A few days ago I engaged in a conversation on the internet about the depth of field. The conversation digressed into a discussion of the physics of optics (lenses) and their effect on the depth of field. There is no doubt that there is a whole heaping helping of science involved in photography. Back in the early days, there was a whole chemistry along with physics of the principals of light and how optics affects the focus, dispersion and diffraction of light particles. Then came digital photography, introducing topics like the signal to noise ratios, programming, electronics engineering and more. I am thankful for all those science minded and pioneers of photography but does it really matter? Does it make any difference if I know and understand, at least in a basic form, the math and science behind it all? Is it better that I just understand how to set my camera, lens and lighting to get the image I envision in my mind?
I guess it all depends on how you view yourself. Do you view yourself as a technician or an artist? For a technician, those things could very well make a difference. As an artist, it doesn’t make much difference. Does a painter care about how a brush is made and the science behind the bristles or the handle or are they concerned with the look and quality of the stroke? Does a writer care about how a pencil is made, the science behind why the graphite leaves a mark on the paper?
As photographers who have, at least, a basic, understanding of such things do more harm than good when topics become involved in the science? Should we as teachers, instructors, or mentors be more concerned with teaching the art and leaving the science to scientists?
I view myself more as an artist with my photography. Some may not like my style or how I achieve my photographs and state that I am not following the technical principles of the design. In reality, it doesn’t matter to me if a photograph is technically correct as long as it achieves my vision. We often get into some of these conversations when we read or write critiques on our work or the work of others by asking, “what settings did you use”? Often this is pointless information unless we know more. What kind of light was there? Where was the light coming from? How far were you from your subject? What were you wishing to achieve or convey with your photograph? Unless we were there at the time of the photograph the most we can offer is a suggestion on what may have worked or why something did not work.
As I was researching what others thought about this topic I found an article about using “two-legged zoom”. This is often a term used by the fanboys and fangirls of prime lenses who say if I want a wider view or get closer I’ll walk further away or closer to my subject. The article pointed out that doing so did keep the subject the same relative size, but it also changed the perspective of the image. As an artist is it more important to know what you want a photograph to look like and how you get it or the science behind why it happens? As a teacher, instructor, or mentor is my best answer, it depends on or sometimes when a student asks a question about how to get a look or which is better to use then explain why it may change based on your light, subject, distance, or vision? As a teacher, instructor, or mentor should we teach our students more about problem-solving and making the determination based on this particular set of circumstances?
I guess the best answer to the question, is photography art or science is; it depends on your goal.