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What Is My Medium? How to Change Things Up the Right Way in Your Photography

Here’s a question: what medium do you work in? Well, you may say, I’m a photographer. What kind of question is that? I take photos. Photography is my medium.

This is a valid answer. There is no need for every practitioner of an art to explain, or to write a manifesto. The world is better off, in fact, if they don’t. If you are worth your salt as a craftsman, that speaks for itself. If you are hired as a contractor of imagery, you deliver. If that is your professional ethos, that’s your prerogative. It’s your job.

Learning Curves

We do better when we reach for things, though. We do better when we don’t just do what we do and call it a day, but instead make attempts to go beyond boundaries. Perhaps we do this to break those boundaries. Perhaps we do this to throw off forever what we thought we knew and thought we needed to do in order to make it in our profession, in order to fit in. Then again, maybe we will return to what we used to do and keep doing it, but better and with more clarity of mind because we now know how the world looks outside.

Forgive my philosophizing. There is a point here: every creative professional (and the non-professional creative, too, if they practice their art with any semblance of conviction) is on a path. Lest this gets all self-helpy, let me lay out what I mean by path.

Any craft requires purposeful practice.

The path is a kind of learning curve. Unlike a simple learning curve, however, it’s not just a “practice makes perfect” situation. It’s not just about the 10,000 hours. To say nothing about the fact that the 10,000 hours thing is widely misunderstood. It’s never just about practice. It’s about practicing the right way, with a plan and accountability. Practice improves your ability to do what you are practicing only if you check what you are doing and make an effort not to repeat mistakes. In photography terms, practice may be about making a note of what your exposure settings were for a particular image you like and then trying to replicate that in the future. It’s not taking lots and lots of pictures never to be looked at again and pretending you’re trying to get your hours in.

Practice is one thing. But as I said, the learning curve isn’t just about making better what you are already doing. It’s about looking left and right and finding out what the medium is that you are working in as well. Only this way can you understand the terrain through which your path winds.

What Is a Medium?

What, then, is a medium? In a general sense, it's the thing that's between your creative expression and someone else's appreciation of that creativity. Now that's a very vague thing. In that sense, any art form is a medium.

You're likely to branch out into photography-adjacent mediums at some point.

For photographers, the closest “outside” art is certainly cinematography -- a term I’ll use loosely. Being able to make still images can translate into a vision that may also lend itself to moving images. Often, the not-so-secret secret to success in your career is that it’s essential to know not only what you are doing, but just as importantly, what context you are doing it in. Pictures exist in context with other media. Still images can be found as part of video. They are posted on websites and hung on walls and printed in books. Text is often next to them, either to contribute to the art or to explain it.

The Vague Medium and the Specific Medium

For many artists, their medium is both a vague thing (painting) and something specific (watercolors on canvas). So if photography is your vague medium, the thing you can always say you work in, what is your specific medium?

It may be black and white negative film in a 4x5 view camera, like landscape photography übergod Ansel Adams preferred. It may be raw files out of your Nikon D810 in Lightroom. Gear is always a part of the medium. Sculptors choose chisels and saws where appropriate. They choose different materials to work on. Every material and every tool to work that material has advantages and disadvantages. In most cases, there is simply no one perfect way to do anything.

There are many specific media contained within the vague medium of photography. Post production, as well as making prints are art forms and crafts in their own right; whether it be classic darkroom magic, or the more modern sorcery of Photoshop. But such closely-related media are far from the only ones which will touch on your career in photography.

Changing cameras can change perspectives.

As a photographer, you are frequently also a teacher. This can be in person through workshops, or through creating books, articles, or online presentations. So your medium may be public speaking or writing in addition to photography. It may be graphic design in addition to photography. You're certainly allowed to use more than one medium, both of the vague and the specific variety. You're supposed to develop as an artist, after all. You're supposed to gain mastery as a professional. This means stretching yourself, and this means following your path to stopping points and junctions and take a difficult hike into rugged terrain when it seems like there is something worth seeing there. Sorry, I'm getting philosophical again.

Changing Mediums

You could even change mediums completely, like, for example, the late Henri Cartier Bresson did, abandoning in his later years photography for drawing and painting. He'd switched to photography from painting in his youth, and then came back to his original medium. There is much discussion on whether his painted artworks are up to snuff compared to his photography, but value judgments are beside the point here. For him, it was about changing mediums to address a changing need of expression.

So if you find yourself unhappy in your work, uneasy somehow, or no longer satisfied with what you're doing, it may be because you have reached a certain point where the current medium does not work for you anymore. Is your unwieldy DSLR holding you back? Grab something smaller. Are your natural light portraits beginning to bore you? Experiment with flash. Maybe you will want to abandon what you have done so far completely, or maybe you will end up supplementing it with something else. The latter is certainly more feasible if you're making your money doing one kind of photography and not (yet) another. Either way, it's always good to keep things fresh.

But it's not just about wantonly trying new things for the sake of trying them. It's better to be deliberate. Look around, check out the path behind you. Scout out what's in front of you. Ask yourself: what is my medium?

Photo credits: Alex Mihis (Paint brushes), Angelina Litvin (Carving), Noom Perapong (Film projector and vinyl record), Benjamin Bálazs (Medium format camera).

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cole callahan's picture

didn't ansel adams shoot 8x10?

Torsten Kathke's picture

Indeed! Also Polaroids, but my mind was here when I wrote this:

cole callahan's picture

damn, that's a nice camera. any idea who ended up buying it?

Torsten Kathke's picture

No, but maybe there's a follow-up story here…

Mr Hogwallop's picture

It is always a little disappointing to me to read an article on a photo website about someone's deep thoughts about the philosophy of the medium and all of the photos are stock images. But I guess that's how things are.

Ralph Hightower's picture

I will have to admit that my Canon 5D III is larger than my Canon A-1 or New F-1. The controls on the film cameras are simpler to operate with shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and exposure compensation being dials on the camera or lens.
If I compare I compare the three Canons to "The Three Bears": the 5D is Papa Bear, the F-1 is Mama Bear, and the A-1 is Baby Bear.

chris bryant's picture

And who would be Goldilocks? Is the porridge too hot?