Making Good Photographs

Week Four:

Abstract, Pictorial, and Documentary Photography

For the past three weeks we have been learning the technical details of how to make photographs. The presumption for this week is that you know how; therefore, we will examine what you might photograph.

Let's discuss three kinds of photography: pictorial, abstract, and documentary.

Pictorial

In a nutshell, pictorial photography can be thought of as the creation of pretty pictures. Other types of photography may generate pretty images, but only the pictorialist has as his chief aim the creation of photographs with wide visual appeal.

Pictorial photography generally includes landscape and nature photography, and most portraiture. The pictorial photographer wants to share his idea of beauty. Pictorialists delight in discovering a beautiful way to photograph a common scene. Thus, the photographer is on the lookout for unusual conditions or lighting that seem to bring out the beauty in a scene.

The pictorial portrait photographer has as his creed the motto: A good photograph can be made of anyone. This photographer is willing to work with his subject to achieve a natural, relaxed atmosphere and arrange lighting that is most flattering. Everything done at Glamour Shots is pictorial.

A precise definition of the pictorial philosophy is probably impossible to give; however, we can all intuitively recognize this kind of photography. The important thing to remember is that good pictorial photography is the result of hard work. Excellent pictures do not happen accidentally. The photographer must be able to consciously create his images. He must choose the exposure, angle, composition, lighting, and subject control that will result in a photograph that matches his mental image.

Eye-level Hands Disney
Bow Arch

Abstract

The work of an abstract photographer is often closely related to that of a pictorial photographer. Generally, however, the abstract photographer aims at a more narrow appeal. The abstractionist works in pure composition. Often, a viewer cannot recognize the real identity of the abstractionist's subjects. The abstraction is usually pleasing, disturbing, or at least visually exciting to the eye. An abstract photograph is analogous to paint flung wildly across a canvas. The result is not intended to be anything; it is simply an exercise in composition for the sake of art.

The abstract photographer usually takes pleasure in garnering his images from everyday life; discovering beauty in the trivial. Often, the abstraction is achieved through close-up photography that disguises the true identity of the subject.

Open the shutter & blur Abstracted Grand Canyon
OK, it's a fountain Ice on a pond
My only good photo from Disney World

Documentary

The documentary photographer seeks to tell a story. Sometimes the story can be told in a single photograph; more often a series of photos are required. Truth is important. In photographing people, the photographer is not concerned with arranging the most flattering lighting. He is more concerned with capturing them as they really are, warts and all.

Sequence is important. The story must be complete. While each photo must be a quality image on its own, it must also take the story one step closer to the conclusion.

Even the individual photographs must work descriptively. The viewer's eye is led in a predictable way around the image, from one picture element to another. A documentary photograph is like a sentence with a subject, object, and verb.

Speaking on pictorial photography, someone once advised photographers to envision the scene in their view finders as a finished 8 x 10 print hanging in their den. If the photographer could not imagine this, then he was advised to save his film for another scene. The documentary photographer does not have this luxury. He must shoot on speculation. Only when the project is done can he sort through his photos and evaluate his degree of success.

Definitely Documentary News Still documentary


This summary of photographic philosophy may seem rather esoteric. It is not. The photographs of even the most inexperienced amateur will improve if he first articulates a purpose in photography before beginning to shoot. For instance, on a vacation trip, should you try to document every experience with the goal of sharing your vacation slides with your neighbors? Or do you wish to use your vacation to explore pictorial scenes with the goal of hanging fine quality prints on your wall? A rash person will attempt both. This is folly. Each type requires different concentration, a different way of seeing. It is difficult to be attuned to the pictorial while constantly worrying about how to best document the next event.

The importance of having an articulated philosophy cannot be over emphasized. Each time you reach for your camera, think about why you are compelled to make a photograph. Once articulated, you may find yourself making photographic choices, in exposure or composition, that you would not have otherwise made. It is at this point that you are truly making a photograph. Your finished print will convey something of your own personality as well as information about your subject.

Week Four:

How to Get Better

There are two ways to learn photography: study other people's photographs, and make your own. Neither way is complete in itself. Whenever you look at a photograph in a book or magazine, take the time to examine it carefully. This is especially helpful if the photo is one you like. Think about why you like it. What makes it a good photograph? Could you have done it? How could you do it better? The important point is to not simply like or dislike; go beyond your immediate reaction and determine why you feel as you do.

Sometimes the lessons gained from studying photographs may be applied directly to your own photography. However, it is still valuable to just let these lessons seep in by osmosis. Once accustomed to being a photography critic, you will find yourself better able to judge your own compositions while they are still in the viewfinder and not yet on your film. It will become natural to imagine better ways to portray a subject. Eventually, you will never again be satisfied with simply snapping your camera at the first hint of a picture possibility.

So where should you look for inspiration. It might seem natural to look to the various photography magazines in order to find quality photography. This is not the case for two reasons:

Therefore, you would be better advised to look to magazines which use photography as a means of communication. Suggestions are: National Geographic for well done picture stories and fairly frequent pictorial work; Audubon Magazine for top quality wildlife and pictorial photography; Life for hard-core documentary (they were pioneers); and Architectural Digest for high-quality interiors. Lots of other magazines carry excellent photography.

Books about photographic technique abound. Many are very reasonably priced. Stay away from the expensive multi-volume libraries of photography. Your money is better spent on a concise guide and a bunch of film.

Books which use photography may be extremely inspirational, perhaps even more helpful than those which profess to instruct. The National Geographic Society and Sierra Club both publish excellent examples of pictorial work. You may also enjoy the collected works of individual photographers. Examples are Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Bret Weston, Yosuf Karsh, Elliot Porter, Alfred Steiglitz, and Ernest Haas. Pay attention to the names of photographers. Follow the work of those whom you admire. See if they follow our rules. Note how they compose. Do they have a consistent style?

As you increase in skill, you may wish to try processing your own film. This gives you control over every aspect of your photography. If this sounds attractive, start with black and white film processing. The techniques which you learn will be essential if you ever move on to the greatly more expensive prospect of color processing.

In any event, start using a professional photo lab to handle custom printing. The differences between an ordinary retail lab and a custom lab can be striking. And the difference is not in cost! A professional darkroom worker can use experienced judgement to compensate for the advice of automated darkroom equipment. The professional lab can handle contrast and bold colors. Many retail labs, by contrast, employ minimum wage workers who couldn't make a fine photograph if they were given a Hasselblad.



© Copyright 1999 Brian R. Page

  • Colloquia Photography Class Main Page
  • Week One: Light, Light Meters, and Cameras  and  Basic Composition
  • Week Two: Films  and  Portraiture
  • Week Three: Flash Photography  and  Photographing Children and Pets
  • Week Four: Abstract, Pictorial, and Documentary Photography  and  How to Get Better
  • Gladly Learn Home Page