Photography Is Not Just One Thing

In the last post, I talked a bit about how a photojournalistic approach has helped me “get the shot” in varied conditions. A photojournalistic approach is about communicating how you connect with your subject so that others can, too. I happen to love that approach and you will see it in much of my work.

Not everyone likes that approach. There are many approaches to photography, but one of the most common is looking at each image as art first. My friend Art Wolfe is truly an artist who takes this approach. He is one of the finest photographic artists I have ever known. Every one of his images have been carefully crafted based on his background in art. And they are beautiful! (This photo is from The Art of the Photograph that Art and I did. Art’s website is at You can call 888-973-0011 or email to license this image or purchase a limited edition print.) 

Photo © Art Wolfe

Now what happens when two photographers get together to discuss images and they have very different approaches, such as an art first bias or a photojournalistic bias? There is a natural tendency to be critical of work done by the “other” approach, often more so than of work done by folks with a similar inclination. Psychologically, we are hard-wired to favor things that connect with our world view, so if our world view is based on art, we may have little patience with someone else’s world view based on photojournalism.

(I want to be clear that this is not necessarily an either/or idea. Folks doing a photojournalistic approach may create art, and those doing an art approach may look for photojournalistic elements.)

There is a very strong bias toward the art approach among photographers, especially among folks who do critiques at camera clubs. So much photography instruction is about applying art ideas to photography, which can be great. I do work to apply art ideas to my work as well.

But the problem comes when people start making arbitrary judgements about work that doesn’t fit their world view of what photography “should be.” This can make people uncomfortable following their own path in photography when it differs from a pervasive bias. I have given talks to camera clubs showing a different approach at times, and then I will often get quiet comments from some members who feel “relieved” that their photography is okay. The pervasive art bias makes them feel not okay.

The way we deal with this is to take photographs and photographers as they are, not as they “should be” based on our personal approach. Be open to possibilities that you can learn from others, yet still retain your own preferences.

There are more approaches to photography than simply these two, such as documentary, abstract, record-keeping, and so forth. Each approach demands the photographer take different approach to image making. You can still evaluate how well a photograph meets its objectives based on what it is trying to do, but not based solely on what you are trying to do with your work. I try to do that approach in my workshops and critiques, and it seems to work pretty well.

About Rob Sheppard

I'm Rob Sheppard and my mission is to connect people and nature through photography with celebration and joy. Nature photography, for me, is about finding ways to create meaning and joy in your photography and connecting people with the natural world. I consider myself a naturalist, nature photographer and videographer. I have been busy over the years creating many books related to photography, including Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, The Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, and the National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography. A Nature Photography Manifesto and Reports from the Wild are available from Apple’s iBookstore. I get around as a speaker and workshop leader, and I am a Fellow with the North American Nature Photography Association. I was the long-time editor of the prestigious Outdoor Photographer magazine and presently am a contributing editor. My education was both as a photographer and a naturalist specializing in ecology and botany.
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6 Responses to Photography Is Not Just One Thing

  1. Tom Wilson says:

    Good thoughtful points as always.

  2. Teresa Goins says:

    That was such a great article. I feel the same at times with the part of feeling relieved that my photos is okay. I am starting out in photography though I have loved taking pics since I was a kid. What I find most important is that “I” am happy with my photo. That it brings a smile to “my” face. Hopefully it brings smiles to others.

  3. Todd Henson says:

    Great post, Rob. I find I usually lean towards trying to create the artistic images, at least initially, and in fact Art Wolfe is a huge inspiration to me. But I try to remind myself to step back and look at the larger scene, to think about the story. I have you and publications like National Geographic to thank for that. I find I struggle with creating images from a more photojournalistic perspective, but that’s one of the reasons I take the time to at least attempt to approach a scene from that viewpoint. There’s room enough for all the approaches to photography, and even if the photojournalistic approach never really clicks for me I know I will learn plenty just by trying to see the world through those eyes.

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