Photography Is Art: Rules Need Not Apply

Photography Is Art: Rules Need Not Apply

As the curator for the Fstoppers Photo of the Day and our Instagram feed, I happen to read a lot of comments and criticisms thrown out at images by semi-anonymous people from all over the world. One thing I can be sure of is that when I post an image that is a composite or incorporates some sort of digital art, some people get offended. This is ridiculous and needs to end for photography to continue growing.

Regardless of what some may think, there are no boundaries for photography. We are artists and we follow our mind’s eye, not the eye of the beholder. Incorporating elements from other media or from other images into a single piece of work does not weaken the virtues of photography. Neither does heavy dodging and burning, extreme saturation boosts, color changes, or any other creative effort made by a photographer. On the contrary, these acts of artistic output makes photography bigger, stronger, and more legitimate as an art.

At the extreme end of things, there are even people who feel like proper photography needs to be done completely in camera. As if having engineers in Japan decide how a final image should end up looking has more importance than the photographer’s own vision.

These criticisms all have one major flaw: They are rules. They are rules set by the audience rather than the artist. This is not to say you can’t voice your opinion that the colors of an image are far too saturated or that a composite is just too out of control for your taste, but it needs to remain grounded in that the photographer did not create this for you. Photography is a personal journey that we choose to share with others, and it benefits us all when that journey can extend limitlessly.

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Mitchell Krog's picture

Excellent article, a topic close to my heart .... "there are no boundaries for photography" you said it !!! I take what I want, when I want and how I want ..... the criticism's are often designed to dishearten a photographer.

Bill Larkin's picture

Nice article. I agree, especially when it comes to, how much of the image was done in-camera vs PS. - And this has always been the challenging thing about art vs subjective vs rules... What are your thoughts on breaking rules based on not learning the basics, vs doing it on purpose to convey your art as you see it fit. - Example, some folks will post an image where a thin dof is used and the subjects face is totally out of focus, some will say, well art's subjective, so there no rules at all... I kind of fall into the side of, yea, it's art, and rules can, and probably should be broken, but I think there's some "basic" rules that might should still apply? what are your thoughts on that!? :)

Ryan Mense's picture

My intention is to speak for the photographers who understand the decisions they have made in the creation process. Like any other form of art, it can be helpful to know the context of a photograph and understand where the photographer is coming from. These days it's very easy in that usually where you find one photo from a person, you can find other work from them. You can get a more complete picture of where someone is at in their journey by looking at more of their work and whether they are showing a form of style or rather making beginner "mistakes."

Bill Larkin's picture

makes sense, and in that, I agree with you. :)

Radrian Glez's picture

Yes, because when you know what you're doing, you can bend and break "rules" to achieve the image you have in mind, and it won't look accidental or out of place, unless that is the final goal.

Jeff Colburn's picture

I agree. I've always been amazed that artists in any other medium can do anything they want, but photographers are only supposed to create images that are exact copies of what they photographed. I've been manipulating images since I started in 35mm photography, 45 years ago. When I see a style of photography that I don't like, I say I don't like it, but I don't say the photographer shouldn't create it. For every person who doesn't like a specific photograph, someone else will like it. Photographers, create what you want, and throw 95% of the negative criticism you get out the window.

Have Fun,

Mitchell Krog's picture

Absolutely Jeff, I would say throw 99% of the crit out the window.

Matt Burt's picture

At some point it becomes something other than photography (digital art?) but that point is a gray area and it can all be good (or bad).

Mitchell Krog's picture

For me whatever tickles your fancy is A-OK ... rules should never apply and should always be broken. I found some articles showing how much darkroom editing, cloning, contrast adjustments, sharpening, adjusting .... you name it ... that the "icons" of photography used to do back in the day. If they did it then there should be nothing stopping any photographer producing the work he is proud of no matter how many "rules" he breaks.

Deleted Account's picture

Matt, you are 100% correct.

Osman Merdan's picture

true words has been said

Anonymous's picture

WONDERFUL! I was just thinking about this exact type of thing on my walk last night.

Santiago Reil's picture

I hate to be that guy, but, here I go again (And it is my opinion)

Photography is not an Art. Photography is a CRAFT.

You can make art with any craft. Hell, you can make art with anything actually. But taking photos dont make you an artist.

BTW, defining art, and defining artist is something very difficult, but you know it when you see it. It has to do more with intent.

A blurry image can be an accident. Or can be a work of art. It depends on what you intended to do, what you are trying to express, what was your decision behind it and how you expose it. Something can be a work of art for you but not for someone else, etc.

Because of all that, I never say my art, when I talk about my photography. I can say, my work, my photos, but I think that is very pretentious when people talk about photography as art.

About the article. I agree. You can do what ever you want with your work. It is your work. You shouldn't care what others think. If you care that much what other think about you, then you are definitively NOT creating ART.

Deleted Account's picture

Santiago, your post is very thoughtful. My belief is that a craft is basically anything that can be guided by a general rule or formula. Meanwhile, art is always personal expression.

Any genre within photography (landscape, portrait, glamour, fashion, headshot, lifestyle, food etc) is going to have standards that make it a genre in the first place. For example, photographers are all familiar with the techniques associated with the genre of landscape photography that use wide angle lenses, perspective control, HDR, graduated ND filters, and polarizers. All of these well-known and standard techniques would be part of the craft of landscape photography. On the other hand, personal expression is what happens when the formulas and standards are broken to a certain degree but then that also takes the image outside of the genre. That small portion of change can be the difference between an artist and a craftsman.

One of the problems photographers have is that they are trying to express themselves by being part of genres that have already been established. Then, when they try to do something different they are attacked for breaking the rules. In the end, I think that photography is mostly a craft when photographers are intentionally pursuing genre work. The folks that want to be artists have to find ways to get away from genres in some manner and that is not an easy task at all.

Just some thoughts

Anonymous's picture

Maybe a lot of the criticism is because you tend to only feature "commercial-style" images and not images considered fine art, street (I see ONE), sports, photojournalism and a bunch of other genres? It seems that to be featured on the Fstoppers instagram you MUST smooth skin, MUST color grade, MUST photoshop. So...aren't those kinda....rules? Maybe break your own rules and feature some photography that spans genres other than commercial style?

Deleted Account's picture

You're right. Those are the "rules" of the genre.

If you're interested, please check out my post to Santiago in this thread about genres and rules.

Christian Santiago's picture

I like the style they curate. Street photography is so mundane and repetive. Oh look another group of kids playing soccer in a slum. Another shot of a woman lost in thought as she stares out a window. Another homeless man with a weathered face. so artsy Fartsy. The commercial style images they display require so many variables and such a multitude of skill, and the end results are incredible. Truly inspirational.

Ryan Mense's picture

Thanks for your input, Rob. I've talked about this with the other editors before, how I wonder what kind of affect my personal tastes have on others in doing the Instagram. There's no denying I have preferences in the images I see, just like anyone else, and as you note it can sometimes be apparent. I do try my best to remain aware of my bias towards certain styles and with your comment in mind I'll try and do better.

Michael Kim's picture

Since I manipulate my photographs to look like pencil sketches & watercolors, I get this criticism alot. I still consider them photographs. I've been reading 'The History of Photography' & it is quite enlightning. In the late 1800's there was a large faction of art critics who thought that for photography to be considered an art, the photo should be a direct contact print with no retouching allowed. Of course the critics didn't realize you could still manipulate the image by the chemicals you coat the glass plate with; the chemicals you develop the glass plate with; the chemicals you coat your paper with & what chemicals you bathe your exposed paper in...

Sam Fenstermacher's picture

Surely you own a dictionary. Get it out and look up the work photography. It means something. It just doesn't mean what you think it does. If you substitute the word image for photography in your argument then it is correct. The problem with your argument has nothing to do with art or creativity; it's a simple matter of incorrect word usage.

Jack Lawrence's picture

Dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. This is why definitions change over time. Usage prevails.

Deleted Account's picture

You do have a good point. Photography means "writing with light." It doesn't mean "writing with pixels." If people aren't interested in specific distinctions then a more general word like "image" could be a good choice.

walter assmus's picture

Heres Definition of art "noun: art; plural noun: arts; plural noun: the arts.

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power."

So all photography and specifically creative/manipulative photography fit this definition very well. Other artists speak and say they are artists ...regardless of genre.....we as a group need to start talking and saying we are artists.....not some extra genre called photography . All creation is Art

Jack Lawrence's picture

This article...

Joseph Smith's picture

"This is ridiculous and needs to end for photography to continue growing."
This is not ridiculous and photography will keep growing whether some like rules or not.

"Regardless of what some may think, there are no boundaries for photography."
In some types of photography - there are. Scientific, documentation, photojournalism are just a few of the them.

Lance Keimig's picture

Yes, but the article was about art- not journalism or scientific photography.

Deleted Account's picture

I read the title of the article as "Photography IS art" with the implication being that ALL photography is art and not "Photography AS Art" which would narrow the focus of the article like you may be suggesting. The author in his choice of wording for the title does not suggest this to just be about art / fine art photography. A dramatic difference with one tiny word choice. Words matter.

Joseph Smith's picture

If you don't think photojournalism and the others can't be "art" you are fooling yourself.

Piero Desopo's picture

Interesting article.
The debate about photography vs art, it's as old as the photography itself. I wished you would have elaborated more about this debate, as the way you are putting it leaves some topics unclear and a gray zone.
You used the word "composite", which people can interpret in different ways. The way I personally interpret it is the manipulation of an image, not only using basic tools such as color correction, color grading, or cropping, but also by tweaking part of the image with more advanced tools (distortion, filters, masking and so on), and pushing it further by introducing assets from other sources (part of other photos, hand drawn images, 3d, etc.) in order to create something significantly different from the starting point. In other words, this interpretation it is closer to the VFX world than the plain photography, hence photo manipulation.
Now, if that's the case, it gets a little complicated. You are taking for granted that whatever lives in the image world, photography, photo manipulation, photomontage and so forth, as long as has a photograph as a starting point, it is part of the same world, that is photography or at least that's what I get from the article.

Also, it is not clear what's your definition of art, and what can be considered art, because at first glance I would assume your idea of art lives only in the creator's mind. Then what about the history of art, all the different art movements throughout the centuries? What artist went through wasn't just what was in their mind, they were coming from schools, or I'd better say from art movements which they also had to compare to, hence they had rules to follow and, yes, to break.
For one to see and read art, one needs some knowledge, a trained eye, some good understanding of the visual language as well as concepts, history and so on so forth. Does photography need to relate to all of this or is photography part of something different? In other words, is it photography, art?
And what about photojournalism? Documentary? Can be that considered art?
I wouldn't expect you to answer all these questions, I'm just being slightly provocative in order to push the discussion, but I think your article would benefit if you would broaden some of those topics. After all, you're touching a very complex matter.

Lastly, putting all of the above aside for a moment, I can understand that comments, especially when they are meaningless or trivial, become frustrating or at least annoying. In the other hand, though, that's the price to pay for popularity. It is the very nature of the Internet: you can reach a vast audience (and I assume you not only can, but you want too), hence you get a wide spectrum of the audience, from professionals to trolls. It's natural to feel annoyed by the latter, but it is also part of the deal. That doesn't mean we have to accept it as is, and that's why your article. But because of that, i.e. the need to denounce this situation, I'd wish for a more elaborate thought of the issue with the hope to raise the conscience and, why not? Maybe educate some of those people.

Anonymous's picture

The real hard part is realizing that our opinions don't matter one way or the other. Nice article though.

Don Althaus's picture

Interestingly enough, this photography-as-art discussion always holds the medium in theoretical isolation, especially in the "no rules" or "no boundaries" aspects. In reality, we teach and theorize about photography as an art (and this is an underpinning of the current approach to the medium- a false assumption but a current underpinning nevertheless), treat it popularly as a craft, and monetize it wholly as a commodity. One would think that after at least 125 years of this discussion we would have some kind of answer. Perhaps the fact that we don't is the indicator that the question itself is faulty.

Deleted Account's picture

I think what is faulty is how we define "ART" itself. Art has for decades gone down an all encompassing path where anything and everything has been labeled as "ART". Put a paint brush in an elephants trunk and let it splash paint all over the place and call it art. Let a monkey sling poo at a white canvas and call that art too. Buildings as art, landscape design as art, automobile design as just has no end and seems to be limitless in its definition. It may seem silly but when anything and everything can be considered art has art itself been destroyed?

Deleted Account's picture

What if the question isn't faulty? What if the problem is the people that are asking or answering the question in the first place? In other words, is it possible that not everybody has an informed opinion? Maybe only a small number of people are even qualified to really take part in a proper discussion .

Photography as a craft is a mass culture phenomenon that is open to everybody. On the other hand, photography as an art is for the select few. In between these two groups are the "middle-brows" that are characterized by a tendency to try to have it both ways. In order to avoid being accused of snobbery, they treat photography like it's for everybody while simultaneously giving it the prestige of an art. Currently, the middle-brows dominate the majority of photography discussions and this situation has created an entangled web of confusion that only a select few will ever be able to escape. I think that the hardest task for a photographer today is to avoid falling into the hypocritical double-mindedness of a middle-brow that inevitably leads to a cynical belief that either art doesn't exist or that art is all relative.

Just one man's opinion.

Lance Keimig's picture

Here here. I've been saying the same things to my students, and at camera club lectures (where they can really get hung up o rules) for years.

Tyler Newcomb's picture

Thank you! Someone had to say it!

Dusty Wooddell's picture


Anonymous's picture


Gerhard Bouwer's picture

Nonsense. If there are no rules; how come you are a curator on this site for the photo of the day? See.There are rules. And they are made by those in the know. There are simply good art and bad art. Good photography and bad photography. But yes - I get your point - only when we break the rules do we become free to create. Maybe create really bad art - but then take in on the chin when the curator starts his spin ...

michael andrew's picture

My personal belief is that if a photograph undergoes some digital manipulation, (pixels moving, composites ect) then it is now a photo illustration. That does not mean its not a fabulous bit of expression, it is just not "solely" photography at that point, and I think viewers are owed a reasonable bit of explanation as to why something may look so "different, good bad amazing" whatever. If I put a moon 3 times its size in a landscape or star trails on a scene where it did not occur in 1 photo, I would rather viewers know how it was created because a lot of new and amateur photographers may be discouraged from being able to create work like this when they think it is just a photograph.

Anonymous's picture

And also especially when it comes to the tools used to create such <personal> works. Be it an old film camera or the latest digital SLR or mirrorless. Everyone has their own reasons for choosing such tools and it should never be a question of why one is better than the other. I choose film, because it's different. It allows me to create something that's personal and always aiming for something a little different. Shooting film allows me to do this. With the often random results that are produced from using vintage equipment. Often the imperfections, for example the chemical process of different film stocks, light leaks, double exposures. With so many vintage film camera types I look forward to exploring the many formats available, seeing what each process is like is just as important to me as the final photograph / result.

And when it comes to the rules, sometimes I break them, sometimes I twist them to suit my creative approach. With most of the time, taking a very technical approach to each photograph.

Jon Dize's picture

I've lived too long... where's that wobbly chair, rope and sturdy beam? God, take me now please!

Nathan Tsukroff's picture

The "rules" for photography are about understanding what is pleasing to the eye. Breaking the rules is fine, so long as we understand WHY we are breaking the rules. It's wonderful to be creative and do whatever we wish to do as photographers. However, breaking the "rules" can create a finished image that looks like garbage.

Piero Desopo's picture

Not that we needed any further evidence, but from the comments here it is clear that the definition of art and the relation of photography to it, it's a very confusing topic.
I still read comments where art is something that's pleasing to the eyes, and that feels like going back in time centuries ago (seriously, didn't we have the avant-garde already?).
The result is that this article, like others in the same vibe, creates more confusion than anything.
Unfortunately, we are experiencing a time in history where the process of fruition has drastically changed into a brief moment where our comprehension of something comes down to a matter of what we like or don't like.

Thorsten Merz's picture

In the context of this discussion, can anyone offer any opinions as to why photo-realistic CGI isn't referred to photography? When is a photograph no longer a photograph? Are we just referring to 'photographs' when a camera and optical lens has been used in creating that image? Surely an image created entirely in a computer is just as worthy of being called a photograph? Or have I missed something?

Piero Desopo's picture

Isn't the assumption of photography to capture what's in front of the camera? If so, a computer generated image can't be photography.

Thorsten Merz's picture

Which raises the rather thorny question which I think has to be asked. At what point does photography and and illustration begin? Unless I misunderstood something, the argument put forward by Ryan in his post above is that it's all photography.

Piero Desopo's picture

Right. I hoped an answer to that would come from Ryan, as without any further in-depth analysis his article sounds more like a complain about those comments than a thorough examination of the topic.
I think that my reply answers the question already, but I understand it's a complex topic so let's elaborate.
I personally disagree with Ryan's assumption of what photography is. To say so, one must come from a definition of photography and mine it's what I stated before: capturing what's in front of the camera. Just to be clear, this has nothing to do with the quality of the photographs, or with its intent.

Now, going from the capture to the post process is where the issue lies. At what point tweaking the image in post undermine the nature of the tool itself? We all agree (I hope) that dodging, burning, working with contrast it is still part of the process and does not misrepresent the original shot, and yet there's already a boundary here which once crossed and I push the image too much, then the photographs is significantly different from the original. But let's assume for a moment that we all adjust an image to an acceptable point (which is yet to be defined) and let's talk instead about a more extreme case.
Example: I shoot a portrait and later I comp it in Photoshop, swapping out the studio's backdrop with a different background (a stadium, a landscape, a sci-fi planet, you name it). In this case, the intent of my work is to create a piece where a mix of elements coexists in order to create a new image which didn't exist before, if not in my mind. In this process, what's started as a photograph ends up being a piece of the puzzle. The nature of the photograph is secondary to the intent of the final work, it is a supporting element of the total. I create an image which does not exist in reality and to do so, I can use all the tools I need: 3d renders, photographs I find, photographs I took, digital assets, vectors and so on so forth.

As a photographer, I'm supposed to deal with what I have: a location, a subject, a light source, my camera and that's it. As a digital illustrator or Photoshop artist, I can basically do whatever I want, I have no limits. The outcome of the two methods can be, and often are, the extreme opposites.

A closing comment: I think the flaw in Ryan's article is assuming that everything is doable, there are no rules. It's an oxymoron: if you don't define your rules, then everyone can define their own, hence complaining about those comments when the assumption is chaotic (or at least so open) sounds contradictory.
From a creative standpoint setting up rules and definitions sounds harsh. But avoiding a ground base to which we can all agree (of course with the assumption that rules can be broken), means leaving the field at the mercy of the chaos. Which is way children cannot be artists.