Which is More Important: Technical Photography Skill or an Artistic Eye?

Photographers have always endured an internal debate about the relative importance of learning either technical or artistic aspects. Most lean toward the technical, feeling they have a handle on the artistic side but lack the technical proficiency or expertise to produce really good photographs.

This is especially true of digital users who almost invariably conclude that if they can just nail down all the tools of Photoshop or get the latest app, they will become great photographers. But most ignore the basic issues of understanding light, composition, and, perhaps most importantly, the subject matter that means something to them in their search for photographic greatness. Without that basic understanding, they won’t make much progress, no matter how proficient they become with the tools.

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Furthermore, most photographers today seem to equate a photograph that’s tack-sharp with being a good photograph, but that’s not the case. Ansel Adams once noted, “There is nothing as useless as a sharp photograph of a fuzzy concept.” He was right. Sharpness shows a superbly manufactured and well-focused lens, but nothing more. By itself, it does not indicate a great photograph.

The artistic part includes an understanding of light because the only thing that film or digital sensors record is light levels, so it’s the only real tool for photography. It includes the understanding of composition: the relationship of lines and forms and colours in the image area. And it includes the imagination to transform the scene in front of the camera (which the photographer generally finds but rarely creates) to the image that you show to others (which is purely the photographer’s creation).

It turns out that the technical and the artistic aspects are connected, with each drawing upon and supporting the other. As a quick example, suppose a photograph was made with exquisite lighting (either indoors, with controlled lighting, or outdoors with ambient lighting), with a magnificent relationship between the forms in the image, and an excellent imagination that transforms the scene into an insightful photographic image. But the printing of the image is awful — perhaps it’s too high or low in contrast, or too light or dark, or the manipulation used to achieve the final print is too obvious. Then all the artistic values are lost.

On the other hand, a tack sharp image that is printed beautifully but was made under flat lighting and/or has no interesting relationships in its line or forms may have nothing to say to the viewer. Yet I often hear people praising how sharp it is. But it’s a fuzzy concept — or no concept at all. It’s technically perfect, but meaningless.

These two examples tell you that a photograph has to be both artistically and technically excellent to pass the test of true excellence. Turning to Ansel Adams once again, he noted there is often a small difference between a print that’s acceptable and a print that’s exceptional. That small difference can come from either the technical or the artistic side.

But it goes further than that. The technical and artistic aspects are not only connected but should be viewed as building upon one another. The truth of that became obvious to me many years ago, and the story is worth telling.

During a photography workshop I was teaching in October 1979 with co-instructor Ray McSavaney, Ray explained how he had discovered a method of controlling contrast in excessively high contrast situations by using an extremely dilute negative developer. The dilution he used struck me as being too dilute to develop anything. It seemed to me that you could almost drink it if you got thirsty.

On the way home from that workshop, I stopped at an abandoned factory in the middle of desert and sagebrush country to test his development scheme. My plan was to compose a photograph from inside the abandoned factory featuring the inside walls and ceiling but including the sunlit desert landscape visible through the window opening (the glass had long since been broken). This was an extremely high contrast situation but, convinced that Ray’s dilution was too extreme, I doubled the concentration, and was shocked to see the developed negative as far too high in contrast to be easily printed. That seemed to indicate that Ray was right all along.

About a month later, in early December 1979, I had the chance to test the method again. This time, following Ray’s formula exactly, I achieved remarkable results in an outdoor situation that I would previously have labeled “impossible to photograph” due to excessive contrast.

At the time, I thought it was purely a technical advance. Surprisingly, the resulting photograph became a popular one, selling many times. At the time, it simply struck me as a good technical exercise that worked. It showed me that in an extremely high contrast situation, I could control contrast to a degree I could not have imagined. I suspected that the number of times I would need to resort to that development method would be very low.

I could not have been more wrong. Less than a month later, on January 1, 1980, late in the afternoon I walked into Antelope Canyon, Arizona. It turned out to be a turning point in my life and my photographic career, so a short explanation is necessary.

My lifelong ambition, from the time I was a small kid in elementary school, was to be a researcher in sub-nuclear physics (studying particles and forces at the smallest scales) and to be a researcher in cosmology (the study of the universe at the largest cosmic scales). I majored in mathematics and physics in college, eventually obtaining a master’s degree in mathematics. But along the way, I realized I was not in the class of Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman or Niels Bohr or Erwin Schrödinger or any of the storied physicists of that time. I never achieved a Ph.D. in mathematics and never went on to research the universe at the largest or smallest levels. I eventually turned to photography, but my fascination with forces at all levels didn’t diminish.

Walking into Antelope Canyon, with its curving sandstone walls sweeping around me was like walking into a force field, like the ones I could have been studying at the universe’s largest or smallest scales. I distinctly remember thinking that I could have been studying this theoretically, but now I’m swept up into these forces. It made me feel I was so far ahead of those guys (the researchers). I felt I was in the type of force field I could have been studying theoretically.

At the same time, it became immediately obvious that I had never seen a photograph of a place like this. In other words, this was totally new subject matter, never previously explored by any photographer. In the back of my mind, I considered the possibility that I was wrong, but to this day I’ve never discovered a body of work in any of the “slit canyons” that preceded my own.

Antelope Canyon was not only new and different and awesome, but it was also the highest contrast location I had ever encountered or could have imagined in any natural setting. Suddenly, the dilute development procedure became something of central importance. Had I not proven to myself just a month earlier that there was a way of controlling such impossibly high contrast levels, I would have walked away, thinking I had entered a magical place, but one that simply could not be photographed.

For my purposes, Antelope Canyon was not a super-narrow sandstone canyon; it was a force field. From the instant I stepped into it, I could not escape the feeling I was being swirled around in a force field (think of iron filings spread on a piece of paper with a magnet held under it, and how those filings align themselves into the magnetic field of force).

Hence, I had no desire to show the canyon in a way that would make it understandable or give it any sense of scale. Forces have small or large dimensions but no orientation. There is no up or down or sideways to forces; they are attractive or repulsive (think of how a positive and negative side of two bar magnets will attract, but how two positives or two negative sides will repel one another), some at tiny sub-nuclear scales, others at grand universal scales.

As I slowly walked deeper into Antelope Canyon that afternoon, too late and too dark to photograph, I was so stunned by what I was experiencing that I was unable to speak (I had entered with a friend but was unable to communicate with him). Furthermore, I had no camera with me when I entered, yet I saw what was to become my first exposure the next morning. Even with no camera in hand, that instantly became my favorite photograph, even though I had not yet exposed the negative!

The next morning, I went back to the spot, carefully placed my 4×5″ Linhof Technika camera to optimize the relationships in the frame, and exposed the Kodak Tri-X negative for three minutes. The resulting image gives no sense of scale nor any sense of the direction in which the camera was pointed. It tells very little of the canyon, if anything. It is purely abstract. But I was able to control the tonalities because of the technical advance that I had heard about two months earlier and had proven to myself just how to use it less than a month earlier.

It will always be my favourite photograph. The astounding impact Antelope Canyon had on me cannot be conveyed, but it is the reason why that first photograph is so important to me. Even if that initial image were not so appealing to me visually, it would still be among my favourites due to the impact the canyon made on me. I find it is visually appealing. It also is perfectly representative of the forces I could have been studying: the massive curved black form that juts into the center of the image could represent the black hole at the center of so many spiral galaxies (including our own Milky Way) with the stars of the galaxy revolving around it, or it could be the nucleus of an atom with its cloud of electrons circling around. To my way of thinking, it’s the perfect analogy of the forces that I felt upon entering Antelope Canyon.

So, it was a combination of the technical advance that I had discovered just weeks before entering Antelope Canyon, combined with my lifelong fascination with forces in the universe that merged to create an artistic advance for me that I could never have imagined without the good fortune of entering Antelope Canyon. The artistic leap from canyon to force field was one that I didn’t need time to think about; it was there from the instant I entered the canyon.

In those days, nobody else was wandering through Antelope Canyon, or other slit canyons in the near vicinity. Nobody had any interest in any of them. They were unknown, unloved, and even despised by the Navajo who lived in the region because those canyons could be the death of a cow if it fell into one, and that cow could have been one of the few sources of sustenance or income.

Even though I was there with a friend, I was effectively alone, with nothing to distract my thoughts from my emotions. Today, Antelope Canyon is a tourist magnet, filled with people daily paying high prices to shoot digital images while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with others shooting digital images by the thousands.

My solitary, emotional experience can’t be replicated today. But the technical advance that tied directly to my artistic advance can be replicated because it’s thoroughly explained in my book, “The Art of Photography.” In fact, an improvement of that method, conceived 16 years later in 1996, is also explained in the book.

Not only did I use the dilute development method for many subsequent images I made in slit canyons in both Arizona and Utah, but also in English cathedrals, those incredible structures that I also “discovered” in June 1980. I turned that discovery into a major photographic study in 1980 and 1981, employing the dilute development method—“compensating development” as I call it, and fully explain in my book—for many of the images made during that study.

Thus, the technical advance that I learned in late 1979 became a central part of several artistic advances almost immediately. The two — the technical and the artistic — cannot be separated. They should not be separated. Over my career I have found that every technical advance has led to an artistic advance if employed properly. I emphasize the need to employ it properly because I see so many photographers misusing techniques in ways that destroy imagery, rather than enhance and improve it. This is especially true in digital photography, with the myriad tools and apps that are as often (perhaps more often) misapplied as they are properly applied by those who lack the artistic control or insight to apply them in a sensible, subtle, meaningful manner. Even those using film and the traditional darkroom, as I do, often go overboard with the wonderful array of tools available. Numerous traditional tools and techniques are available, as is the unmatched contrast range of film. They can all be applied intelligently. Use them and use them well to amplify your artistic voice in creating magnificent photographs. And, above all, have fun doing it.

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About the author: Bruce Barnbaum is one of the most prominent photographic thinkers and educators in the world. His iconic book, “The Art of Photography, A Personal Approach to Artistic Expression,” is widely recognized as the bible of photographic thought, insight, and instruction. Bruce is also known as one of the finest black and white traditional darkroom printers. His work is represented by galleries in the United States and Europe and is in the collection of museums and private collectors worldwide.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.