Taking vs Making the Photo

One of my favourite sites, Photography Stack Exchange, recently had a question posted about the differences between taking and making a picture. I responded in the question, but I decided to expand on my response a little here.

The thing about doing a "Picture A Day" project is that I think you begin to get some insight into the different forms of photography if you expend some effort to try them. Of the course of the year, which is now nearly at an end, I've done some landscape, nature, wildlife, street, studio, product, food, abstract, macro, and heck, even paparazzi pictures! A lot of these forms fall into a category of making or taking, but yet, the term taking does have a negative connotation in photography and I think that's a little unfair.

Taking A Picture

The negative aspect of taking a picture, to many photographers, appears to be around the classic tourist-like snapshot where the camera is basically pointed at something and a picture taken without any thought to composition, what is in the scene, the quality of the light, etc. In photography, not doing these things is usually seen as a negative, but to the person taking the shot, who is only seeking to boost their memory for a later date, none of them matter, nor should they. The image isn't really intended for another, at least not directly, so do things like composition matter at all then? I think not. If the goal of the image succeeds, the image is a success. That's all that really matters.

However, on a more positive side of the taking ledger, comes from people like Henri Cartier-Bresson whose famous street candids captured fleeting moments of people in interesting situations. Cartier-Bresson didn't stage these shots, he didn't carefully prepare the conditions for them, he simply (or not so simply) had a brilliant eye for seeing the moment happening and responding to it. Some would argue, I suspect, that his ability to do this made the photos, but I think that's pushing a definition. Cartier-Bresson took the photo, the candid, semi-private moment of an individual, a stranger, and created art from it. To me, anyways, this is what taking the picture means in a more formal photographic context.

Making a Picture

I'd say that the idea of making a picture is seen, without exception, to be a good thing. Ansel Adams is, I think, the source of this with his famous quote "You don't take a photograph, you make it." For the vast majority of the time, I do agree with him, except as already noted above. Now, far be it from me to argue photographic semantics with the likes of Ansel Adams, but while I believe he is 100% correct for the form of art he worked on, I don't necessarily believe it for all photographic art forms.

So, what is making a picture? Well, that varies depending on the circumstances. When we talk studio-style photography, whether portrait or product, it becomes a little more obvious since most or all conditions are carefully controlled, especially the light. At this point, the photographer is building the scene designed specifically to meet his or her vision and so is clearly making the picture. When you talk about the works of someone like Ansel Adams, the definition is a little more difficult to see since, after all, he was a noted landscape photographer and that implies a certain loss of control over the scene. This is true, but a photographer like Adams didn't simply show up at a site some random morning and started snapping pictures. The sites, the potential scenes, were carefully scouted and chosen, the weather was watched, the camera was positioned and the composition carefully chosen, and then immense patience was applied. Adams made the image by doing these things, by going into the location with a vision in mind and ensuring that the conditions were favourable to making that come true.

However, if you were to ask me if making a picture is always good, I would say no. I think this can go to extremes, especially when the photographer is actually removed from the equation. A good example of this is often seen in water drop photography, a favourite of mine, when the whole of the process is done by machine. This doesn't make the images any less spectacular, but there is something lost, just a little, when the photographer isn't the one to release the shutter. I don't use a machine to control the water, trigger the flash, and release the shutter when I do water drops so, in that sense, I miss some moments that happen, and yet I feel that the image is more mine as a function of being part of the overall process since I manually trigger the flash and the camera.


Don't worry all that much about the differences. Take pictures you love and, if others also enjoy them, you get a bonus for it. It really all depends on what you want to accomplish from the photographic experience. Is it memories? Is it art? Is it work? If you spend too much time worrying about what you take then you'll miss out. It's far better to capture what is there and have it less than perfect than to miss it altogether. Don't you think?


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