Photographic Development


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Most artists go through different stages of development. So, too, do photographers, but their development more clearly than in other art forms proceeds along two parallel lines – due to the dual nature of photography. One of those lines is concerned with technique while the other is concerned with art. These parallel developments do not always keep pace; one may progress faster – or slower – than the other. Some photographers don’t even realise or care about the lack of the development of one of the skills. I know successful photographers who have no clue about how to use aperture or exposure time in their shooting, and certainly don’t know a thing about post-processing. Their technical development stopped at an early stage. On the other hand, some of the best photo-technicians I ever met wouldn’t know how to make an interesting picture if their lives depended on it. Their artistic development never got off the ground.

In my own photographic development I started out with more emphasise on my technical abilities than artistic growth, but today I care much less about technique. For me the content and the story the pictures tell, particularly on an emotional level, is of much more importance that the technical appearance of it. I certainly don’t mind if both work together to form a higher unit, on the contrary. But nothing is more boring that a technically perfect, but purposeless picture that doesn’t evoke any emotions, simply because the photo is all about technical proficiency – and maybe composition – than content and purpose.

With my own development – and others as well – in mind, I clearly see that photographs often change their attitude in regards to both subject and the way they shoot as of a result of their technical and artistic progress. In his book Photographic Seeing the late and former Life-photographer Andreas Feininger distinguishes between three different photographic approaches, stretching from an almost pure technical focus to a complete artistic impetus. He talks about objective (which I prefer to call factual), subjective and expressionistic approach.

The factual approach is when a photographer tries to make his or her picture render as much as possible the visual facts, being careful to express neither bias nor personal point of view. Clarity of this rendition is of primary importance, colours should appear natural and the subject must be instantly recognizable. Prime requirement for this approach is photo-technical competence, whereas artistic talent and imagination are of lesser importance. This is often stage number two in a photographer’s development, following the stage of the happy-go-lucky snapshooter. (Personally I’d rather call this factual than objective approach, simply because the latter implies some level of objectivity in the rendered photo, and I don’t believe objectivity exists in any photograph).

The subjective approach is when a photographer makes a deliberate effort to express her or his personal opinion or point of view. It means showing in the picture what the photographer felt in the presence of the subject rather than what the eyes told him or her. In essence this is an emotional approach requiring a high degree of sensitivity, feeling, compassion, imagination and courage of conviction. Usually this approach is the third stage in the development of a photographer, when the photographer starts to realize that there is no objective rendering of any subjects and that an imaginatively seen and expressed photograph can be more stimulating than a purely factual, correctly rendered image. This approach requires are strong personal conviction and vision coupled with sufficient technical abilities to realize this vision.

The expressionistic approach is when the photographer goes all out of his or her effort to present his or her personal point of view, even if this requires a form of rendition which makes the subject partly or completely unrecognizable. As in modern abstract art, feeling is everything. It takes about the same abilities as for the subjective approach, only to a higher degree. Often the expressionistic approach is merely a more revolutionary form of the subjective approach. And some times expressionistic photographers rely on photo-technical abilities to a lesser degree. It’s all about feeling, intuition and being present with the subject.


95 thoughts on “Photographic Development

  1. A useful and heartening post!

    Recently I had a person close to me say, quite angrily, that I didn’t really have a photo-blog with pictures she could interpret for hereself – she was basically acusing me of misrepresentation and layering it with my worldview.

    No doubt, my blog has morphed into something more than pretty pictures. I narrate and story tell via photo layout and words. For me, beauty for beauty sake alone, is hollow and meaningless.

    My view of photography (and art in general) is this: as being revelatory (yes!), inspiring (hopefully), educational (possibly), and (quintessentially) as agency for change!

    Thanks for leading by example!

    1. Thank you Bruce. I agree with you in that beauty in itself often gets boring and does not create enough interest in a picture. If it’s a vehicle for a deeper understanding, that makes it right away more interesting.

    1. I certainly do have three examples (taken from previous post I have posted here).
      The factual approach:

      The subjective approach:

      The expressionistic approach:

      I hope that gives you an idea, Elizz?

  2. Great post! As a viewer, I think I tend to respond more to subjective and expressionistic photography. As a photographer, I’m pretty sure I haven’t quite graduated from the happy-go-lucky-snapshooter stage. 🙂

    1. None of us ever graduate as photographers! If we feel we do, it’s only because we are stalling. Thanks for the comment, Stephany.

  3. I don’t know in which category I truly belong, perhaps I want to avoid that but what’s important is, you’ve scraped off my self-doubts, inspired an amateur.

    1. I don’t think it’s important to pinpoint where you are in your development – as long as you keep developing your vision. And hopefully understanding those categories only helps in this development.

  4. Very interesting topic! I believe the artistic side, and having an “eye” for interesting photos is the most important in getting amazing results. Then technical knowledge can add to it and help the photographer reach the wanted results probably faster and being more aware of what he/she is doing.

    1. It’s always a balance between creativity and technical knowledge as understanding the technical part of the photographic process makes it easier to express what you intent to say. Thanks for expanding the discussion, Elina.

  5. I appreciate this post, Otto. It helps to define some vague thoughts I have been having about my efforts in photography lately. I have struggle with and vacillated between each of those approaches as I’ve tried to find and define my “photographic identity.” Now I can better pinpoint some of my thoughts and impressions. Thank you!

    1. I am delighted that the post may help you in photographic approach. I think you already have a good photographic identity but we should never stop develop our unique voice.

  6. What has drawn me to your work from the start is the emotion I feel in the photos, the story I read even in an apparently simple, straightforward portrait. I sense that you have an intense connection with your subjects that connects me to them, too. As for myself, I think I’m a subjective photographer, but I know that I need more technical development to be able to capture the images I see in my mind.

    1. Thank you for a wonderful comment. As I have mentioned in other comments, we all need to develop our photography, whether the technical side of it or the more creative side of it.

  7. Interesting post and pictures Otto. I’d have to say that I probably use the subjective approach the most with leanings to both the left and the right at times. It just depends on how I see and feel about the subject. Many times my creativity waits until processing. It is real interesting to think about.

    1. Thank you for a thoughtful comment, Phillip! I think we always have to balance between left and right no matter how we approach our photography.

  8. Thanks Otto for sharing with us your experience and knowledge, it is an opportunity and we are very lucky to meet you on the web.
    A great greeting to you.

  9. I’m just an amateur photographer myself so much of the technical stuff is really guesswork for me, though I am learning how to execute more effectively each time I pick up my camera. However when I am shooting I have a particular idea in mind. Sometimes I achieve my idea through the photo itself and other times I have some post processing work to do to achieve the result. It depends if I am trying to create something realistic of if I am trying to go more artistic. Either way it certainly stretches me to become better. Thanks for the insight.

    1. There is no one or right way to approach photography. As you say sometimes we get it in the moment of capture, sometimes we need to process the image further and again other times it might be a complete different approach. Thanks for your comment.

  10. I believe all three styles have their place…as shown in the photos. Each photo depicts its style and each is beautiful in its own way. I believe that the viewer may also be drawn to an individual style of a photograph depending on their frame of mind at the time as well.

    1. Absolutely, Michelle, how the viewer is drawn to a picture certainly depends on their own state of mind. Thank you for the comment!

  11. I really enjoyed reading that. It helped me understand my own development as a photographer and gave me insight into what I am currently trying to achieve as a photographer.

    1. I am really happy if my thoughts can be of any help in your development as a photographer. Thank you for the awesome feedback, Suzanne. (By the way I have a hard time finding your blog!?.. What is the URL?)

  12. I’m in a very early stage of development! Looking around for inspiration, ideas and possibilities.
    Your Blog gives me all of that! Thanks for this interesting post. I will stay tuned.
    And thanks a lot for visiting my blog and liking my photo!

  13. Godt sagt! Og jeg føler meg som mange andre truffet 🙂
    Teknikk kan være morsomt og vi er ikke alle like kreative. jeg går ut fra at jeg (stort sett) befinner meg et eller annet sted mellom 1 og 2 🙂

    1. Takk for kommentaren, Rune. Teknikk er en naturlig del av det å fotografere, men det har lett for å ta overhånd, har det ikke? Du er nok ikke alene om det…

  14. Thanks for this – it gave me a lot clearer idea of where I am (I think between stage 2 and 3, with a bit more effort required on the technical) than I had before. ^^

    1. Technique is something all can learn, it’s just a matter of putting some effort into it. But as you may understand I am less concerned about technical brilliance. Thanks for the comment.

  15. I think most of us combine all three don’t we? with more emphasis on one or two of the 3 .
    My development has been from heart to more head photography..

    1. Yes, indeed, Helen. We are not stuck in one category but move between them in our photographic approach and development. I think it’s interesting that you say you have moved from heart to head, because I clearly see the heart in many of your pictures!

  16. We sometimes forget that photographers can ‘spin’ a story. But events just outside of the frame can make a big difference in how a picture is perceived. Great lesson here about truth in content.

    1. In a way you are absolutely right. On the other hand I have never believe that a photograph tells the truth. It’s always a matter of the context it’s placed in. Thank you for the comment, Renee!

  17. thanks for another great photography lesson. i thought perhaps the three photographs corresponded with the three approaches…i agree with elizz. maybe a follow up post with photographs as examples. ☺

    1. Thank you for the comment. And, no, the three photographs here don’t really reflect the three categories (and of course if I had been a little more pedagogic I would have made sure they did). But look at my answer to Elizz where I posted three examples. 🙂

      1. Thanks,Otto! 😀 I guess we can allow the teacher one missed lesson…ha-ha!! You’re right on. 😊I love the “flying” factual example…

  18. Very well written Otto and I need to read this a few times to get all the benefit of an article packed with the concepts that enhance our photography.

  19. Another enriching post Otto, you always are able to dissect the phenomenon that is creativity and make me think. I am definitely not technical. I guess that would leave me to most fit in the intuitive category. Thank you , I can live with that 😉

    1. Seen your work, I definitely seem to work with an intuitive approach – and it’s quite some amazing results you achieve this way! Thanks for the comment, Christina!

  20. A very helpful discussion (as always), Otto. I’m very technically limited by my Olympus point-and-shoot camera (until I can afford a higher-end camera), so all of the photos for my blog have to tell a story, or at least be an image that I can build a funny caption around. I have to sharpen every photo in PhotoShop before I can use it for my blog, and still I don’t get the detail I’d like.

    1. Thank you for the comment, John! I don’t think it really matters what kind of camera one uses. Yes, you might get sharper pictures with a more high-end camera than your point-and-shoot. But it’s still your vision that is the most important factor – and you have a great eye for details and the small and funny stories in those details.

  21. Another wonderful post, mixing striking images and wise words. I hadn’t given much thought to where I am on the journey of the art of photography. I know my interpretation of things have changed as I have changed. There is one constant: I still can’t explain the technical aspects even though I use them.

    1. It’s good to read that you interpretation has changed, because that shows you are developing – and in my view that is what is important. And as long as you get the technique to work for you, there is no need to be able to explain it. Thanks for the comment, Robin!

  22. As I only have a point and shoot I haven’t had to deal much with the technical part of photography. With that freedom I find I can connect better with what I am shooting. I feel being connected first is more important then get technical. You can do only so much with a point and shoot so soon your imagination visualizes more and that is where some technical knowlege can further enhance your ablities to capture something different. But I truly love the freedom my little camera gives me, just need to get rid of the bit of lent inside the lens. But I was inspired by your blog about dancing with the subject. So my last blog I danced with my lilac and was inspired with words to go with it as well.

    1. I think you make a good point in that a camera with less possibilities like a point-and-shoot will make you focus more on the creative side of the photographic process. It’s often the case; when you put restrictions on yourself, it actually increases your creativity. By limiting yourself you become more free in a sense. For me the type of camera has never been the important part of the photographic process. You need to knows it’s possibilities and limitations and then work from there.

  23. Hi. Thanks for the like on my new blog. I hope we’ll see some of your ‘hidden places’ soon. I’m just wrestling with moving away from the ‘technique’ approach to photography, which was my only approach in the past, to making the image the priority. Whether I’ll ever to be able to say “I’m an artist” remains to be seen. Superb pictures on your blog.

    1. Just by being aware of letting go of the technical approach I am sure you will develop you photography. Thanks for returning the visit to my blog, and thanks for the comment, Derek.

  24. Great piece. You’ve had me realise something here which I hadn’t contemplated before – the artistic development/technical development for a photographer. Of course, you’d need to develop that or you couldn’t get across your artistic intentions. I really had not thought of that…

  25. Thanks for posting this- I think that many viewers automatically assume photography is purely photojournalistic/factual – I have found that the viewer often become upset if a photographer makes artistic changes to a photograph, not understanding that photography can be realistic or artistic or both. Great to see other photographers recognize the difference (and overlap) between realism and artistic expression!

    1. For me there is a big difference between documentary and artistic photography. In the former there is much less leverage for artistic changes, although I still believe great documentary photography is also art. Thanks for the comment, Luke!

  26. Appreciate your insightful observations, as always. Stages parallel , as you said, development of an artist. ( Learn technique, draw/paint literally, then render selectively & to the end of expressing an emotion or evoking a particular feeling.)
    Thanks for visiting my blog & liking my posts.

  27. Thank you for another wonderful and informative post-I am not a very technical photographer-I learn what I need as I need it, which has worked pretty well for me. I appreciate you too pointing out that it is not always the equipment or technical knowhow which can make for an interesting image-keep up your good work!

  28. I learn from you, Munchow, without being lost in a welter of technical information. Thank you for being so approachable and willing to share. If I ever could take a photo like that last one I’d have reached photographic nirvana. 🙂

    1. As you might have guessed I find technique to be the least important in the photographic process – although I am quite proficient technical speaking. Your photos have already reach a high level, but just keep at it!

  29. Another thought-provoking post, Otto. I wonder whether we actually cycle through these different approaches repeatedly and at different levels, as we learn new skills and as we challenge ourselves with different scenarios. So many factors come into play – the context, how we feel at the time, why we take the photos, whether we have been asked by someone else to take particular photos, what camera equipment we have, how comfortable or how anxious we are… etc.

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