Photographic Intent: Making vs. Discovering

rey spadoni

I’m asking all 2 Guys Photo readers to settle a dispute, one that’s been rolling around in my head for a while now.  It has to do with photographic intent, the notion of being deliberate in the manner in which you work.  To pre-establish an artistic vision and then to go out and realize that vision.

There’s a famous Ansel Adams quote about making, not taking great photographs.  Ansel would suggest that photographic intent comes right down to working with the elements you have, manipulating, processing, contorting.  Ansel would have, I’ll presume, used a lot of action verbs in describing the meaning behind his quote.

But then there’s this…


Donning some type of photographic recording device and then entering the world where beauty is to be discovered, not made.  Where the artist’s job is to see and then to use the tools at his or her disposal simply to record.  Sure, processing and manipulation can follow, but those always serve the purpose of refining the beauty, not creating it.

Is this a hollow argument?  Am I thinking too much about it?  Are these extremes really extremes at all?  Options?  Or am I simply awash in a gigantic bowl of semantical spaghetti?

For me, I like to discover.  The camera provides me with a 1×1 or 4×3 or 3×2 aspect window through which I merely peer.

What about you?

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11 Responses to Photographic Intent: Making vs. Discovering

  1. A bit of both I think. Depends on how I’m feeling and where I am 🙂

  2. Bob Dungan says:

    I think it depends on the person and what you are trying to accomplish. For instance many people will shoot photos for a theme or subject and then post to as part of a competition. Personally I like to go out and see what is available with the current light. Sometimes I make a mental note to come earlier or later in the day when the sun has shifted to another position. Seldom do I go out with a preconceived notion of what I want to take.

  3. Hey Rey,

    As always, good to hear from you. Hope all is well.

    With regards to your question, I agree with Norma above…it depends. Ansel Adams indeed is quoted as saying, “You don’t TAKE a photograph, you MAKE it”, and I agree completely with that sentiment. However, Henri Cartier Bresson coined the phrase, “the decisive moment”, and there are times when I would also agree with his vision. Again…it depends.

    Sometimes, we pre-visualize what we see in a particular scene and we therefore realize our pre-visualization in post-processing (ala Ansel). This works for me about 80-90% of the time – I would liken this to infusing emotional content to the image (for instance, when I saw the Grand Canyon Railway diesel engine up close, I was floored by the immensity of the structure – you can almost “feel” my emotion in this image –

    Other times, we simply capture a scene that “surprises” us (discovery) and we wish to capture that moment and “enshrine” it, if you will. We may embellish it slightly (i.e. improve an otherwise flat image), but we maintain the “integrity” of the moment, so to speak by minimizing the amount of post-processing, or simply publish it SOOC (straight out of camera).

    BTW, this question ranks right up there with “Is Photography Art?”. The answer is: it depends (I would say unequivocally, “Yes!”).

    Take care…

    Frank V.

  4. Mhmmm, semantic spaghetti 🙂
    For the record I’m decidedly more on the discovery side of things.

  5. What a great question to open discussion! My shooting buddy and I mostly go out with “an assignment” (shooting the color red, or perspectives, or shadows), something to help us sharpen our eyes and really look at the world. My sister goes out with a group of shooters monthly who don’t have a particular assignment, but to an image-rich location. I find it fascinating in both instances the different things that catch a photographer’s eye, how that image is captured and then presented. To me, that is the Art of photography. Of course, as photographers we may often go afield with a particular image in mind, and I love it when I upload my photos and find I have really captured a gem. Looking forward to discussing this question with my photo-friends. Thank you for the discourse! And for that great photo that illustrates it!

  6. Angeline M says:

    I also think it’s both. Discovery is my method. And I have a hard time with your thought of discovering beauty, not making it. Indeed, the beauty is there for us to capture with our lens (and our eyes first), but we do make that. Even the photographer that goes out with an artistic vision, and goes out and realizes it, is making a photograph, but also realizing it, unless he has planted that seed that makes that flower he has photographed, or built that wall of brick he has just made a photograph of. If that all makes sense…..semantic spaghetti 🙂 And I love the photo you’ve made that is at the top of your post.

  7. Rodney says:

    I can’t add too much to this. I am definitely a “go out and just see what is out there” kind of photographer. I think if you are “making” photos then you are doing it more for a living and you need to “make” them. If you are just “creating” “discovering” photos then it is an artistic outlet that is fun, informative, educational and many other things but typically not a money maker. Great conversation though.

    P.S. Great train photos Frank!!

  8. Prentis says:

    Rey, you post an interesting question. It got me to thinking. Photography is a relatively new medium in the grand scheme of things. Museums are full of images from the day that painters always had to “make” images. They didn’t have a choice. Today with our tools we have the ability to look for “the decisive moment.” Whether we “make” or “take” photographs, it is nice to know that we have that choice.

    As for me, I consider myself an opportunist that only on rare occasions plans out a shot. The exception to my statement, of course, is when shooting portraits with studio lighting.

  9. Lou Nachman says:

    After a day of pondering your thoughts, I keep thinking of what our principal called me, archivist. I took that as a high compliment to record the daily activities of a 1400 student K-8 school. As others have said in their own ways………it all depends on who you’re trying to please and the old English teacher’s saw, the 5 W’s. Great way to stir the pot Rey.

  10. Rey says:

    Wow, thanks everyone for the very helpful and thoughtful replies. Much to consider here and it seems that like many of life’s questions, the answer is “it depends”. Appreciate the awesome followers of this blog. Thanks!


  11. tigerclaws says:

    I know I am always trying to “discover” something new… a different angle, a new perspective, a different look whenever I look at things, people or places.
    However, even though I am trying to discover, I am also “making photographs” in my head when I am not shooting. And that “made-up” or pre-visualised image is what I am trying to “discover” or find everywhere, every time!

    “The eyes see only what the mind knows!” – we ALL make images in our head and try to discover/find them everywhere.

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