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What Isn't Art?: Photography (The Basics)

06/11/10 1:57 AM GMT
I have been inspired by recent topics to create this topic (is that redundant?). This is a somewhat lightheartedly serious post, although I am sure that someone will be offended even though it's not my intention. Anyway... to the post!! Make sure you break out the comfy slippers and are sitting in a comfy chair, because this is going to be a long post.

So, I know that there have been numerous topics based on quality control, and other topics not based on quality control that turn into topics about quality control (WHEW!). The following post is based on my limited first-hand experience, but more on the knowledge and experience I have read and heard from long-time professionals in the field of photography. So here, again... is my rant.

First, let me show you what I consider to be an example of good photography, specifically self-portraiture, and then I will explain why: Portrait

Subject: This photo has a clear subject (the person), which is the most important thing to have when you take a photograph. Without a clear subject, you have a whole lotta nothing.

Note: landscapes can be subjects, but they need to be presented in a way that is obvious and intentional. If you are trying to catch the sailboat 5 miles away with a point-and-shoot camera, chances are you won't get a good quality shot.

Focus: This is a technical term essentially referring to the sharpness and blurriness of the photograph. This example is well-focused (note the beard bristles, the eye, etc.) on the subject's face and not on, say, the arm or out of focus completely.

Balance: This photo has a balance of content & light. The negative space (the dark area) is balanced by the positive (the subject, in this case a person).

Lighting: The lighting in the photo is intentional and well balanced; neither too light nor too dark. In general, having a blown-out or a midnight-dark photo detracts from the image's overall artistic quality and visual impact. (see the end of the post for a note on lighting)

Composition: similar to balance, this photo has an interesting composition. The image slopes down from right-to-left and has a very obvious and intentional setup. See how the photographer didn't put the subject's face directly against the left frame -- this creates space for the picture to breathe.

Cropping/Editing: One of the most important things an artist can do is edit, edit, edit! This photographer has chosen to crop out all of the distracting elements around him (set equipment, etc.). This element of photography goes hand-in-hand with composition; by cropping an image, you can drastically transform a weak or OK composition into an amazing photograph with great interest, whereas poor cropping can ruin a photo.

The Rule of Thirds: Rather than explain this, because I will make it too complicated, here are links to two great articles explaining this process. Tutorials, which also covers other areas, and Composition

These are just a few things that make up a good photograph, and are what should be considered before, during, and after you have a photography session. When deciding what to upload or enter into a contest, you should be very critical of these things as you go through your shots. Ask yourself which, if any, of your works you would hang in a gallery for people to see.

It's more than possible that you will discard every photograph from a session; this kind of self-editing is necessary, though, in developing your style and improving the quality of the images produced. Many images require some form of post-processing, likely in Photoshop or some freeware program (PM me if you would like a list of a few free editing programs). Note that the editing should be minimal (i.e. contrast, sharpness,dust removal) and should not take away from the photo, unless you are intentionally trying to create a photomanipulation.

Now let me show some examples of what would be considered snapshots:

Snapshot 1

Snapshot 2

While these may be endearing to the photographers who took them and perhaps a few onlookers, these snapshots are just that -- snapshots. Although they have a few elements of quality photographs -- focus for example -- they are neither artistic nor well-edited.

There are many other rules to follow and master - at which point (and only then) one has the right to break the rules - but I believe the above are some of the most basic to photography.

Here are some more examples of snapshots versus artistic photos:

- Snapshot
- Photo

- Snapshot
- Photo

- Snapshot
- Photo

Anyway... there are plenty of other examples, but I thought that summed up where the majority of confusion lies for most amateur photographers. (Also, I purposefully didn't choose images from Caedes because I didn't think that was fair. The images I chose above were images that were both technically and artistically sound, and I don't know any of the people who took any of the above.) There are always exceptions to any rule, but as I mentioned above, one needs to fully understand the rules in practice before deciding he doesn't want to follow them.

(June 11 edit)-- A tip for the lighting category from my 2D drawing experience:

To see if your lighting is good, an easy check is to gray-scale (black & white) your image. If you have a good tonal variety of grays (including white and black), chances are that you have well-balanced lighting. If you have extremes, like just black and white, or an all gray image, chances are the photo either needs to be re-edited or retaken.

Some examples (I love examples):

- Well balanced
This image also has great composition, quality, and editing.
- Flat grays
- Blown out

(6/13/10) As mentioned in one of the comments below, having good lighting is as essential to the composition of the photograph as any of the aforementioned elements of photography. Although I normally wouldn't encourage people to see the world in black and white, I think it's important as a photographer of any level to view their work through a black and white lens -- even if the final result is in color. Color photographs will benefit from this check and should probably be discarded if they are blown out or flat (even if you like the particular photo).

Here's a good article shown below: "It's All About Light" by Darren Rowse
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For wisdom is protection just as money is protection. But the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors.


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06/11/10 6:27 AM GMT
Bethany - Very, very well done. If comments were images, this would be permed with a CI of 100.

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"Just a single line in a database that isn't very important at all" -- Caedes
06/11/10 9:12 AM GMT
Very very well done Bethany you have hit the nail on the head.. great how you compared snapshots with "photo".. you'd have to be blind not to be able to see the differences..
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MY GALLERY ........... "You are not alive unless you know you are living." Amadeo Modigliani
06/11/10 2:59 PM GMT
Thanks you two :)

I just hope some people can read this and understand the difference (not that I'm the ultimate authority).
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For wisdom is protection just as money is protection. But the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors.
06/11/10 7:56 PM GMT
I get it and I would like to say thank you for putting the piece together.
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06/11/10 8:42 PM GMT
Very good read and plenty of great information, thank you.
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If you wish to purchase framed photos, prints or greeting cards of my work please visit my website .
06/11/10 9:16 PM GMT
Glad I was able to help! :)
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For wisdom is protection just as money is protection. But the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors.
06/11/10 10:19 PM GMT
Excellent job Bethany....great examples...I like them as well. I also do much better with visual aids :=)
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06/11/10 11:49 PM GMT
Doesn't everyone? :)
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For wisdom is protection just as money is protection. But the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors.
06/13/10 12:56 AM GMT
This has got to be the best explanation of these principles I've ever read. Not only is it clear and concise, it's downright inspirational. It moves the argument away from "how dare you call my art a snapshot" to "now I see how to make better images" with one seemingly effortless nudge to the brain.

About Bethany's June 11 edit... Unrepentant foofaholic that I am, it's little wonder that most of my print sales are botanicals. Then comes the buyer who wants B&W versions of particular images. Hey, no prob. Except, errrr, ummmmm, when converted (with expert advice) to B&W, many of my fav images ceased to be photographs of anything at all, just muddled chaos. The color was the composition. And I didn't even know it.

A photographer I went wailing to (that would be TGuer at the top of the comment stack here) persuaded me to use my camera's mono setting for a while even though that meant throwing away data. Once I was shooting mono, I saw mono when I chimped and reshot a lot then and there to compose better. I also started seeking light instead of subjects when I was scouting for foof.

Point being, a good range of midtones, details in shadows, and no blownout highlights are the immediate rewards of getting the lighting and exposure right, but the delux super extra bonus is likely to be stronger composition. Is that better than a set of Ginzu knives or what?!?!?!

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ďA photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.Ē Diane Arbus
06/13/10 5:38 PM GMT

I think that's a great comment about how photography works (I've now added it to the post in fact, lol). Photography and any of the visual arts should be about value (light and dark) not how colorful something appears to be when you snap the shot. I think it's something that a lot of amateur and intermediate photographers miss, and something that I often forget when I'm getting ready to shoot.

And I would take a good composition and Ginzu knives ;) I've been looking at those knives for a long time, actually... but I digress.
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For wisdom is protection just as money is protection. But the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors.
06/14/10 12:41 AM GMT
I found this article today and thought it fit with this post very well. It is about lighting and gives excellent examples.

Itís About Light by Darren Rowse
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06/14/10 4:44 AM GMT
Thanks for the link -- good stuff.
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For wisdom is protection just as money is protection. But the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors.
02/10/12 1:07 AM GMT
This thread was well worth reading again.
Oh and by the way...
Chances are you suck (at photography)
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People aren't going to remember the things you do. They're going to remember how you made people feel. Be kind, gracious, and appreciative. Dan Winters - Photographer.
02/20/12 12:43 AM GMT
Thanks for the bump of this thread, David. It is a great read and very informative.

Bethany; aka Digital_Angel wrote a great and concise (not.. my forte :oP) article in this thread.

Also enjoyed discovering the Flikr Group; "DeleteMe!" ... via the comments on the article linked to in your above post.
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02/22/12 2:35 PM GMT
Darren Rowse (see Davids link above) does excellent tutorials. I subscrbe to the DPS emails - full of good stuff.

I frequently remind myself I suck at photography by visiting these NZ sites

Andris Apse

Craig Potton

and one I have only recently discovered
Pieter van der Maas
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My thanks to all who leave comments for my work and to those of you who like one enough to make it a favourite. To touch just one person that way makes each image worthwhile. . . . . . . . . .. . . . "The question is not what you look at, but what you see" ~ Marcel Proust
02/28/12 6:55 AM GMT
yea yea yea question is does all that pay the bills?probably not.people buy what they want to buy.Hang some crap on a wall and see if people will buy it,if they do then its art if they don't get back on net and debate what art is.Jez keep up the copy and paste crap you wont ever make a dime.Bottomline don't matter if you suck as long as someone will buy it.I've sat here for years watchin you guys debate what art is what snapshots are yadda yadda yadda.Here's some advice find and audience and do what you want rather then doing what the audience tells you to do.You'll be happier and make a hell of allot more money.
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02/28/12 6:42 PM GMT
Wow, I'm surprised this thread got replied to after 2 years!

LOL2112 -
The debate of what art is; will never end. The reality, however, is that there are rules that solidify work as art. The difference, as you sort of pointed out, is that sometimes people break the rules and become very successful at it.

The point of my original post wasn't to say that you can't break the rules, or that you can't take snapshots and sell them, it's that as more and more amateur photographers pick up a camera and want to be good at it, they need to understand the rules before they can know how to successfully break them.

Take Picasso as an example of this learn-before-you-unlearn principle -- he was an excellent painter who was classically trained in the arts but he wanted more so he broke pretty much all of the rules. He, unlike a lot of people, was very successful at it -- but I truly believe that if he hadn't been classically trained first, he wouldn't have developed his Cubist style.

There's also a difference between intentionally shooting a photograph as a snapshot and shooting a snapshot because you don't know what you're doing. Plenty of untrained artists (from all various media, including painting, drawing, photography, clay, and digital, and so on) have become successful through persistence, patience, trial & error, and raw talent; but the majority of people with artistic talent, or even simply interest, need training and guidance to reach their full potential.
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For wisdom is protection just as money is protection. But the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors.
02/29/12 5:42 AM GMT
Whats with the mask did somebody fart?
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02/29/12 6:02 AM GMT
Dont know what he was thinkin when he did what he did but i try and express whats on my mind at the time when im doin something.I dont care if anyone likes it or not.
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02/29/12 3:16 PM GMT
Frankly, you can do whatever you want, but I won't be replying to any more of your comments if you can't have a mature debate.
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For wisdom is protection just as money is protection. But the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors.
03/03/12 1:05 AM GMT
sorry for offending your sensibilities,thought the was a place to have fun and joke.guess those days are long gone,by the way the rules are set by the people paying to own the art,so please climb off your high horse and start debating on a mature level not repeating what youve been told by someone who was told thats how it is by someone else.
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02/15/17 6:32 PM GMT

In my opinion, trying to answer a hard to define question, would be like trying to explain Television to a Cave Man. At first it seems easy till you actually think about it. How do you explain shows like "Gunsmoke" "Cat in the Hat" "Godzilla" or "Captain Kangaroo" Hmmm. . just cant seem to be able to do it. So instead I will comment on the first thoughts that come to my mind.

The first thought that comes to my mind is sexual. . . Researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois used their federal grant money to study Female Sexuality . . . .by paying female students $75 per film to watch pornographic art films. This seems like a waste of money, why didn they spend the money to purchase alcohol.

The second thought that comes to my mind is Money . . . . Steve Wynn, a Las Vegas Casino Owner and real estate agent, arranged to sell his Pablo Picasso painting "The Dream" for $139 Million. How do you part with a $139 million painting? Why you invite friends and whoop it up with adult beverage to show off the art you got. Then you tell stories. Thats what Steve did, while telling a story, he was waving his hands around, gosh, you are going to be $139 million richer, heck yes! wave your hands around. Oh No!! . . .He lost his balance and fell backwards into the painting, puncturing it with his elbow. Oh Rats!! he probably spilled his adult beverage all over himself, and probably a $40 million goof to the painting. NO!!! a $139 million goof. He had to cancel the sale.

The third thought that came to my mind, is Id better do some research . . . .but I received no federal funds like these people did . . . Linguists from the University of Barcelona discovered that Rats have difficulty telling the difference between Japanese spoken Backwards and Dutch spoken Backwards. WOW!! I feel like a rat, I cant tell the difference either. . . . . Psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton wrote a study summary arguing that SHORT, simple words make the writers seem more intelligent than long words do. The title of his study "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity. . . . OK so my research wasnt very helpful. And now you understand the title of my rant.

My last thought is to say just what I think. How unique! Can I do this in an interesting presentation? I will give it a try. . . . .
WHAT IS ART ? Art is a skill or a craft fueled by Inspiration. The word Art originated from the word ARE used with the word THOU. Does my explanation contribute negativism to the phrase "All Men Are Created Equal" NO! Some people cannot filter out or squelch the background noise in their brains so they can be sensitive enough to detect inspiration. I can hear the complaints now, how come So-N-so has got more inspiration than me. IT AINT FAIR!! Inspiration is not for the lazy people, it usually means you gotta put effort into your activities to detect it. It helps to understand who you are and how you operate. Robert Louis Stevenson had a hobby of reading the Bible out loud to sheep for inspiration. Irish Poet William Buttler Yeats liked to try to hypnotize bees. When American novelist Ann Rivers Siddons is ready to start writing a new novel, she gets in the mood by surrounding herself with a nest made of papers. Then she walks into walls, as if in a trance. American Painter James Whistler believed that art should concentrate on the proper arrangement of colors, not on realism. He once dyed a dish of rice pudding green so it would better match the green walls of his living room. . . Yuck! Artists driven by inspiration are weird people. Does that mean I am implying all the people who post on Caedes are weird? YEP. And Thank You for your inspired difference. If we were all the same it would be boring.

If my comments did not make any sense, you could be a Cave Man. If my comments did not bring a smile or did not capture your interest, you could be uninspired. I am not into long winded explanation of What Art IS because I never studied at Princeton.
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02/15/17 8:17 PM GMT
Came here to read your post/comment, Moose.. was not disappointed.

... ...

Have a cred on me (as uninspiring as that might come across).

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02/25/17 11:52 AM GMT
"What is Art ?" the subject appears to have changed and it started as "What Isn't Art ?"

Leo Tolstoy wrote a whole book with the title "What is Art ?" and it seems Moose could easily follow suit, and has in fact made a start, albeit with a somewhat more humerous slant on the subject. A subject which could be discussed until the cows come home and still no agreement reached :)

For anyone interested here is a short excerpt from Tolstoys Work
It is quite readable and interesting but does not make one laugh very much.

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My thanks to all who leave comments for my work and to those of you who like one enough to make it a favourite. To touch just one person that way makes each image worthwhile. . . . . . . . . .. . . . "The question is not what you look at, but what you see" ~ Marcel Proust
02/25/17 12:29 AM GMT
Thanks for the link, Lyn; it's clarified something for me!

"Art begins when one person, with the object of joining another or others to himself in one and the same feeling, expresses that feeling by certain external indications."

There was something in modern culture about getting out of bed and the crumpled bed being an expression of art... it looks the way it does due to your interaction with said bed... but... the above Tolstoy quotation gives the lie to that. Well of course... seems so obvious put that way. Art is only art if you set out with what skills you have to create a pleasing or interesting effect. If something is entirely accidental or incidental (e.g. crumpled sheets) and you went to no effort, that's not art.

Food for thought. :-)
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02/25/17 1:39 PM GMT
I could not agree more Tootles.
Risking sounding like an old fogie some of the stuff that passes (or more correctly is fobbed off) as art these days should not be classed as art. Maybe accidental reflections of life, but not art.

Everyone sees things differently and some may say what Tolstoy wrote in 1896 is not relevant today.

Those 'installations' that have to be explained in great detail to make any sense - is that art?
Enormous whole canvases painted navy blue, or black selling for enormous amounts of money - I don't understand at all.

I DO also agree with Mr Tolstoy's quote. Art must be created - not something that just happened.

My kitchen work bench gets very cluttered if I am baking or preparing food because it is very small. I could make a replica of that and call it "The Messy Kitchen" but it probably would not work because I am not "suffering suicidal depression brought on by relationship difficulties." like the bed woman was. I could lie and say I was and claim this total disarray on my kitchen bench, the conglomeration of spilt ingredients messy utensils and appliances, used bowls and knives was an indication of my despair. Why anyone would be any more interested in someones grubby stained bed than my messy kichen I have no idea.

In fact, next time my bench is messy I shall take a photo and upload it for all to see . . . but of course that would not work without the photographic skills required to make said mess look like something of interest. :) However, if I deliberately place some items, spill a few things in properly considered places, make sure the colours work add a few empty wine bottles and give it a name like "I went mad feeding my family" it may just work as a still life.
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My thanks to all who leave comments for my work and to those of you who like one enough to make it a favourite. To touch just one person that way makes each image worthwhile. . . . . . . . . .. . . . "The question is not what you look at, but what you see" ~ Marcel Proust
02/25/17 10:21 PM GMT
I would have found The Messy Kitchen of more interest, probably because I'd be thinking "I do that too," or "hey, I've got a mug like that!" or "I've never seen one of those utensils before -- what does it do?"

Natural human curiosity. :-) But it wouldn't have to be messy for me to find it interesting.

I like what Tolstoy said about art being the attempt to convey your experience -- you can't give people the whole light show of what exactly happened, but you can select the bits that were significant to you. I suppose what you make of an experience might be different from someone else's take on the same situation.

Anyway, interesting link!
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