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Most people speak of the process of photography as taking pictures. However, many serious photographers instead refer to making pictures.

One might be inclined to dismiss this as jargon, but there's clearly a difference in attitude. "Making" implies a creative process, whereas "taking" has negative connotations: appropriation, or even stealing. Or, not so negative: "to capture the moment"; the ability of a photograph to extract the essence of a scene, preserve it, and share it. But to flip back again, can one really do this well without also making something new? Even when the scene isn't staged, the photographer has some level of authorial responsibility.

So, the question: is taking really so bad? Does it inherently mean thoughtlessness, and rapid-fire snapshots? Should every genuine photographer be encouraged to engage in making? Or can taking photographs as observation alone be a valid, serious form of the art?

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Yikes! Prepare for battle... Just kidding ;) I use take, make, shoot, capture and photograph interchangeably in my classes, course notes and presentations. If I kept using the same world all the time, I would sound like a broken record. For some reason though, I never use the word 'snap', maybe I need to consult a therapist to know why. At least we don't have the same problem as in television industry, where they sometimes have to 'shoot a pilot'. –  Itai Dec 22 '10 at 2:58
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When I'm shooting on vacation and only doing it for the memory, then I take snapshots. I'm too busy enjoying myself to worry about the composition (much) so I grab the shot and go. If I'm working or shooting creatively then it's a much more considered thing; I'm composing, analyzing, thinking of exposure and depth of field. I'll take/make/shoot/capture and photograph, but I don't do snapshots at that point. –  Greg Dec 22 '10 at 6:22
    
On a related note, I try to avoid shoot due to its negative (violent) connotations. It's a bit tricky. :) –  Reid Apr 17 '11 at 19:24
    
'And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make' - Sir Paul McCartney –  Stéphane Péchard Apr 21 '11 at 5:43
    
I capture moments –  Graeme Hutchison Feb 17 '12 at 16:27

7 Answers 7

up vote 18 down vote accepted

I think each process has equal merit, just based on my own experience of doing a Project 365. Doing that project, with an express goal of not being overly repetitive, I've had to do a lot of different things and that really means both taking and making pictures:

Taking

This, to me, is the art of seeing the moment and taking it. Perhaps the jargon doesn't really imply this, but that is how I see it. Henri Cartier-Bresson was the master of this sort of thing, holding onto ordinary moments in time in such a way as to enspire and educate us. He didn't create the picture, he saw it, and captured it. This, I think, is the essence of taking a picture. Candid photography or photojournalism really falls into this and to master it means having an eye for the moment.

Now, the negative connotation on this would probably be the snapshot style, basically just capturing an image with out concept of framing, light, obstructions, etc. This is, in some ways, the classic tourist shooting I suppose and forms the basis for differentiating casual shooters versus advanced amateurs or pros.

Making

In this end of the spectrum, it's about putting the conditions in place for the image. It's about creating the lighting, or observing the lighting, and positioning for the image you know is to come. It can be as detailed and controlled as the almost cinematic work of Dave Hill or as studied and patient of the work of Ansel Adams. This is where the fine art, landscape, and similar works fall into and, to master this, you need to have the ability to envision the result and prepare for it.

For making a shot, the negative connotation, to me, is the complete setup does everything for you. For example, you can buy devices such as the StopShot that, once everything is set up, does all the work, including triggering the shutter. It's basically turn everything on and let it go to work and you'll see this often with water drops. Don't get me wrong, the images can be great, but to me it loses something when the finger isn't on the shutter, a machine is.

Conclusion

Now, I'm obviously not putting my meagre efforts into the same class as some of the masters I've listed, but I think I've tried to do both of these at various times. To be honest, I think I've had more success at making pictures, controlling the conditions of the outcome, but taking pictures is also fun and rewarding, the element of surprise can be a bonus. Exercising both modes can, I think, make you a better all around photographer. At the very least, I think it makes for more fun. :)

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John, to you, do either of the terms have negative connotations -- the flip-side of the positive examples you give? –  mattdm Dec 22 '10 at 15:07
    
@mattdm - Good thought, I edited my original with where I see the negative sides as well. –  John Cavan Dec 22 '10 at 15:33
    
I think the example of Henri Cartier Bresson is overly simplistic. His candid photography was carefully planned, as he would position himself in the correct place, frame the shot carefully and then release the shutter at the decisive moment. Take this one for example. tinyurl.com/3wh2fmn You can't expect me to believe that he was walking along, saw a bike coming and then whipped out his camera? He likely positioned himself at the top of the stairs, carefully composed the shot and waited for the cyclist to appear. He certainly did more than just "take" photos! –  CadentOrange Apr 19 '11 at 11:28
    
@Philip Goh - And what if the cyclist never appeared? That was the difference and, of course, the post is a fairly simplistic look at it since it's not the forum for a doctoral dissertation on the artistic works of famous street photographers. :) –  John Cavan Apr 19 '11 at 13:33
    
I think @Philip Goh's example demonstrates that most photographers are probably doing both things...simultaneously taking and making photographs. I'm not sure its always just one or the other...I think quite often, it is a combination of both. Even in landscape photography, you encounter one of those rarer, simply fantastic scenes with superb lighting, and just have to "take" a photograph of it...and in the process, you just might "make" a work of art at the same time. ;) –  jrista Apr 21 '11 at 6:10

My answer is "yes". There are pictures I take (things that I have the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time to record) and pictures I make (things I have the luxury of exploring or arranging). In both cases, they're expressions of myself. It may be easier to see that when I've gone to a great deal of trouble to arrange the picture, but even the reportage-type pictures depend on me inserting myself into a situation I think has photographic merit.

On that note, there are two significant portraits made by Yousuf Karsh of Winston Churchill. Although the camera and lights were set up ahead of time, it's fair to say that the first (and certainly the more famous of the two, a picture of a scowling Churchill who had just had his cigar stolen from his lips) was "taken", and the second, of a smiling, relaxed Churchill, was "made". Karsh preferred the second; it's arguable that the first, by personifying British defiance, had enough propaganda value to launch lend-lease and keep the UK from being conquered. You decide which one was "art".

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For those who don't feel like searching, here's an interesting article about Karsh (with photos): freerangetalk.com/?p=21291 –  Evan Krall Dec 22 '10 at 4:04

Great question but when I first read it this seemed like semantics (how wrong could I be?).

Now as I read the answers I realise that there is a deeper process involved which is very akin to the De Bono Six Thinking Hats approach. In that approach you consciously don a certain kind of thinking hat. It means that you deliberately enter that thinking mode and bring that approach to the problem at hand.

In the same way we, as photographers, put on different photographic hats at different times:
- The Journalist's Hat. We take a photo (the Red Hat)
- The Director's Hat. We make a photo (the Blue Hat)
- The Artist's Hat. We create a photo. (the Green Hat)
- The Critic's Hat. We assess the photo. (the Black Hat)

You ask

So, the question: is taking really so bad? Does it inherently mean thoughtlessness, and rapid-fire snapshots? Should every genuine photographer be encouraged to engage in making? Or can taking photographs as observation alone be a valid, serious form of the art?

First. A good photographer intuitively engages his store of experience when he 'takes' a photo. He need not consciously summons up that knowledge or plan the photo. It emerges without conscious volition. This is often desirable because creativity thrives without the limits placed on us by our conscious 'making' mind.

Second. Every photographer should be encouraged to engage in 'making' in the earlier stages of his photographic journey. By consciously engaging and practicing skills we embed them in deeper stores of knowledge so that they are quickly available to you, without thought, when you later engage in 'taking'.

So we need to distinguish between the 'taking' of the unpractised amateur (snapshots) and the 'taking' of the experienced photographer. In his case this is the fluency of practised skill.

The diagram below outlines De Bono's Six Thinking Hats (copyright the De Bono Group). One is supposed to put on each hat in turn when approaching a given issue so that you approach it from all points of view.

De Bono Six Thinking Hats
References:
De Bono's Six Thinking Hats
A Tool for Creative, Innovative, & Critical Thinking
Wikipedia - Six Thinking Hats
Sequential Organization of Thinking: "Six Thinking Hats"

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Personally, I consider these to be two different, both equally valid, activities. And while I say and mean "different", they are not necessarily mutually exclusive to my mind.

To "take" a picture, as I think of it, is to capture something extant. Whether that's a facial expression, a pattern of movement (of anything, from flowing water to animals to various human creations)... Any moment (short or long) in time, that exists separate from the photographer.

To "make" a picture, as I think of it, is to set up conditions under which an image can be captured that meets a particular vision (or pre-vision, if you will) of the photographer. This could include everything from the simple choice of camera position, angle, focal length, focus distance, and exposure settings all the way through the elaborate creation of a scene, set, lighting, and what have you.

Often, a good photograph will have (in my opinion) been both. For example, an elaborate portrait setup - with a set (or at least a backdrop), lighting, costuming, hair and makeup styling, and the like, is a portrait that is made... But also, if the subject is given any control whatever over what they do within that setup, it is a portrait that is taken.

Other times, it may be closer to just one or the other, though I suspect it's almost always at least a little of each. A "made" still-life still "takes" from the objects arranged in it, and even a quickly "taken" snapshot has had choices "made" by the photographer, even if only where to aim and when to push the button.

There will be, of course, numerous opinions, often contradictory, on a question such as this. Having heard a number of them over the years, though, and giving it thought of my own, I hope that the above is an accurate reflection of the philosophy I have adopted with respect to this question.

If this needs any clarification, please ask in the comments, and I'll do my best to update it to increase clarity.

Thanks for asking an interesting question!

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Good question. I do both.

I sometimes take "snaps" of anything that looks remotely interesting. In such a case, I don't care too much about the subject or the result. These pictures are mostly so-so, though I get the occasional gem out of it.

The rest of the time (it's about half and half, I suppose) I actually put some thought and planning into my pictures. I look for interesting subjects, find an interesting perspective, check for colour and lighting, and then fire away. The results here are consistently good, rarely less than that. And I sometimes get particularly good (IMO) photos.

Simply "taking" photos doesn't always bring reasonable results, though it may be necessary to capture spur-of-the-moment scenes. On the other hand, "making" photos, such as still life images, landscapes, and architecture take more time to set up for the best results.

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So, you do both, but to you, "making" is the better approach, and "taking" something you do when you're not really putting thought into it out of lack of care or lack of time. –  mattdm Dec 22 '10 at 15:09

I do both. but I'm putting more time and effort into making them, planning the trip, planning the images I want to acquire (subject and style) and understanding what I want to accomplish before I start, and then adapting to what happens once I get there and start working the location. There's a positive aspect to taking pictures and recording what you see; there's a quality and reliability advantage to putting in advance work to guarantee your time and energy isn't wasted and that the images you get are the ones you want/need and can use.

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Pedantic here,

I would argue that one "takes" photographs, or "captures" photographs.

One can never "Make" a photograph, since what a photo is fundamentally composed of is a bunch of semi-ordered photons, focused through a lens. Unless you are personally placing every photon which goes to create the images, you are not "making" anything, merely capturing what already is.

Even if you are in complete control of the scene, you are still capturing a representation of it, not making a representation of it (unless you are doing a painting, perhaps).


Think of it like an animal - You can "Capture" a bird, or "take" a bird, but you can never "make" a bird.


Basically, you can say what ever you want, but claiming you "Make" photos will always be technically incorrect.

Caveat - I am an engineer, and work with professional scientists, so I may be more caught up in the technicalities of wording than most. However, from the perspective of the dictionary, the above is true.

Personally, I tend to use snapshot/photograph instead of take/make respectively, as other answers describe their usage, since it conveys the same information, while being semantically correct.

Opinion: If you ask me, the whole "Make" photograph thing sounds like professional photographers being snobs, and trying claim they do something fundamentally different then tourists on a vacation, rather then merely a refinement of it. There is more then enough space within the category of refinement to accommodate both.

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By this definition, does anyone ever make anything, short of via nuclear fusion? I mean, the molecules are already there; people just arrange them. –  mattdm Apr 23 '11 at 12:41
    
Also, I'm not sure the dictionary actually agrees with this limited definition of make. Read through merriam-webster.com/dictionary/make or oed.com/view/Entry/… –  mattdm Apr 23 '11 at 17:46
    
The question of whether professional (or other non-professional expert photographers) do something fundamentally different than tourists on vacation is an interesting one, although I'm afraid it falls pretty heavily on the argumentative side of "subjective and argumentative". –  mattdm Apr 23 '11 at 17:48
    
@mattdm (3rd comment) - which would be why I made it as a subtext. –  Fake Name Apr 24 '11 at 2:43
    
@mattdm (1st and 2nd comment) - Arranging something (be it molecules, etc) is making something from something else. Creation of matter does not have to be involved, merely the manipulation of it. A photographer who sets up a scene to photograph certainly makes the scene, however, the actual photographic process (i.e. pressing the shutter button, which captures the photo) is not in and of itself a process of making, but capturing what is. I don't want to undermine the creativity required, but my point is that making a photograph is incorrect, making a photograph's composition is not. –  Fake Name Apr 24 '11 at 2:45

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