Photo by Scott Bourne

In my experience, there are basically two kinds of photographers. The first group is interested in the science of photography. They care mostly about the gear, the technical stuff and are less interested in art. They like photographs that are technically superior – regardless of subject. If a photo is pinpoint sharp, well exposed and printed, this group gives it a thumps up.

Then there is the artist. This person may intentionally under or over-expose an image. They may allow a slightly out-of-focus image into their portfolio. They prefer telling a story to working out technical details.

The first group wouldn’t think of shooting with a camera set to automatic. Many of them might even detest autofocus or image stabilization. The science group tends to think of itself as purists.

The art group doesn’t necessarily care what camera mode they shoot in. They value the aesthetics of a scene – the balance – the ethereal qualities of the picture.

While this short post contains a great many generalizations – it’s pretty close to relating my experience over 30 years of shooting serious photographs.

The point of this post is to ask two questions…

1) Which group do feel closest to? The science or the art group?
2) No matter which group you belong to, would you be willing to try to learn from the experience of the other? Do you see value there?

This is JUST a conversation starter – have at it.

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Join the conversation! 42 Comments

  1. I like to think I fall somewhere in the middle and I’d like to draw from the experience of both schools of thought to try and make my shots the best they can be technically and artistically… Wishful thinking I know!

  2. I’m definitely an “artist.” I care more about the mood and subject I’m capturing than what the tech settings were that I used to get it. If I don’t like something, I can always post-process (which I do with everything to some degree or other) in Photoshop.

  3. I strive to be good in both areas, but I would have to say I drift a bit towards the science part – maybe that’s just what I find easiest. I do disagree about not using AF and IS though. I’ll take any new advances in technology if it helps me take pictures better, faster, easier etc.

  4. I’m somewhere in the middle. I don’t believe that you have to fit into either category. While I’m a technology junkie and always on top of the latest and greatest camera gear and software, I find photography to be relaxing and meditative. It’s my chance to turn my brain off and experience my surroundings.
    But I’m also getting into the HDR thing and I’ve been spending hours at my computer tweaking my images in Photomatix to get them just so.

  5. I try to keep one foot in both groups. When I’m home I will work at perfecting my abilities with the camera. When I got my first DSLR I needed to learn how to use it from the ground up and I spent a lot of time at home doing that. When I’m out shooting though I try to use what I have learned to make good pictures without getting bogged down in the details. I almost always use AF and VR when available. If I can’t get the camera to focus on what I want I will override it but not very often.

    I think it’s important to put on the science hat from time to time to learn more about the nuts and bolts of photography but it’s equally important to just get out there and shoot. I don’t consider myself a pixel peeper though. If a shot looks good, it is good. I don’t care if it’s not perfect as long as the errors don’t take away from the image. Lots of great images are not perfect.

    Topslakr

  6. I think I fall more toward the artistic side, but I find that it’s important to understand the scientific side to achieve my artistic vision. The longer I do this, the more I try to avoid post processing.

  7. I’m definitely more in what you describe as the “artist” school. While I want to understand the technical aspects of what I am doing, can shift comfortably between automatic and manual modes, and try to apply the “right” techniques to get the results that I’m after, a technically brilliant photograph that isn’t well composed or that fails to resonate with me emotionally doesn’t end up on my Flickr favorites list or in my own stream. I have been known to post a shot or two that captures a favorite moment, even if the focus is a tad blurry and the white balance could be better–but maybe that’s because my current photo focus is in capturing my kids’ lives for the benefit of their distant relations.

    This is a variant on the popular right brain/left brain debate, isn’t it? I think that the world in general, and photography in particular are better for having both types. To answer your second question with analogies, a person isn’t an artist just because he understands the technical aspects of pigment mixing and brush construction, but he could be a better artist for having that knowledge. Ansel Adams was one heck of a landscape photographer with great artistic sense, but he was also as scientific in his approach as they come.

  8. I started as the technician type and was all about the gear. Somewhere along the way, I am not sure when, I migrated to the artist camp. I did an African safari back in 2000 always with the intent of getting my negatives scanned to digital images. I did that recently and it made me revisit the images. Looking back, the techicanal aspects of the images were good but the pictures, for the most part are boring. I still like having the latest gear but far more important to me now is creating or telling a story with the images.

  9. Currently, I’m on the “science” side but that’s not where I want to be. My training and career have been in computers, but programming has become quite boring. I want to learn more about photographic artistry, with the hope of one day moving over to the “artist” side of this question. I think my technical knowledge will help. This is one artistic endeavor that can benefit from as much technology as you want to throw at it, I think. Nevertheless, I do not plan to get fancy equipment until I can prove to myself that I can actually make interesting images. Now, if I can only get broadband again, I’d love to make use of flickr.

  10. I am just starting, but I try to think a little more about the ‘artistic’ side, the message, the subject. The technical stuff as a means to an end.

    I don’t see why an artistic side equals to no ‘post processing’, au contraire I would say, the moment the light hits the front lens the post processing begins in one way or another. Having said that, I don’t like pictures that looks with heavy post processing trying to pass as ‘natural’, the white of the eyes or teeth popping out, paintbrush skin with no pores, etc. I guess that’s where personal taste kicks in too.

    Any artist needs at one point to master the technical skill for his artistic canvas of choice if he wants to achieve something more. My take on this matter is that ‘the problem’ is to see only one side as the ‘true’ side.

  11. Like many others i pull parts from both groups, but i’m definitely more identifiable as an artist. Most times i will shoot in auto focus because it’s easier, but if i need/want to change the focus, i will switch to manual. I’m trying to slowly ween my way into 100% manual mode, but i’m afraid of losing my touch on the artistic side of photography and get sucked into the technical side.

  12. Scott,
    There is this dichotomy that the technical aspect is separate from the artistic side to a photographer. While I admit that they are distinct, to me it’s more of a front of the hand, back of the hand – It’s still the same hand. The technical side is merely a foundation for the “artistic” side. I learned the basics (and still do) and got it out of the way so I CAN photograph.

    Do we discuss the technical side of painting, sculpture, music as much as we do about our ISO’s, shiny cameras and photoshop? No we don’t. But there is as much technical (or more) skills to obtain in those other arts than there are in the art of photography.
    Talking tech is a cop out for obtaining a visual acuity and level of “seeing.”
    There is no cure for, as Uncle Ansel would say “A sharp picture of a fuzzy concept”

    I am a photographer, the camera is my tool. My work is only a correlate of the level of which I have command of my tool. The rest is my ability to “see.” just as an artists brush is merely a medium to getting the vision on paper.

    People always want to talk about cameras… It’s just a tool really, but it holds such fascination for people. That and lenses. When I used to shoot Large Format for portrait and personal work, it was easy to dismiss the topic… When asked what lens I use I just say “I use a 6 inch Red Dot Artar” and I wouldn’t get another question after!

  13. I guess, I am a little bit of both. As a Ph.D. Mathematician, I always see the analytic and the geometric at odds.

    I’m well acquainted with the technical process of photography and enjoy the challenge of providing a technically superior image. However, I’ve never turned away from using auto-focus or programmed exposure modes. I also tend to like images that have texture, areas that are underexposed or overexposed for effect and lots of grain. I’d rather use a higher ISO than a tripod.

    I think it’s important to embrace both philosophies.

  14. I’m definitely coming from the “science” side. I’m a programmer, and I’m getting (back) into (digital) photography with the explicit intent of getting back in touch with my artistic side and spending less time hacking code in my spare time. I hope to learn more artistic expression and spend time being artistic with the camera. If I don’t succeed, I’ll probably end up trading coding time at the computer for Photoshop time at the computer, which would defeat my secondary goal.

  15. I guess I would fall into the technical side. Not that I have to have the latest and greatest gear, but that I need my images to be clean and well composed. Part of this is simply that my brain can’t function in the abstract like that. I have tried to do the “art” photography, but I simply fail at it ever time. I am much more of a commercial photographer. I can’t say that I would give a thumbs up to ever image that is in focus, nor can I say that an out of focus image is worthless. I really like a lot of “artistic” photography and photographers, but again it’s just not how I shoot. I would like to believe that I fall somewhere in the middle, but I can’t ever seem to make an “artistic” shot work for me. It really is a shame.

  16. 1) I think I am the artist…
    2) I desperately want to learn from the other (that’s the geek in me). I think technique can always enhance art. And I know that I for one could take huge advantage in some of the technique for my art.

    Cindy.

  17. I personally am new to photography(especially with my new DSLR) and find that while I came here for an artistic experience there is so much learning to be done that right now I’m a very scientific photographer always paying attention to what settings worked or didn’t to create each image or a number of times I’ve st down and just gone from one end to another for settings like ISO, Aperture, exposure time and then looking at what works. now that these things are starting to make sense it’s becoming easier to take the pictures I want.

  18. I’m a pure photogrpahy guy, for me it’s all about the pictures. The technique of it all is underlying to the actual result of the image. I do try however to get the best stuff in order to provide me with these images but I don’t rant about them, I don’t care to much about back-, or front focus unless it gets to obvious, and I just buy what I need according to the specs I decide upon.
    I switched to digital last year and decided to get the 40d which seemed to meet all my wishes, and it does, I bought a lens setup which would suit me, and it does. I don’t think I will change cameras within years for it meets all my demands.
    My last analog camera, and my only camera at that ever was a Leica M4 which I received in 1968 as a birthday present for my 13th birthday. I have used it ever since I just purchased the lenses I required and thats it.
    I bought Canon DSLR because I had a Canon point and shoot which I have used since 2003 and it has never failed me. I vaguely looked into other brands, actually held them after which I decided the 40d was good enough for my needs.

  19. I’m a writer by trade. I read English Literature at Uni.

    Yet I became an accountant in my professional life. Although I’m a writer now again.

    I’m a recent convert to photography. I have a Nikon D80 with a Zoom lens, so I’m just starting out. Being a gadget nut I’m interested in the technology (Nikon D3 = *swoons*) and I have photoshop, but I mainly take photos of my young family. I usually use manual focus and use manual settings, but I’ve found that life moves on while I’m setting up. If I want to capture “moments” I need to use Auto. And use the aperture settings that come as standard.

    I will get a few prime lenses. And I will get a proper flash and filters. Etc, etc, ect.

    But I just love taking shots. Occasionally I take a cracker of a photo, and it makes my day. :)

  20. I strive for artistic but am stuck in scientific. I just can’t seem to give my pictures that special something that makes people take notice. I think I take some interesting shots but they just don’t have that WOW factor.

  21. I cannot separate my artistic side from my technical side. I forced myself down the technical path in order to become a better photographer. Ultimately I judge my photographs on their artistic merit (or lack thereof :-) ).

  22. Definitely in the “artist” camp. I love geeking out on gear (and might fairly be considered the Imelda Marcos of camera bags) and can learn TONS from the “science” camp, but I only want to improve my technical skills so that I don’t get in my own way and can more easily realize whatever vision I have with a photograph. I think it is a useful exercise to shoot some rolls once a year with a disposable camera, a Diana camera or a homemade pinhole camera, just to de-geek-tox and remember that the most essential ingredients in photography are light, subject and time.

  23. I like to think there is a third category, the one that encompasses both. i am a huge stickler for technique and tools, but i think the best works comes from knowing how to use the tools to express your artistic vision. Someone like Jerry Uelsmann is a master technician while also being able to ‘think outside the box.’

  24. In order for me to realize my vision I have to understand the tools that I am using. What I mean is that I feel that I am an artist and a technician. To me they go hand in hand.

    It makes it easier for me to be able to capture a moment or emotion if I know that I correctly photographed it 1st. In other words, it gives me more latitude to be able to explore certain aspects of the image to convey an emotion or an event when all of the aspects of the capture are correct.

  25. I’m sort of both, but I think I mean more toward the artistic side. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all about the technique and getting the settings right. But I think it’s the creative, artistic part that leads me toward the scientific side. I see the image I want, then apply the tech to get it.

    If that makes any sense.

  26. I’m homeless. The science side of it is intellectually stimulating, but empty without the aesthetic stuff. I’m willing to overlook some minor technical flaws in an image if it’s powerful, but if the subject doesn’t command enough attention, the little stuff bugs me. It’s more true when I look at my own images those taken by others.

  27. Well… I know i’ve got a lot of the technical know-how, but I’d love to be more oriented on making those art type shots. As much as I am technical, I strive to get that art out of my photos. It’s somewhat hard for me to try to generate an art style photograph… :(

  28. I think I have my feet in both worlds: I have to be very technical to take my night panoramas in HDR (otherwise they wouldn’t work), but I try to be artistic when it comes to all the other decisions. I also believe this is true for most of the really good photographers, like Gursky, Struth, leighton, and so many others. but yes, it bugs me when i see expensive photo art that is far from being technically sound.

  29. I’m a nerd. I love all the gadgets I can afford, I read all the books I can and have paid hundreds in library late fees. I grab the magazines of the rack. I read them over coffee at Barnes and Noble. I and I try to internalize it all….
    Because when I switch the camera on, I never think about that stuff. I never think “rule of thirds”. I’ve just looked at a few hundred rule of thirds photos and I hope that I’ve figured out how that looks, because I’m going to go out and click the button and that’s that. All I really think is, “I love this moment, and I want to keep it with me”. *Click* Sometimes I get lucky, and I get a shot that let’s other people love that moment. But if it’s a little soft, or the exposure is a little off, or I could have framed it better… as long as I get to keep that moment, I love it.
    The only time this fails me, is if I don’t currently know enough to get the moment. So, I go back to the books and the magazines. Trying to internalize enough that my instincts don’t fail me in the moment.

  30. Lazy, I found it to be much less work to learn the technical side so I didn’t have to guess at how to make my art.

    Keep Shooting!
    BruceHP

  31. This is a great discussion. Almost everyone has indicated that they have one foot (or part of one foot) in each camp. I think that there is a good reason for that.

    I have worked with engineers and artists for thirty years and nearly all of them see a sizeable gulf between the two. It is a mirage. They have so much more in common and given a couple of beers and some simple task to collaborate on, it is completely evident. Both approach a nice meaty problem with enthusiasm and daring. Both spend the greater part of their working life creating something new or carving a new facet on something old. Really good programmers and really good sculptors are looking for the elegant solution to a problem. Both rely on knowledge, hard work and serendipity.

    The divide is really between what is done well and what is done badly. The “artist” hates the unimaginative, technocrat, engineer. The “scientist” hates the touchy feely, everything-is-relative, arty dilettante. They are both right – neither stereotype is attractive and both are pretty rare in professionals and gifted amateurs.

    Great artists are always great engineers and vice versa. The toolsets are different; the specific object may be different; the general process is always creative no matter what tools are used.
    The only difference is the way problems are framed. The basic impulse is to make something that “works” and is “beautiful”.

    The arty photographer may not care what the settings are but if he doesn’t learn how to control everything he can he will have to shoot a ton of images that are almost good but missing focus or depth of field before he lucks into a good one. The technician who doesn’t care about composition, balance, tension or story-telling will have exactly the same problem – tons of bad shots only his are crystal clear and deadly dull with the now and then lucky great shot.

  32. I think the comments of Stuart Harvey is realvent to being a successful photographer overall . Here is a short podcast 3:15 mins by Brooks Jenson, in an interview at Lensworks. This made a big impression in the way I approach things.

    [audio src="http://www.lenswork.com/podcast/LW0390%20-%20Beyond%20Our%20Own%20Ego.mp3" /]

  33. My aunt, a prof of photography, told me that if you can’t take a good picture with a simple box camera like a brownie the fanciest camera in the world isn’t going to take better pictures. Hence all of her students started with simple box cameras and once they mastered composition and developed an “Eye” they were allowed to move up to an slr.

  34. Definitely the artist! While I do strive to have my photos properly executed when possible, that is not how I rate them. Artistic merit is always more important to me than ultimate sharpness, for example – the image and its impact are most important! And I do break the rules when appropriate, to keep that impact rather than the technical “correctness”…

  35. Learn the principle, abide by the principle, and dissolve the principle. In short, enter a mold without being caged in it. Obey the principle without being bound by it. LEARN, MASTER AND ACHIEVE!!!
    -Bruce Lee

    I tend to think of myself as a Freelance Peace Keeping Agent, so I guess I am a technical artist. If you want to sink this theory fast look at Ansel Adams. A great Artist and one hades of a technician. If you have a doubt read his writings on the photo “Moonrise Over New Mexico”. You could fill a text book with what he considered a exposure guess.

    In my book there are two types of photographers those who shoot and those who Monday Morning Quarterback. The more you shoot the more technical you will get.

    Great Equipment + Poor Technique = Poor images
    Okay Gear + good technique = good to great shots.

    As for learning that is why I listen to TWIP.

  36. I’m relatively new at photography (at least experience wise). Although I want to create something that is artistically pleasing, I often find that I don’t have the technical skills to get the effect I want. This leads me to the conclusion that you need the technical skills before you can capture your vision. It is also necessary to know the limitations of your equipment and of photography in general. Some shot are just not possible and the artist will compensate for that.

    If I shoot in auto mode, all I can add to the picture is subject selection and framing. To me that is not art.

    I want to learn from good teachers in both areas.

  37. Sounds like almost everyone puts themselves in both camps. I think that is partly because of the way you defined the camps. I also am in both, as described.

    I started on the technical side. I spent years back in the 70’s experimenting with films and developing techniques, taking notebooks full of notes. Learning the Ansel Adams zone system, and never shooting without a handheld meter (in-camera meters were pretty bad in those days).

    However, I have plenty of out-of-focus and blurry shots from those days — done on purpose to create “art.” My science side was so that I could predict and control what the film was going to give me.

    Now that I have (recently – just in the last year) gone digital, the game only shifts slightly. I spent months studying Photoshop and Lightroom, so I could do what I used to do in a darkroom (only more, of course). I studied histograms (great video btw!) and other aspects of the camera so I could control it.

    And I shoot mostly in automatic mode… I am after the “art” of the picture, but I know enough of the science to know when to put it on fully manual and get a special effect, or put it on bracket and aperture-prefer so I can do HDR post-processing on a scene that seems to call for it.

    In the end, I would consider myself more of a technical photographer, though I am certainly not the fanatic techie you describe in your opening. As an (aging) engineer, I tend to think of how to manipulate things, and outside of photography / videography haven’t got an artistic bone in my body. My wife is the opposite — she is an artist and barely understands aperture vs shutter speed.

  38. I am an 80/20 person where the 80 is creative and 20 technical. Probably why I have never made much money from my photography!

    The technical part of me is the search for tools that let me capture images flexibly with minimum fuss.

  39. I am difinitely the artist type but in order to get the pictures I want, I’m learning everything I can about tools.

  40. I believe I fall into the artist side of the camp, some of the pictures that I have taken that I find the most interesting are those that are not perfect.

  41. This is an excerpt from something I had to write a while ago for another reason, and a good summary on how I feel about this whole thing.

    ” […] we are at the intersection of art and science, or more accurately art and technology. As such, beginners come into these fields from one side more than the other, or occasionally both or neither. This affects their take on what they are doing, and how they go about doing it. You get the aspiring photographers and sound recordists who are in love with the gadgets associated with the craft, but are artistically inept. They talk endlessly about equipment but their portfolio of work, if they even have one, has no soul. I see this a lot on my course, electronic engineering, where people of my age think it would be fun to dabble in photography or recording music, as people of my age do, with often disastrous consequences. On the other side of the spectrum we find the minds who are artistically very apt, but who are techno-phobic to the point where their relationship with technology becomes a serious handicap. […] failing because they cannot understand aperture and shutter speed. out of these two stereotypes I tend to sympathize with the latter and frown at the former, because the reality is that at the end of the day photography is not about equipment, photography is about art. But neither of these two is doing things properly. The only correct way to go about it is to strike a balance.

    The viewpoint […] is summarized eloquently by Ansel Adams, one of the great photographers of the last century. […] Photography is art, and anything technical, that is, the equipment, the technical issues surrounding it and photographic technique itself are in furtherance to this art and nothing else. They are not for one moment the end, but simply the means to an end. We must be careful with this idea, however, because it is easy to misinterpret it as saying that equipment or technique is unimportant. It isn’t. It’s very important. It’s so important that its implementation must become second nature to the photographer, so that he can then take photos without even thinking about it, focusing on the art. Our ‘equipment-fondling’ stereotype does not have art in mind as the final goal – he simply likes to play with photographic equipment. Our techno-phobic artist, on the other hand, has art in mind as the final goal but is so clumsy with his equipment and technique that he can never reach his artistic goals efficiently. The ideal photographer is technically very proficient, but realizes that he is making art and that the craft of photography, as Ansel Adams calls it, is simply set of tools to help us meet our artistic goals. Nonetheless, photography is a marriage of the art and craft, of art and technology. ”

    I wrote that a while ago but still tend to agree with myself. One thing I would add is that what makes the difference between a technically inept artist and a technically proficient artist is that the former will produce art that is not as effective in expressing and communicating as the art that the latter will produce.

  42. To break the rules, you have to know the rules. A little simplistic maybe, but if you consider the camera as a tool, you have to know how it works to be able to use it properly. There’s no doubt that sometimes serendipity can lead to a great image… give monkeys canvas and paint and you’ll find some art critic who will rave about what they achieve. Not knowing the rules can give to a haphazard freedom… but knowing the rules can give you complete freedom.

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