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- Sean Connery as William Forrester in "Finding Forrester"

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Friday, December 01, 2006

From Taking Pictures to Photography

"Owning a lawn mower doesn't make you a landscape architect."

My dad uses this quote (borrowed from a friend of ours) over and over again when talking to people who want to do-it-yourself instead of getting someone who knows what they're doing to do the job. What you end up with will be passable, but will it be effective? Will it be good?

Anyone who owns a camera can go out and take pictures. However, unless you know what it takes to make a shot look good, you will end up with the same, everyday snapshots that anyone could get, which may be ok if you're just out to get snapshots. Sure, you might get lucky every now and again but would you call that photography or simply taking pictures?

First off, I'll be the first to admit that luck certainly plays a role. Sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time. Sometimes the moment that an image captures trumps all of the other rules because, after all, the subject is key. But luck isn't everything.

A lot goes into a single photograph even before the shutter is released. There's framing, paying attention to positive and negative space, the rule of thirds, lighting, color, contrast, textures, line, balance, angles, thinking about output format, what mood you hope to set, what emotions you hope to evoke, color or black and white, etc. And not everything can be easily fixed in Photoshop (unless you really know what you're doing) so you have to pay attention to the placement of everything in the shot at the front end to save extensive post-processing.

With cameras on cell phones and the quality of point-and-shoot digitals growing and becoming more and more affordable, the landscape is flooded with images and galleries made up of snapshots being passed off as "photographs." Personally, I think there's a big difference between the two. It's one thing to shoot in a documentary style where you get shots of who was at a birthday party or family gathering or on a vacation. At the same time, though, how much skill and creativity is really used to take those shots?

The distinction between photography and taking pictures is art. It's not about knowing the ins and outs of your camera and knowing a lot of the technical stuff - though that certainly helps in consistently capturing great shots - it has more to do with the "artistic eye." It's being able to see the world around you and find beauty in the unexpected places or to show what is common in a new way. It's seeing detail and "big picture" and putting the together in a powerful way within the frame.

It's hard to define what separates a photo from a snapshot. It certainly has to do with those things I listed above (framing, balance, color, lighting, texture, etc.), to some extent, but it also has to do with capturing the moment, moving the viewer to feel something deeply authentic within themselves. It's the difference between conveying information (who was there, what was happening, etc.) and telling a story.

During stretches of time when I feel uninspired and unmotivated (like now) I know that one of the best ways to get back into the groove is to just start shooting anything, to force yourself into looking at the normal, everyday things as subjects so that you will find yourself again. But I don't want to just "take pictures." I want to create photos.