Physical vs Intellectual Effort in Photography.

“1000 Miles.” By Josh S. Rose, 2017.

Photography is getting harder and harder to fully grasp as a medium. The line between amateur and professional continues to blur. As does the line between hobby and art. The new rules of photography, with new stars emerging on platforms like Instagram, add to the confusion. With the students I mentor in photography, I like to break photography down into a much simpler distinction between the effort a photographer makes physically versus the effort one makes intellectually. I encourage any photographer to look not at what comes out, but what is put in. Effort. Physical and intellectual effort are both necessary functions of the art of photography, but are applied totally differently. When seen this way, it simplifies the medium on the one hand, but then adds a level of complexity on the other, as it moves from how you do photography to why you do photography.

Let’s explore.

Physical Effort in Photography

The physical effort of photography is what we first learn about the medium. How the controls of the camera work; aperture and shutter speed, film, sensors, longer and wider lenses. Physical world things and their physical effects on the final image. Composing is part of the physical act of photography, as we use our body to move the camera around and crop certain areas, perhaps even following a rule of thirds, finding leading lines, repeating patterns, perspective, flash, slow shutter, panning and the like. The physicality of photography also covers the work we do to an image after we’ve taken it (post work) and what we notice about an image’s properties with our eyes, as well: tone, contrast, saturation, HDR, etc.

Photo by Osman Rana.

Physically-oriented photography is what you see on Instagram, as those images are almost entirely removed from the context of the photographer’s intent as a medium driven by quick, hummingbird consumption of imagery. Here, the more physically impressive the image, the more it grabs your attention. Hence the rise of the physically aggressive approaches of aerial photography, light trails, and rooftops. As well as post production techniques designed to accentuate, heighten and impress.

Physical photography has a plateau — ultimately, everyone learns most everything about the physical world surrounding cameras and picture-taking: from equipment to lighting to creative uses of the shutter to the more professionally-oriented techniques of specific kinds of work — portrait photography, sports photography, automotive, landscape, concert, etc. And some even rise into an echelon where their techniques become their calling card. You might be able to get the same image as them, but they are the spokespeople for it. Ansel Adams, Steve McCurry and Peter Lik are all masters who have carved out the difficult position of a master craftsman of their style of photography — to such an extent as to make their names synonymous with their style. I think of these types as the titans of physical photography and, really, the peak to which most Instagrammers aspire to reach today, ever upping the ante and trying to take ownership of a style with Photoshop retouching, props, creative uses of light, environment, animation and more extreme angles on the world.

Photo by Drew Graham

Physical photography is all about how. It evolves straight from the learning process of coming to know photography. One can stay in this physical world of the medium forever (and make a good living) without ever really embracing why — the intellectual side of it. Professional photography is filled with people who are amazingly adept at the physical parts of the job, as well as all that surrounds it, in working with clients, models, and the like.

Watch any one of the short films about photographers these days, the impetus for shooting is usually the same: they just like to go shoot. There’s a nomadic quality to physical photographers who simply like to be out shooting. But ultimately this all comes down to loving the physical aspects of photography. It’s a living and the physical effort to achieve it can yield incredible results. However, it is only one type of effort in photography.

Intellectual Effort

Of the two kinds of efforts, physical and intellectual, physical gets most of the attention. Probably because it is more outward and logical. But intellectual effort is every bit as taxing. I’m reminded of a lyric from a Jackson Brown song:

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing
I can’t help listening.

This is what it’s like to engage in intellectual effort. There’s no one-to-one guarantee, like there is in the physical world, that a certain amount of force will result in a quantifiable effect. Instead, you search internally for an answer to something more philosophical. This answer can feel simultaneously very close and very far away with no concrete formula for getting to it. But you press on anyway.

At my university, I studied Fine Art and, like a number of art schools dedicated to art in the classic sense, our classes rarely, if ever, critiqued a student’s style. The school’s opinion was that you can continue to hone your craft for years after you graduate, but the true essence of an artist are his his/her ideas. And an understanding of the creative process is something to be cultivated first and foremost. So most of what we discussed was: what is the idea here?

This was actually grueling work. If you’ve never gone down this path, you might be surprise how much effort goes into trying to find an original idea. You’d come up with something and it would get less than flattering opinions from your teachers and peers, so you’d throw it out. That’s heartbreaking. But you keep going. You’d work on something for weeks and then find yourself bored or disconnected from it. Back to the drawing board. You’d spend hours looking at the behaviors of people, reading books, pouring over news, visiting museums — all to try to discern some kind of opinion about the world that felt true, ownable, unique. You’d give up. Then pick it up again. Over and over. Then, once you landed on an idea you felt was worth pursuing, you’d try to execute it — and things can fail in execution, too. It’s a risky endeavor with no guarantees. To keep yourself going through it, you need a different kind of strength. We call it inspiration.

Inspiration is fleeting, fickle and unpredictable. So, you cultivate it the way an athlete cultivates muscle strength. You looked for it in song and poetry. In discussion and in the quiet of your mind. You’d find yourself walking for hours among the trees. Driving for miles and miles. Sitting quietly and waiting for it to come on a cliff somewhere. Something does come to you. Eventually, it always comes. But many of my peers gave up waiting. Some went crazy waiting.

That’s intellectual effort. And it’s as important in the art of photography as it is in any other art form. In painting, when you don’t put intellectual effort into something, the art form actually changes — it’s called “illustration.” In photography, this is the pull between art and craft. And those who attempt to use the medium of photography to express their unique ideas often wrestle with the “rules of photography” in the same way.

Intellectual Photographers

John Baldessari, “Hands Framing New York Harbor From Pier.” 1971

John Baldessari

John Baldessari’s most notable work goes right after this struggle of the intellectual vs physical approach to photography. His work directly discussed it, challenging the idea of what a photograph is, how we view it and what we are trained to look at in it. This self-referential period of art (art about art) was a large movement, especially in the 60’s and 70’s, creating an intellectual discussion around art itself.

John Baldessari, “Two Opponents (Blue and Yellow), 2004.

In some of his work, Baldessari “destroyed” people’s heads to draw the viewer’s attention to other parts of the image, forcing a new interpretation of the scene and questioning our own understanding of the mdium.

Here you can see that Baldessari’s images are nothing all too special. In fact, Baldessari cares so little about how well he can take a picture, he often simply uses found imagery. This is typical of the highly-intellectual photographer whose sole purpose is to bring forward an idea. The big circles over people’s faces? Those were price stickers. Unlike the physical photographer, the intellectual effort is not necessarily exemplified in the most intricate of techniques — but rather the purest expression of the idea.

Hans Eijkelboom

Hans Eijkelboom is a conceptual photographer. Nobody talks about the physical parts of his work, either; the angles he shoots from, whether he shoots in Raw or JPG, which lens he’s using or if he has a Lightroom preset to share. But the effort of his work is unquestionable. His technique is to stand on a street corner for a few hours and collect images of regular people. Then find the similarities between people in order to create imagery that comments on human identity and our sense of uniqueness. That’s a ton of intellectual effort.

From “People of the 21st Century.” By Hans Eijkelboom, Phaidon.

Cindy Sherman

Identity is a discussion of more than a few photographers. Cindy Sherman, in her highly-influential work series, “Untitled Film Stills,” explores gender roles and stereotypes through self-portraits of herself, as though in a typical movie role. This combines both physical and intellectual effort in photography. Creating movie stills is no small taks, but intellectually, the series works even harder, discussing the way movies and the roles women take in them can define and imprison us.

“Untitled Film Stills.” By Cindy Sherman.

Identity has been a common theme among artists of the last few decades, stemming right out of a simultaneous awakening of gender roles and it lends itself well to the medium of photography — which is commonly used as an image-making tool.

So, you can see — the physical act of shooting and the intellectual effort of having an idea worth executing and that resonates with audiences are unique skill sets.


As the sea of photographers increases, the availability of amazing equipment grows and the Internet-ification of any possible photographic technique expands, it’s becoming easier and easier to compete in the world of physical photography. I see young people these days killing it with technique in ways that took me decades to understand. I was with a young photographer, about 20 years old, last night and there was almost nothing I could teach him about the camera or composition. He was already extremely adept at all the physical aspects of picture-taking. That’s becoming more and more common.

But what I hear from my most adept, seasoned photographer friends is that they are wanting to explore something more. Photographers who have been shooting the same things for a while tend to find themselves searching for something deeper and more fulfilling. My belief is that the answer here lies down a path of intellectual effort. And, in some ways, that means starting over. A new muscle group. Assuming the physical talent is as good as it needs to be and then heading down a road that looks critically at the world. At yourself and your place within culture as it is today… and having an opinion about all that. That happens as much without as with a camera in your hands. It entails thinking about life — a lot. Few people have the temperament to stay in that world for very long and risk the trials and errors associated with it. It’s far easier to send the drone up, find a rooftop, do a reflection and apply a Lightroom preset. Effort is, after all, effort.

As I think of it, the physical effort of photography is akin to playing an instrument. Intellectual effort is writing a song.

(The analogy also works with making pasta noodles versus a pasta dish.)

I hope to see more and more people heading down the path of intellectual effort in their work. As I’ve said before, there is no shortage of great photography out there, but an incredible shortage of great ideas. And the world needs great ideas.

It just takes effort.