Photography ≠ “Painting with light”

Black and white photo of Great Egret, St. Augustine, Florida.

Black and white photo of Great Egret, St. Augustine, Florida.

Hey Folks

“The word photography is based on the Greek φῶς(photos) “light” and γραφή (graphé) “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”, together meaning “drawing with light” (ya gotta love Wikipedia).

“Photography means painting/drawing with light”.

It’s time photographers (and photography) mature, and walk away from this virtually meaningless phrase. The phrase is a fabrication, deception at best, and  has never been valid. Let it rot. We’re not painters, we’re photographers. We no more “draw with light” than does any person with their finger in the sand. Pixels and film aren’t light, they don’t even “capture” light, they merely represent it – to propose otherwise suggests only a childlike understanding of what light might actually be.

If interpreted in this callow manner, all painting would similarly be “painting with light”. Indeed, all visual art could be a form of painting with light; drawing with pencils and crayons, digital graphic arts, sculpture, pottery, dance, et al. Van Gogh painted with light. Michaelangelo painted with light. Early aboriginal cave paintings were painted with light; with no light, there’d be no painting. Most certainly, there would be no viewing these paintings. The idea that we paint with light is no more valid than saying carpenters sculpt houses with stardust.

The point here is that photography is not painting at all, any more than sculpture, pottery or dance might be painting. Photography is photography, regardless of the ancient Greek root; Ancient Greeks didn’t own cameras Photographers make photos, they don’t paint.

So why do so many folks love to recite this silly phrase?

One reason; it’s a futile grasp for artistic credibility. Futile not because photography isn’t artful, but because art (and artistic credibility) comes through, and only through, one’s own creating. Art is not a function of merely claiming alignment with other artforms. We can call our work whatever we want, but that plays no bearing on what it actually might be.

Photographers have long felt disenfranchised from the prestigious ‘art world’. But it’s time to mature and understand that the moniker of ‘artist‘ does not come via grasping at straws and clever exegesis, but via devoted and passionate creative pursuit. If photographers seek to be embraced as artists, they should aspire to achieve that on their own artistic merit; in short, be artful. Photography is not, and need not, be some kind of paintings little brother, art-by-proxy. It’s past time to cease perpetuating the concept; ironically, that very concept is quite probably one of the reasons so many in the art world have balked at including photography as art.

A second reason is a little more disheartening; photographers often explore the “art versus journalism” idea, and the Greek roots of the word are tossed around as we if actually converse in alpha beta kappa. In making an argument for the creative artistic freedom to infinitely manipulate images on a computer monitor, or present their captive animal images as wildlife photography, photographers love to align themselves with the creative spirit of a painter; “We’re artists, we need/deserve our freedom”. The idea that photographers might compare themselves with painters regarding the degree of reality in their creations is simply fantastical. Further, it speaks to photographers’ own discomfort and poor sense of artistic worth that they might wish to do so.

It’s a little distressing to see how many photographers fall back on this phrase to discuss what they do. Photographers, for whatever reason, seem unable to find their footing; when they feel their own artistic legitimacy is threatened, they stand on messy filament like “painting with light” to gain some kind of street cred in the art world. The flawed logic is simple; painting is unarguably a valid artform. Ergo, if we ‘paint with light’, we too are artistés.

Finally; just to be clear; there’s an immeasurable difference in kind between taking a photo and placing pixels on a computer then using mathematical algorithms to instruct those pixels how to appear. The latter, though understandably part of the photographic process, is most definitely not “painting with light”. It may very well be artful, even incredibly artful – but that’s another issue for another conversation.

“A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a mask.” –  Susan Sontag, US novelist and essayist. ‘On Photography’.

Photographers don’t paint or draw or sculpt or throw pots or dance or sing or act; we photograph. And we photograph with cameras, and lenses and tripods and fancy vests, all which most of us pay far more money for than we need to. What we do not do is ‘paint with light’.



13 thoughts on “Photography ≠ “Painting with light”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Photography is NOT painting with light | Skolai Images Stock Photo Blog --

  2. Guy

    Like so many other things, it’s a useful (maybe romanticized) term making the practice distinct from other methods of creating images. Similarly, watercolor painters don’t paint with the colors of water but “watercolor painting” sounds much better than “creating images with water-soluble pigments”.

    In the end, all visual artists do one thing: produce images. Whether they do so with brushes or light-sensitive devices, the result is a visual representation of something, real or imaginary which may as well be called “painting” (as much as it can be called anything else). In that sense the disciplines have more in common than trivial considerations of tools and materials – a human need to create.

    Rather than being confined to an arbitrary and limited distinction, I very much prefer to think that my work serves the same purpose and need for creative expression as did cave paintings, rock art, and every other form of visual art throughout history. This connection, to me, is far more powerful than anything relying on trivialities of technology or terminology.

    If I ever find myself in a situation where photographic equipment is not workable, the same creative force will likely lead me to pick up a brush or other means of creating images. To me, that is the common denominator, not semantic minutiae.

    “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.” –Philip K. Dick


  3. Greg Russell

    Very nice, Carl. I sometimes am guilty of describing photography as “capturing the light”, and I guess in a sense that’s what we’re doing. But, as you so skillfully point out, it goes beyond that. My moniker suggests that we simply document what’s in front of us, but you and I both know that’s not where it ends.

    Nice post. Food for thought, indeed…


  4. Paul Grecian


    Interesting read, glad you posted a link on FaceBook. I agree that there are some who play the phrase in order to try to achieve the “art” moniker for their photography. To me that indicates a lack of confidence in a photographer’s use of the medium to make art. I also agree that for any photograph to be considered art it must go beyond making analogy to other art forms. I do feel however, that the similarities between painting and photography are strong in every meaningful way except for the literal manipulation of paint. So I have no more problem with the analogy of photography to painting than I do the idea that wordsmiths “paint” a picture with words.


  5. Carl D Post author

    Hey Folks

    Thanks for the input.

    Guy – watercolor painters are painters. Photographers? Not so much.

    I think the quote you closed with says exactly what I’m saying here. Words are critical to the way we think, to the way we see ourselves and (here) what we do.

    My point is that painters have no problem calling themselves painters. Musicians call themselves musicians (even drummers, oddly enough) 🙂 . why can’t photographers simply say they’re photographers?

    Paul – interesting analogy. Writers might ‘paint a picture with words’, but I think we understand that as a metaphor. I suspect the use of ‘painting with light’ is not quite so abstract. IMO, it’s very much an attempt to wrest some artistic worth to their medium. I doubt that’s the purpose of the writer’s phrase.



  6. Jerry Greer

    Hey Carl,

    I’m glad you and I see through the same lens, if you know what I mean! So, did my posts on NPN, countered by my friend Guy prompt this blog post? What do you think Guy? You know, I stopped fighting the art thing years ago. I really don’t give a rats a#* whether I’m considered an artist or not. Hell, with the stuffed shirts that I deal with every day in the art world I don’t want to be associated with them. I just want to be true to the craft of being a natural history photographer. I also don’t think that I need to manipulate the hell out of an image to make it beautiful! I hope that soon you guys will pick up a copy of my new book “Blue Ridge – Ancient and Majestic” and see that I practice what I preach. Somehow though I always come out looking like the snobbish one in the discussion. I’m just not eloquent with my words, if only “straight to the point” won points with the crowd ;^)))

  7. Alister Benn

    You paint a compelling argument. The European penchant for using Greek and Latin as the root of their language created many words that are pushing the limits of metaphors.

    I like metaphors, I use them all the time, they are ideal ways to enhance images in peoples minds and light the spark of imagination that may propel someone into a world of creativity. And that’s not a bad thing.

    Getting back to the literal, you are quite correct, we are not painting with light. I do however feel that light is at the absolute centre of what we do. We don’t literally paint with it, that’d just be silly, (Unless what we do at night with flashlights and gels counts?!) We do communicate with it though.

    As I sit here at my desk at the beginning of another day writing about photography, I am continuing with an article about that very things. Communicating with Light. The Language of Light.

    I agree with your analysis 100%, but will spend a day writing in metaphors. Cheers and all the best.

  8. John P

    I certainaly agree with your discussion on “painting with light” it is a pharase I never use and always thought that the term was absurd! We are photographers! That is never to say the temperature of “light” is not important to our imagery! But we do not “paint” with it. “Light is color-photography is light”

  9. Carl D Post author

    Hey Folks

    Thanks for the follow up comments.

    a) – Michael; Jensen comes closer, but misses the point … people maybe misunderstand what photographers precisely because we misrepresent it ourselves .. “painting with light”. And I disagree with him .. photographers can, and often do, (typically) outline what they do when asked with a reply “I’m a nature photographer” or “landscape photographer”, etc.

    b) – Jerry; Actually, I saw another piece about this more recently, and the 2 along with an idea I’d had a while, spurred this post. Glad you liked it man. I’ll definitely be keen to see your book. I’ve long admired your approach to your work.

    c) – Alister: I agree that metaphors are a great tool to use. And light IS at the center of what we do ( I thought of the light pairing at night argument, but it thought it too convoluted to worry about here). What we do not do is paint.

    d) – David: I’m glad you like the photo, thanks a lot.



  10. Clare

    I must admit that I don’t really agree with your statement. While I can see where you’re coming from, I have always liked the phrase ‘painting with light’ because I mean, photography is all about lighting. Capturing the right light, controlling it, bouncing it off of one area and on to another, if the lighting is wrong in your photo, your photo is a dud. I’ve always viewed the saying in that respect. I mean you know when you get a killer image, the lighting is JUST PERFECT. it’s all about lighting for me and so I agree with the phrase. Interesting post though.

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