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Picture vs. Photograph

October 09, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, what is a photograph worth?  I recently saw an argument on Facebook about the upcoming "Nikon Photo Contest" with a blurb asking followers if they think smartphone photos should be allowed.  The comments seemed pretty split down the middle between "cameras only" and "it's the skill of the photographer, not the gear."  To be fair most of the "camera only people" were actually saying, and I agree with this sentiment, "If it's a Nikon photo contest, then the gear used to take the photo should be Nikon, otherwise it's just a photo competition sponsored by Nikon.  That's fine in it's own right, but not what the blurb stated it was.

For those that have been following me, you know that typically I feel it's about the photographer, and not the gear, but this got me thinking though, "What is the difference between a picture and a photograph?"

To me a picture is just that a picture.  Someone held up the camera, smartphone, pinhole box, etc., pressed the shutter, light entered in, exposed the film, or digital sensor and it is what it is.  That is a picture.  It could be a landscape, it could be a portrait, it could be top secret documents, I don't care.  It's a brief moment captured in time and that's all that it is.  It may be pretty, it may not, it just...is.

A photograph on the other hand, especially in terms of competition, would be the same as a picture only with a few extras.  A photograph should have certain elements.  It should follow the rule of thirds, not have overly blown out highlights, too dark shadows, good contrast, good color, a solid subject, proper lighting, great composition, leading lines, sharp and in focus, etc.  Now, it may follow some or all of these, and completely ignore others.  Part of my job as a photographer is to be able to know how to utilize these various rules, and when to ignore these various rules. The photograph itself should be able defend these rules, or the ignoring of these rules, without me standing next to the photo saying, "Well...I did X, because of Y." 

As a photographer, I can take a well exposed, in focus shot of a person, place, or thing with my smartphone, or with my Nikon.  I know how to compose, use the light available to me and take the shot.  I've seen other well known photographers use smartphones similarly and take extraordinary photos with them.  We know the limitations of our gear and can work with it or around it as we see fit. 

On the flip side of that coin, I've seen people with $2,000 cameras that have no clue what it is they have in their hands, and have no desire to learn.  The have a camera, and can take pictures. They will leave their camera in Auto, press the shutter, and the camera will do all the work.  Some of the photos might be good...Hell's Fire, some of them might even be great, but it's the camera doing all the work, not the picture taker.

Now please, please, don't feel that I'm knocking amateur photographers.  I'm not.  We all had to start and learn somewhere.  As you'll note I specifically said "...and have no desire to learn."  There is a huge difference in my book.  I'm not even belittling Auto mode.  It's there for a reason and has it's uses.  Part of the way I made the transition from point and shoot to DSLR was to put my camera in Auto or Scene mode, see what the settings were, and then mimic the setting in Manual, and then adjust as I saw fit.

I would set my camera to whatever scene mode I was going for, (since I picked up my DSLR when I was still working for the Buffalo Museum of Science, we'll use that as an example) and I would snap the picture...and it would be a picture as I wasn't worried about the finer points of photography, I just wanted to see what the camera could and couldn't do, and what it thought the settings should be.  I would check the settings it chose, especially the Photographer's Triangle of F-Stop, ISO, and Shutter Speed, and I would replicate it in Manual mode. 

Then I would adjust things as I saw fit.  I'd stop down the f-stop which would open the shutter, which meant that I would have to slow the speed and/or lower the ISO to compensate (I think I have that in the right order...it's much easier when I have my camera in my hand). 

For example, there's a native Incan headdress that caught my attention, but I don't want the exhibit behind it to be sharp and clear in the photo.  In Auto Mode let's say that the settings my camera chose were f/8 at 1/100 sec and at ISO 400.  I would set these settings into Manual mode once and retake the photo.  In theory it should come out exactly as the Auto mode photo did.  Which would likely have a clear background.  I don't want that.  I like a shallow Depth-of-Field, so I'm going to stop down my f/stop to f/4 (the minimum for my kit lens.  At f/4 it opens up the aperture 4x as wide as it was at f/8, otherwise known as 2 stops.  (f/8 --> f/5.6 would let in twice as much light, f/5.6 --> f/4 would let in twice as much again.).  If I were to shoot at f/4, 1/100 sec, ISO 400 the photo would then become VERY BRIGHT.  To compensate I'd have to either change my shutter speed so that the speed is faster (so double twice so we've now gone from 1/100th sec to 1/400th sec), lower my ISO to allow for more light to hit the sensor, (lowering it from 400 to 100), or some combination thereof.  Since I had the time when I was wondering the museum on my lunch breaks, I would often play with all three just to see how they interacted with each other.  In the scenario above I would've gone with the f/4 at 1/400th of a second and left the ISO at 400.  this would've allowed for a nice fast shutter speed, a blurred depth of field behind the mask, and the ISO would have been more than sufficient. The result would be a lower Depth of Field that I was happy with.  I would take the photograph. 

I hope I have explained the difference between a picture and a photograph sufficiently in this brief snippet.  As always if you have any questions, or need clarifications, please, by all means leave your question in the comments below, or feel free to email them to me at: ian@iankuhnphotography.com


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