Make It / Take It?

Portrait of Ansel Adams at Point Lobos by Martha Casanave

Portrait of Ansel Adams at Point Lobos by Martha Casanave

Now, if you’re old school like me, you might think my title is an invitation to play a little one-on-one basketball. However, no, my knees are too rooted to the earth for that. In this case, I’m referring to the language that surrounds photography. To the bristling disdain of my American ears, many professional photographers refer to the process of photography as “making a photo” versus the “taking a photo” that most Americans say. I must confess, that when I heard the word “make” used, it struck me as being pretentious. I even recall cringing every time I heard Joel Meyerowitz jargonize his speech (see what I did there?) with the term.

However, lately, I’ve come to understand the distinction, and while I still abhor jargon ( am I, you see, more writer than shooter) I agree wholeheartedly with the concept. As my wife says, “I think the taking of photos came much later when development became easier and something you could employ a printer to do. The difference is how much time as a photographer you spend with your images after taking them.”

See, for those photographers, like Maria, like Ansel Adams, who are trying to create art with their images, clicking the shutter is just the beginning. Indeed, I will go so far as to say that if you’re an accomplished photographer, you don’t make the mistake in thinking that the lighting qualities that exist when you click the shutter are where you should end your photograph (assuming you’ve passed the newbie level wherein you can accurate match those existent conditions).

“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships”…” ― Ansel Adams


In fact, tonality captured, for example, isn’t necessarily what’s right for the displayed product. If the side of a mountain is deeply shaded and you want to show its detail, you have to manipulate what the camera and your eyes see in order to bring that out. We use photography not only to show what exists, but to time-freeze it and show items under multiple, contradictory light conditions at the same time.

Which of these Ansel Adams images is correct? It depends on what your intention was with the photo. Which one matched what the photographer actually saw? Not sure, was he wearing sunglasses? The answer is almost certainly neither. In the image on the left, the shadows were lightened or dodged to show details, and on the right, the entire image had its contrast increased to add drama. We take a photo as a blank artistic canvas, and make it what our mind tells us it should be.

“What if I’m not an artist?” you may ask. Or, perhaps you wonder, “But isn’t that cheating?” To the first query I say, we are all artists, and I think Ansel would agree:

 “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” ― Ansel Adams


We are all capable of creating art, and if we’re not interested in doing so, then the selfie mode of your cell phone should suffice. However, understand that even then, how you choose to present yourself, where you aim the camera, how you pose, which backdrop you select and the lighting you prefer are all artistic choices. The fact that you do so unconsciously doesn’t reduce their merit. And so, making others, later and consciously, enhances those choices rather than corrupting them.

It isn’t “cheating” to bring a photograph to its best light. That’s actually called being an accomplished artist. And yes, with photo editing (as has been true for over a century) one can delete elements, add objects or structure, change and manipulate lighting and colors. The finished product can look much different than the beginning one.

Is that bad? Depends on what you use the image for, actually. If you’re shooting documentary photography, then correcting mistakes is okay, but changing things is not. If you aren’t being paid to document reality, what the hell is the problem? Whom are you cheating and out of what, exactly?

What is interesting is that we are anchored to “reality” in photos, especially in genres like street photography, with no understanding that what we see as photo realism does not, in fact, match reality. Our vision is dramatically different than a camera’s. We have different sensitivities to light and contrast, we are more susceptible to interference from UV radiation (without protective lenses), and each of us perceives color based on the numbers of color cones in our irises. For instance, my wife sees more blue and purple tones than I do. Is her blue right and mine wrong? We see the world through a narrow depth-of-field so that our brain can focus us where it wants out attention. We have a much wider field of vision than most lenses; however, our peripheral vision is built on motion, not focus, which we can’t even emulate with a camera.

We see rich tonality and textures that cameras see and filter out, unless we add them back in via tone-mapping. And then, when we see a tone-mapped photo, we are either pleasantly gobsmacked that it looks “too real” or turn up our noses because it’s “too fake.” We barely notice that our digital photos are soft-focused and filtered for our pleasure, taking out the rough details in an attempt to recreate the limitations of old film cameras. And most importantly, we are not even aware that what we see in a photo IS NOT real. Our brains make adjustments in vertical lines, for example, because we are used to their seeming to converge. For example, look at the skyscraper on the left in the photo below. Are its lines perpendicular to the ground? No? But I didn’t squash the building; I promise.

1-dscf0790That’s not just a “wide-angle” issue. Your brain does that too.

These are the two copies of the same photo. Your brain is making you think they aren't.

These are the two copies of the same photo. Your brain is making you think they aren’t.

In essence, your brain hates you. Okay, it doesn’t hate you, but it does manipulate visual input so that things appear as it decides they should, not how they are. Our brains are used to verticals converging, and so when the tower above leans the wrong way, it tells us the building on the right is going to fall over. But it isn’t, since it is the same photo as on the left. (Go ahead, measure it with your finger, you distrustful sod. 🙂 )

The point I’ve been making here is that photography, as with all art, STARTS at the artist’s vision and ends when s/he says it’s done (and not before). Those who tell you differently 1) never studied the history of photography (you can learn some of that on our series here), and 2) probably don’t agree that photography is art and they’re angry that you’re manipulating their reality. Do yourself a favor: tune them out. Their brain manipulated reality long before your Photoshop or Aperture or Nik Tools ever did.

If that still doesn’t convince them, show them this photo of a young Ansel Adams, mocking them.


Ansel says, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!” Do you.

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