Naz Smyth: What is photography?

The more decades I do this, the more I realize everything in photography comes down to one word: vision.

Call it vision, imagination, or seeing; it all comes down to the same thing: the ability to envision a final result in your mind’s eye, and then to make it so with your tools at hand.

It’s never been about the gear. It’s always been about seeing something, knowing how you want it to look, and making it so. Making it so is the easy part; seeing it in the first place is what makes a photographer. Powers of observation are everything. Snapping a camera is trivial.

Photography and painting are the same. Each renders imagination in tangible form. The difference is that painters can work completely from imagination, although most of us work from life as a starting point. Both can take lifetimes to master the tools to render imaginations exactly as we intend. With inkjet printing (giclée is the term stolen from painting), they are identical in that each of us is using tools to apply our imagination as physical colors to flat media, often canvas. (I still prefer darkroom, chemically processed media.)

The confusion is that photography is much easier for a layman to use and create what looks like a technically passable, sharp and well-exposed image. As most beginners discover instantly, simply having the best tools and technically sharp images doesn’t get the glorious, passion-inspiring results they intended.

Painters and other artists often pick up any crappy camera and make excellent images fast because they know seeing, visualization, composition and lighting, and immediately apply basic adjustments to change brightness and to optimize colors.

Artists know they have to drive the camera and make strong changes to basic controls to get their look. Beginning photographers, like me for my first 15 years shooting, are usually afraid to do anything other than exactly what we thought were the rules. There are no rules other than to make your image as you want it. I often shoot at a deliberately “wrong” White Balance or violent exposure compensations.

Non-artists who want to be photographers often take much longer, if ever, to create decent images because they have been misled into worrying too much about trivial issues like noise and lens sharpness instead of the real issues of light, color, composition and gesture. Want to learn photography? Study painting.

Unskilled attempts at photography and painting are equally nasty; it’s just that it’s less obvious to laymen what’s wrong with a bad photo.

Photographers and painters both work from our imaginations. Painters can be a little freer with their imaginations, but now with Photoshop, photographers also can render directly from our imaginations into tangible form.

Art collectors and photo contest promoters (but not artists) freak out if they can’t define a work by its medium, but art is the message, not the medium.


I not saying my photos are any good, or that any medium is any better than any other.

This article is to help folks understand what’s going on out there and to go make great photos without worrying about what camera to use. Want a good camera? Easy: see my list of Recommended Cameras and have at it.