Thursday, August 6, 2015

Thoughts about the vernacular of photography


As a photography instructor I find myself paying very close attention to my choice of vocabulary. Words that otherwise are interchangeable by the novice have to be carefully separated in order to avoid confusing students during a lesson.

Take the following words for example; picture, photo, image, exposure. Out of context they can all refer to the same thing but in context they can be confusing, specially if the context adds to confusion. Look at this sentence, for example.

"If you want to get a good exposure you need to set your exposure properly."

In a technical context the word exposure is used to mean both the act of pressing the shutter and the manipulation of camera settings. Therefore, a better sentence structure would be;

"If you want to get a good picture you need to set your exposure properly."

This, of course, only works if the term picture hasn't been previously established to mean something specific. Depending on the skill level of your group the word picture can be used to mean a snapshot while the words photograph or image can connote a more thoughtfully crafted photo.

We can take it further and analyze the verb get in the sentence over make or capture. While fundamentally they mean the same thing, there are subtleties of meaning between them. So in truth, the sentence should read as such;

"If you want to capture a good image you need to set your exposure properly."

This all comes down to defining terms and being consistent in its usage. It's not only reserved for instructors either. Let's look at two terms that are constantly in debate; photographer and snapshot.

It seems every time a notable advancement is made in photography the argument of what a photographer is arises and it is always because the term alone is so broad. What ensues is a long dissertation by anyone and everyone whereby they ultimately come to one conclusion; the definition of the word in correlation to the levels of proficiency (i.e. pro over hobbyist over casual shooter over consequential.)

The same is consistently similar over the term snapshot. Here is another term that gets argued over time and again and comes to the same conclusion; definition to term. In this case it is about who took it, what the intent was and what value it has.

It would seem the underlying problem lies in categorizing terms and assigning proper labels to them but that's not the complete story. Terms are assigned according to need and according to the level of understanding of those speaking and listening. It's a natural human condition to dumb down technical jargon when talking with an uninitiated person or to make up words when a proper term is not in their vocabulary. Hence words like thingamabob and doohickey. An extreme example, I know, but you get my meaning.

The use of proper labels alleviates a lot of issues. For one, it reduces the number of arguments over semantics; who qualifies as a photographer? Anyone who frames a scene and presses a shutter is technically a photographer, whether it's with a cell phone, GoPro, point and shoot or a full sized 8x10 land camera. Even those accidental images of quirky situations captured by security cameras can be classified as taken by a photographer, though this is hazy at best. Would that be an example of consequential photography?

To reduce the number of arguments perhaps a better term would be to say, "I am a professional photographer," rather than just saying, "I am a photographer." Even better would be to qualify the type of photographer such as art photographer or fashion photographer or commercial photographer as this elevates the meaning from that of the common photographer or snapshooter.

It's not about snobbery either. It's about clarification for clarity's sake.

Next time you are in a conversation and you find yourself wondering what the other person is talking about, pay attention to their choice of words. Likewise, if you find having to explain what you are trying to say, it just may be your choice of wording. Something to think about.

Share with us photography terms or situation that has given you pause to ponder the meaning. Maybe there's a term out there whose use has made you question the definition, or shake your head in wonder. Looking forward to reading what you have to say.

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