Is Your Photography Art?

Ice on the Sunwapta River
Canon 5d with Sigma 150 macro
150mm, f5.6, 1/160 of a second

Lately I’ve been reading and thinking about the relationship between photography and art. It seems a lot of photographers define what they do as art and what many other photographers are doing as “not art”. Occasionally they try to soften it by saying that this is not a value judgement, but it’s impossible to remove that implication. Some say you have to pre-visualize the shot for it to be art, some claim there has to be a meaning, some claim that it has to involve creativity or originality. I say whether your work is art (or has artistic value) will not be decided by you. You only have a small amount of influence over the perception of your work. The best you can do is do what you love and let the chips fall where they may (unless you have an unusually large influence on a large number of people).

Guy Tal, a great inspiration and talented photographer, has  been  writing  about photographers who go to commonly photographed natural icons and take photos similar to those taken thousands of times before. While I agree with most of his points (and I don’t find these photos very interesting), I think their value is not for me to decide. I tend to value the unusual (combined with beauty and/or story), as I think a lot of people do. The problem with valuing the unusual is that, for example, the rock arches in Utah are very unusual — until you’re looking at a photo that looks the same as 500 others you’ve seen. So even though 20,000 photos of this exact subject may exist, the first one you see will strike you as an incredible work of art. And as a photographer the same applies. If you haven’t seen a single photo of the arches before, you’re going to take one and think it’s incredible.

Unintended cliches are a common hazard for any artist. This is why it’s important, if you want to be considered an artist, to be aware of other work going on in your field. The problem of dishonesty is a much bigger issue. If a photographer is pretending their work is unique to an uneducated audience, then this is (possibly) a brilliant business strategy but has little to do with art. And of course trying to exactly copy another photographer’s picture and claim it as your own is completely unethical.

Artists over the centuries have stolen ideas, compositions, color schemes, and all sorts of things. This is common practice and good practice — as long as you have a unique perspective on it, ideally one that is recognizably yours. I’m constantly thinking about what defines my perspective (you do need an artist statement after all). While thinking about your perspective or statement is important, I’m not sure the conclusions are an essential part. In the end, your perspective will either show up in your work or it won’t, whether or not you’re aware of it. I think your perspective shows more when you feel free to be yourself than when you chase the idea of being someone else.

What I do is take photos that come from my own unique curiosity and interest in our world. I don’t plan this out (which may rule me out of the art world for some people). I don’t always make challenging political or societal statements with my photos. I take the photos that interest me most and that I enjoy taking. Other people can decide if it’s art — I’m too busy doing what I love (and editing that pesky artist statement).

Abstract Oil Pipe Explained

At craft sales, I always have tags on the back of my photos with a title and short description. People seem to enjoy this, but sometimes a short tag is not enough. This photo, for instance, is only partially explained by the tag which says “Oilfield Remains”. So I often get questions, and I try to explain, but usually fail miserably. Well, here’s my (hopefully successful) explanation of the photo.

The story starts with me and Jason driving around the countryside finding nice things to take pictures of. This is a fairly common occurance in the life of a nature photographer. Oil rigs are also a fairly common occurance around Edmonton, so the two often coincide. We found this lovely oil rig just as the sun was setting, and of course I took the standard oil-rig-sunset shot which is the same as twenty billion other oil-rig-sunset shots. But hey, it gives me some context for the story.

Getting good photos means investigating things a little more, and while we’re wandering around the rig, we find (among other things) these random pieces of pipe on the ground. Rusty texture and curved lines catch my eye, and soon I’m down on the ground taking photos of this pipe elbow.

Well, in this photo there’s a bit too much going on for there to be a clear focal point, and the lines aren’t leading where they need to be leading. So I got a little closer, focused into the pipe, and took the photo you see at the top.

Definitions and Desires

I get to meet a lot of photographers. I know photographers who shoot weddings for $400, and I know photographers who shoot weddings for $4000. I know people who only shoot one kind of event or subject, and I know people who will shoot anything. There are a lot of people out there clamoring for any shoot they can get.

I often describe myself as a photographer. I don’t make my entire income from photography, but it is a significant portion. I’ve worked hard to get where I am, and there’s a lot of hard work ahead of me. It might seem strange that this month I’ve been turning down paid shoots.

Shoots are bragging rights. Shoots are proof that you really are a photographer. If you have a client, you are a professional. There are a lot of people who want to be a Photographer with a capital P. Photographers, by definition, take photographs for a living. This is so general that it hardly describes any successful photographer I know, but some people seem to want to do anything that involves clicking that shutter. More often, photographers like interacting with people and making them feel good about themselves. Some photographers want to help people remember important events. Some photographers want to travel and share their discoveries with others. Some photographers want to be well known as artists, and photography is their way in. There might be some photographers who just love turning those dials and pressing that button, but that’s not me, and it’s probably not you.

It’s a lot of work figuring out what you love. It takes a lot of experimenting, and a lot of going down the wrong path. Once you find what you love, it takes a lot of work to articulate it. Once you’ve done that, it takes a lot of work and courage to pursue it. I’ve tried a lot of things over the years and a few things have become clear. I love being outdoors. I love playing one color off another, finding a line that curves just the right amount, that leads into the just the right amount of confusion. Creating beauty and adding to the beauty in the world, these are things I care about. (my constantly changing definition of beauty could be another blog post entirely, and I suppose it’s hinted at in every photo I post) I want to find natural scenes that abstractly resonate with our human condition. These goals change over time as I discover more about myself and the world, but they don’t change dramatically. And by knowing these few things, I can continue to enjoy life and photography. And I don’t go chasing after every shoot – I leave them to people who want to make a living doing what they love.

A willow leaf, still green in October, when only the last few yellow poplar leaves are left.

Wildlife and Wedding Photography

When you see an elk, what do you do? You stop and take a photo of course. And if the elk stays there, you get closer. After all, wasn’t it Robert Capa who said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”?

But for some reason your brain starts to throw up little red flags. Wait a minute, you also want context — the animal acting in its habitat. And maybe you don’t want a photo of an elk eyeball, maybe you want the whole elk. And anyway, isn’t it bad for animals to get accustomed to people? And dangerous for the people?

And then, for some strange reason, you start to think of photographing weddings, of posing and of lighting. Direct evening light is pretty good — it’s warm and lends definition to shapes, but what if you backlight this? That would wash it out and give it a dream-like quality. But animals are not as cooperative as people who hire you to take their photos. You have to do the moving, and there’s no adding light. You know that flash would bother this elk and disrupt his feeding, possibly making him aggressive.

So you do the moving, far enough away that the animal is not disturbed. You wait for the animal to move into a position that works, you get the sun at just the right angle, and you get a photo. You don’t know if it’s a good photo or a great photo, but you’re pretty sure it’s not a bad photo. And that is satisfying.

Abstract Water Photography Explorations

These photos were taken at the same place, facing the same direction, within 1 minute of each other. The difference is part of what fascinates me about water. Small changes in the viewing angle completely change the photo. The top photo is almost purely reflected light, while the bottom is a mix of reflected (which bounces off the water) and refracted (which goes through the water) light. Add to that the constant variability of the wind creating different wave patterns, flowing water creating more stable ripples or even falls, and you have a subject that never gets old. I find flat water like this a little bit harder to find compositions in. Waves from wind are transient enough that you don’t know exactly what you’re going to capture — you have a general idea, but the specifics are up to chance. Flowing water is much easier to compose, and you often get more interesting lines. Often these lines and ripples are stable enough that you can see exactly what you’re going to get. But to get refraction in flowing water, it has to be flowing pretty gently — this works best with quite small amounts of water. Otherwise you get whitewater (full of air bubbles), which is great in a completely different way.

These photos don’t have leading lines to add depth or direct they eye (which generally I prefer), but they do illustrate some of the possibilities.

Dogbane Explorations

Below are a series of photos exploring a field of Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium). These are all taken from the same place, at the same time of day. As I’m taking photos, I often move from the literal – capturing a scene as one would usually see it (hopefully with a pleasing composition) and move towards the abstract. Often what I’m after is the abstract photo, but sometimes the original, more traditional landscape is the one that wins out when I’m evaluating them afterwards. It often takes me months to discover if I’m happy with a photo or not. And blogging them is part of this process. I blog photos that I initially think are pretty good, and the ones I’m still happy with in a couple months will likely go in my portfolio.

Strange Sideshows

When there’s a awe-inspiring waterfall in front of you, it’s easy to miss the interesting shots and instead take waterfall pic #269. It pays to explore the small, unnoticed corners around the edges of spectacular sights. This is something I often need to remind myself of when I’m out adventuring.

Bubbles in foam beside Livingstone Falls, Alberta.

Flowing Water and Shutter Speeds

Returning to what seems to be my favorite subject. There are always hard decisions to be made when capturing any scene, and with this one it was shutter speed. There are things I like about both of these – I like the flow of the first, but in the second I like where the smooth water meets the ripples. I think the second is a little more unusual. Which do you like best?

1/8 of a second.

1/200 of a second.

Water near the weir at Beaverhill Lake. I had to slog through a swamp for quite a long way to get here. On the way back I found out that by going around to the north I could have avoided most of the water.

Motion and Shutter Speed

Today’s post is something a little different for me. A friend is interested in practicing her photography skills, and specific assignments are much easier to be motivated about than some abstract notion of trying to get better at photography. So today we start with the shutter speed assignment. These assignments are very loosely based on some of the photography assignments we had in Design 390 at U of A. Since I’m predominantly a nature photographer, my examples will mostly be nature. These concepts apply to any type of photography, and if you apply them to the kind of photography you want to do, you’ll learn more than if you try to duplicate these.

The goal of this little photography lesson is that when you come across something moving in your photographic adventures, you are equipped to make creative and smart decisions about how to capture it. If you just read through this and think about it, you’ll be able to make the decision. If you do the assignment, you’ll be able to follow through and actually get the shot you’re hoping for.

Shutter speed is a pretty basic concept, but the situations in which it has an effect can be pretty complicated. The shutter speed is the length of time that light can hit the sensor (or film). The shutter (in most SLRs) is made up of two curtains (one connected to the top, one connected to the bottom) that control this length of time. The longer that light hits the sensor, the brighter the picture will be — this is how shutter speed affects exposure (there are two other things that affect exposure—aperture and ISO, but we’re just focusing on shutter speed for now). If the scene changes while the shutter is open, you will get a blurred image. This is where it starts to get interesting.

Sharp Photos

Usually, people want an image they’ve taken to be sharp. This requires one of two simple measures.

1. Make sure your shutter speed is fast enough by manipulating your ISO and Aperture.

“Fast enough”, if nothing is moving, is generally considered to be 1/the focal length of your lens if you’re holding the camera as still as possible. So with a 300mm lens you want at least 1/300 of a second, for a 24mm lens you want at least 1/24 of a second. Image stabilization can occasionally save your photo if you can’t get shutter speeds quite this fast, but it’s not smart to rely on it.

If you have fast moving subjects like cars or flying birds, you’ll probably need even faster shutter speeds to freeze the motion.

Shutter Speed: 1/1000 of a second
Shutter Speed: 1/800 of a second – this didn’t totally freeze the tip of the wing or the snow flakes, but pretty close.
Shutter Speed: 1/100 of a second – in this case, fast enough to freeze the motion of the water.

2. Put your camera on a tripod, and make sure nothing in the scene is moving.

Shutter Speed: 1.3 seconds on a tripod – the moose stood perfectly still

Blurred Photos

Sometimes though, sharp pictures are boring. If you’ve got something moving, why not show it moving? This is where you start to get into the art of shutter speed. How much you want to blur things is completely up to you. And you have to experiment a lot to know how much something is going to blur.

There are two main ways to show motion.
1. Let the object that is moving blur and keep the scene sharp.

For this you probably need a tripod. If you’re keeping your shutter speed slow enough to blur motion, it is often too slow to hand hold the camera and get a sharp background. If the camera is locked down on a solid tripod, your shutter speed can get as long as you want, and the still things in the scene will be sharp

Shutter Speed: 1.6 seconds on a tripod.
Shutter Speed: .7 seconds on a tripod – even though there are no still parts in this image, the pattern of the flowing water was constant enough that it gave me smooth lines. Without a tripod, these lines would not have been so defined.
Shutter Speed: 20 seconds – the long exposure blurred the clouds
Shutter Speed: 1/4 of a second – the water blurred quite nicely at this shutter speed.
Shutter Speed: 3.2 seconds – during a pretty crazy wind storm
Shutter Speed: 30 seconds

2. Move your camera with the moving subject to try to get it sharp, and let the background blur. Depending on the circumstances, this can range from fairly easy to completely impossible.

Shutter Speed: 1/125 of a second – This was at highway speeds, so this shutter speed was slow enough to blur. On the other hand, it was taken with a 150mm lens and the road was bumpy, so I wasn’t able to get the people perfectly sharp.
Shutter Speed: 1/6 of a second – I had my camera on a tripod to try to keep my camera still vertically while panning horizontally with the motion of the moose.

More Blurred Photos

You can also create motion by moving the camera even when everything in the scene is unmoving.

Shutter Speed: 1/25 of a second.
Shutter Speed: 1/2 a second.
Shutter Speed: 2.5 seconds.

The Assignment

Find or create a moving subject — all photos should have the same subject. This could be absolutely anything. You can cause it to move, nature could cause it to move, other people could be moving it. Then start taking photos. I know this adds pressure, but try to make the photos interesting: well composed, well lit, with an engaging subject. It is possible that you’ll end up taking a lot more time thinking of moving things that would make awesome photos than actually taking the photos. This is the way it should be.

The deliverables are:
1. Sharp photo that shows motion. But it should be obvious that the object is moving. A ball in the air is obviously moving, where a ball on the floor could be moving or could be still.
2. A photo that blurs the subject.
3. A photo that blurs the background, and has the subject relatively sharp.

Something to think about:
What are the implications of each shot? Is the subject or the environment highlighted? Is one more important than the other? Does one photo seem more active than another? Are you caught up in the action, or are you a bystander?


There are photographs everywhere—online, in coffee shops, in museums, on billboards. That makes it easy to be aware of what photographers and artists are doing. Artists are often inspiration to each other, and I have definitely experienced this in my interactions with artists in all kinds of mediums. Sometimes the inspiration is conscious and sometimes subconscious, but it happens all the time. I want to acknowledge some of the photographers who have inspired me, and this could be a long list. So I’ll mention them as they come up. I already mentioned Darwin Wiggett a few days ago. This photo was inspired by Jonathan Martin-DeMoor, which I guess means we have a cycle of inspiration going. That is awesome, and often when you get new and interesting work happening—when two artists spur each other on.

Just so it’s clear, I’m not talking about copying. This also happens all the time, and I’m not a fan. This is one thing I was worried about going out to Abraham Lake after seeing photos of it. You actually have to work at avoiding taking the same picture as everyone else. Or maybe you have to take it to get past it, I’m not sure yet. But I am never happy to have the same composition I’ve seen before, even if the light or the weather is different. I’m a creative person, and I want to interact with the landscape myself, not just see it through someone else’s eyes.

Sometimes I want to go to the same places I’ve seen photographed when the area looks interesting, but I’m never interested in duplicating someone else’s work. That is how the landscape spoke to them, not me. I want my photography to share my personality.