The difference between taking and making

“To take photographs means to recognize—simultaneously and within a fraction of a second—both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson

You’ve probably heard people say they make photographs. Maybe you thought nothing of it. But making a photograph is a distinctly different approach to photography than taking. Taking implies coming upon or discovering something, lying in wait, to grab or trap. When you take photos, you go into the world and you find scenes to capture. Making implies building a scene from parts. Creating something from nothing. Choosing which elements to include and which to exclude.

There is, of course, a continuum between takers and makers. At one extreme you have takers who go into the world and shoot anything and everything with virtually no regard for composition or lighting or timing and no expectations. They just shoot whatever strikes their fancy in front of them. This is the mode of many people who pick up a camera for the first time. At the other extreme, you have makers who don’t shoot anything except scenes which they’ve constructed completely. Every single element in every frame has been precisely arranged based on a preconceived plan, even the lighting. Still life artists are extreme makers.

I think most photographers fall somewhere in the middle. These days, I make all of my photographs but not to the extreme of a still life. The difference between taking a photograph and making one can be as subtle as waiting a few seconds for the right moment or moving two steps to the left to improve the composition. When you do that, you are thinking ahead. You are pre-visualizing what you want the resulting photograph to be. And when you start doing that you are no longer just taking photographs, you’re making them.

Probably the biggest difference between takers and makers is intent. Makers are trying to convey a message to the viewer. Maybe the message is as simple as, “This flower is beautiful.” But whatever it is, makers are definitely trying to get viewers to see the world in a particular way—the way the photographer wants it to be seen. Another big difference is consistency. Takers and makers can both create beautiful, even profound and deeply moving photographs. But I’ll put money on a maker being able to do it consistently.

So which are you? Probably a little of both. Coming upon something unexpected and beautiful and strange in the world is a great treat. You don’t need to plan every photograph ahead of time. But before you press the shutter—if you can—slow down. Is this the right composition, angle, lighting? Is this the right moment? Don’t just take what you’re given. As a photographer, you can bend what you see before you into any shape you wish, altering how it is perceived by the viewer, and making it your own.

By John Watson

John Watson is the original founder of Photodoto. If you're interested in what John has been up to, you can browse his personal blog.


  1. I think the more I use my digital camera the more I’m going to become a “maker”. Using film I was a taker (with some intentions), mostly on vacation. But using a digital camera it is so much easier to explore, develop, and improve your photography (both in handling the camera as well ain composition)! And I think that this can be seen, at least in the pictures I take (or make 😉 on special photo strolls…

  2. This was extremely well written, and reminds me of a college entrance essay (thing) that I wrote last year. I’m bookmarking this entry, it is one I will definitely refer others to in the future.

  3. Yes, well done and thanks! I do agree and love it when I get those moments I can be very selective. However being new to digital (and delighted) and trying to build on art basics learned long ago and rusty… I find I often still “take” shots that remind me of something I do want to get back to and try at a different time of day or year, and I still find nature subjects are often shaking in the wind or available to shoot for a fleeting moment only.
    The odd time I get a chance to concentrate on a subject and experiment for a longer period of time I try to remember to play with the variety of manual settings I have to be able to appreciate their differences and when one setting works better over another depending on other factors.
    Or I might play with a structure, trying shots from a variety of angles and often I find by doing that I’m helping train my eye to see the difference between what appears lovely and what is an exquisite example of what I’m trying to “capture”.
    Perhaps in a way I’m attempting to do something like mathematics practice – repetition and mistakes might eventually help me improve… And taking chances on a hunch sometimes awards me!

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