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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Newhall

Photography: Science or Art?

Updated: Jan 10

Is photography a science? Or an art? Many people have strong opinions about whether photography is a science or an art. I have met both groups of people. While both groups definitely have strong arguments to back up their claim, I think their both wrong (to an extent).* I think the answer is far more nuanced then just a "one size fits all" type of answer.

Before asking the question "Is photography a science or an art?" we should first define the difference between science and art. This appears to be simple, on the surface. Science relies on logic, numbers, and data for answers. Art, on the other hand, focuses on creativity and the creation of artwork. Yet, I hear doctors refer to medicine as both a science and an art; medicine uses numbers, data, and human creativity, to save lives and treat disease. So clearly, science and art are not exclusive of each other.

If science and art can be connected through something as critical to humanity as medicine, then what stops art and science from cohabitating in peace in photography? I've talked in the past about color contrast. Depending on how you look at it, color contrast can be seen as either an art or a science. On one hand, I'm taking about colors in art. That's inherently creative. On the other hand, I'm talking about light and how people see light. That inherently focuses on science.

Large collection of cameras. History of Cameras
A lot of cameras have developed as the technology has changed! Wix Stock Photo

Clearly, science and art can be connected, but how are they connected in photography? I think the first of these is fairly obvious. The tools. The tools themselves are machines that are the creation of scientists and innovators. However their users are (often) artists. A perfect example of this is the camera. The camera has really changed over the years, but all new versions required science to develop. For example, the earliest versions of the camera used the manipulation of light and chemistry to create photos. These scientific innovations were the foundation of modern photography.

Furthermore, the history of photography is filled with developments and improvements of the process. The development of photography as an art relied on the development of chemistry and physics as a science. People needed to understand, or at least observe, how light moved to get the picture. They also needed to know how chemicals (and later technology) worked and developed, in order to create and freeze those movements of light. These creations were by scientists. Their use, however, is by photographers.* In essence, you couldn't have the art without the science.

So that explains the use of art and science with cameras. What about the development, editing, and printing of photos themselves? Again, it is both. While the processes used to print the photos rely on science and technology, their application is artistic. If two artists look at the same photo using the same editing software, it is perfectly possible that both would produce different versions of the same image. Why? Because, even though they are using the same process and tools, they are two different people with different minds and therefore different ideas.*

For a photographer, especially a digital photographer, understanding technology is key. You needs this knowledge so you can use it properly. A digital photographer, for example, has to know at least how to operate their camera, their computer, and the printer. The film photographer, similarly, operates a variety of machines, and uses a number of chemicals to print and produce their work. Understanding the technology is especially important if you want to print and develop your work yourself! How these machines and processes work is a totally different post, and there are whole books on the topic!

Alright, so the technology is a collaboration of science and art. The artists are using technology to create their art, but so are painters. It is not very difficult to view painting as chemistry with composition, or ceramics as examples of physics. To which I say, that is true! However, photographers need to understand, at least on the fundamental level, the science in order to do photography. For example, when I teach, before people learn about composition, I make sure they know at least the basic technical operation of the camera. Some of the first of these, are settings like shutter speed priority, aperture priority, and manual.

That was the first thing I learned, and it's the first thing I think students should know. Honestly, it's probably the most important thing to learn.

You see? Photography is not just about art. It's about science too. Photography doesn't just need science to be able to create work, it needs science to work at all! I know, if you're like me when I started, it sounds intimidating. I remember feeling daunted when my teacher started to explain how my manual SLR camera worked. Eventually though, I got the hang of it. It became less intimidating once I started actively applying it.

What do you think? Is photography an art or a science for you? Send me an email with your answer!

*Though sometimes people were both!

*If it's not already apparent, I like to think that humans, though anatomically the same, do have some individualism to themselves. Without individualism we would all be the same monotonous creature. While we might be able to better understand eachother, I do think we would bore each other.

*There are, of course, the people who say photography isn't an art because you "just have to click a button." To them I say look here, here, and here.

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