Photography is a visual medium that has existed since the 1800s. Since then it has evolved both in form, technology, purpose, and expression. Photography is a multifaceted craft that is constantly evolving over time. What is photography and how is it created? In this article, we’ll explore how photographs are made, the mediums used to create them, and the ways photography is used. 

What is Photography 

First, let’s define photography

Before diving into the different mediums and types of photography that exist, let’s take a look at the general photography definition to understand the term. 


What is photography?

To understand the photography definition it is important to break down the word itself. The Greek meaning of ‘photo’ translates to ‘light’ while ‘graphy’ translates to ‘drawing.’ Therefore, the word photography can quite literally translate to light drawing or drawing with light. Simply put, photography is the process of capturing light to create an image. This is executed through the use of a camera, either film or digital. The practice of capturing light to create images is used for various purposes.

What is photography used for?

  • Creating art
  • Documenting events
  • Producing commercial work

What is Photography and How It Works

How does photography work

The photography definition may give a general breakdown of what photography is, but how does photography work specifically and how is light captured to create an image?

To understand this, you must understand the exposure triangle. Ever since the invention of photography and the invention of the camera, these three components of photography have been critical in creating images from light. 


Aperture is the opening of the lens through which light passes. When you hit the shutter release button to take the picture, the camera aperture opens to the predetermined width, letting a specific amount of light through.

What is Aperture & the Exposure Triangle Explained  •  Subscribe on YouTube


Once light passes through the aperture of a camera lens, it lands on either a sensor (in digital photography) or light sensitive film stock (in film photography). ISO is what measures your camera’s digital sensor’s sensitivity to light or your film stock’s sensitivity to light. 

Camera ISO and the Exposure Triangle Explained  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Shutter Speed

The final component of the exposure triangle is shutter speed. Shutter speed is how long the camera shutter is open, exposing the image to light, typically measured in milliseconds to minutes.

Camera Shutter and the Exposure Triangle Explained  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Once these components of exposure pass light onto a sensor or film stock, an image can be created (through different processes depending on the medium). Film stock is processed through chemical processing while digital photography is processed, you guessed it, digitally. Let’s dive into these different mediums of photography to understand the similarities and differences between them. 

Film and Digital Photography Definition

Photography mediums

Digital photography has undoubtedly become the more common medium of photography given the advent of mirrorless cameras, DSLR cameras, and even smartphone cameras. However, this technology has not been around very long. Before the era of digital photography there was film photography.

Why would modern photographers choose to shoot film given the digital technology available? 

Film photography

Film photography is the practice of taking photos by exposing thin plastic material we call film to light to create an image. The plastic material on a roll of film is coated with silver halide crystals that darken when exposed to light. One the film is exposed to light, it is then processed in a dark room with various chemicals to develop the final image of a photograph. 

Film photography has a few advantages over digital photography. The most notable advantages are a higher dynamic range, lower price for camera bodies, and of course the analog qualities film creates such as grain and texture.

What is Photography Film Photography Examples by Ryan Muirhead

Film Photography Examples by Ryan Muirhead

Digital photography

Digital photography is the process of taking photographs by using an electronic sensor to capture light rather than film. These images are then stored digitally on a memory card and are easily transferable as a digital file. 

As opposed to film photography, digital photography is instantly reviewable which is an advantage for those who value instant feedback while shooting. Digital photography is also cheaper to process since there is no physical processing of film stock. Lastly, digital photography has a larger capacity for shooting due to its use of digital memory cards as storage. 

What is photography digital medium

What is photography  •  Digital medium

Now that you understand the different mediums of still photography, let’s take a look at how photography is used for different purposes

What is Photography Used For?

Purpose of photography

As a visual medium, photography can be used for a specific purpose. This purpose of photography varies depending on the photographer’s intention, the subject of a photograph, as well as how the photograph is used. The purpose of a photograph has a large influence on how a photographer shoots, how they compose their images, and what equipment they use.

Let’s take a look at the three general purposes of photography.

Art photography

Art photography, while having countless subcategories, is a type of photography with the purpose of expression. This can be an expression of a concept the photographer wishes to explore, storytelling, abstraction, or even landscapes in the natural world such as in this image from the iconic photographer Ansel Adams. 

What is Photography Ansel Adams art of photography

Ansel Adams art of photography

Art photography pushes the boundaries of a visual experience. It is often the more experimental type of photography as its purpose is to create an experience for the viewer of the photograph. Art photography depends heavily then, on the ideas of the photographer. 

Documentary photography

Some photographers use the medium as a means of capturing real events and subjects. This is considered documentary photography. Documentary photography often captures situations or subjects in a neutral way while also capturing the story unfolding.

What is Photography V J Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt

 V-J Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt

Documentary photography can be found in new reports and historical collections. Documentary photography focuses heavily on the subject of the photograph. When the subject or event being captured becomes of historical importance over time, documentary photography can become iconic.

Commercial photography

Lastly, commercial photography is the use of photography to promote a good, service, company or event that consumers purchase into. It is used for a purpose of persuasion. Food, fashion, and product are all examples of commercial photography.

What is Photography Commercial photography example

Commercial photography example

Of course, some photography transcends these categories. Especially in recent times, commercial photography has utilized art photography in their campaigns. And some art photographers have used real people to explore their own concepts such as in street photography.  

While these purposes of photography are a general guideline to what the medium can be used for, they are not rules. Photography is a visual medium that is still being pushed and reinvented by brilliant artists. 

Up Next

When Was Photography Invented?

Interested in the in depth origin of photography as well as how and when it was invented? In our next article, we lay out a brief history of the craft of photography and its genesis in the 1800s. 

Up Next: Photography's Invention →
Solution Icon - Shot List and Storyboard

Showcase your vision with elegant shot lists and storyboards.

Create robust and customizable shot lists. Upload images to make storyboards and slideshows.

Learn More ➜

  • Kyle DeGuzman graduated from San Diego State University with a Bachelor of Science in Television, Film, & New Media. He currently resides in Denver, Colorado spending his time writing, filmmaking, and traveling.

Copy link