What’s the difference between a picture and a photograph
This is a question that I consistently ask all my assistants who work for me over the years. What’s the difference between a picture and a photograph? Seems simple enough yet it takes my assistants a long time to work out a good answer. It took me a very long time to figure out the answer myself. So let’s take a closer look at the question and my answer to the question.
Before we take a look at the answer to this question, I need to start off with a simple statement. Gear doesn’t matter. You can take a photo or a picture with any type of camera, even a mobile phone. Gear plays no part in the difference between the two very similar outcomes. To the laymen, a picture is a photograph but that is simply not true. So what is the difference?
The image above is clearly a picture, a snapshot(I prefer this term as it leads to less confusion) that I took with my Ricoh GRiii while walking outside my apartment last month. I don’t think anyone would argue with me that this is clearly a snapshot. I saw something interesting, took out my camera and took a shot of it. I could have used my mobile phone or the Ricoh GRiii and it would remain a snapshot. Nothing would change that fact.
The image above is a photograph, taken before one of my jobs in Nanjing China. What is the difference between them? My assistants have given me many answers over the years and I have come up with many different answers over the years but the correct answer, in my opinion, is “Intent”. When I look at someone’s photo, I usually ask myself a series of questions.
- What’s the subject in the photo?
- Why did he compose the photo like this?
- What is the photographer trying to say in the image.?
- What’s the story?
But I think all of these questions fall nicely into one word which is “Intent”. Picking a camera up with the goal of creating an image, seeing the image in your head that captures the story, the moment as you see it unfold before you. Or if I phrase that another way, you are creating an image, not documenting something that you see with your camera.
Now I will preface this with a word of warning, “Intent” doesn’t mean that the photo will be good. All that means is that you put some thought into the image that you want to take. If we look at the photograph above, I got to the location early that day, at least 40 minutes before sunset. I saw that the water very still and I noticed that there was very little wind so I knew that I wanted to get the sky and sun to reflect in the water. I also knew that I wanted to include the power station behind the temple in the photo as it is very iconic to the city so I keep it in my composition. Finally, I knew that this area had a lot of big birds that flew around this area during the sunset so once I had my composition set, I waited a good 10 minutes before I got a bird that flew into frame and I clicked the shutter button to record the moment. If the bird never appeared, I wouldn’t have taken the shot and I would have kept waiting until the scene was complete. Luckily for me, a bird flew into my scene at just the right time because shortly after this shot was taken, I was interrupted by the police and that day’s shoot was over. But the point of this drawn-out story is that I already had the image in my head before I took the shot. I knew what I wanted to capture and I was just waiting for the pieces to fall into place. If the elements had not appeared, I wouldn’t have taken the shot. But we will get to walking away from a shot a little later.
I am sure that every photographer has heard of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “The Decisive Moment” which is his method of getting “intent” into his shots. Having a reason to take the photo. I guess this a long-winded way of saying have a reason to shot something and plan the shot in your head before you take it. But I do think that there is more to it than just that. As you practice the art of photography, you learn to see photographs much quicker. As your eye gains experience, you will start to notice things much faster and you will start to see the possibilities of a photo before they have happened. But just because you see a shot in your head, and you have planned the composition for the photo, that does not mean that it will be a good shot. Actually, a lot of them will turn out bad. That is part of the learning process..
This is a perfect example of a photograph that is not good. I saw the photograph in my head, I knew that I wanted extremely soft water in the shot, with a long sunray going down the righthand side of the image with the city skyline on the left, so I got my composition set up the way I had envisioned the image. I put a 10 stop ND filter on the camera so I could drag the shutter for a 30-second exposure but the photograph is not a good one. I had all the “Intent” that I needed but the photo was a failure. So seeing a photograph in your head does not mean that it will be a success. It also needs skill and a little bit of luck. On this occasion, my skill failed me and luck wasn’t on my side as it was too windy to get the soft misty water that I was looking for. But this is how you learn photography, you shoot, you study your mistakes and you improve.
The image above is one of my most liked images on Instagram and it is a snapshot with my Holga. I had just bought a second Holga to start a new project and I need to run a roll of film through the camera to test for light leaks. I was riding down the street on my e-bike and saw hundreds of fire extinguishers and thought cool. Jumped off my bike and took a quick snapshot. I simply wanted to fill the frame with a sea of fire extinguishers. I didn’t think of the depth of field, I paid no attention to the exposure as I was shooting a Holga. I knew it was bright enough for the film I had in the camera and I hoped the exposure would come out ok. I was very surprised when I saw the results on the film strip.
I think that the key difference between a photograph and a picture is intent but intent doesn’t guarantee a good photo. You can take a snapshot and get lucky and walk away with something awesome but it is just pure luck. Try to repeat it and you will fail most of the time. A photograph that is taken with thought, careful consideration, and planning will not always guarantee a good shot but more often than not, you will have a photograph that you can use and you can repeat the process for success in the future. At the end of the day, the main difference between a professional photographer and an amateur photographer is the success rate of making good shots. Planning your shot out and waiting for the decisive moment is what distinguishes a photograph from a picture.
Of course, this is just my own opinion and I am sure that many people will see things very differently. So how do we put this into action? Well, I think a lot of old school shooters were much better at creating good photographs because they shot with film. Shooting film means you are limited to a number of shots so you have to be more careful with clicking the shutter button. Digital photography has changed all of that. Shooting images has become very easy and the cost of each image is basically free after the initial outlay for the camera. This has meant that people can and usually shoot hundreds of photos each day, yet they almost never take the time to think about what they are shooting as there is no cost involved in taking the photo. Digital has made it extremely easy for people to learn the basics of photography and most people can learn stuff like the exposure triangle in a week or two. They can take some shots, chimp on the viewfinder, and fix their mistakes as they shoot. But there is a downside to learning on digital in my opinion.
One of the biggest problems with learning to shoot digital is that most people pay very little attention to composition, they don’t think about the shot they want to take. They simply spray and pray. Take 500 photos of the same thing and hope one of them is good. I see this with my assistants all the time when they first start to work for me. In a single 3 song set that we shoot at work, I usually have around 180 photos that cover all the band members, group shots, and crowd shots. My assistants normally come in at around 800 to 1000. This type of overshooting is terrible, as it means that you are relying on luck to get a good shot. You are not planning things out and thinking about what you need. I even see this type of behavior with amateur photographers, tourists, and even the dreaded selfie shooter. My last girlfriend in China would take hundreds of selfies in the morning so she could post one image to her social media.
Personally, I think that learning to shoot film is a great way to slow down while you are shooting and pay attention to the image you are trying to create. Each shot costs money, so taking your time and not wasting your money is important but not everyone wants to get into shooting film and that is fine. I can understand that. What I personally recommend to those people is, go buy a small memory card. Maybe a 32MB or a 64MB SD card, so it can limit the number of pictures that you take. Each camera has different file sizes so you would need to work that out for yourself but you want is to go out and shoot knowing that you can only take around 30 or 40 photos. This must be a hard limit that you cannot workaround. Don’t tell yourself I will stop at 40 photos and then go home. It is too easy to cheat if you see something interesting and you still have space on your memory card. Go on a shoot but don’t delete any photos of the memory card. Shoot until the memory card is filled up. Once the memory card is filled, then the shoot is over. This is very difficult exercise for many people to complete as they are used to being trigger happy. Learning some self-control will slow you down. Learning to plan your shots and think, will help you grow as a photographer. Learning to walk away from a shot because it is not going to be good, will help train your eye so you can see better in the future. Looing at a potential shot and know that it could be better is a very important lesson that you need to learn. That doesn’t mean that you give up on the shot but you know that you need to work the shot some more, maybe the composition needs work, maybe the lighting is wrong and you need to wait for better light, but just store the potential image away in your head and come back to it when the conditions are better. Once you start doing this, then you are on the highway to becoming a serious photographer and you are learning your craft. Photography is an art form but it is also a craft that you need to practice to improve.