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Words of inspiration from the best photographers

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Photography is the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world.

- Bruno Barbey

One of my favourite photography quotes is from well-known photographer Dorothea Lange, who said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

I have found the quotation particularly relevant during this winter when there have been some particularly dramatic sunrises and sunsets, during which the sky has shown its beauty, its calm and its anger in varying proportions.

At some of these amazing vistas I could only stand and stare and marvel at the beauty and magnificence of it all, while at other times I attempted to capture some of that beauty in an image.

I discovered that the magnificent reds, oranges, yellows and purples allowed for brilliant contrasts with the surrounding landscapes, so by reducing the shadows on my images I was able to produce some pleasing silhouettes.

I recently read a blog post entitled 70 Inspirational Quotes for Photographers compiled by American photographer Tammy Jean Lamoureux.

While reading the quotes I tried to visualise how each of them might relate to my own photography practice and I decided to further refine the list by picking out the twenty quotes that I find most applicable to my view of photography.

I have also tried to place the quotes into categories and match them with my own photographs and reflections.

Photography is seeing

“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

“The picture that you took with your camera is the imagination you want to create with reality.” Scott Lorenzo

“Essentially what photography is is life lit up.” Sam Abell

“I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.” Diane Arbus

“When people ask me what equipment I use – I tell them my eyes.” Anonymous

Sometimes I like to seek out different subjects or little things that might otherwise go un-noticed.

Indeed, I often walk past such things myself unless I make a conscious effort to stop, look and shoot!

Observation, and in particular the act of becoming more observant, are important attributes in photography, attributes that we can constantly strive to improve.

Using our eyes is surely the best equipment.

I particularly like to think of photography as ‘life lit up’. This works in two ways. The act of taking photographs gives value and meaning to our lives, gives focus and great enjoyment and can light up our lives in that sense.

In another sense, by photographing a scene or subject we bring it alive to ourselves and others. It is certainly true for myself that, since I started photography, I use my eyes more and see more of the world around me, a world which has indeed become a brighter place.

Often on a photography walk I will try to capture images of subjects that are not so obvious. By choosing a good point of view, ordinary objects can be emphasised and highlighted.

Photography is feeling

“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

“Taking pictures is savoring life intensely, every hundredth of a second.” Marc Riboud

“Great photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.” Peter Adams

Even though I like black and white photography I do love to capture life in colour and am often drawn by the richness of colour in nature.

Sunrises and sunsets are beautiful at any time of year but they are particularly amazing in winter.

I like to feel something for the images I make. In that way, although they may not be great images, they are of value to me and they show me what it is possible to achieve.

I have actually discovered that when I don’t feel anything for an image I almost always delete it immediately.

I grabbed my mobile phone because I wanted to capture the amazing colours in the sky before they disappeared!

Photography is capturing a moment in time

“Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.”Dorothea Lange

“If you see something that moves you, and then snap it, you keep a moment.” Linda McCartney

“What I like about photographs is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever, impossible to reproduce.” Karl Lagerfeld

This is one of the truths that makes photography so special – it can capture a moment in time, whether an amazing sunset or a child’s beautiful smile, a moment that would otherwise be lost.

Every photograph, whether it is of a vital action in sports photography or the capture of a gently lapping wave, has this capacity to freeze a moment and hold it forever.

Photography is communication

“There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” Ansel Adams

Photographer and educator, Anthony Epes, states that photography is essentially a relationship between photographer and viewer, and that the photographer tries to convey emotion in the viewer through his or her images.

As a viewer of photography I don’t always know how to describe how I feel when I look at a fabulous photograph, but I do know that some photographs elicit strong feelings within me. Those feelings may or may not be what the photographer was trying to convey, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that there is a communication between photographer and viewer and both are enriched by that communication.

Good photographers leave visual clues for their viewers so that the viewer will have some idea of what they intended their viewer to see and feel.

“A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.” Irving Penn

I think the secret is not to try too hard to control the emotion we want the viewer to feel, but simply to shoot what appeals to us, because those are the images in which we will invest ourselves. They will be more honest, more authentic images and hopefully they will speak more deeply to others.

One of our greatest methods of communication is through story. Story in photography can be suggested through a single image or a series of images. Often the viewer makes his or her own interpretation of the story being told, and although this may vary from the photographer’s original intention, it is nonetheless a valid interpretation.

Sometimes story is suggested in one image...

It is an interesting challenge to try and tell a story in three frames

Photography is our record of the world as we see it

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” Ansel Adams

“I wish that all of nature’s magnificence, the emotion of the land, the living energy of place could be photographed.” Annie Leibovitz

Recently, while driving at sunset, I was captivated by the colours of the sky as they unfolded before me.

I had to stop and try to capture something of the glory of the changing sky.

Although the light was fading rapidly I did manage to capture some wonderful colours and was able to create a few nice silhouettes.

I believe, though, that there is truth in Annie Leibovitz’s words when she wishes that the emotion of the land, of the place, could be photographed. The emotion is what we feel and often that cannot be captured accurately in an image. Yet, maybe that image is all the better for having some emotion invested in it by the photographer.

Before we compose the beauty we have to see that beauty, and that is what Matt Hardy refers to in this quote:

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

Photography is constantly developing and striving for better

“I never have taken a picture I’ve intended. They’re always better or worse.” Diane Arbus

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”

Henri Cartier Bresson

“Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.” Imogen Cunningham

I understand this last quote as it suggests that we are never perfect, always striving to be better.

Sometimes, however, it is important to evaluate our work and pick out some favourite images. For me, this exercise gives encouragement and a sense that, while I still have much to learn, I am picking up some techniques that suggest potential and ways in which I can develop.

Evaluating my progress provides challenges and encourages growth, and that is what keeps life, and photography, interesting.

I felt drawn to this lake one evening recently. What I wanted to capture was the tree silhouetted against the evening sky and reflected in the water below. I didn’t particularly want detail in the bushes so I deliberately underexposed the image. I later pushed down the shadows in Lightroom. Despite the fact that the light was poor I knew I wanted to keep the image and make the best of it.


“Life is like a camera. Just focus on what’s important and capture the good times, develop from the negatives and if things don’t work out, just take another shot.” Unknown

What is your favourite photography quote?


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