Learning Photography: Technique Versus Artistry

Many photographers, especially new hobbyists, focus attention on learning the technical details of the art. For example, you buy a new camera. Now you need to learn how to use it. You learn how to adjust the exposure, set the ISO, choose the white balance, and so on. Then you learn other skills like how the f-stop affects depth of field, and what types of settings and/or filters to use to create silky waterfall photographs.

Big Spring in the Narrows, Zion National Park

These are all technical details. They are important, but they are relatively easy to learn. I can teach someone the fundamental techniques of digital photography in a couple hours. What is much more difficult both to teach and to learn, however, is how to make a great photograph. The technical skills are necessary, but artistry is what creates a beautiful, compelling photograph. An image might be technically perfect. It might have the correct exposure and be well-focused. It might even have a good color balance and make use of some of the fundamental rules of composition. But it might be a failure as an artistic photograph because it has no emotion or tells no story. Capturing and communicating emotion is both the hardest and most important part of photography.

Several people have asked me if I would do portrait photography of their family for them. I’ve also been asked to do event photography for a musical production. Until recently, my answer to such requests has been no because I did not have the equipment or skills needed for that kind of photography. It’s just not the kind of photography I do, but I decided to learn about portrait photography and gain experience with event photography so that I could occasionally do this kind of work when people asked. How easy was it to learn?

What I found was not unexpected. For portrait photography, learning how to use different kinds of lights and light modifiers at first seems like a difficult challenge. Those are really just the technical details of portrait photography, however. It’s not hard to learn these technical details. The hard part is working with the subject--the person or group of people--to create an image that captures who they truly are. Even in perfect and beautiful light with an ideal model, it’s more important to know how to extract the best from the person you’re photographing. It’s difficult to teach, and it’s difficult to learn. The results of my first portrait session were good, but I realized I had a lot to learn in terms of directing people, especially when working with small children.

I recently photographed a series of events featuring live performances, and at first I found the technical challenges to be difficult. Photographing moving subjects in a dark environment with a wide open aperture and a long focal length made it hard to focus. But again, that was a technical challenge, and I just needed to learn the best way to focus successfully and consistently. I quickly developed the skills I needed under these conditions, and by the end of the second show I felt very comfortable choosing autofocus points on the fly, locking my metering and focus, and doing all the other technical things needed to succeed. The more difficult part was creating photographs that showcased the production lighting and that captured the emotion of the singers and musicians. With the technical details taken care of, I was able to focus my attention on those more important artistic challenges.

I have enjoyed the portrait and event photography I’ve done so far. I studied and prepared before my first session, and I continue to enhance my knowledge. I have confidence that I can make a good portrait photograph now, and I know I can go into an event and consistently come back with great photographs that clients will love. My primary focus remains landscape photography, but it’s nice to know that the same level of artistry I have developed in landscapes can transfer to portrait and event photography when I need it.

Sunset on the Pacific Coast, California