Photographically Speaking by David duChemin

I thought I knew nothing about photography. I was wrong.

True, I have little experience making photographs the way professionals do, and I know very little about cameras, my own cheap point-and-shoot included.

Still, photography is art, and creating photographs is much like creating other kinds of art. Much to my delight, the author of Photographically Speaking often draws explicit parallels with the art of writing, with which I’m somewhat familiar.

Once he establishes the thrust of the book (the importance of making conscious choices to create art), the author goes on to highlight the kinds of choices photographers can and should consciously make. Though he has a lot of specialized equipment and knows a lot about it, he focuses more on principles and concepts that you can observe in the finished image, not on which lens or filter you attach or which buttons you press.

See more below about what made Photographically Speaking such an approachable and informative text.

Wait. Is photography really art?

I remember having a conversation with one or more friends in college about whether photography could be considered art. We weren’t arguing whether society considers photography to be art; mostly it does. We were trying to figure out for ourselves what we thought art was, properly speaking, and whether photography fit our definition.

Art is the result of choices made from among many subjects that the artist could depict (and the ways the artist could depict them) to communicate some specific thoughts or feelings to the consumer of the art.

My friends and I thought maybe photography was just recording stuff, you know, kind of passively. Stuff is there in the world, it goes into the camera, the photographer pushes a button… done! The photographer simply documents what’s there. After all, he or she obviously doesn’t bring mountains and skyscrapers into being just by photographing them. I see them, you see them, the camera sees them… no big deal.


It is a very big deal.

Saying a photographer creates nothing is like saying a portrait painter creates nothing because the person sitting for a portrait already exists, as do paints and brushes. “He just has to use the paints and brushes to document the person! Easy, right?” Not only is painting hard, it involves interpretation. Two different painters could and probably would choose to convey two different ideas about the same sitter.

Saying a photographer creates nothing is like saying writers create nothing because they mostly just use pre-existing words. “The words of English already exist, writers just move them around a bit! Easy, right?” Not really. I believe there’s a Calvin and Hobbes comic in which Calvin considers himself to have made a good start on a homework assignment because he knows in advance that 5% of his composition will undoubtedly be repetitions of the word ‘the’. Calvin’s logic is obviously absurd: even bad writers aren’t monkeys at keyboards deterministically churning out the statistically correct number of ‘the’s and ‘of’s and ‘and’s.

The point with respect to photography is that there are astonishingly many ways of capturing the same pre-existing mountain or skyscraper in a photograph—as many ways as there are to paint a portrait of the same sitter, or write a story on the same topic. In every case, the choices the artist makes create the artwork, which is a whole new thing, separate from the subject matter of the artwork.

Thus, painters, writers, and photographers are all artists; they just have different tools. They all spend countless hours learning how to use those tools to best transmit an effect via the artwork to its consumer. Anyone who thinks photography is easy has never tried doing any.

Of course, in the age of smartphones, we all carry cameras 24/7, so maybe we have better intuitions about how hard it is to get the light to behave and about the ways in which we can alter an image once it’s been captured, even if the results are silly at best.

“Look at this Instagram: eggs Benedict, side of ham” (Nickelback parody song)

The poor-to-middling quality of most photos on Instagram indicates that being able to do something is not the same as being able to do it purposefully, meaningfully, and successfully. Photography is art, but not all photos are artworks—not even all successful photos! Knowing how to do something is not the same as knowing why—or whether—one should.

Photographically Speaking

The book Photographically Speaking doesn’t tell you how to use a camera or how to use Photoshop. It’s a thinky book. It tells you what makes an interesting photo interesting.

The author prompts you to ask yourself why you want to capture a particular image, and whether the way you’re taking it is going to help transmit your message better or worse than some other way of capturing it. There’s no excuse for following your intuition blindly; unless your intuition has been built up through years of thoughtful practice, your attempts to communicate will fail. You’ll be expressing yourself, perhaps, and you might even create something likably pleasant, but you won’t be communicating.

A photo is a frame of visual content chosen to include certain elements and to exclude everything else. The resulting photo consists of lines, repetition, contrast and juxtaposition, light, and color, and “moment” (good timing achieved through patience and sensibility of opportunity). All these are things that can to some extent be controlled—i.e., chosen or decided—by the photographer. The decisions available include those concerning aspect ratio, location of subject matter within the frame, and, yes, finally, the use of certain optical accessories and techniques to recreate or distort the image the photographer’s eye sees.

Shifting from seeing like a person to seeing like a camera is important. The camera flattens the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional suggestion of three dimensions. Failure to imagine how the camera sees often results in photos that show background elements sprouting from people’s heads.

I’ve always thought that disintegrator rays and other such tools and weapons in science-fiction (like the scanner in Tron that pulls a real person into a computer) were bogus because a ray of energy wouldn’t distinguish between a person and the objects surrounding him. Why would an energy ray vaporize a person and his clothes and shoes and leave no mark on the floor or the wall behind him? How would it know how much matter was part of the target and how much wasn’t? The person aiming the weapon knows what she wants to shoot, but there’s no way for the weapon to understand her. Computer vision is a really, really tricky problem.

Cameras, which are machines if not computers, don’t have any idea what it is you are shooting at. You have to make sure whatever you point your camera at will be really obvious to someone else looking at the same view in two dimensions. Often it isn’t. Your attention was captured by a bird, but you’ve photographed a sidewalk, people walking by, and several nearby buildings and telephone poles in addition to the fence the bird is perched on. All that other stuff is likely to be just as prominent in the photo as your bird, unless you know what you’re doing.

Photographs are created primarily to communicate with people who are not knowledgeable about the intent or techniques of the artist; they should be accessible without verbal explanations or prior study in the field. The author says that non-experts don’t think about photographic techniques when looking at photos any more than they think about nouns and verbs when listening to pop songs. Well. I guess that makes me an expert on nouns and verbs.

When discussing the topic of color, the author explains that color should be removed if it doesn’t add anything. His advice to his students echoes one of the lines of the Instagram/Nickelback parody I linked to above: “Are you bored of city lights? Try seein’ ’em in black ‘n white…” The advice explains why, after the invention of color photography, artists still create black-and-white photos. It’s not that they have to, or that they’re snobbishly clinging to the past, as one might imagine; it’s that color, like every other aspect of their images, is a choice, and sometimes it’s not the right one.

What’s the author’s stance on Photoshop and other post-production tools? He says they’re powerful and sometimes useful, but not equivalent to physical camera accessories (such as polarizing filters). I take this to mean that a serious photographer, to have as many choices open to her as possible, will eventually need to get some fancy equipment, even if she can do a lot without it.

I struggled to accept the idea of using equipment or editing techniques to present an image drastically different from the scene as it was really experienced. The author explains such choices when discussing a set of “impressionistic” photographs of summer rain. He says he wanted to communicate to viewers not how it looked to pass through the storm (it was gloomy and grey/green) but how it felt to do so (he felt contented and refreshed). This explanation rings true for me. Art isn’t meant to recapitulate reality exactly, but to create an experience tied to reality in some meaningful way.

Art isn’t meant to hit you over the head with meaning, though. If you overdo the obviousness of the “message” you communicate in your image, you cross the line from art to propaganda. Some ambiguity, some subtlety, is critical. Photographers, like teachers, must be clear and concise when speaking, and refrain from shouting.

When and Why I Read Photographically Speaking

I should have read this book *before* I took 2000 photos in New Zealand. Still, maybe I can apply what I learn about the theory of photography on my next trip.

Genre: Non-Fiction (Photography)
Date started / date finished: 27-Jan-2018 / 07-Feb-2018
Length: 245
ISBN: 9780321750440
Originally published in: 2012
Amazon link: Photographically Speaking

Cover blurb:

When looking at a photograph, too often a conversation starts–and, unfortunately, ends–with a statement such as, “I like it.” The logical next question, “Why?”, often goes unasked and unanswered. As photographers, we frequently have difficulty speaking about images because, frankly, we don’t know how to think about them. And if we don’t know how to think about a photograph and its “visual language”– how an image is constructed, how it works, and why it works–then, when we’re behind the camera, are we really making images that best communicate our vision, our original intent? Vision–crucial as it is–is not the ultimate goal of photography; expression is the goal. And to best express ourselves, it is necessary to learn and use the grammar and vocabulary of the visual language.

Photographically Speaking is about learning photography’s visual language to better speak to why and how a photograph succeeds, and in turn to consciously use that visual language in the creation of our own photographs, making us stronger photographers who are able to fully express and communicate our vision. By breaking up the visual language into two main components–“elements” make up its vocabulary, and “decisions” are its grammar–David duChemin transforms what has traditionally been esoteric and difficult subject matter into an accessible and practical discussion that photographers can immediately use to improve their craft. Elements are the “words” of the image, what we place within the frame–lines, curves, light, color, contrast. Decisions are the choices we make in assembling those elements to best express and communicate our vision–the use of framing, perspective, point of view, balance, focus, exposure.

All content within the frame has meaning, and duChemin establishes that photographers must consciously and deliberately choose the elements that go within their frame and make the decisions about how that frame is constructed and presented. In the second half of the book, duChemin applies this methodology to his own craft, as he explores the visual language in 20 of his own images, discussing how the intentional choices of elements and decisions that went into their creation contribute to their success.