Anyone can pick up a camera, aim it, and shoot it, but you won't ever meet a photographer who doesn't roll their eyes at least once in a while when the first question they get is, "what kind of camera do you use?" The question isn't entirely unfounded; a nicer camera allows the photographer a wider range of creative freedom and image quality, but ultimately a good photographer can use any old point-and-shoot to get a better picture than the amateur with a $6,000 body and a $12,000 lens. A photographer is still an artist, even if they can't control their subjects.
Unique even in its field, photography (nature and wildlife in particular) has a different set of rules. Composition and light are major keys to outdoor photography. It's all about timing and your willingness to get dirty. The perfect picture rarely happens when you're standing comfortably on the trail. It takes tramping through thorny brush, leaning uncomfortably far over a cliff-edges, and laying on what you hope is just mud. And that's only the first step.
Post-processing, that is editing a photo after it's taken, i.e. Photoshop, is almost a dirty concept in the world of photography for some reason. I know plenty of people, photographers and otherwise, who scoff at the idea of editing an image. They claim it's "cheating." This is a purist idea. Some of the people who fall into this category are also the ones who refuse to use anything but film cameras. That method is fine and dandy and it has its merits, but if you think camera-to-print is a pure form of photography, you're wrong. Even film prints can be post-processed in the darkroom. Besides, it's impossible to capture an image exactly as it was. Our cameras, whether set to automatic or to manual, play with numerous settings that change the scene. Post-processing, in any capacity, is just another step in the creative process of photography as an art form.
I personally don't do a lot of editing after I take the picture. It's not for any desire for "purity," but because I hate editing. It's tedious to me. I'll adjust lights and darks, maybe tweak saturation, and clone out an undesirable blemish, but I don't have the patience to do much more. (I'd be happy to make a blog post or video on my editing process if it's desired.) Even though I don't spend much time editing photos, I absolutely refuse to play into the idea that it's "cheating." Part of what makes many photographs so amazing is the dedicated editing the photographer does.
All of this makes photography a complex field, not in the way of something like brain surgery or biochemical engineering, but in the way that any good art is. Art, by definition, is a subjective expression and even though you don't use a brush or clay to create the image, photography is no exception to this rule. I've always been fascinated with what images people are attracted to because it's usually very different from what I'm drawn to.
I love browsing through other photographer's work because there is always one image that captures my attention for no specific reason and sticks with me forever. It's rarely the photographer's favorite or best work, but there is just something about it that sits with me. I call this the "wow" factor. It's not something that can be defined or transferred to other images, but something unique to one particular photo.
Above is a photo I captured by accident. I was photographing the falls alone and didn't notice the dog come in to admire the view a good ten minutes before his owner showed up. I am so very fond of this picture because it makes me laugh every time I see it. It's definitely not a masterpiece, but as far as my own photography is concerned, this is one of my personal favorites.
Below are four images from some amazing photographers that have that "wow" factor for me. I highly encourage you to click the links below them to check out their websites; they have some truly phenomenal work.
"Platinum Skies" - Nate Zeman Photography
This image is obviously stunning, but if you look through Zeman's galleries you'll quickly see how that is not an unusual quality in his photography. I first saw this image several years ago and I think about it all the time. Its beauty is not hard to pinpoint, but it's knowing how excited he must have been to be there at the time gives me second-hand joy.
"Sea Wolves" - Paul Nicklen Photography
Paul Nicklen is probably my all time favorite photographer. His work is unrivaled and he supports many great conservation causes. His ability to capture elusive animals in their rugged environment is legendary. This image is of a Coastal Wolf, otherwise known as rain wolves or sea wolves, on a remote island off of British Columbia. These wolves are being considered for a distinct taxonomic status due to their entirely unique lifestyles adapted for coastal living and their numbers are few. Nicklen spent weeks camping out in a blind trying to capture these beautiful animals. His dedication and humility bleed through in his work and make them all the more magical.
"Strike the Lake" - Five Aces Media
Not only are lightning pictures hard to capture, but to be able to frame it like this is an amazing feat. This picture is an astounding combination of luck, dedication, and skill. My brother took this picture several years ago now in Upper Michigan and though his main focus is on cinematography, his still photography style is inspiring. (I highly encourage you to check out his documentary, A Sense of Direction, about his 1,200-mile thru-hike on the Northwest Pacific Trail.)
"Sunset Slumber" - Jess Findlay Photography
This coyote is completely wild and this image completely blows me away. I wouldn't be able to compose a more perfect photograph if I could direct the coyote where to go! His ability to capture not only an animal but its environment in a unique way is beautiful. Findlay is just a few years older than me and I admire his rapidly developing ability and skill.
Top Photo: Lower Proxy Falls, Willamette National Forest, Oregon, United States - Photo taken with Canon EOS 60D, f/22 @ 10 mm, 0.5s, ISO 100, No Flash