Why and How: Defining a Photograph

Have you ever had the curiosity to seek the definition of a photograph? If you have already done this research, you must have noticed that it does not really exist. The definition always refers to the process and not really to the result.

In this article, I suggest a way to clearly define what a photograph is. This will help you build more interesting and more creative photos.

This photograph of a waterfall in the Smoky Mountains is constructed with different elements. It evokes the time passing.
This photograph of a waterfall in the Smoky Mountains is constructed with different elements. It evokes the time passing.

The Little Story of this Blog Post

From then a few months, I am interested in the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. I discovered his work through his collections "In Praise Shadows" and "Seascapes".

I am passionate about photography on the surface of the water. I was looking for inspiration to define an axis of research for a new collection when I was challenged and captivated by the photographic creations of Hiroshi Sugimoto.

His works are timeless, enigmatic, calm. They evoke serenity. When analyzing his artistic approach, I wondered why his photographs had such an evocative force when they were very minimalist.

It was during this introspective reflection that I asked myself the question of what is a photograph?

I immediately took my notebook, my pen. I started to write some ideas. For four days each morning I worked on a study. It has become this blog post that I share with you today.

Why is it Important to Define What is a Photograph?

When I ask other people, who are or are not photographers to tell me what a photograph is, few are able to answer me. Some people tell me that it is a representation of reality. Others say that it is writing with light. In short, it is the most total blur.

I believe that to take interesting photos, it is important to define what a photograph is.

If you want to create interesting photos that reach an audience, you need to be able to define what you are going to create. I am not talking about technique or means here, but what a photograph represents.

Often to denote 'a photograph' many people use 'an image'.

By definition, an image is the visual reproduction of a real object.

An image can be natural (shadow, reflection) or artificial. In this case, it can be a sculpture, a painting or a photograph.

The definition is very broad. It does not necessarily apply to photography.

Photography is an artistic discipline in its own right which has its own language. It is for this reason that defining what a photograph is important to me. I now attach great importance to it.

How Defining a Photograph?

I think that a photograph can be summed up in two components:

  • Its appearance. This is the visible component. This is also what I call the container.
  • Its meaning. It is the invisible, immaterial component. This is also what I call content.

These two components are necessary and sufficient to define a photograph.

If the meaning is missing, you just have a picture. That is to say, a representation of the real.

After answering the question of why and how to define a photograph, I suggest that you detail each of the components.

The Appearance of a Photograph

The appearance of a photograph is what the viewer sees first. This is what will catch the eye. This is the first contact. It will condition the rest.

If this first contact is interesting, the viewer will take his time and go to the analysis stage.

If the viewer does not hang, he will go its way. He will not go through the analysis stage.

It is for this reason that a photograph must be correctly composed, framed and that the point of view must be well chosen.

Creating an interesting visual aspect that has an impact is a matter of technique and photographic know-how.

To give a visual aspect to your photographs create impact you have at your disposal:

  • The forms.
  • The lines.
  • Textures.
  • The colors.
  • The tones.

When composing, you need to harmonize all of these elements. I will develop this notion of harmony in a future article.

Light is the Binder of All Photographic Elements

The binder in a recipe is the product used to agglomerate all inert materials.

I often talk about photographic recipes. The binder is always the same. This is the light that allows you to connect all the photographic elements you have chosen.

Light is the link of all the visual elements of your photography.

It is with it that you will highlight your composition and your framing.

If you need to remember important information from this article, know that:

  • Light defines shapes.
  • Light defines lines.
  • Light creates textures.
  • Light determines colors.

Without light, your compositions and your framing would have no photographic flavor.

Now that I have described the first component defining a photograph, I will give you some elements to understand the second component: the photographic meaning.

The Meaning of a Photograph

An interesting photograph is constructed from visual elements organized in a harmonious way. Light connects all of these elements.

To create a strong impact, you need to add meaning to it. It is the content.

You can show an emotion, express a message or it can be aesthetic.

In my opinion, this is the most difficult thing to achieve and create. You have to think, have something to say. Never forget that photography is an art form in its own right. It is a medium for expressing yourself.

I have already had the opportunity to write it in other articles. I do not know how to draw. I do not know how to paint. I can write. I was looking for a means of visual expression. Photography was a real way for me to express myself, to share my deepest thoughts.

I have developed a real photographic language which uses visual elements in order to communicate with the greatest number of people.

If you want to create interesting photos, always think about the meaning you will give them. It is a necessary condition for finding an audience.

To allow easy reading of your photos, never forget that the eyes of a viewer always go towards:

  • Strong lines.
  • Textures.
  • The forms.
  • Light colors.
  • Sharp areas.
  • Clear areas.
  • High contrast areas.

Photographic language aims to organize the photographic elements well to express your thoughts. It is this particular technique that I teach with my ACANP method during my photo workshops.


I hope this article will allow you to better define a photograph.

I think the most important thing to remember is that an image is a meaningless photograph. It is just a representation of the real.

To create a photograph, you must set up a container made up of visual elements linked together by light. The photographic language and grammar will allow you to express yourself: this is the content of your photos.

Hiroshi Sugimoto has allowed me after all these years of research to conceptualize what a photograph is. We should all start photography with this concept. It is the basis of the construction of the photographic building.

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Article published on Friday, January 03, 2020 . Written by
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