Following my morning ritual, I awakened a couple days ago, brewed my cup of coffee and reached for my iPad to catch up on the world. Among the myriads of notifications was one from a friend and fellow photographer. He called my attention to another example of an issue we had jointly decried for the past few years. It was a case where a social media content creator had made some claims about lighting for photography that were not just erroneous from a photographer’s perspective, they violated every principle of physics that essentially explains how light travels and how obstacles in the path of light ultimately impacts its distribution. I watched the video the content creator had shared and was at first bemused as to why he was sharing such information. Then I became troubled as I read comments from many of the creator’s followers. Invariably, they amounted to, “You’re amazing. Thank you for teaching us.”
There have been many occasions when I raised questions about claims by content creators. Notice, I said “content creators” and not specifically photographers. Many in fact have little or no photography experience but have been lured by the potential for monetizing YouTube videos and Instagram posts. In fact, they may even purchase the most expensive video recording/editing gear and create glitzy productions that are long on visual entertainment, but short on substantive content. Many of the creators do not take criticism well, and often deflect legitimate challenges by saying, “Photography is an art. I don’t need rules.”
It is here that the academic in me makes his way to the fore. Among the courses I teach is research methods. Whether I am teaching quantitative (statistical) methods or qualitative (interpretive) methods, I make a point of helping graduate students distinguishing between artistic processes and scientific processes, as well as the type of writing typically associated with each approach. I summarize these with the following points:
1. Art focuses on variable styles while science focuses on precision
2. Art typically focuses on creativity while science takes an ordered approach
3. Art tends to be evolutionary while science tends to be normative
4. Art tends to be highly subjective while science tends to be empirical
Of course, these are generalizations that emerged over time and have been validated. Are they relevant to photography? Some would argue that in an era where the exposure and even the depth of field of an image can be displayed with relative accuracy in an electronic viewfinder, no one needs to understand the science of exposure, and certainly not the mathematics behind F-stops. I would argue that if one is welling to cede one’s creativity to computational photography, then perhaps the science of photography - the normative aspects of shutter speed, ISO, and f-stops, as well as the inverse square law that focuses on how light changes based on distance - is all but dispensable. But if one is interested in knowing why and how to create specific photography art, then the art and science are irrevocably bound together. To claim that being an artist exempts one from understanding the science behind the art is absurd. After all, what is art today, may not be art tomorrow.
Beware! Here comes that academic again. Populism generally refers to persons, primarily politicians, who appeal to ordinary people by leading them to see themselves as victims of the elite. But in the broader sense it refers to any appeal aimed at ordinary people. That is a growing trend I’ve seen among many content creators who talk about photography. Yes, there are some who take the opposite tact, identifying themselves as the elite of photography. I’ll leave those for another article. In this case, I am referring to those who know little about the art or the science of photography and decry those who insist that the science is important.
Several years ago, someone contacted me asking what would be a “good starter camera.” The person had no photography experience or education, but saw the opportunity for making money in their local market. At that time, I recommended a used Nikon D7000 as a good choice. Within a week of its acquisition, the new photographer had set up a website and began charging clients for the service. It was a veritable disaster. I often received calls asking how to fix errors that had been made or how to molify disgruntled clients. Amidst all of this, the new photographer had a growing number of social media followers who all rang the bell of populism saying, “Ignore those who don’t appreciate your talent. They’re just jealous. Your work is amazing.”
I’ve seen this among many social media content creators. They listen to those with equal inexperience and equal lack of understanding of photography, and are persuaded that they need to learn no more. There is no real peer evaluation. And the cycle goes on. Take a look at the number of photographers who offer paid workshops and you’ll notice a disturbing trend. They perpetuate many of the inaccuracies they learned along the way. They are perhaps talented. They often have the ability to be highly creative. But many also lack a basic understanding of the technical elements of lighting and photography, often masking their inadequacies with Lightroom presets and Photoshop actions.
I willingly admit that I find little practicality in spending 4-5 years earning a degree in photography. Many institutions offer a Master of Fine Art (MFA) degree for holders of undergraduate degrees in just about any subject area. There may be some benefits to such a degree in specific artistic disciplines, but if one’s sole purpose is to become a photographer, that is not a necessary route. There are a number of shorter education programs for photographers. Professional Photographers of America, for example, offers shorter certification programs that are structured to cover the theory as well as the practice. In essence you learn the science and you develop YOUR art. You build your portfolio to reflect both your understanding of the theory and your own artistic taste.
Social media platforms can provide some education, but much of it is woefully lacking. You have to carefully select reputable instructors, not just popular bloggers and YouTube content creators. For many of them, it’s strictly a business. Your education is not primary.
Ultimately it’s up to you to decide what type of photographer you want to be. Do you want to be an artist without proper understanding of the science behind your art? Or would you prefer to be an adaptive artist who evolves as the industry changes because you have a fundamental understanding of the science as well? It’s your choice.
I recommend you also read by blog article about online photography reviews. It’s a good supplement to this one.
** Note: Throughout the post I’ve shared a few images I’ve shot. I know they have little to do with the actual subject of the post. But we photographers seize every opportunity to share our work.
I am David Fraser, a university academic, photographer, and techie. I have been a photographer for roughly 20 years, and have shot across the US, the Eastern Caribbean, and South America. Today, I shoot primarily fashion, portraiture, and lifestyle. I live and work in Eastern Contra Costa County, in the San Francisco Bay Area, California. You may follow me on Instagram: @davidfraser.photography.