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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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!

Alejandro Corsino's picture

I learnt that I need to do what I love no matter what others thinks. Sometimes people see my pictures and ask me what camera I use and I only have 2 answers depending on how much of my time want to spend in nonsensical discussion I chose the short answers "It doesn't matter" or the longer version "If i give you my camera and you take the picture it won't look the same, it's not the camera but the photographer and all the post processing that involves to create the final image whether it's in a dark room or in a computer or both".

Anonymous'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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.