How to Learn Photography

How to Learn Photography

In these pages I shortly introduce how to learn photography as a formalized expression of art. Such view goes beyond the practicalities of how to photograph focusing on how to communicate a message giving shape to something new. Indeed, photography should be considered in its social, cultural and psychological significance to understand the medium’s effects on our cognitive processes and social interpretations.

History of the Art of Photography

Although considered a modern invention, the principles and mechanics were known since the fifteenth century. For instance, Piero della Francesca employed a tool named camera obscura (pinhole image) for his studies on perspective; later, in 1637, Descartes studied human optics and scientifically documented the analogy with photography. However, such studies reflected the seventeenth-century revolution in philosophical and scientific thinking redefining communication and interpretation; for instance, the dualism between soul and body paralleled the Cartesian separation between mind and body and the analogy between the eye and the camera. As a result, it became clear that reality and visual interpretation were both subject to a specific interpretation function of the social, cultural and psychological characteristics of the viewer. Examples are Palaeolithic cave art (determined by indistinct boundaries rather than definite borders), Japanese (employing multiple viewpoints and oblique perspective) and Chinese painting (portraying nature without a fixed viewpoint).

The theories of interpretation, as firstly developed by Berkley, basically defined the dichotomy between visible ideas (what we see) and tangible ideas (what we know) only reconciled by a theory of association between visible and tangible (Constructivism). Such view has been debated since the 1920s when Gestalt psychologists characterized perception with organization and structure assigning greater weight to the pattern of stimulation as expanded in 1966 by Gibson as “the whole is something else than the sum of the parts”. Specifically, Gibson considered perception as inherent within biological processes and, as a consequence, continuously evolving (ecological theories).

Within today shift from literacy to visuals, the role of photography is important in providing the structures required by culture and society to promote change; however, photography’s contribution is rooted in the cited theories of vision, association, and representation.

The Categories of Photography

Obviously there are no formulas to produce nice photographs, but it is possible to abstract from culture-bound concepts of beauty some universal principles as symmetry, proportion and balance. For instance, Aboriginal Yolngu had words for defining terms as design and color within a general concept of recurring pattern.

By considering what the photographer want the viewer to look at we can derive three main categories present in the art of all eras and cultures that can be considered as included in different proportion in every shoot:

Realism. The photograph is a window open on the world highlighting something for a specific reason. For instance, anthropologists employed the objectivity of photography to scientifically document cultures and habits.

Yap Micronesia

Formalism. The object portrayed is perceived through obstacles forcing the viewer to overcome the medium by adopting a new perceptual standpoint. Such obstacles are the formal techniques (depth of field, surface of the image, etc.) and the main content and emotions of the photograph. For instance, self-reflexive photography informs the viewer about the methods employed by photography.


Expressionism. The photograph conveys the reasons behind the needs for documenting an object, it is more concerned with the photographer and his subjectivity. For instance, pictorialism involves employing whatever (photomontages, etc.) the artist deem necessary to express his ideas.

Club de Jazz Santiago

Such categories define the shoot in its abstract components but need to translate into the practical aspects of every photograph. Such aspects relate to the photographer perception of the real object and include:

Visualization is related to a photographer’s consideration for the unnatural two-dimensional representation of the world and the relative viewer’s interpretation; indeed, real aspects as shadows or light have a solid impact on the photograph and its message.

Argentina Buenos Aires

Composition relates to the combination of lines of sights and lens projections mainly because reality is constrained through a two-dimensional representation; indeed, it is an indispensable mean to reach a specific end through the medium. For instance, the rule of thirds, geometries, textures, negative spaces, golden ratio, etc.

Sudan Underwater Life

Framing involves using the right camera angle and viewpoint include all the relevant information the photographers think necessary to convey the message. A common example is the illusion of false contact realized by the space compression of photography’s two-dimensional reduction. Note that composition may be a function of framing but it is the latter to stabilize the image between internal forces (colors, subjects, light, etc.) and external pressures (objects, shadows, and other intangibles outside the frame).

Philippines Underwater Life

Camera angle relates to the points of view (including different levels and lenses) employed to express meanings or different interpretations of the subject by changing the spatial relationship, or depth of field, between the objects within the image.

Communication with Photography

Without a doubt, photography can communicate concepts or ideas although differently from written or verbal affirmations; indeed, photography encodes reality and operates as a representational system. As a result, it must exist a theory matching the photograph with the perceived environment.

Lévi-Strauss’ Structural Anthropology defined thinking as the interaction between humans (culture) and their environment (nature); specifically, primitives symbolized natural elements with totems in a formal system of binary oppositions (men from women, animals from gods, etc.) requiring to relate the object with its system to substantiate it. As an example, such theory can be interpreted in photography as naked/clothed, light/darkness, etc.

Malaysia Borneo Lankayan

However, Peirce’s semiotics was predominant in the 1970s as a critical framework to examine the elements of any sign system. Accordingly, three types of sign determine the sources of information for the photograph’s viewer:

  • icon: relating to the resemblance of the photography to the subject
  • index: relating to the causal connection between the medium and the subject
  • symbol: relating to the interpretation’s ability of the message conveyed by the photograph

Finally, during the 1980s and 1990s, semiology appeared as the dominant framework of interpretation for human cultural activities through the identification of common forms of signification.

As a result, the photograph is considered to provide evidence not in a straightforward manner, but rather through a message hidden in its own nature and making (implied narrative and cultural backgrounds).

Travel with Photography

Travel photography relates to the documentation of cultures, traditions, landscapes, and history. It is characterizable by realism in order to provide a clear and unbiased image of events but may have as purpose also to educate or to convince the viewer of something. Therefore, it is among the most powerful uses of photography because it can promote social and cultural change.

Ecuador Quito

Indeed, whereas knowledge of specific indigence may be present, photography has the power to bring the public attention to it and to provide dramatic support for it. However, travel photography is different from photojournalism because the latter emphasizes more impact than transparency and because news stories require immediateness. If you’d like to start creating pictures take a look at my page about photography gear.


Wright, T. (2004). The Photography Handbook.

Pinney, C. (2011). Photography and Anthropology.

Weissberg, L. & Beckman, K. (2013). On Writing with Photography.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *