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 is the original founder of Photodoto, but after running it for 4 years he had to focus on different things. If you're interested in what John has been up to recently, you can check is personal blog or browse his photo blog.