When Does It Stop Being Photography and Start Becoming Digital Art?

When Does It Stop Being Photography and Start Becoming Digital Art?

There have never been more creative options available to photographers. Whether it’s in camera, in post-production with software like Photoshop, or at the touch of a button on a smartphone app, choices seem limitless. But when is it no longer actual photography?

Among the wider photography community, which encompasses dozens of genres and styles, it’s almost impossible to get a definition of what photography actually means that is ubiquitously accepted. Almost everyone has their own interpretation of how they see photography through their own eyes, which means that how I see it might be completely different from how others see it and define it. To that end, I asked about 25 of my freshman photography students to give me a one-sentence definition of what they think photography means.

I sifted through all the sentences and the various definitions and separated them into common themes. By far and away, the most common ideas could be summarized like this: photography is seeing something interesting and capturing that moment in time with a camera. Of course, this is not a proclamation of any kind of official definition, it’s simply what 25 of my photography students came up with when they were asked to define the word. However, in reading this definition of theirs, I immediately had some questions and inner conflict that I found difficult to resolve, especially in the context of whether something is photography or closer to the realms of digital art.

Is Photography What You See?

The first part of the definition that tormented me related to the idea that, in part, photography is capturing what you see. Why did this torment me? My immediate thought was black and white photography. Regardless of whether you consider yourself a photographer who shoots in color, black and white, or both, I’m not sure anyone could successfully argue too often that whatever they see in front of them at the time is literally black and white. Yes, there might be exceptions such as a black road and a white pedestrian crossing, but my point is this: our eyes do not literally see the world in black and white. Our minds might visualize an image in black and white, but it’s not what our eyes literally see at the time. Take these images below, for example.

The above image is an unedited file taken in the south of Japan during a typhoon. I used a filter over the front of the lens in order to allow me to keep the shutter open for a few seconds so I could capture a sense of motion and commotion in the ocean. However, as soon as I got this shot, I knew I would edit it to create a final black and white image. Whenever I have a combination of motion, texture, and analogous color schemes in a single frame, I almost always edit in black and white.

I like how the edited black and white version above turned out, but in the context of defining photography in relation to it being something that we see, obviously, that is not what I saw when I took the original shot. In that sense, can it be called photography? Or is it digital art created by software?

Are Photography Capturing Moments?

The second conundrum I had regarding the definition my photography students came up with related to the idea that photography is about capturing moments in time. As you might have guessed from the images above, I love using filters, especially filters that allow for long exposures, such as the Lee Filters Big Stopper. I live in rural southwest Japan in an area that is full of lush valleys and verdant mountains. That means that not a lot of light gets into many of the areas that have waterfalls or flowing streams. As a result, if I use a 10-stop filter to create a long exposure in such conditions, I often have to use Bulb mode and keep the shutter open for minutes at a time. Take a look at the image below, for example.

In this image, I was wedged between two giant boulders and had my camera about a foot from this branch, which had become lodged as it flowed downstream. In getting this photo, there was nothing momentous about it. The exposure time was just over three minutes, as it was late evening and there was very, very little natural light available. Thus, if photography is about capturing moments in time, how would I describe this image, which took three minutes? In fact, adding a modicum of support for this concept, it’s not at all uncommon for people to say that long exposure photography is not real photography because it’s not what you saw (the favorite go-to for my mother).

Do Official Definitions Shed Any More Light?

Rather than using a definition created by 25 photography students, I went to the official Cambridge dictionary to see what it said about photography. Here’s it’s definition, verbatim: “the skill or activity of taking or processing photographs.” I don’t know about you, but as soon as I saw this, I was more confused than ever about what photography means. Why? Because this definition includes both taking and processing photographs.

Thus, is it fair to deduce from this Cambridge definition that anything done in camera or in post-production with software such as Lightroom or Photoshop constitutes photography? If that’s the case, then one could legitimately make the case that anything you do in post-production to an image taken with a camera could be called photography. Personally, I’m not sure I’m so comfortable with such an all-encompassing definition. Take a look at the images below for the purposes of argument. The first image is a quick shot I took of a guy getting out of the surf. I liked the shape of the swallow tail on his surfboard and knew I could work with it.

Below is what I came up with. It’s the same image, but I’ve obviously done a lot to it. I used tools in Photoshop such as the Liquify tool, the Clone Stamp tool, the Content-Aware Scale tool, and all manner of Adjustment Layers. In short, I went to town on it to see what sort of creation I could come up with. The finished image isn’t too bad if you like that kind of abstract thing, but is it photography?

According to the definition of my students, absolutely not. It’s not what I saw, not by a long shot. However, according to the Cambridge dictionary definition, it is photography, as its definition includes the processing of photographs. Interestingly, which definition do you think a random sample of 1,000 people on the street would be more likely to trust? To me, this is digital art, as it's had some heavy processing done to it. However, processing falls under the category of photography according to Cambridge, so where does that leave us?

Summing Up

In summing up, photography is not easy to define. Whether it’s black and white, long exposure photography, or images that have been heavily processed in computer software, everyone will have their own idea about what constitutes photography and what constitutes digital art. Where do you sit on the matter? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Alex Reiff's picture

Personally, I think trying to define a boundary is pretty pointless, for two reasons. There are several different "official" definitions of photography which conflict with each other, and for pretty much any definition of photography you can come up with, some works exist that breaks it. The other is that, by trying to impose limits on what is and isn't photography, you're basically telling photographers that it's not ok to do anything outside of that box, which can really limit creativity.

Adriano Brigante's picture

"by trying to impose limits on what is and isn't photography, you're basically telling photographers that it's not ok to do anything outside of that box"

Nobody is saying that photographers shouldn't do digital art. It's not about "imposing limits" on people, it's about defining and describing more precisely an increasingly diversified field of visual arts. Having more words to describe that diversity is a good thing.

Alex Reiff's picture

While basically no one is explicitly telling photographers not to do digital art or any other media, there is definitely an element of purism and gatekeeping that would give people that idea. I've seen photographers online who have said that things like raw processing, cropping, and long exposures are not real photography, or they're "cheating." Particularly if someone is new, they see comments like that and think that those techniques are inferior or amateurish and should be avoided if you want to be a great photographer.

Tamas Nemeth's picture

That is exactly one of the good reasons to have a commonly accepted definition of what alteration should be considered as photographic edit, and what turns a camera captured image into other forms of art. This way these charlatans would not have ground for their false statements.

Iain Stanley's picture

Yeah pretty much agree with all those sentiments

Leon Kolenda's picture

Well, for me, it's simple, Photography is the capturing of a Place, Person, Anything, or Still Life, from any genre using a camera and a lens. Post Processing is the some what new, creative part of photography. I believe the Cambridge dictionary is correct. Now that we have an extremely diversified way of creating Photographs, I don't think you can put a simple photograph taken as something elite or special anymore and say it's better, especially with the proliferation of all the PP software and firmware tools today.

There use to be a time when an image that had PP work done to it was not considered photography. Not true any more. Now, with all the options available for PP your expected to use them and know them correctly and not over use them, of course, unless one's goal is to achieve a certain style, hence Pre-Sets.

And then, there is " Beauty is in The Eyes of the Beholder"

I'm getting less and less of , Oh was that manipulated in Photoshop? Especially now that as people use there phones for a camera, they see that it's more than just taking a photo. I also think you have to look at photography from two perspectives, one, Commercial, and Personal. I'm not looking for a rebuttal, this is just what I believe.

ian kasnoff's picture

I would argue that "Post Processing" has been a part of photography for as long as there has been photography. Starting with what development method and/or chemistry used and then of course, in the darkroom itself where there is any myriad of ways to manipulate an image.

Iain Stanley's picture

Post-processing was as much a skill 50 years ago and more with film, wasn’t it?

Justin Sharp's picture

I just spent 14 hours today in the darkroom making two prints. It’s a skill that requires a huge learning curve and a lot of time. I could have scanned the two negatives and done everything in photoshop in probably less than 30 minutes. I’ve done some drastic manipulations of images in the darkroom. As far as you can go in photoshop, you can go just as far in the darkroom. It just takes a lot of time and skill.

Adriano Brigante's picture

My definition is this: It comes down to where we see the moment of creation. In digital art, the act of shooting with a camera is really just the act of collecting raw material for the "real" creation that is going to take place later on a computer. With photography, the act of shooting *is* the creation and it produces what is essentially the final image (that just needs to be polished, however extensively).

Iain Stanley's picture

Great thoughts. Where do you draw the line at “extensively”, as you wrote?

Adriano Brigante's picture

In my opinion, you can do all the adjustments you want globally and locally, dodge and burn, crop, correct the perspective, and even clone out distracting elements, as long as it doesn't change the essence of the image, ie. what you see in the final image is essentially what you saw when you took the picture. In other words, if someone would describe the final image in a few words, it would match their description of what was in front of your lens at the moment you took the shot.
Conversely, if their descriptions don't match, it means you created something new after you took the shot and therefore it's digital art, ie. if they say "it's a picture of a flock of birds in front of a sunset", when in fact you didn't actually shoot birds in front of a sunset.

Iain Stanley's picture

Again, all good points and well made, so thanks for your input. To play devil’s advocate, why is removing a distracting element ok, like a bird in the foreground, for example, but adding a bird to a sunset is not (in terms of what defines photography)?

What if your original vision for the shot was birds in front of a sunset but on that particular day, not a single damned feathered flyer crossed the sun? So you added the bird in post....your vision was birds in front of a sunset, but nature didn’t cooperate. But then through some compositing you ended up with exactly what you’d originally pictured...?

It’s all academic, really, but interesting nonetheless

Adriano Brigante's picture

If the bird you remove (or add) is not an essential part of the photograph, then it falls into the "polishing" category. But if the bird becomes an important element of the final picture (ie. if most people describing the picture in a few words would mention it), then it goes beyond polishing the picture, because it's fundamentally altering the result. That's the real criteria, it's not about removing vs. adding. I can imagine a case where removing birds can be considered digital art, like, say, a picture of a big flock of birds where you strategically remove some of them to make a heart-shaped hole in the flock. In that case, you didn't just remove a few distracting elements, you created something entirely new and you changed the essence of what this picture is about. Therefore, that would be (very cheesy) digital art.

As for your second question: If you have a precise vision of what you want to get, you either wait patiently for nature to cooperate, or you decide to go home and create a composite. The former is photography, because you created the picture with your camera when you pressed the shutter. The latter is digital art, because you created the picture on your computer when you got home. Again, it comes down to what we consider to be the moment of creation, even though both results could look almost exactly the same.

Foto Toad's picture

Great observations and questions.
And although art is maybe one of the hardest things to classify and maybe shouldn't be defined, it is important to also have definitions when we are communicating what we want or what we need in the context of business or design. Even colors themselves have been categorized to enable everyone to know what is expected.
But, categorizing art forms and mediums doesn't (or shouldn't) devalue their worth or artistic value which lies solely in the eye and mind of whoever is beholding it.

Iain Stanley's picture

As the old saying goes, you can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time....

Willy Williams's picture

For me, it comes down to the difference between credibility and wishful thinking. YMMV...

Michael L. McCray's picture

Manipulation of the image whether by photographic technique or darkroom techniques or post-printing applications (hand-tinting for one example) was always part of the art form. This idea of purity in the means of creating an image is rather silly. The history is rich in creative techniques that pre-date photoshop.

Iain Stanley's picture

To an extent it’s even more silly when people boast that their jpg image out of camera hasn’t been edited.....

c0ld c0ne's picture

Boasting is always silly. But I can’t deny a sense of satisfaction when an image straight out of the camera matches or exceeds my vision.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

when colorize old photos!

Gregg Shipman's picture

It's a good academic question, but really it doesn't practically matter much. If you are good at compositing and other aspects of post production, then they are simply tools in your photography toolbox. One client may want unedited RAW files, while another may want a custom one of a kind 100 layer photoshop creation. I'm not sure where craftsman becomes "artist" but I think of them both as part of an overlapping skill set. Interesting question though.

Iain Stanley's picture

One thing I constantly wrestle with these days is leaving photos alone. I have been drawing and taking photos for so long now that getting up at dawn to take a sunrise shot no longer really gets my juices flowing. I’m always thinking about what I can add to make it more interesting (to me) but very often people prefer the untouched original.

You have to be disciplined in not going over the top if you have a lot of tools in your toolbox

c0ld c0ne's picture

I don’t think that any craft benefits from using every available tool on each of your projects. Part of being an accomplished craftsman is being able to use the right tool(s) for the job at hand.

George Entenman's picture

A client may want RAW files but they can't even see a representation of them without turning them into JPEGs or equivalent, and that involves decisions about white balance, color correction, etc.

Don Althaus's picture

First of all, it would seem photography is about telling the subject's story with all of our perceptions, understandings and appreciations of what that story is. It seems that "line" between photography and digital art is crossed when we present work that goes from what we saw (with all of those perceptions, understandings and appreciations rolled in) to what we wish we had seen.

c0ld c0ne's picture

I would argue that this definition largely pertains to documentary photography, and much less so for other art forms where the photograph is just a part of the mix that produces the end result.

Don Althaus's picture

I certainly understand your point but I think it really reinforces mine. You said "much less so for other art forms where the photograph is just a part of the mix". If the photograph is simply "part of the mix" of another art form... if it is only a component of the other "end result"... doesn't that fact alone move the image from photography into some form of mixed media or digital art?

Justin Sharp's picture

I work 100% in the darkroom and own no digital camera (other than my phone). My workflow always leads to a physical print. Just because it’s a darkroom it doesn’t mean I can’t push the limits just as far as photoshop. When you push digital photos past a certain threshold, some consider it digital art. But when you push beyond that same threshold in the darkroom, there isn’t the same equivalent. This is problematic for some of the digital art arguments. I wonder if photographers who push their post processing really far would create prints rather than only displaying their work on a computer; would the digital art argument still hold as much weight?

Iain Stanley's picture

I don’t possess any skills in the darkroom, but I certainly agree that post-production did not begin in the digital age. That’s a nostalgic furphy.

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