Understanding Photo Genres
Having an overall understanding of the types or genres of photography is important for understanding where your own photography fits in the photographic world and consequently the opportunities that are open to you.
Identifying photographic genres
Classifying the types of photography is a really difficult exercise. First of all, it has been difficult discerning what is a genre and what is a technique. Is 'portraiture' a genre or a technique? And what about 'high speed photography'? To get an idea of the complexity look at the listing on Wikipedia for Genres of Photography. Even if you can identify genres, there is often lots of overlap between the different genres. And it is tough deciding what is a genre and what is a sub-genre.
Although it is nearly impossible to be accurate and comprehensive about it, I have pursued this exercise simply because giving you a basic overview of the genres that are out there is an important step in discovering where your own photography fits.
Four basic categories
In working on identifying photographic genres it is helpful to divide them into four basic categories. Genres that tend toward being focused on creating a fictional reality we have called Creative. Genres of photography such as commercial, fashion and erotic photography fit in here. Creative genres allow a significant element of fantasy and so their ethical parameters are far broader than for Editorial images.
Figure 1 Photographic genres can be divided into four basic categories - Creative, Editorial, Retail and Personal
Genres that set out to be non-fiction and record reality in a more objective manner, we have called Editorial. Of course, these categories are certainly not absolute. No photography is completely objective. We all know that much travel photography is very selective about what is included in the frame and what is not. And a fashion shoot may end up being more aligned to actual happenings than a news picture, depending on the ethics of the photographer. But having said that, this is a helpful distinction to make when our purpose to is help you place yourself and your work in the photographic landscape. Certainly it helps us determine the general set of ethics that would tend to govern each group of genres.
Retail genres focus on services to the end user. That could be in taking a passport photo, or it could be photographing a wedding. The focus tends to be pleasing the client.
Finally Personal genres tend to be for the recording of personal memories and for private use.
Below is an illustration of the major Creative genres that we have identified. In terms of photographic ethics, all of these genres would allow significant retouching of images, as well as the wholesale creation or alteration and recreation of images. The primary ethic is aesthetic - whatever looks good goes.
Photographic ethics aside, not all of these genres are equally ethical in terms of the exploitation of their subjects. By listing them here, we are simply highlighting that they exist and are not in any way condoning their existence or suggesting that you dabble in them. Pornography, for instance, would not be considered ethical at all and is in fact exploitative because it is intended to arouse, and it reduces subjects to objects of desire, in spite of the general appeal to 'consenting adults'. Photography in the service of propaganda tends to be likewise unethical by its very nature.
Photography is not considered unethical simply because it includes nakedness. Much fine art nude photography may not be considered unethical because its aim is not to be sexually explicit, but to rather highlight the beauty of the human form.
In spite of the element of fantasy, these genres may actually highlight truths in a more ethical way than some of the Editorial genres. For instance, a fine art picture may be a more powerful and ethical expression of an issue than a news picture relating to the same issue.
Figure 2 Creative genres tend to allow an element of fantasy and so are more liberal in terms of photographic ethics, allowing significant retouching and blending of images and so on. Just because the genre is listed here does not mean that we condone each one. Pornography and propaganda, for instance, we would consider to be exploitative and unethical. Be mindful that this is not an exhaustive list. Are there any other genres of photography that you think should fit in here?
We have identified many more Editorial genres than Creative genres. Editorial genres tend to be governed by a far stricter code of photographic ethics, particularly in genres like photojournalism and scientific photography where a minimum of retouching would be allowed, and then is done primarily in the service of ensuring clarity for the scene. This is because these genres make claims that what has been captured accurately reflects the situation or event as it was witnessed. But among these genres there is a wide deviance in terms of the ethics expected.
Wedding photography, for instance, may be approached in the style and with the ethical standards of a documentary photographer. On the other hand it may be approached very creatively and find its natural home among the Creative genres alongside fashion or celebrity photography. Vernacular photography, often called amateur photography, the kind of photography we all practice around our family and friends, would tend to have no expected ethical standard. People take what they want to according to what their community and social group treats as acceptable.
Archival photography is included here, although all the other types of photography can end up here depending on their historic value; this includes many of the Creative genres. Because a picture ages, it tends to become reflective of a period of time, even if, when it was created, the photographer had only the creation of a pleasing image in mind and used a wide variety of manipulation techniques. By the time it is archival, however, it is likely to be a true reflection of the style or artistic flair of the era in which it was created.
As with the Creative genres, there are ethical considerations outside of photographic ethics. Spy photography, for instance, is only likely to be considered ethical in the theatre of war, though it is surely far more widely used than that. There are often serious questions about the ethics of paparazzi photography, as the death of the Princess of Wales can attest to. So again, just because we list these genres and sub-genres does not mean we condone them.
FIGURE 3 Editorial genres tend to be governed by a more stringent code of ethics. Again, not all these genres can be considered ethical all of the time. Public relations imagery, for instance, may include a good deal of invention, and spy photography may be a plain violation of human rights. Just because we list the genres here, does not mean we condone them or suggest you begin to practice them. Be mindful that this is not an exhaustive list. Are there any other genres of photography that you think should fit in here?
Retail genres deal with the person on the street who needs a photographer to perform a service for him or her. Primarily this is in the service of capturing a record of significant achievements as an aid to memory. Because of this retail genres tend to focus in on major events in people's lives - "rights of passage" such as bar and bat mitzva, graduations, weddings, significant milestones in family life and even funerals. This may also include such services as sports photography at events where non-professional athletes are taking part and where prints or digital files are sold to the participants after the event. But this genre also includes portrait photography - baby and family portraits - and more mundane photographic services such as passport photography.
FIGURE 4 Retail genres are about serving private persons primarily in aiding them to record a significant milestone or achievement in life
Personal genres are primarily in the service of personal memories. These are the most widely used genres in the world of photography. The money to be made here is not in providing the service of doing the photography for people, but rather in providing photographic equipment, photography training, post processing or some kind of product that can be created from the photography that people take. There may also be money made among collectors who rummage through jumble sales looking for old personal pictures. This is a genre that has come to be called "found" photography.
FIGURE 5 Personal genres don't require the services of a professional photographer. Any income to be made here is in enabling people to take good pictures themselves either by providing equipment, training, post processing or products that can be created from their photography