The Difference Between the Taking and the Making of a Photograph

June 18, 2012 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 29 Comments | |
The Difference Between the Taking and the Making of a Photograph Image

Main image: Lizard Point, Cornwall, England. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 24mm TS-E lens, ISO 50, 0.8 sec @ f16, 0.6 ND grad (hard) + 0.9ND proglass filters

Walking down the road on our first date Wendy, my wife to be not so politely questioned how it was possible to spend three years studying photography. “After all, what more is there to it than just pressing the button?” We managed to get over that initial blip and now here in Cornwall well over a quarter of a century later we've just come back from planning another dusk session behind the lens hopefully shooting gorgeous late November light painting the Lizard. I'm fairly sure after a life time together chasing the light and many, many vigils by the tripod she now realises there's a bit more to this game of photography then that. Being there, seeing the potential, waiting for the light, making the shot happen, working the situation to extract the maximum visual potential; these are the skills we photographers have honed over countless dawn and dusk patrols. These accumulated experiences build the database that is a photographer's psyche. Beyond the aesthetics we strive to perfect our practical skills which determine how we use our equipment to create the images that lurk in the recesses of our imagination. Good pictures rarely come easily. Photography is all about momentary blinding flashes of opportunity, inspiration and creativity combined with painstaking preparation and attention to detail. It's the difference between the taking and making of a photograph.

Am I making a bigger thing of all this then I need to?  For most photography is nothing more than just pressing the button. It never will be, and yet even with such a lackadaisical approach technically competent pictures are a probability. With auto focus, exposure and ISO adjustment you have to work hard to get a dark blurry picture using a modern digital camera set to idiot mode. OK, most point & shoot snappers shoot dreadful compositions in completely the wrong light with acres of dead space and a distant point of interest slap bang in the middle of the frame. Aunty Mary with a skip as a backdrop, an empty car park as foreground and an aerial protruding from her head; but at least she'll be in focus and correctly exposed. Your average £200 compact camera is an amazingly proficient tool. It isn't surprising how in the space of a decade we all have embraced so completely the digital age. But the very convenience and quality available to all with a tiny phone camera or humble compact have spawned two universally accepted truths which just aren't true at all; digital photography is easy, and if we take enough pictures surely something is bound to work out. They are myths, aren't they?

The Difference  Between the Taking and the Making of a PhotographAutumn colours along the East Dart River, Dartmoor, Devon, England. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 24mm TS-E lens, ISO 50, 8 sec @ f11, 0.6 ND proglass & polarising filters. I spent the best part of an autumn day totally engrossed in photographing one short stretch of the East Dart River on Dartmoor. Is there any better way to spend a day? Here the simple arrangement of overhanging leaves with the wispy curves of the moving water and the lush greens of the moss clad rocks drew me. The best pictures are always the simplest. I swept my eye from corner to corner of the frame; was there anything in the frame that distracted? Move closer, get a bit lower, et voila. A 0.6 ND proglass filter slowed the shutter speed enough and a polariser cut the reflection from the surface of the water, enhancing the contrast between the white froth and the dark deeper waters.

Surely all this is irrelevant to us serious photographers with our full frame DSLRs, burgeoning camera bags, muddy boots and tripods on the shoulder. We know all about histograms and hyper focal distance. We shoot RAW and use layers. We own ND grads and cable releases. We wouldn't dream of whopping up the ISO to save lugging legs, would we? And yet the convenience of digital photography is such that those two myths are remarkably pervasive. They can and do permeate our consciences and if we're not careful start fundamentally affecting the way we approach our craft and the way we work in the field.  With no cost constraints it's all too easy to start blasting away indiscriminately. Shoot from the hip and sort it out later in Photoshop; this is a slippery slope plunging inevitably towards the depths of despair and devastating loss of self-esteem that comes with shooting on program mode with a high ISO, no tripod and a reversed lens hood. The latter is the photographic equivalent of wearing socks with sandals; clearly a fate worse than death.

Time to dispel another myth; shooting digitally is free. Granted once the hard and software has been acquired exposing pixels costs nothing monetarily, but by filling memory cards with mediocrity you will pay dearly in the one currency we're all short of; time. Editing and processing a tight shoot of strong images is a pleasure; wading through rubbish is a tiresome burden. Next week I'm off to Sri Lanka. I don't want to return with thousands of images. If, when the shoot has been edited, the RAWs processed and the winners tweaked in Photoshop I'm left with 100 good pictures I'll be happy. Inevitably maybe ten of those will define the trip, with just one truly standing the test of time. So be it. Quality wins over quantity every time; it's the only way.

The Difference  Between the Taking and the Making of a PhotographA field of sainfoin beneath the village of Campi Vechio, the Valnerina, Monti Sibillini National Park, Umbria, Italy. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 24mm TS-E lens, ISO 50, 6 minutes @ f16, Big Stopper & 0.9 ND grad (hard) filters. The colours in the fields and on the hillsides of the Valnerina in late spring defy belief. Umbria, the green heart of Italy explodes with colour as pink, violet, yellow and red jobbies bloom simultaneously. With evening light and a towering dramatic sky I deploy the Big Stopper to slow life down. The shot is composed and the exposure calculated before the opaque filter is fitted and the shutter opened. 6 long minutes of pacing by the tripod follow; gazing at the sky, looking forward to dinner. As the sensor is exposed the clouds streak through the sky and the breeze ruffles the tree in the middle distance. Finally I can unlock the cable release and close the shutter. The monitor display looks good, but the light is still tantalising. Open the shutter, here we go again; my antipasti will just have to wait. As I pace again I'm wondering; will anyone believe these colours are real, or just the product of overenthusiasm with the saturation slider?

For what it's worth I actually expose fewer frames now than I did in the days of chromes. That's mainly because there's simply no reason to bracket exposures anymore, with careful checking of my histogram and highlight alerts I can be totally confident of my exposures. But to be talking about those days now is pretty pointless; the film era already seems like a dim and distant memory. Many reading this will have never exposed silver halide crystals. I certainly don't subscribe to the notion that those who grew up shooting film are intrinsically better photographers. Exposing film, especially large or in my case panoramic format did require a painstaking and disciplined approach, but there's no reason that modus operandi can't be applied to today's technology. A meticulous attention to detail and thoughtful approach combined with the options for creativity the flexibility and quality our state of the art DSLRs allow is the way to a life of eternal photographic enjoyment, satisfaction and fulfillment. Chuck in the odd Cornish Pasty and your laughing; the Meaning of Life is revealed. Creatively it's an exciting time to be a photographer; the sky is the limit.

Entry Tags

photo, David Noton, photograph, photographs, noton, make, david, compose, take, taking, composing, making

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29 Comments | Newest Oldest First | Post a Comment

#1 Paolo Miscia

Very beautiful article: makes you want to go out and “press the button”!!!

12:30 pm - Monday, June 18, 2012

#2 Howard Marantz

Great article. Please post more in this vein

3:03 pm - Monday, June 18, 2012

#3 John

Brilliant article: as it shows photographs are definitely made and not taken and require hard work and dedication bu can anyone think of as better way to spend one’s life?

7:27 pm - Monday, June 18, 2012

#4 Chas

Nice to see some old fashioned values expressed in today’s terms.
I think it was Ansel Adams that coined the term of making photographs instead of just taking them. I have a book of his in which he describes the ‘making’ of seven photographs with all the printing details, times for burning in and holding back. A different skill certainly but still relevant.

8:45 pm - Monday, June 18, 2012

#5 FThomas

What a wonderful article and beautiful images.  It is so refreshing to read an article in this digital age that gives much greater insight to how an image is invisioned and then put together by the artist / photographer.  Truly a challenge to all of us to utilize our talent and skills in a well thought out manner rather than simply firing away hoping to capture one image out of 100’s.

9:08 pm - Monday, June 18, 2012

#6 Sanjay


I have forward the link to this lovely article to various friends and also posted it on face book.

Well done David!

8:43 am - Wednesday, June 20, 2012

#8 wedding photographer

Brilliant article! What a wonderful article and beautiful images! Well done David!

9:55 pm - Wednesday, June 20, 2012

#9 Ken

First, I must say good article. The photos are nothign short of amazing. HDR is fantastic.

However, beyond all that, once the novelty wears off, the HDR looks unnatural.

Yes Aunty mary and Uncle Sam photos may have aerials, but at least they do look natural. They may not be techical perfects, but equally they didnt spend the pension fund onthe equipment, the precious life time on waiting and tweaking. Instead they use their tiem perhaps to cook, to visit different places, and socializing.

Dont take it perosnally, you need to find the balance.

Just look at the instagram patronage than a typical Ameturer / pro photo blog then you know where the next big thing is.

1:33 pm - Thursday, June 21, 2012

#10 Sanjay

Ken I appreciate your zest for doing things besides photography in life.

However perhaps you realize that cooking and socializing is fun for some while waiting for the morning light fun for others? Ya?

AND how can you assume that the photographers do not indulge in such things and have a balance?

HDR of course should be done subtly. Just to increase the latitude and not always make statements.

5:59 am - Friday, June 22, 2012

#11 Vijay Pandya

Enjoyed article. Photography hobby keeps one alive and active throughout life. one leaves behind good photos for the next generation to remember him/her.

7:17 am - Tuesday, June 26, 2012

#12 keng

Very good article with lots of great information. Thank you!

4:29 pm - Monday, July 2, 2012

#13 Omar

Hi David,

Liked the fact you used the ND filters the old fashioned way instead of using photoshop. However, the field of sainfoin does look slightly unnatural.

8:59 am - Friday, July 13, 2012

#14 Harry

“Photography is all about momentary blinding flashes of opportunity, inspiration and creativity”

None of which is in evidence in any of these photographs. Trite, stock and boring maybe.

2:33 pm - Sunday, July 29, 2012

#15 Reminisce Studio

I have never been involved in landscape photography, but your images have taken my breath away.

Keep up the good work. :)

8:00 pm - Sunday, August 12, 2012

#16 Declan O'neill

Very interesting. I’d have to part company in the whole nd filter issue. Call me old fashioned but I think a photo of a river should look like a river not like some weird blur! Also why push the saturation so much?  Does it really need that much artificial colour?

11:10 am - Wednesday, August 15, 2012

#17 Ben @

Thank you David! I think because taking photos seems quite easy - you press the button and the world appears on the back of the camera - too many people think it’s simple. There are loads of tourist photos of Barcelona! Actually, it’s an amazingly expressive medium for communication if you use it properly and understand how to use the visual symbolism of aesthetics. When I teach Barcelona photography courses, my students quickly realise that it’s not the camera that matters, or even the objects in front of them. A photograph is of the light on an object, not the object itself. More than that, the objects of the world are just the paints and brushes that allow the art photographer to create proper photographs.

9:42 pm - Wednesday, August 22, 2012

#18 Lightworks wedding photographer Cambridge

You talk such common sense! Thank you, a great article with loads of great down to earth advice and some fantastic images!

4:54 pm - Friday, September 7, 2012

#19 San Diego Plumber

Wow. How do you do that? You really got a talent on photography. What type of camera would you recommend for a newbie like me?

4:37 am - Thursday, September 27, 2012

#20 Jed

Nice! I’ve learn!

Can you have comment on my Blog about photography

5:41 am - Saturday, October 13, 2012

#21 JohnJohnny

You have great talent,its just fantastic Now this blog is my favorite.

11:06 am - Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Unbelievable, You have great talent, its just fantastic

12:46 pm - Tuesday, December 18, 2012

#23 Diana

lackadaisical? I had to google the word! Lol

I love the East Dart River pic. So I was thinking, it would be perfect if you would add a bride and groom sitting on the rock, it would look enchanting.
Capturing moving water is difficult to shoot. So kudos to you! Great job!

Oh and you are spot on! Photography is way more than just pressing a button.

11:31 am - Wednesday, January 9, 2013

#24 James Harvie

Some might think creating stunning images is all about Equipment, which is true to a degree but there is far more to creating stunning Award winning pics. An image needs to grab ones attention in a matter of seconds. Stunning images are all about composition, mood and emotion. If you get these factor right your well on your way to creating stunning award worthy pics. You can see some of our award winning pics right here:

1:17 pm - Saturday, April 6, 2013

#25 Martha

I think photography means knowledge and creativity. You can take excellent photo if you have knowledge about the technique and if you are creative. Professional photographer never tell their all secrets to you. If you want to take breathtaking photographs and amaze people with your skills, you need to learn and practice a lot. I learned almost everything to skip the amateur photographer stage with this website. You should take a look at the great information.;/photography-tricks-and-techniques-learn-advanced-photography.html

10:57 pm - Tuesday, April 30, 2013

#26 David Hunter

Very interesting article. Thanks.

I really love your pictures. Very inspiring.

7:55 pm - Sunday, August 11, 2013

#27 Justin Cooksey

A really good read, that explains that great images are made not simply captured.  Time effort and experience goes in to every great photograph

10:32 am - Tuesday, September 10, 2013

#28 Erin R. Brewer

Oh my!!! You are just too true to be good. How do you manage to write and research on such wonderful things? You have inspired me to work harder now. I shall try as much as possible to enjoy life to the fullest and be satiated with the wonderful things that are around me, which I have been unaware of until now. Your all article and images are very nice.

5:57 am - Thursday, June 5, 2014

#29 Alva Bryant

Will you please remove me from your mailing list?

2:32 pm - Monday, September 15, 2014