Photographers are often classified by what they shoot: you might be a wedding photographer, or a sports photographer — or perhaps you just take snapshots of your family. But there are other ways to categorize photographers as well.
The Memory Jogger
If you have your subjects turn and look at the camera and say “cheese,” there is a good chance you enjoy making photos mainly for your personal use. You’re what I call a “memory jogger” photographer.
You enjoy creating photo albums so you can revisit these moments in time and record your family history. Earlier in my career, when I managed one-hour photo labs, I saw some incredibly well-done photography that fit into this category. The best photos captured the expressions of family and friends, but were not so tight that you couldn’t see the setting. You could see the people close to the camera with the location in the background easily identifiable.
Another category is the abstract photographer. Abstract photography is like an instrumental composition with no words — and generally, viewers’ responses are wide-ranging. Ansel Adams is one of the most prominent abstract photographers. His photos create a mood and tone rather than deliver a specific message.
Elliott Porter, another giant in the genre of abstract photography, saw beauty in his subjects where a photojournalist might not. When asked (by a photo editor for a news magazine) what he would do if he came upon a stream polluted and covered with oil, Porter said, “I could not help but show the beauty of it regardless of the tragedy.”
In some abstract photographs the subject is recognizable, yet others may be so bizarre there is no subject recognition at all. The common theme for these types of photographers is creating a striking image. A specific message is not the purpose.
Then there’s communications photography. The goal is to deliver a precise message. Many techniques used by the abstract photographer are employed, but the message is the thing.
Some communications photographers are conceptual in approach. Their work is thematic. The theme may be as simple as illustrating an intangible — say hot or cold, or “going green.” Their photos communicate an idea.
Another kind of communications photographer is the photojournalist. Life magazine was one of the first places Americans were exposed to photojournalism. These photographers deliver a message, but beyond the message, they are pursuing truth. They want to tell the subject’s story accurately in order to obtain a response from the viewer — to make those seeing the photos take action.
In between the conceptual photographer and the photojournalist are many breeds of photographers who are concerned with capturing a message and having the audience engaged with it. Some photographers can move easily between these approaches. One day they may be covering a news event for a wire service (photojournalism), and the next day shooting an annual report or recruiting guide for a college.
Doing What You Love
What do these different styles have in common? The finest photographers shoot what they love most. This enjoyment usually means they have invested time into their subjects and know them well.
Understanding these classifications can help clients identify the best photographer for their projects. If you have a message you need communicated, you shouldn’t hire a snap-shooter or an abstract photographer, for example. They can fill the “holes” where the pictures are to go, but they won’t necessarily deliver images that express your message to your audience.