A Photographer is a Painter (in reverse)

A couple of years ago, I had a table at a Christmas fair selling photographs printed on a variety of media including fine art prints. I overheard someone commenting on the price of the prints. She remarked to her friend that she didn’t understand the price of a photo. “After all, it’s not like a painting or anything. All you do is push a button.”

Ouch. Hearing this made me flinch and it took me aback. I didn’t understand what the thought process of the snub was coming from. The prices weren’t high in any way. The price of the prints covered the cost of printing and a thin margin for me. They were very discounted for the event.

What the heck?

Why the disparagement?

After I recovered from the burn, I started thinking about the perception many folks have toward photography.

Armchair Snap Shooters

There is an onslaught of images bombarding us daily, The vast majority of these are snapshots.

There is nothing wrong with the snapshot. They capture a fleeting moment we want to revisit later.

Since everyone pretty much has a camera, be it a point and shoot (cell phone) or actual camera, everyone can take a picture. Not much thought is required about the process of taking a picture beyond pointing it at something and pressing a button.

However, the folks that equate the snapshot to the art of photography fail to comprehend what photography actually is.

I tend to parallel these snapshot shooters that think they are photographers to a flavor of Monday morning quarterbacks. They think they know all the answers but if placed on the field they are unable to actually run and throw the football.

An analogy would be driving a car. Having a license to drive doesn’t automatically qualify one to be an F1 driver.

Below, a phone snapshot of my camera set up while I waited for sunset.

The Art of Photography

There is a difference between a snapshot and a photograph. A snapshot doesn’t require much beyond pointing the camera or phone (which is technically a point-and-shoot camera) and pressing a button. Snapshots don’t have an intent beyond capturing a pretty scene or moment.

In the literal sense, a snapshot is a photograph. However, there is a distinction between a photograph made casually (a snapshot) versus one made with intent (a photograph).

A photograph is the product of a trained eye and a deep understanding of light and shadow. It has the intent of the photographer embedded in the image. This intent is developed over time, a development of vision as it were.  

Photography isn’t easy. It takes years of practice to understand light and framing. The technical aspects of working the camera itself can be daunting and requires practice. Once the understanding of light and camera are grasped, the phase of polishing your vision comes into play and that takes time. It is actually a lifelong endeavor. Specialized photography like macro, nature, landscape, portrait, or astrolandscape (to name but a few) are photographic techniques that need to be learned, exercised, and sharpened. We won’t talk about the digital darkroom either. That requires additional acumen to properly transform a RAW image to a finished piece worthy of printing.

Photography is like the art of painting but reversed. Painters start with a blank canvas, adding elements and purposefully selecting colors to create a scene. They learn to prime the canvas, hold the paintbrush and the techniques to properly apply paint. Photographers start with a fully loaded canvas and need to assess the scene and consciously subtract elements in order to create an effective photograph. They use the camera as a paintbrush but in reverse.

Above, the photograph of the sunset. Nikon D780 | 28-300mm lens | ISO 100 | f/14 | 2.5 seconds

Above, the Eastern Sierra Mountains. Nikon Z9 | 24-70mm lens | ISO 64 | f/2.8 | 30 seconds | 10 stop ND

The skill, vision and time to create a photograph is what goes into the cost of the photograph. Ultimately it is the same as any artist selling their art.

A photographer friend summarized the cost of a photograph beautifully:

Many people flinch, when hearing about the cost of a well orchestrated photograph. In order to dispel the notion that “it’s just a photograph,” I thought it might be helpful to provide a few of the many considerations that take place in a photographs creation, like that of a painting.

And like that of a painting, a photographer paints with their eyes and mind. While artists who paint use brushes, creating highlights and shadows, details and the big picture, A photographer processes all that and more before releasing the shutter. So, while a painter slowly applies, colors were needed, a photographer looks at the scene and mentally (like a computer processor) evaluates it all. It may seem effortless, but knowing what to look for is an art.”Carol Wontkowski

A photograph encompasses much more than the push of a button.

© Silvana Della Camera

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1 reply
  1. Mike S.
    Mike S. says:

    Silvana, great article. I especially like the distinction you make between a snapshot and a photograph. I agree!

    In regard to the just “push a button” question I think we are our own worst enemies. First we as photographer don’t often think about the distinction between snapshots and photos. Second, gear and software vendor make a lot of money on making it easier to make photos – just push a button. Sadly, we buy into that concept by constantly looking for easy ways to make a photo rather than for things that will help us make a better photo.


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