Photographs, images, and pictures:  all of these words have similar dictionary meanings, but we all seem to have different notions of what the nuances are of these images?  Just like an SLR is a different kind of camera over a Point-and-Shoot, or a Medium Format Camera, those digital ones and zeros in our world of photography can carry different meanings to different people.

If you ask ten different photographers to identify the difference between a photograph, a picture, and an image – you’ll likely get ten different answers.  The truth of the matter is that there is no hard and fast answer to define the distinction between these terms.  With that in mind though, here’s a proposed explanation of what the differences are as I see them:

What is an image?

An image (to me) simply refers to a file on a computer somewhere.  It’s ones and zeros in the truest sense of the word.  Whether or not someone is actually viewing it is up for grabs.  There is no purpose or intent to the file yet because you’re not even sure if it was meant to be seen or if it is even seen at all.  Further, how someone sees it (even if it is on display from a web server somewhere) is a function of their own setup, lighting conditions, monitor calibration, etc.  To me, when I refer to images, I am talking about things in the strictest sense – simply the storage file that represents the picture or photo that I hope to produce at some point.  To me, an image is a file.

Image, Picture or Photo

What is a picture?

A picture encompasses the elements of an image – it still has the characteristics of being stored somewhere, but it also (to me) means that an attempt has been made to share it with others, and that there is purpose or intent to it.  Whether that purpose or intent is to capture a moment in time (say from a journalistic perspective), document  a a trip (I was here on whatever date), or even just some candids from a night out with family and friends, pictures are frozen moments in time.  They have all the characteristics of an image, but also add a layer of meaning, and purpose or intent to them.  To me a picture is documentation.

Photo, Picture, or Image

What is a Photograph?

Building further, a photograph encompasses all that we would expect to include in our craft.  A photograph is an image, a picture, and yet also includes something more.  A photograph to me connotes something artistic.  The photo usually means that we’ve gone beyond the simple act of pressing the shutter to capture a moment in time.  The lighting, subject, or angle of view brings an emotional element to the table that is otherwise not present. To me, a photograph is art.

Picture, Photo, or Image


This does not place any importance or relevance of one semantic over another.  Instead, I am defining the terms by means of their respective purpose: storage, capture, and expression being the key elements of each.  This is, of course, not set in stone either.  What about you?  Are there distinctions between images, pictures and photos?  How would you define or classify these terms?  Does it even matter to make such distinctions?  Sound off in the comments!

5 thoughts on “The Semantics of Photography

  1. Mr. Willis says:

    As the song goes, a picture paints a thousand words…Pictures and photographs are always interesting to look at than just reading texts and stories

  2. This is really interesting. I never put much thought into the difference of words. Thanks!

  3. Miguel Palaviccini says:

    Interesting article indeed! I’ve got quite a few images that need to made into photographs and shared with others.

  4. Alan Watts says:

    As an author of illustrated semi-technical books for which I often use my own photos, an image is a piece of cyberspace with no real physical attributes. On the other hand a picture is an image that has been transposed into the real world. I can send it, if necessary, through the post.

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