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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Brian Adam
Professional Blogger, V logger, traveler and explorer of new horizons.