The Masters speak: 46 quotes about photography

Trees in a valley

During the years I stumbled on a few quotes from various (often great) photographers, writers and painters that I thought revealed one or more facets of this beautiful art. I decided to share them with you because they can teach us more than a thousand page manual could what the essence of photography is. Enjoy your reading!


“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!”
“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”
“You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
Ansel Adams


“No place is boring, if you’ve had a good night’s sleep and have a pocket full of unexposed film.”
Robert Adams


“What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer.”
William Albert Allard


“Taking pictures is like tiptoeing into the kitchen late at night and stealing Oreo cookies.”
“I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.”
“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”
“I never have taken a picture I’ve intended. They’re always better or worse.”
Diane Arbus


“Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.”
Cecil Beaton


“Most things in life are moments of pleasure and a lifetime of embarrassment; photography is a moment of embarrassment and a lifetime of pleasure.”
Tony Benn


“So, what do you photograph?”
I swallow my wine.
“You know – city scapes, nature, portraits, candid shots…”
Boobs. I photograph boobs.
“Uhh… people?”
Iris Blaire, Dark Frame


“To me photography must suggest, not insist or explain.”


“Would you hang it on your wall? Then it’s a good photograph.”
Leslie Dean Brown


“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”
Robert Capa


“Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”
Henri Cartier-Bresson


“If I knew how to take a good photograph, I’d do it every time.”
Robert Doisneau


“A tiny piece of glass slowing, bending, organizing light – light – into your grandmother, the Grand Canyon, the begonia on the windowsill, the film keeping the image like a secret. Grandmother, canyon, begonia tucked neatly into the sleek black box, like bugs in a jar. My mind boggled.”
Marisa de los Santos


“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
Elliott Erwitt


“When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice”
Robert Frank


“I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I’ve lost.”
Nan Goldin


“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”
Ted Grant


“I am not interested in shooting new things – I am interested to see things new.”
Ernst Haas


“Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.”
Matt Hardy


“Don’t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like.”
David Alan Harvey


“Character, like a photograph, develops in darkness.”
Yousuf Karsh


“It’s weird that photographers spend years or even a whole lifetime, trying to capture moments that added together, don’t even amount to a couple of hours.”
James Lalropui Keivom


“The more pictures you see, the better you are as a photographer.”
Robert Mapplethorpe


“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”
Don McCullin


“Don’t pack up your camera until you’ve left the location.”
Joe McNally


“Actually, it’s nature itself that creates the most beautiful pictures, I’m only choosing the perspective.”
Katja Michael


“You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life.”
Joan Miro


“With photography, I like to create a fiction out of reality.”
Martin Parr


“Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.”
Man Ray


“A photographer is like a cod, which produces a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity.”
George Bernard Shaw


“Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever…it remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.”
Aaron Siskind


“All photographs are memento mori.”
“The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.”
“When we are afraid, we shoot. But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures.”
Susan Sontag


“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
Henry David Thoreau


“You cannot depend on your eyes if your imagination is out of focus”
Mark Twain


“The camera basically is a license to explore.”
Jerry Uelsmann


“Only photograph what you love.”
Tim Walker


“When you approach something to photograph it, first be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence. Then don’t leave until you have captured its essence.”
Minor White

Engineers or photographers

Lighthouse, Ireland

Reader, beware: this is a rant, but not a luddite one. I covet new technologies, and I have often been an early and keen adopter of this kind of novelties. But the key is: never for the sake of the novelty alone.

Everyone, me included, chases the latest camera with the illusion that it will make him/her a better photographer.

And it is certainly true to a point, despite the fact that it is not the camera but the photographer the one that makes a photo. For example, I have a lot of pictures I like very much that, unfortunately, I took with a 6 Megapixels camera. While they are nice pictures anyway, I can print them far too small for my actual standards for them to be useful (we are talking mostly landscapes here, that need an outrageous amount of detail or will look mushy).

So technical evolution, per se, is certainly a good thing.

The trouble that could stem from this is that we are sometime hard-pressed to buy a new camera, a new lens, a new piece of kit for the sake of novelty itself, driven from advertisement and peer pressure. But, aside from our wallet, nobody else suffers.

Moreover, nowadays thousands of forum pages and websites – yes, the present one as well – feature endless discussions on what camera focuses faster, if only for a split second, or on what lens, at the most extreme borders of the field, is a tiny tiny bit sharper or less vignetted than its competitors.
Tree in the wind

I can hear you, saying that this might be all still good, though, because after all when you are out shopping for a new piece of equipment is better to spend the money on something of proved quality. And if you shoot Formula 1 or Nascar for a living please just write a check for the newest and fastest camera you can find, another fat one for a 600mm f/0,75 the day it should come out, and yet another one for the mule and the cart (or a segway!) to carry it!

But a biggest problem, in my opinion the capital sin of modern photographic industry, rises its ugly head now: why nowadays the selling argument, and even worse, the principal goal in the design process itself for pretty much every camera and especially lens is about sharpness, and sharpness alone, or autofocus speed? Who decided that sharpness had to be the only point of reference in the project of a lens?

Enter the engineers. In this phase I have the strong suspicion that lenses and cameras are designed by engineers alone, without the participation of actual artists and photographers if not as an afterthought – like “tell us what we did wrong and we will try to correct it in a firmware update”. The children have been left alone to play as they like, and things are going awry.

Pigeon in a snowstorm
This, I believe, is why we have often poorly thought cameras, ergonomically speaking. Why I should push multiple times a button, or spin a wheel, to give but an example, only to zoom at 100% in my freshly taken picture? Why would I want to look at it more often at, say, a 25% zoom level, than at maximum magnification to check the focus? Why the shutter release button in many cameras is placed in a position more fitted for the long fingers of E.T. that the ones of an actual human being (and no, I don’t have small hands)? Remember: bad ergonomics is the one thing that, with the exception of relocating a few buttons, software cannot fix.

And the engineers’ mindset is also the reason because many of us still crave after vintage quality lenses, designed with in mind not only the sharpness at the various apertures, but also the pleasantness of the bokeh, the palette of the tonalities and things like that.

Until not so many years ago sometimes the designers might decide intentionally to reduce the sharpness of a lens at the extreme borders (to say it more correctly: they actually boosted the central sharpness at the detriment of the borders), to aid concentrating the attention of the viewer on the central regions of the picture, where the subject would most probably be located.

From the car in a rainstorm
And don’t think lesser brands did this: for one, mighty Leica used to differentiate exactly in this way between the two ranges it produced at the time, R and M. The M lenses were intended for journalistic use, so they had the kind of sharpness distribution I just mentioned, with a bias in favor of the central part, while the R series used to have a more uniform performance across the field. Don’t believe me? Check the MTF tests for R and M lenses of the same age of similar focal length and look were the spikes in sharpness occur.

Same thing used to happen for the bokeh: the choice of the optical scheme was dictated also from the kind of out of focus it would have generated; and special circular apertures were employed to smoothen the edges of the out of focus points. Even the kind of glass used was sometimes selected with an eye to its characteristic in terms of color palette and so on. Remember: this was before you could change the color balance of an image with the slide of a finger.

As I have often mentioned in my posts, a lens is for a photographer nothing more than a brush for a painter: and every painter needs different kind of brushes to fit his/her particular style. If all the lenses should start to render in the same way we will have perfect fragments of reality caught on the sensor, but our power of choosing our preferred interpretation will be severely limited.

The 10 commandments for choosing a digital camera

10 rules to buy a digital camera

1) All things equal, newer is always better

The technology doesn’t walk, it runs! Think: faster processors, more megapixels, better control software, and all of this at a cheaper price too.


2) Size – often – matters

A larger sensor will be always better than a smaller one OF THE SAME GENERATION, even if they both have the same amount of pixels. Larger photosites (this number is often referred as “pixel pitch”) will give you cleaner images compared to smaller ones. It’s like trying to collect rain: obviously you will get more water the bigger the buckets you use are; the same goes with light and photons. And the difference will not be noticeable only at high Iso, even if the higher you crank the sensibility the more dramatic it will shows.


3) Three is the magic number

I stressed in the point before “of the same generation”. Every 3 years or so the improvements in technology let you obtain the same quality you used to get with a large sensor of the previous generation with a smaller, “younger” one. Obviously the big sensors of the same generation will be still better than the small one – see previous rule – but at some point the quality you are getting is high enough that image quality alone stops to be a worry, and other things like portability or weight comes into the equation.


4) No, wait: two is the magic number!

A 2-time increase in megapixels let you notice with ease the differences even in prints of the same size – and not only pixel-peeping. With this I mean that it will spot the difference not only the trained eye of a professional, but the layperson’s too.


5) Decide how big do you want to print

Given the amount of megapixels that are packed into the latest cameras it starts make sense to reverse the question. Not: how many pixels has the camera? But: how many megapixels do I need? This basically depends on how big you wanna print: so decide this first, and keep in mind that for the odd large print, at least with subjects like landscapes and architecture, you can alway combine various shots to increase the resolution your camera is capable of.

See my previous post: How many megapixels do you need

6) The chip matters

The images just captured go from the sensor to a pre-processing chip (for example the Canon Digic or the Sony Bionz); this before being saved as raw files. How this chip handles them makes a lot of difference, even if you compare two cameras with the same sensor but different chips.


7) Firmware matters

In a rapid market like the photographic one products get often released when there are still a few, yet undiscovered, faults. So before making a definitive judgment on a camera be sure that the firmware – the little control software that makes the camera work – is not at its first iteration. Think, for example, what happened with the Fuji X100: almost awful when it hit the shelves with its first firmware, it got better and better with each update and now it is a terrific camera.


8) Raw software matters

Raw files are a bit like a musical score; the song – the image – is in there, but the interpretations can vary a great deal. Choice wisely, and test the files from a new camera with various raw converters before judging its quality.

You can see how much this matters here: The importance of choosing the right raw converter


9) AA and IR filters can rob sharpness

AA filters are expressly designed to rob sharpness, so not a big surprise. But also the infrared reduction layer put on top of the sensor can wreak havoc with your lenses, especially if they are wide-angles. This, supposedly, because of the thickness and the refractive qualities of this additional layer of glass. There is some evidence, for example, that once you remove the IR glass from a problematic – with wide angles – camera like the Sony A7r the corner smearing goes away. And this is probably why a prehistoric – in “computer-years” – camera like the Leica M8 can still deliver pretty great results, thanks to its ultra-thin IR filter.


10) Last year is good enough

Cameras are now basically computers with lenses, and unless you got paid handsomely for your work is better to trait them just like ones. That means don’t go after the last novelty; buy instead a camera presented in the past year. It will not be cutting edge, but it will still be exceptionally fast and good. As an added bonus, it will be way more probable that the manufacturer will have released, in the meantime, a few firmware fixes to iron out all the problems found by the early adopters – see point 7.