Categories of Photography

Stuck in a Photographic Rut?
23rd November 2019
Tunnel Black and white image
12th December 2019

Categories of Photography

Categories of Photography
The Grave

We often talk about genres of photography such as portraiture, landscapes or abstract. But I believe there is another layer which overlays these genres. Photos fall into three categories.

I’ve written before about being stuck in a photographic equivalent of writers block. Being aware of these categories will help us with that so we become more focussed on what we are trying to achieve.

At first, I called these categories ‘levels’. But that was the wrong word as it infers a hierarchy and none is more important or better than the next. Each category its own purpose that is neither more nor less valid than the the others.

The category at which a photograph fits depends upon the story it tells. There is overlap between them and which category it fits into depends upon the intention of the photographer and also whether the viewer reads a story from the image.

Category 1: Record Photography. “I woz ‘ere!”

When you capture an image you may be solely recording an event, and thus I call it ‘Record Photography.’ It is often an off-the-cuff snap, but it can be a technically perfect image too. The holiday snap and the selfie usually fit into this category. Commercial product photography and staged wedding photographs may do too.

Some photographers look down their noses at this, but that snobbery says more about the observer than the photo. It is perfectly valid to shoot this type of image; the photo serves a purpose. It tells the world that you stood there and witnessed an event. Over time the photo may evoke fond memories.

In the future in may even become a useful historical document, a record of the times.

"I woz 'ere" Category.
“I Woz ‘Ere!” A simple holiday snap.

Category 2: Observational photography. “Wow! Look at this.”

The following category I call ‘observational photography.’ Maybe you are just depicting something you have observed that is aesthetically pleasing. Landscapes, still portraits, a photo of a bird perched on a twig or images and what I call simple abstract photography (e.g. the shadow on the wall below) fit into that category. With these photographs, you are saying that this caught your attention, this is how you observed the world in that moment. It’s a simple story, but one worth telling.

Categories: Shallow abstract is observational photography. Sun shining through a hole in an oak leaf.
A simple observation
Categories: Simple Abstract - Observational Photography Category
A simple abstract is an interesting observation

Again, there is nothing wrong with that at all. I like to see an amazing sunrise or a perfectly sharp catalogue images of wildlife or an unusual abstract as much as the next person. They take compositional and technical skills to achieve well.

Category 3: Meaningful Story Photography. “Think about this.”

Meaningful Story. Of the three categories, this is the most challenging. Abstract image of children playing in the sea while and older person watches on.

What story does this photograph tell you? Take a moment to think about this before you read on.

For me, it is all about the difference between the moving children on the right and the solitary stationary figure on the left. The children’s movements were accentuated by the long exposure and they exhibit exuberance while the person on the left stands and observes the group but doesn’t join in the play. The girl on the far right is clearly younger the stationary figure but also wears black. Will it be a long before she is standing watching instead of jumping through the waves with youthful joy?

Of course the photograph only tells the story of that fraction of a second. What happened immediately after this shot is impossible to tell. We can only interpret the moment that is presented to us in the picture.

My third category of photograph is usually far more challenging to both shoot and view. Street photography, wildlife action shots, active portraits, “deep” abstracts and war photography often fit into this. The story becomes more important than the aesthetics of the image.

The photographer deliberately attempts to tell a meaningful story with their photograph. If successful, the viewer may either infer from the photograph the same story as that the photographer attempts to tell or, if the photo is ambiguous, find their own story influenced their own experiences. Was the story you read into the photo above the same as my interpretation?

A story may be a comment on society. It could depict the way wildlife stands out or blends in with its environment or how a predator captures its prey. Or it might depict the contrast between old and new, or tell a tale of decay, or make a social or political point.

Categories: this photo of people and mannequins fits into the Meaningful Story category

I would be fascinated to hear your comments about these categories. Join in by commenting below or follow and tag me using @ivortog on social media or via my Facebook page.

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