Photography is all about ____?

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon14 Comments

Thought exercise on how to boil down all of the elements that makeup the incredible art of photography down to a single sentence. Photography is all about ______? How would you finish that sentence?

Software Updates Status

A little step back on my recommendation of MacOS Catalina getting the Photo Taco Seal of Approval.  It was brought to my attention over in the Photo Taco Facebook group that there are pretty significant issues with Catalina and Apples Time Machine backup system.  If Time Machine is a big part of your backup system, you will want to hold off on installing Catalina.

I am not giving the Photo Taco seal of approval for Lightroom 9.2 that was released early in February 2020 just yet, want to give it another week, but things are looking good on that release.

You can check the status of software updates for information like this over at my Photo Taco Software Updates For Photographers page.

Photography Is All About WHAT?

I had the opportunity to get with some neighbors of mine this past weekend and introduce the exposure triangle to them.  They bought a camera for Christmas and had been on a cruise and doing other things so that we couldn’t get together to talk about how to use their shiny new toy until then.  They are starting from ground zero. The only experience they have with photography is using their phones and point and shoot cameras where they point the camera at the thing they want to have a picture of and push the shutter button.

I had about three hours to teach them how to use their camera.  Going into the discussion I was trying to think about how to present the exposure triangle and how to give them a jump start on what I have spent the past eight years learning and continue to learn.

We went over the exposure triangle that night.  My wife was there too, which helped as I taught something that she thought may not make sense she was able to jump in and help me explain things a little more.  I had a ton of fun, but I know it was like trying to drink from a fire hydrant for this couple and am excited to get with them a few more times in the coming weeks and months to continue talking about things as they go out and shoot and have questions.

I share that here in this episode as a way to get the listeners thinking about what they would do in the same situation.  I know we have some listeners who are far more experienced than I am with eight years of hobbyist photography under my belt.  I also know we have some listeners who just found the podcast within the past few weeks are really at the beginning of their journey of learning how to master the art of photography like this couple.  I want you to think about how you would approach teaching this couple starting from no knowledge of photography. Where would you start?  

Even better, if I told you that you had to start with generalizing photography down into a single sentence that starts with “Photography is all about ….”, how would you finish that sentence?

Since having that three hour teaching session with this great couple who is all excited to get shooting, I have thought about how I would have summed it up with that one sentence and for future discussions like this I think I have a better and more thought out answer.  I’ll share that thought out answer at the end of the episode, most of them based on how much we talk about various topics on the podcast and with other photographers. Let’s walk through a couple of other possibilities first.

Photography Is All About The Gear

With how much photography media talks about gear you would think this is how that sentence should be finished.  Yet I don’t think anyone listening would agree with that statement. It’s strange because the discussions we have tend so much to be about photography equipment yet I think it is really intuitive to everyone, even people who are not experienced with photography, to understand that if you put this couple who wants to learn but doesn’t know anything yet behind $10,000 of camera gear the photos that would result aren’t likely to be very good.

You obviously have to have a camera to take photos.  Gear is certainly part of the equation and if you are buying a camera today here in February of 2020 you have some really incredible choices.  A current model from any of the camera manufacturers is going to be plenty of camera to shoot nearly anything you want, regardless of the size of the sensor in that camera – another topic so many get hung up on early in their journey.

Gear is a part of the equation for sure, but I certainly can’t get behind starting off a conversation with a couple completely new to photography saying that photography is all about the gear.

Photography Is All About The Exposure Triangle

I could see starting off a discussion about learning photography by saying it is all about the exposure triangle.  In fact, that is what we talked about for three hours that night. I started off with aperture, as that is the component of the exposure triangle I feel photographers should think about first is most situations with shutter speed being a very close second and ISO being used only if you can’t do anything else with the first two.

It certainly feels very true to me that a firm understanding of the exposure triangle is a fundamental thing a person needs to have in order to create compelling images.  Especially having the ability to evaluate the scene in front of you and know exactly how you are going to use the exposure triangle to attack that scene and getting to the right exposure for your creative visions of that scene as quickly as possible so that you don’t miss the shot.

Yes, I think starting with the exposure triangle is the right way to get a photography started into learning how to use their camera so that the camera can become a tool that they can use to realize their creative vision just like a painter has to learn how to use a brush.  However, I don’t think in the grand scheme of things this is how I would want to complete that sentence. I don’t think photography is all about the exposure triangle.

Photography Is All About Composition

It seems very natural to me to think about composition being a possible answer to this question because it is very naturally the next thing that has the most impact on the quality of an image created by a photographer.  After getting the exposure triangle down enough that you know exactly how you want to attack getting the right exposure that will lead to creating the image you have envisioned, composition is the next thing that really makes the difference between a technically competent photo and one that is compelling.

It makes sense then that photographers would talk a lot about composition.  It is a piece of the puzzle that you have to get down while you are shooting in order to get the best results, even with all of the capabilities we have today to work on things on the computer.  The distance you stand from your subject, the angle you shoot the subject at, the focal length you choose. These are all elements of composition that have a tremendous impact on the quality of the image.

Composition is also a subject that I think is hardest to both teach and learn.  When you first get started with photography it feels like learning the exposure triangle is big.  It takes some time to learn and get fast enough at doing to be effective so that you don’t miss a shot.  Still, I think it is easier to learn and to teach than composition.

You can have two photographers shoot the same thing where both have mastered the exposure triangle but when one has more experience with composition their photos are far more likely to be compelling images over the other who does not.  We have studied the masters of art and have come up with some general guidelines to help with things like the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, even spacing, leading lines, framing, and symmetry. Studying those guidelines have certainly helped me to have a better creative vision in mind as I am shooting, increasing my chances of creating a compelling image.  

I feel like composition is one of the areas I still have the most to work on with my own photography.  Reading and studying the composition from others who create images I really love but also learning from the photos I create and looking at how changing the composition might have made one of my images better.

So yes, composition is not a bad way to end that sentence.  Composition is a big part of photography, but I think there is a better answer.

Photography Is All About Post-Processing

With how much time photographers spend talking about and learning about post-processing, we couldn’t go through this list without including that topic as a possible answer.  Like exposure triangle though, I don’t think anyone listening would agree that this statement is true. Isn’t it interesting then that we spend so much time on this topic when I would guess none of us would say that photography is all about post-processing?

Ending the sentence with post-processing implies that you don’t really have to get things right in camera with good exposure and composition, and we all seem to understand that is far from the truth.  In fact, if anything, it is the post-processing part of photography you could conceivably drop and still create great images.  

Now, don’t get me wrong here.  I am a strong proponent of using everything available to realize your creative vision.  Some images are not possible without post-processing. One of the things I love doing most is composites, perhaps because it is something that can only be done well when you do all of the things I have talked about well, including post-processing.  

I am 99% confident that if you pointed me to a recent photo you think is exceptional that it would be a photo that has been processed on a computer by someone very skilled in post-processing.  It is an important aspect of photography here in 2020 and is something that can save an image with the incredible software we have available to us. You don’t want to set out to have the software save your image, but post-processing is another tool in the toolbox.

I think we can all agree this is not the way to end the sentence.

Photography Is All About Light

Now we get to the answer I have been thinking about most since that fun three hour teaching lesson with the couple who wants to learn photography.  After thinking about it for a while I really wish I had started our discussion with this sentence. I think I like this answer because I think you can incorporate everything I just talked about into it.  If I am forced to sum photography down into that one simple sentence I would say photography is all about light.

Photography is the art of capturing light in a way that tells a story.  Those are the kinds of images that are compelling. With landscapes, mother nature is providing the light and we have to put ourselves in a position to capture the light when it is at its best.  With portraits we can provide the light and we can shape it or make it be whatever we want it to be. With sports the light is severely limited and we have to figure out how to deal with that so that we can tell the story.

I think photography is all about the light.  If you learn how to capture the light for your genre of photography you will be able to create compelling images.


Jeff: Samsung 860 EVO SSD ($80 500GB, $150 1TB) and SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD ($90 500GB, $160 1TB).  I just released a Photo Taco podcast and a very lengthy article with some of the information that came out of more than 60 hours of testing since early January 2020 about how Lightroom performance is impacted by external drive performance.  There are four functions of Lightroom that are about 50% faster when your photos are stored on an SSD drive vs a less expensive spinning drive.  If you are storing your photos on spinning drives today, these two drives offer some good options to change your workflow just a touch by using one of these drives when you first edit your photos and then moving the photos to a slower, bigger, less expensive drive when you are done.




    1. Author

      I don’t think that really matters much. People have different budgets and needs. To me the best way a person can get started is finding a mentor and getting the same thing they have or at least something they are comfortable with so that they can help. Any camera today will be capable of being a fantastic tool to create stunning images.

  1. Who was that photographer you mentioned in the podcast he was the one you spoke about light.

    1. Author

      @michael I am not sure who you may be talking about. I have heard many photographers talk about photography being all about light over the course or the 8 years I have been learning it.

  2. When I teach photography I start the following way:
    I always start with: It is all about light.
    The lens is the window it defines the amount of light that comes into the camera
    Inside the camera is a sensor the records the light it is like the film from the old days
    The camera has a shutter that defines for how long time you expose the sensor.
    I map it all to the human Eye.
    Then I map this to the P.A:S.M dial on the camera.
    The we talk about turning the camera on/off
    Then we talk about pressing the the trigger slowly and firm.
    The biggest issue I see from new photographers is focus, and keep the camera in a firm grip.
    Then we talk about focus. And where a photo is sharp ond depth of field and percieved sharpness,
    The first assignment starts in Program mode. And is about focus and pressing the shutter.

  3. If you believe Ansel Adams who said that “ You don’t take a photograph, you make it,” then all aspects of photography are important equally. Ultimately thought, photography is about passion and also connecting to the world. And to do that, you need to know who to do that.

  4. When I first heard the question my first thought was what it meant to me so I response would have been fun or enjoyment otherwise why else would someone fight the early morning cold for a sunrise or fight the insects and bugs to get a shot of the Milky way. After hearing your thought process and your conclusion that light was your answer it brought me back to a definition that I heard in the early 1970’s that photography is painting with light.

  5. Photography is all about “Light”
    Capturing photos is all about “Compromise”

  6. photography is about making images that share your vision of the world with another.

  7. Photography is all about you looking at something and taking how your eyes transmit it to your brain. It is all about perception. If the light is not as good as you think you can set the camera to MANUAL MODE to change the amount of light that enters the lens. You change all of the settings then take the photo that your eyes can see. Everybody has a different perception of what they see otherwise you would just use AUTO MODE and let the camera take the picture the software allows you to see. There is a difference.


Leave a Comment