10 Reasons Why Photography Sucks and Isn’t an Art Form

The wishing well

2009-12-20 Update: This article is #1 in Google for “photography sucks,” so I see why it gets so many comments. Don’t take me too seriously. Photography is really an art form and I am playing devil’s advocate here. :smile:

“I wish photography could be an art form. I love it so much, but it’s just too easy. If only there were some way to mentally cripple the majority of the population from being able to take beautiful photos, or if I could make the craft so needlessly difficult to only be accessible to a tiny few. Maybe then I can trick others into thinking I have talent where there is none. Oh photography, why must you be so simple and uncomplicated!”

We’ve been tricked—all of us—into believing that photography is an art form requiring skill, talent, patience, and “the eye,” when outside of fairy land, it requires no more skill or talent than driving a car, or pushing buttons on an elevator. What kind of art form would have these ten traits?

1. Anyone can do it. While we’ve not proven the infinite monkey theorem for reproducing Shakespeare’s Hamlet, surely a monkey could take a good, interesting photo. In fact, with today’s auto-focusing, auto-metering, easy-to-use cameras, I have no doubt that a monkey, with some practice, could take a photo as good as Sunrays or The Red-Brick House. Do you like doing the job of a monkey?

2. No talent involved. You’re in a good place, you take a good picture. You’re in a bad place; you get nothing. It doesn’t matter if you have passion or willpower. If someone else is in the right place at the right time, they can easily capture the moment just as well, even if they’ve been handed a camera for the first time. You can’t say the same about any real art form, like playing the piano, or drawing, or sculpting, which require years of experience and practice.

3. No creativity. When you take a photo, you’re using a tool to save a copy of a scene. You’re creating nothing and the camera’s creating nothing. If the camera does create something, it isn’t art—it’s a defect. The more you protest that your badly-composed, out-of-focus pictures bear your unique artistic sensibilities, the more you satisfy your own delusions. Photography is about as creative as mowing the lawn (and if you think that’s creative, then you have my sympathy).

4. It doesn’t help you to look at the world differently, no more than painting, or sketching, or kayaking, or any other hobby. If anything, your view of the world narrows, because you’re stuck looking at it through your narrow viewfinder.

5. It’s an art that’s not a science, and a science that’s not an art. If my five-year-old sister can cover my job on our vacation to Disney world, then what kind of science is that? Normal scientific processes are torturous and difficult to master, like constructing a high-rise bridge or installing an Olympic-size swimming pool. Scientific arts like performing a complex piano piece or crocheting a beautiful sweater require years of expertise and practice. Not photography. Photography is for dummies. Then on the other end, we have b.s. science touted by the “artists,” like megapixels, lens optics, and sensor reflectivity. They have no idea what this stuff means, nor do they need any understanding of it to take pretty pictures, but they pretend it makes the craft complex, and their jobs, difficult and valuable. Kudos to the engineers, sure, but I’m not scientific as a mere photographer, any more than I’d be an auto mechanic for driving a car.

6. No future. You can’t make money taking pictures. If you do, you’re not an artist, you’re a businessman. Nothing more.

7. Life as a technician. You can’t get a good photo unless you Photoshop the heck out of it, like going from this awful thing to Leafy Droplets 4. Is that creative? My 10-year-old cousin can add some contrast, sharpen, darken the corners, and shift the colors with ease. If you put yourself through hours of this drudgery, you’re no more of an artist than the lab operator at Wal-Mart. A computer can easily replace you. How does it feel wasting your talent?

8. Strokes of luck. If you do capture a great photo that needs no editing, it’s because of reason #3. No talent whatsoever; you were just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, and disciplined enough to have your camera ready. So basically, your dependent on fate to bring you pretty pictures to photograph. Don’t you want to be in control of what you create, and when you create it? Do you like doing work that relies on luck, discipline, and drudgery, that you’re not even getting paid for? You may as well be digging ditches. At least then you’d be doing something useful for the world.

9. Join a community of morons. Maybe your smart and join a “camera club.” Then, you get to hear a dozen other people complain about the delay of Nikon’s latest DSLR and make excuses why they can never be a good photographer until they have *insert lens here*. Then they’ll complain about how they can’t attract any money. Maybe if they’d add something real to the world, they’d have the money to buy their toys. If you’re a photographer, you may as well be playing the latest World of Warcraft game.

Or perhaps you’re particularly dedicated and follow your passion to a photography university. Then you get to spend four years and thousands of dollars on the dead art of film, while hearing old codgers whining that the youngsters have it too easy nowadays. You may as well learn Latin. If you want to be a professional photographer, take a business class. But you’re condemning yourself to a lifetime of slave labor. If we had today’s photography before Lincoln’s time, then slaves would be photographing our children’s birthdays and recording our weddings. Why? Because slaves were forced to do tedious, boring, uncreative work.

10. You’re a dime a dozen. You’re building no legacy, you can’t pass your business on to your children, you work on assignment for pennies, and anyone can replace you at anytime. In what other artistic field can anyone do exactly the same work you do, with no talent nor experience? Read rubbish like Is Color Photography an Art? with any spirit of inquiry, and you can see what fools we are.

“Okay, so since photography is really nothing, we’ll give it some class. Only photography done on expensive, time-consuming film is art. No color nonsense—that’s too much like the real world. Digital doesn’t count—it’s missing the needless drudgery. 35mm? Are you crazy? That’s the easy way out.”

Can’t you see how dumb this is? If photography was an art form, we wouldn’t have millions of pages debating the subject. It would be plain and obvious. The very existence of a debate proves that photography as art is shaky ground to stand on. You don’t see anyone debating painting as an art form, or protesting the Mona Lisa as uncreative.

“The color photographer has many means of bringing expression into a scene; the selection of camera position, lens focal length, use of filters, depth of field, film type, exposure, composition, and shutter speed all figure into the image that is produced. During printing, the color photographer has control of contrast, density, color balance, and saturation to convey personal expression.”

Oh puh-lease. “The cashier has many ways of being creative at the check-out line. She can express herself by scanning your groceries swiftly, grouping them by color, double-bagging at her discretion, and suggesting candy bars and periodicals. She has control of the conversation, by making friendly chit-chat or working without delay. Through the artistic medium of words, she has the potential to positively influence hundreds of people every day.”

At least cashiers don’t delude themselves thinking they’re at the pinnacle of artistic expression and can change the world. Perhaps we aren’t so lucky.

Photography is fine for what it is: a pseudo art form for talentless hacks. But don’t give it more respect than it deserves.

The “Pure Photography” Myth

Pink and Purple Sunset 3, an example of heavy editing

I do whatever it takes to make the photo look good, but I try to avoid spot editing like removing stray tree branches, power lines, etc. Unlike most, it’s not for “ethics,” but because it’s a terrible pain to remove elements while holding to a realistic ideal (no smudge marks, dark spots, obvious cloning, etc.). Spot editing with a soft brush for dodging, burning, or desaturating is easy, but for removing distractions, it’s easier to recompose or chop down a tree than to fix it in Photoshop (usually). If you’ve spent three hours meticulously removing telephone poles, houses, and reshaping trees like in the title photo, then you know why (right is mirrored to show continuity).

I get a few hecklers saying that efforts are no better than a forged bank note, and must be labeled as photo-manipulations—the Scarlet Letter to any “real” photographer. To them I say: how could I dare claim that of my work when I’m doing basic stuff like color shifts and increasing contrast, while others are spending days weaving dozens of photos into a cohesive vision? If anything, it’s not the ambitious photographers that are the trouble, but the people who press “auto levels” and then call their pieces digital art.

To all the fledgling digital photographers: don’t let anyone tell you that you’re “cheating” by editing your creations. This is the new revolution; this is your photography. Go wherever your art takes you. You’re stymying your creativity by not enhancing your photos. Know that when to stop is not when the image is looking too different from the “original,” but when it is looking bad on its own accord.

Over-saturated version of Pink and Purple Sunset 3

^ This is no good. When colors go to solid pink or blue, there is no detail or brilliance there; just an unshaped blob of light. Sometimes, like in the silhouetted trees, no detail looks good. It takes a human to know this, not Photoshop. You are that human. Let no one stand in your way. You are the artist, and the world is your canvas.

For more about this, read Being a Free Photographer.

Stock: Yellow Grasshopper

Yellow Grasshopper — a sharp bug on a white background

A yellow grasshopper from my yard, with my attempt at isolating him. I did alright, so I’m releasing this as a resource to the world.

Download the high-res JPEG (PNG) or download the source image.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. Please credit me as “Photo by Richard Thripp” or something similar.

Fujifilm FinePix A360, 1/30, F2.81, 5.8mm, ISO74, 2006-07-07T16:42:13-04, 2006-07-07_16h42m13

Quick Post on HDR

I wrote this on high dynamic-range photography for this poll, and wanted to share it with my readers here:

I’ve seen good uses of HDR (which is actually compressed dynamic range, just not called that). But I don’t like when the sky looks darker than the land–it’s unnatural; not even what our eyes see.

I had a shot recently (RAW of course) which I turned into this; no HDR needed. You can do plenty a polarizing filter (though I lacked one), curves, dodging, and burning, and it’s easier. What I’d like our budding photographers to think of, is that if you want to make a dark patch of ground bright like the sky, it’s going to look fake and shoddy. There’s a reason your subject is dark. If the scene is so contrasty that your subject goes pitch-black when the sky is a moderate blue, your shooting in the wrong light. Instead of trying HDR, try coming back in the evening.

Though cluttered (scroll down), this is a good article on HDR photography. You take several photos of the same (static) scene at different exposures, then blend them together afterwards. You can save them including the full range of luminance values in some editing software, but only expensive monitors can display the high dynamic range (distance between light and dark). So HDR photography we see is just compressing the range to be displayed on our monitors.