Taking, then Making a Photograph

I like taking photographs, but I love making photographs. And making photographs requires more than a camera.

Everyone today takes photographs. Is just too easy not to. We all have a camera with us most of the time, and there’s always plenty of people, events, places, food, and pets to take and share pictures of.

But what does it mean to “make” a photograph? Is making a photograph different than taking a photograph? 

It’s interesting that there is such a distinction for photographic art. No one ever says “take a painting” or “take a sculpture.” It’s only in photography that we can both take a photograph and make a photograph. And yes, there is a difference between taking and making a photograph.

So what’s the difference? Why are some photographs made while others are merely taken? Are we just talking semantics here?

Not really. When folks talk about making a photograph, they are implying that, in the making:

  1. the result will be something that doesn’t already exist, and
  2. the making will require some degree of personal expression, in other words, the maker (i.e., the photographer) shapes the final image to suit his/her abilities and, most importantly, their artistic intent for making the image. 

As an example, a painter–once choosing to make a picture of a mountain valley–eventually must decide what that valley will look like in the final painting. The fact that the painting doesn’t already exist is easy to accept. The idea of a painter expressing his/her vision is also easy to accept. It can be highly representational, or abstract, or surreal, or any number of styles open to the painter, consistent with their artistic abilities and limitations. They can paint in a river or forest that isn’t on the landscape naturally, or they can choose to remove physical elements from the landscape they don’t want to appear in the final painting. The ‘making’ of a painting is entirely up to the artist. We readily accept that.

Well, it’s much the same for making a photograph. To make a photograph first requires a camera to capture the scene (i.e., the taking part), but it also requires much more. Making a photograph also requires that the photographer have a vision of the final image and the skill to express that vision. The range of possibilities open to a photographer is as vast as that open to oil painters or any other artist, especially true in this digital age of compositing multiple images and other digital manipulations possible today.  

Back before the digital age, the distinction between taking and making photographs was much less confusing than it is today. Years ago, the only way to get a photograph was to make one.  Sure, just like today, the pre-digital photographer first had to take a picture, but the result was incomplete and essentially without value:  they couldn’t do anything with the exposed film until they developed it, evaluated it, and printed it (including all the possible creative manipulations made during the printing to realize the photographer’s vision). Back then, all photographs were made, not merely taken. Taking a photograph was only the first step of many steps required to create / make a photograph.

Jump forward to the modern digital age and all that changes. I’d guess almost 99.999% of all photographs we see are simply taken. We stand, we click the camera, and voila, there’s the picture on the back, ready to share on Facebook or Instagram. “..Look what I had for breakfast !…” Not very expressive, but we’ve all taken these photographs. 

Remember the vision part?  Now we’re entering confusion territory, my friend. Some would say that even a snapshot was “made”, not merely “taken.” And that can be true, because the difference between taking a photograph and making a photograph has nothing to do with the technology used. And it has nothing to do with lapsed time or effort involved. It only involves an intent and skill of the photographer to say something important in the creation. If the photographer’s vision is to make an image that compels an emotion, AND if the audience has an emotion, then that image becomes art by definition. And ALL art is made, again by definition.

Let’s contrast the snapshot approach (i.e., merely taking a picture) with the expressive approach to truly make a photograph. 

In the image below (“Birch on the Rocks”), I was struck by wonder in the small birch tree seemingly plopped on top of the boulders. I found it while on a walk in the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia, a beautiful nature location and a nature photographer’s dream destination. I wanted to make an image that expressed that wonder; the wonder of the tree’s placement in nature and its precarious life choice. There was a certain positioning of the tree and its related objects that I had in mind–using the art of previsualization–so I placed my camera to make sure that I captured those relationships, knowing the final image would require additional editing and “making” to realize the imagined final image.

Below is the image that my camera gave me, and I knew that to express the wonder I felt, the camera’s image was going to need some work on my part (i.e., the ‘making’ part of my vision). 

This is the image from my 4×5 camera


Final expressive image of Birch on the Rocks
Final expressive image of Birch on the Rocks

My preferences for expressing, or making, images is generally traditional. I rarely use photoshopping tools beyond cropping, adjusting contrast, dodging, burning, and spotting. That’s the case with this image.  My principle goal was to clearly emphasize the light falling on the small tree and its perch, which I accomplished by burning in the distant background and immediate foreground, while also dodging the small tree roots and rocks immediately around the roots. I felt the final expression was much better in showing the wonder I felt when I walked upon this small tree on its rocky perch.

My point is that just as a painter has the liberty to make a ‘scene’ express what he/she wants to say about their subjects, so does a photographer have those same liberties. Photographic art can be just as expressive as any art form, and the best photographs are made, not just taken. 

Read more about artistic expression in photography.


Also see:

Are there limits to artistic freedom in photography? 

The Down Side to the Digital Photography Revolution







A Study in Luminosity: What photographers can learn from other artists.

A visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC yesterday inspired me to write about something that guides my own journey as an art photographer, and it comes from my favorite fine art painters.

Green River Cliffs, Wyoming by Thomas Moran

I’ve always had a powerful wonder-lust for the romantic, luminous landscape paintings from the 19th Century. While the romantics were busy at work in Europe, the luminism movement was underway by the Americans at the Hudson River School. Even as a kid, I remember being thoroughly captivated when looking at picture books of paintings by the luminists like Church, Moran, Bierstadt, and Durand: it was my secret pastime.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luminism_%28American_art_style%29

Luminism refers to the dramatic portrayal of natural bright light in a scene, particularly in landscapes and seascapes, where it appears as if God created a huge spotlight to illuminate the subjects.  Reflective surfaces like rivers, oceans, and pools often played a significant role in luminist’s paintings, as if to help scatter the light across the canvas.

Just as important is the luminist’s use of shadows. It’s the very quality of vast, open shadows that I really love and appreciate in works of the luminist style.  Their shadows are full of life and details that draw me in to explore what’s going on–to be curious–and I’m never disappointed.

But It’s the interrelationship between shadows and brilliant lighting that create the overall emotional effects one gets from the art of the luminists. The luminists were masters in creating a sense of luminosity. Luminosity gives us hope in the knowing; it enlightens us. Dark shadows are sublime; making us wary and uncertain. Without the substantial areas of shadow, the intrigue and mystery would be lost, and without the brilliant lighting, the luminosity would fall apart. The interplay between the two are critically important to creating such strong emotions associated with the art of the luminists and romanticists.

In my own photography, I’m always looking for situations that remind me of the luminists. One of the main reasons I still use film to capture my images is because only film retains shadow details and textures at exposures that also retain delicate details in the highlights. As with luminist’s paintings, having in my photographs something to explore in both the shadows and well-lit subjects is important to my creating the feeling of luminosity and intrique, something that I find personally rewarding.

Happy collecting!

SignatureLogo 200x75



”The sun does magical things in the mountains. This scene along the Oxbow Bend of the Snake River surrendered to the magic and created a very real demonstration of that phrase in our National Anthem that we all know, but very few of us get to witness.”
Purple Mountains Majesty, copyright J Riley Stewart
One Morning at Liberty Furnace
“One Morning at Liberty Furnace” copyright J. Riley Stewart
Path to the Chapel
Path to the Chapel, copyright J Riley Stewart

Note: The National Gallery of Art is an easy walk from the Archives metro station in Washington D.C. The Gallery is a national treasure not to be missed if you’re in the area. Admission is free. Open most days 10 am – 5 pm. There you will find one of the largest collections of paintings by artists of the Hudson River School. Besides thousands of other exhibits, they have a marvelous art book store.





Artistic License and “photoshopping”

Mount Moran reflection in the Ox Bow Snake River, WY
“Purple Mountains Majesty”

“…is that Photoshopped?” : One of the most commonly asked questions to photographers

To some people, it seems to matter how much enhancement (i.e., “photoshopping”)  I do to my photographs. I thought I’d share my opinion on the topic of “photoshopping.”

The question itself is unique to photography. No one would ever consider asking a painter if their artwork reflected the true nature of the scene they painted, so why ask a photographer?  What’s different about photography (more about that in a future article)?

In truth, I really don’t think it matters to most people who ask this question, I really don’t.  I think most ask it out of interest only, or just to keep the conversation going. No matter how I answer this question, I believe the experience of seeing the image would be exactly the same: They either love it or they don’t.

Enhancement of photographs means different things to different people. Documentary publications like National Geographic set strict guidelines with which they expect their photographers to obey regarding photo-manipulation, or ‘photoshopping.’  On the other hand, images created solely for artistic purposes have no such limitations: Art photographers follow the ambiguous rule of ‘artistic license.’  

“You don’t take a great photograph, you make it”  Ansel Adams

I’m not a documentary photographer, and that’s the first thing I tell people who ask if I enhance my photographs. But I do believe the NatGeo guidelines are pretty sound. Going excessively beyond basic cropping or adjusting lighting and colors soon becomes ‘digital art’ and not photography.  But that’s just my opinion; others have no such qualms about compositing several images together, or using filters and overlays to create their ‘photographs.’ That’s okay. It’s artistic license.  But it’s not okay when we expect a photograph to be a documentation of something that happened, such as in photojournalism, when nothing could be further from the truth. You get my point, hopefully.

I personally believe my job as an artist is to create imagery that makes you want to engage in the scene, to feel something at an emotional level (e.g., nostalgia, introspection, fascination, awe, etc) and perhaps even step into the scene and do the types of things you like to do, such as explore, learn, or just chill out.  To create an emotion, at the very least, visual art must have heart. 

My camera, on the other hand, is entirely uncaring of your needs: it has no heart; no capacity to record emotion.

The hardest part of my job as an artist, then, is to translate what the camera records into a scene having the life and emotions that I felt at the time I took the picture. This nearly always means that I must enhance my images; or said another way, I must ‘fix’ them; I must put the heart back into them.

In my personal artwork, I try to limit enhancements to the point where I’ve corrected for my camera’s failings; to re-instill the emotions I felt at the time I took the picture. After all, if I dislike overly-enhanced photographs, I don’t think you will either, and I will have done a very poor job as an artist.

The truth is  there are plenty of fantastically interesting subjects in our world that, if we have our eyes and hearts open to the experience, and happen to be there at the right time, would make a great photograph (or painting) even without much enhancement. 

My featured photograph this month “Purple Mountains Majesty” is a good example.  I had been standing in this spot for about an hour waiting for this exact second, not really knowing what I was waiting for. When the moment arrived, I absolutely loved how the warmth of the setting sun cast a glow over the upper mountains and reflected into the dead-calm river below. The mountain shadows and their reflections were a deep beautiful purple invoking an intense sense of comfort and peace. But it was a color my camera and film seemed to dismiss as unimportant. My camera failed to recognize how beautiful the color transitions in the sky were, going from exciting warmth near the sun to that calming lavender farther away.

When I interpreted this particular scene, I found that I had to bring back (i.e., “enhance”) the color and emotion I felt at the time, and yes, I did that using photoshop.  As is usual for me, I removed nothing and I added nothing of a physical nature; I merely put the life back into the scene.  After all, that’s my job!

Try to not to get hung up by an art photographer’s use of ‘photoshopping.’  Remember that cameras never come with a heart, so the artist must make up for that failing. If you must ask an artist if they “photoshop.” that’s okay, too. You’re not alone!