The Essence of Photography: Part I

Twin figures cool tones
Twin figures at Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris (Credit: C. Bertelsen)

Photography is all about the camera, right?

Not exactly.

You see, for me, photography provides an elusive and spiritual aspect to my daily life. When I browse through the photographs that I’ve stored in my camera or on files on my computer, so many times I’m struck by what I didn’t see at the moment I pressed the button. That sense of the mystical, the things I don’t see but are there none the less, makes photography a very special undertaking.

The larger act of photographing involves many smaller ones. The language we use to describe the act comes into play. The physical act of crouching, of zeroing in on our subject is another such act. And using our eyes, seeing the moment, and seizing it, is yet another.

Think of the words we use when describing the process of actively using our cameras.

In photographing a scene, an object, or a person, we say we “take” the shot, or we “capture” an image, don’t we? Those words — “take” and “shot” and “capture”— conjure up a sense of violence.

And thus those words — “take” and “shot” and “capture”— no longer serve to describe what happens when I walk out there in the world with my camera slung around my neck. Perhaps a better word to describe what happens when we three — me, the world, and the camera — meet is “receive.”

Speaking of words and the different meanings we assign to them, the word “photograph” presents a rather fascinating case of how a word means exactly what it really says. “Photograph” is the net result of two Greek words: “photo” or “light” and “graph” or “to write.” Light forms the essence of photography. In the absence of light, the act of photographing, or drawing with light, cannot exist.

Think about it. The camera “receives” the light through the aperture, modified, of course, by the shutter speed. Just as we receive light through our eyes. But, unlike the camera, we also receive awareness through our eyes.

And awareness is what we seek, is it not?

Thus, I want to believe that being a photographer — and I must make clear a point here — means not being paid for one’s work, although that would be nice. Rather, being a photographer means collecting the moments that make life worth loving.

No, that’s not a typo.

(My thoughts after a month of immersion in photography. Originally published on

© 2014 C. Bertelsen

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