Picture versus Photograph

When I’m writing (or speaking for that matter) about my venture into photography (and perhaps this is already a clue as to the outcome – foreshadowing – a sign of quality literature) I often find myself using the word photograph and picture interchangeably. This hobby is typically referred to as photography, but one might also say picture taking. Well, you could say it. Yes; it would sound dumb, but that’s not the point now is it, so sit there and be quiet for a minute.

So what exactly is the difference between a photograph, and photography, and a picture, and picture taking? When I enter define photograph into Google (here) I am provided a plethora of definitions from a variety of locations. Some seem to believe that a photograph is a photograph because it involves the use of film, while another definition postulates that light falling onto any light-sensitive surface suffices to be a photograph. Seems reasonable enough. Both reference the capturing of an image and this is a very important point, perhaps the most important point and we can agree to disagree about all other issues regarding what is a photograph.

If one enters into Google define picture (here) there is talk of visual representations, painting, string theory (string theory? how did that crop up here?, etc. Really. There seems that much is in common between the two words, but certainly there must be a difference. Certainly there must be a reason we say things like “I’m going to take up photography and buy some very expensive equipment so that I can take pictures of my cats,” versus “I’m going to take up picture taking and buy some very expensive equipment so that I can take pictures of my cats.”

When I start to think about how and when I use each of these words one thing strikes me as peculiar: it seems that I use picture to define an object and an object only. In this case the object would be a photograph (clever son-of-a-bitch, aren’t I?). You know what I mean though….a picture is something you receive in the mail. A picture is something you print or have developed. A picture is something you frame, place into a scrapbook, etc. A photograph is something less tangible. A photograph is the image captured on the roll of film. A photograph is the stream of ones and zeros stored on your digital cameras media card. A photograph isn’t placed into a frame or scrapbook, but is loaded into editing software for manipulation.

You print a picture, but you work on a photograph.

Ansel Adams was a photographer and he shot photographs. But he printed pictures.

Well, this is what I’m thinking for what it’s worth.

[An update to this posting – last night, not long after posting this entry, I was watching an old 1970’s television programme I regularly record.  During the opening minutes the wife, who is cleaning house with her husband, comments upon a “photo album” she finds hidden behind some other items.  She states to her husband “Oh Bob, look!  Our photo album.” She opens and points “Oh look, there’s your team picture.”  Photo album, but it contains pictures, not photographs.  Can it get any weirder?]


2 thoughts on “Picture versus Photograph

  1. Now this is an absolute gem of a post!

    Its really set me thinking… thinking precisely what I’m not too sure yet, but definitely thinking.
    I’ve got a very funny feeling (in an as yet undefined part of me) that this may, possibly and somehow, tie in with my still incredibly fuzzy thoughts on the “photography as art… or not” debate.

    Seriously though, thanks for the post as it truly has provided food for thought.

  2. I told you I’m a better writer than photographer!

    Oh, and I think I finally found the word for which I’ve been searching. A word to describe a picture (or is it a photograph? shit!) meant to simply capture a moment in time for posterity versus an image (there! no picture or photograph issue any longer!) meant to convey my artistic vision.



    A picture of the family gathered at the Thanksgiving table is a record. A picture of a plate of turkey taken at a strange angle and using some sort of warming filter may, or may not, be described as artistic (as opposed to ‘record’).

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