Pop question: What makes a picture a “photograph”? A true work of art?

“While observing photographers at work I often notice that their obsessive focus on the technical side of photography
limits their creativity and artistic expression.

What do two photographers talk about when they meet in the field? They hardly ever talk about composition, light or subjects – it’s always a dialogue about equipment, lenses, sharpness and the pros and cons of one brand or another. What to do?
Composition, light and creativity must always come before technical considerations.”

— Olaf Stzaba,
excerpt from Montana’s Ghost Towns

There is no arguing that a solid technical foundation is important in how the concepts of ISO, f-stop, shutter speed, focal length and the rest of the pieces fit into the photography puzzle. That learning can come from photo schools, workshops, online tutorials, or just flat out trial-and-error over time.

It’s simple: You have to learn the basics. You must in order to understand the process. But once you have the basics down, and it becomes rote memory going through the motions … then what? Keep obsessing about the technical? Compare features in cameras? Debate sensor quality? Compare lenses? Trust us, you’d be wasting your time …

At its core, photography as a process has not changed since George Eastman unleashed the Brownie camera on a visually-starved public in February 1900. It’s been 113 years, but the technical process that results in an image has not change!

Fixating on the technical simply means you are at a stalemate in your learning process, stalled and not able to move forward. You’re treading water in the shallow end of the pool, while the riches of the genre await you in the deep end.

Learning the technical process is the easy part as that can be taught. It is the visual and creative interpretations that change. A critical change that moves photography from that of an engineered process to one that becomes the Art of Photography.

WORTH WATCHING: Take a look at this absolutely stunning timelapse/hyperlapse video, NIGHTVISION, below …

The above beautiful hyperlapse video, created by Luke Shepard, goes well beyond the technical processes and embraces the visual concepts of composition, light and creativity. 

The question hear often is “how does he do that?” Yes, we desire to understand the process so we can do the same. But that is only replication … and it is only a process!

(For the record: No HDR photography was used in Luke’s NIGHTVISION piece. Just strong visual photographs. Yes, photos, not video footage, but still photographs like a timelapse. But instead of documenting the motion around the camera as done in timelapse, the camera is the motion capturing the scene as the camera moves, in a process called Hyperlapse. We cover Hyperlapse in our “Timelapse Photography: Going Beyond the Basics” workshop. Note that we call it “going beyond the basics” … That’s because the simple process of timelapse is what everyone is doing. That’s because it is a basic, easy process. We take it far beyond the basics and show you how to move from amateur to professional, both technically and visually, creating true art, not just a simple, static timelapse.)

Back to the process versus the visual in the above NIGHTVISION video … For starters, Luke clearly walked away from the stereotypical clouds/mountains/stars timelapse craze that everyone is doing, and instead went to a subject that would not be a first choice: architectural.

Going Beyond the Basics Rule #1: Think outside the box.

It is probably not fair that the first rule we start with is pretty much saying “be creative”. I know, it’s not that easy. For many of us, creativity just doesn’t fall out of the tree and hit us on the head. I often look at ground-breaking photo projects that mesh two different approaches (such as timelapse and camera obscura) and exclaim, “why didn’t I think of that!?!?!”

So how does that creativity come about? Well, for starters take a different approach. Instead of trying to come up with new ideas, recognize when you are recycling old ideas.

Stop and ask yourself: “Has this been done before?” … “Am I doing it differently?” … “Will I be doing a better job at it than what has already been done?”

Instead of spending your time copying or making sub-par attempts at what is already been done (usually at a sub-conscious level of proving to yourself that you are just as good), assess how you can do it differently than what is already there. Sometimes it is as simple as taking two different genres or processes and combining them together, such as timelapse and camera obscura, or removing a typical or expected subject from a process and using one that would not be expected, such as architecture placed into hyperlapse.

But we are still talking about process. As we said, to stick to only the process is to come from an engineering point of view. Photography as an art transcends the process.

What is so enthralling and stunning in Luke’s above NIGHTVISION video? The beautiful and dramatic lighting. While the entire urban landscape scene, including the lighting, was designed by the architect, it is the role of the photographer to see that intent and capture.

Likewise, in the landscape scene, Mother Nature is the architect, designs the view and provides the dramatic lighting. It is our job as an artist to see that intent and capture it. Which brings us to the next rule …

Going Beyond the Basics Rule #2: Shoot the light, not the subject.

We say it endlessly during our workshop courses. Over and over, we’ll come up behind the students and remind them to “shoot the light, not the subject” as they size up the scene in their camera.

If you think back to any landscape photograph that has stopped you in your tracks … if you really think about … most likely it was the lighting—at the core—that made that photograph memorable. It could have been a stunning scene of the Snake River in the Grand Tetons by Ansel Adams, but study the light and note how key the light is in image. You could go stand in that same location and not get that same photo. Why? The light has to be right.

As photographers, we tend to read the scene for what we see in the scene, namely the landmarks or objects. We don’t pay nearly enough attention to the light in the scene. Or, more succinctly, what the light is doing in the scene.

In the photograph at left, created by Jane Pittenger during our “Giant Redwoods of Northern California Workshop“, Jane focused on the light shining through the redwoods. The picture is of the light, not necessarily of the trees. No doubt the giant redwoods are stunning, but Jane was surrounded by redwoods at that location.

She responded to seeing and photographing the light, which is what TRULY makes a photograph.

The subject is just an object. Be it Yosemte’s El Capitan and its course surface or an avocado and its course surface, what matters is how the light falls on the subject.

Don’t get me wrong … the object is important … as long as it complements the light. How’s that for a backwards approach, that the light comes first, then the subject!

“You’re saying that the object isn’t as important as the light?”

Yep. And you already know it.

Take a walk with me … At any time of the sunlit day, there are hundreds of photographers at the famous Tunnel View in Yosemite, taking in that grandiose vista scene of El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall. No question that the “object” is dramatic, but not all those photographs are going to be as dramatic. They are going to be pretty blasé.


I heard you say it … “because the light isn’t good.” See, you knew this already.

Yet the most common refrain we hear is “but you have to be in the right place at the right time” in order to get those dramatic shots. Yes, there are those once-in-a-lifetime scenes, but getting that photo doesn’t mean you’re a good photographer … that just means you’re lucky.

A good photographer knows how to read the light and incorporate into the scene. Which brings us to our final rule …

Going Beyond the Basics Rule #3: Feel the Composition

In the above photo by Cindy Tarango, taken during our popular “Death Valley National Park Photography Workshop“, Cindy not only focused on the light as the key component of the photo, letting the shadows fall to black, she also created a beautiful set of shapes, lines, textures and patterns within the photo that defines the elegance and sense of balance in the artwork.

Seeing that combination of shapes, lines, textures and patterns, and getting them into the frame in an artistic manner, is not as simple as just throwing them up in the air and seeing where they fall. Or is it?

You can learn the “rules of composition” and then apply them as matter of checking them off your list as you take your photo. But that brings it back to a process. And good composition is not a process served through actions. It is felt, as a sense of balance.

This has always been the hardest concept and approach to teach in photography, as it flies in the face of everything-technical that is photography. There is no set body of rules that defines the capital letter A in “the Art of Photography” that separates it from the ho-hum, everyplace pictures that litter Flickr. But it is an approach that can be understood and applied.

In our “Advanced Photography: The Zen of Thinking” course, held in Yosemite each fall for a limited 5 students, we spend two very intensive days learning, understanding and applying this very approach to composition. An approach that—at its core—is an intuitive response to the scene.

Good composition is felt. And you already understand this. How often do you look at the photo on the back of your camera’s LCD screen, frowning as you study the image, shaking your head slowly from side-to-side, saying “it just doesn’t work for me”?

The picture doesn’t feel right. You can’t put your finger on what is wrong, or what is missing, or what needs to be changed … but it just doesn’t work. And, sadly, we usually just walk away thinking that no picture can be created. Yes, no picture can be created … but a photograph can be created.

If you were drawn to the scene in the first place, you intuitively felt that there was something before you that was worthy of pulling the camera out of the bag. We tend to just grunt, point at the landscape before us, and mutter “me like” as we slap a lens on the camera. Extend the tripod legs, place the camera atop the tripod head, zoom back and forth until we find something that works, and then click the shutter. Then look at the LCD, make a change, and click the shutter again. Make another change, click the shutter again. Step and repeat, over and over, until we give up.

We completely neglect what was the draw to the scene in the first place. What before us says “take my picture”? Understand that draw, at an intuitive level, and you will take the first step in understanding the intuitive composition that is felt.

When “it just doesn’t work for me” happens, don’t walk away. Resignation is simply saying the process failed. But composition is not a process.

When that happens, just as we teach at the start of our “Advanced Photography Course: The Zen of Thinking“, step back, think outside the box, re-read the scene, shoot the light, feel the composition … and create the Art of Photography.


Michael A. Mariant is the founder and Director of Workshop Operations for High Sierra Workshops. Michael leads several workshops and courses with HSW, including “Advanced Photography: The Zen of Thinking in Yosemite“, “Yosemite in Winter, “Yosemite in Spring, “Death Valley, “Time Lapse Photography, “Eastern Sierra & Owens Valley” and the highly-acclaimed and immensely popular “Ultimate Travel Photography Workshop.