comes across that way. I’m more interested in understanding what they get from it if the end results are as disappointing as they surely must be.

    Maybe their threshold of acceptability is just incredibly low and blurred silhouetted shapes against a blurred silhouette of a tall building is enough for them to show their friends the results of their trip to Warsaw?

  4. You make some good points.

    However, sometimes there may be more to “happy snapping” than meets the eye. I usually use a run-of-the-mill compact camera when traveling and I’ll sometimes spend considerable time snapping away at something. That’s because I’ve realized that if I shoot a potentially worthwhile scene a couple dozen times, two or three pics are bound to turn out fine, even better than what I would have achieved with one carefully studied shot and a boatload of gear. I think traveling light and cheap and relying on the law of averages for getting decent pictures makes eminent sense on short city trips (which, I would imagine, account for the majority of tourists you see in Warsaw), also because it’s probably not a great idea to walk around the capital with three Polish salaries’ worth in your hands. I’ll leave artsy high-tech photography for close-to-home, solitary sunrise escapades into the wilderness.

    There’s also something very positive to be said about the ubiquity and cheapness of photographic equipment: memories. What is today a hard disk folder chock full of blurry images of random episodes of your life and the people who surround you will one day be a priceless connection to your past as time wipes them clean from your brain. So many milestones of my life have gone undocumented, I wish I had a pixelized shitty jpeg to remind me of them rather than nothing at all. Who knows, in a few generations’ time, the off-hand pictures you took for this blog may well be the only trace left of your existence. So snap away!

  5. I found myself somewhat in sympathy with both Steve’s and Outsider’s comments. Although I take quite a lot of photographs and care a good deal about how they look, I would not call myself a photographer because I don’t think my approach is sufficiently meticulous to justify that word. I regard myself as a keen snapshotter. I care a great deal about composition when taking photographs, though I often crop later to make it exactly the way I want. That doesn’t mean that I necessarily obey the traditional ‘rules’, simply that I am fully aware of composition and it matters a lot, perhaps above all else, to me.

    I’m also aware of lighting and the endless challenges it (or more often, lack of it) present.

    The two (out of five) cameras I use most are a Panasonic FZ8 (superzoom compact) and a Panasonic G1 (Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens camera). The superzoom is extremely versatile, but the MFT is much nicer to use with a lens focus ring and much better viewfinder and LCD screen.

    When it matters, I do some editing, in any of three programs: Picasa (quick and easy), Photoshop Elements (tedious but necessary if you want to retouch), and LightZone, a little-known and rather quirky program that can nevertheless ‘relight’ images most effectively.

    I never print larger than 7×5, and seldom print anything other than family snapshots. Most of my output is for computer screen only.

    Despite the foregoing , I do not begin to take the sort of trouble that committed landscape photographers routinely take. No rising before dawn, carrying DSLRs and lenses across rough country, and so on. I do, though, use a tripod for some work.

    So I fully understand Scatts’s position, too. Strangely, though not a ‘photographer’, I do go out and take photographs – just not exceptionally good ones!

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