Photography's Practical Applications

Most of the billions of photographs taken today are snapshots—casual records to document personal events such as vacations, birthdays, and weddings. Photographs are used extensively by newspapers, magazines, books, and television to convey information and advertise products and services. Practical applications of photography are found in nearly every human endeavor from astronomy to medical diagnosis to industrial quality control. Photography extends human vision into the realm of objects that are invisible because they are too small or too distant, or events that occur too rapidly for the naked eye to detect. A camera can be used in locations too dangerous for humans. Photographs can also be objects of art that explore the human condition and provide aesthetic pleasure. For millions of people, photography is a satisfying hobby or a rewarding career.


Photographs are well suited for use in the mass media. Today they are reproduced by the billions, and they can be found everywhere: in the pages of newspapers, magazines, books, catalogs, and brochures; on display in billboards, shop windows, and posters; broadcast over television; organized into slide shows and film strips; and on the Internet and mobile applications.

In photography's early days some of its most eagerly sought images were those brought back by explorers and travelers. These would satisfy people's curiosity about distant places like China, Egypt, and the American West. That same kind of curiosity exists today. People are fascinated with photographs of the surface of the moon, the landscape of Mars, and the appearance of other planets in the solar system.

Photographs in the mass-communication media have made the faces of political leaders, popular entertainers, and other celebrities familiar to the public. When a newsworthy event occurs, photojournalists are there to record it. Photojournalists sometimes spend months covering a story. The result of such labor is often a powerful, revealing picture essay that probes far beneath the surface of events.

Photography is also essential to the advertising industry. In efforts to sell a product, attractive photographs of the item are used. Photography is also widely used in education and training within the academic world, industry, and the armed services.

William Henry Jackson photographed the Grand Canyon in the Yellowstone area in 1872 while on a geologic survey expedition.

William Henry Jackson photographed the Grand Canyon in the Yellowstone area in 1872 while on a geologic survey expedition. This image, along with others, helped to sway the U.S. Congress to create Yellowstone National Park, the nation's (and the world's) first national park.

Photographs are also often used in attempts to sway public opinion. Governments, political parties, and special-interest groups have long used the graphic representation and emotional impact of photographs to further their causes. Such use may result in destructive propaganda, such as that of the Nazis during the Third Reich. Significant changes have been brought about by way of photography. Photographs of the Yellowstone region, for example, were instrumental in Congress's decision to establish that area as a national park in 1872; and photographs of child laborers helped to bring about legislation protecting children from exploitation as early as 1916.


Photography has many practical applications in industry, medicine, astronomy, archaeology, scientific research, the graphic arts, law enforcement, and many aspects of contemporary life. Aerial photography, for example, is used to make maps and contour charts, to study Earth and its oceans, and to help forecast the weather. Cameras aboard satellites and space vehicles have photographed Earth, as well as the Moon, the Sun, and the other planets. Astronomers use photography to study galaxies in deep space and to analyze the composition of stars through spectroscopy. New photographic applications are constantly being developed.


Cunningham was known for her portraits and images of plant life, such as Two Callas, About 1925.

Cunningham was known for her portraits and images of plant life, such as Two Callas, About 1925.

By the early 1920s Cunningham began to change her style, creating close-up, sharply detailed studies of plant life and other natural forms. Her experiments with form allied her with other Modernist photographers at the time, and in 1932 Cunningham joined the association of West Coast photographers known as Group f.64. Like other members of the group, she rejected the soft-focused sentimental subjects that were then popular in favour of images such as Two Callas (c. 1929), which conveys a sensuous delight in nature.

In the early 1930s, Cunningham worked briefly for Vanity Fair and produced images of entertainers and celebrities. After the breakup of Group f.64, she ran a portrait gallery and taught at several California art schools. A retrospective monograph, Imogen! Imogen Cunningham Photographs, 1910–1973, was published in 1974, and her final photographs were published in After Ninety in 1977.

Photography is used extensively in medicine and dentistry for research, teaching, and as a day-to-day diagnostic tool. Especially important are films made with X-rays, which reveal the body's inner structure.

The world of miniaturized electronic equipment would not be possible without photography. A photographic etching process called photoresist is used to produce the extremely small but precisely printed microelectronic chips that are the “brains” of modern electronic hardware.

Photography by ultraviolet light has a number of applications, including the detection of forged or altered documents, the identification of chemical compounds, and the examination of bacterial colonies. Infrared photography can, in effect, “see in the dark.” It can record invisible infrared illumination. It has significant military and surveillance uses and is also employed in medical and astronomical photography.


Today photography is widely recognized as a fine art. Photographs are displayed in art museums, prized by collectors, discussed by critics, and studied in art history courses. Because of the special nature of photography, however, this was not always the case. In the early days of photography some people considered the medium something of a poor relation to the older, established visual arts, such as drawing and painting.

A camera, no matter how many automatic features it may have, is a lifeless piece of equipment until a person uses it. It then becomes a uniquely responsive tool—an extension of the photographer's eye and mind. A photographer creates a picture by a process of selection. Photographers looking through the camera's viewfinder must decide what to include and what to exclude from the scene. They select the distance from which to take the picture and the precise angle that best suits their purpose. They select the instant in which to trip the shutter. This decision may require hours of patient waiting until the light is exactly right or it may be a split-second decision, but the photographer's sense of timing is always crucial.

Photographers can expand or flatten perspective by the use of certain lenses. They can freeze motion or record it as a blur, depending on their choice of shutter speed. They can create an infinite number of lighting effects with flashes or floodlights. They can alter the tonal values or colours in a picture by their choice of film and filters. These are only a few of the controls available to a photographer when taking a picture. Later, in the darkroom, many additional choices are available.

One of the best ways to view artistic photographs is to visit museums. Today most art museums include photography exhibitions, and many have a photography department and a permanent collection of photographic prints. This is a relatively recent development. The first international exhibition of artistic photography took place in Vienna, Austria, in 1891, and in 1910 the Albright Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., held a large exhibition of work by contemporary photographers. This exhibition was sponsored by a group of photographers, including Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, known as the Photo-Secession group. It was not until 1940, however, that a museum—the Museum of Modern Art in New York City—established a separate department of photography.

Alfred Stieglitzs Winter, Fifth Avenue, a photogravure, was published in Camera Work, No. 12, in October 1905. Stieglitz worked to have photography accepted as a fine art.

Alfred Stieglitz's Winter, Fifth Avenue, a photogravure, was published in Camera Work, No. 12, in October 1905. Stieglitz worked to have photography accepted as a fine art.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, also in New York City, created a department devoted solely to photography in 1992. The International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., has one of the world's greatest historical collections. In Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Smithsonian Institution also house extensive photographic collections.

Today photography collections exist in art museums throughout the world and in some colleges and universities. Founded in 1974, the International Center of Photography contains archives, collections, and a research center in Jersey City, N.J., until its new exhibition space has been completed in New York City, and a school in New York City. Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Photography is the Midwest's greatest repository of photography and an active supporter of working photographers. There has also been a growth of photographic galleries and art galleries that maintain a photographic department. Major events for collectors, gallery owners, and art dealers are the auctions held periodically by major art dealers. Here, rare or sought-after photographs may command thousands of dollars.


Taking photographs is a popular activity. The invention and widespread ownership of the smartphone means that nearly everyone has access to a camera at any given moment. However, some 4 1/2 million persons are seriously interested in photography as a hobby. They usually own more advanced cameras and additional photographic equipment such as extra lenses, tripods, electronic flash units, and filters. Often they have some interest in doing their own darkroom work.

With today's digital and automated cameras, fast films, and simplified processing methods, photography has become a rewarding hobby that offers many levels of satisfaction. As a visual activity it stimulates the photographer to see things in a new way. A successful photographer learns to see in a clear, sensitive, and perceptive manner.

Sony Corporation made the Xperia Z1 smartphone mounted with a lens-style digital camera.

Sony Corporation made the Xperia Z1 smartphone mounted with a lens-style digital camera.

Photography is an active hobby that can be enjoyed in connection with such interests and activities as nature study, gardening, or travel. Camera clubs can be found in many communities, schools, and colleges. Members often exchange information, share and discuss their work, and listen to guest lecturers. Workshops and short courses on photography are also available. And through blogs and social media, almost anyone can show their work to a wider community.


James Nachtwey (1948– ) is a photojournalist noted for his unflinching and moving images of wars, conflicts, and social upheaval.

He has received many of the most respected photography awards, many of them multiple times, notably the Robert Capa Gold Medal, Magazine Photographer of the Year, and World Press Photo of the Year. Compared to Robert Capa for his sense of compassion and commitment and to Henri Cartier-Bresson, who inspired him, for his composition, Nachtwey said of his own work:

I use what I know about the formal elements of photography at the service of the people I'm photographing—not the other way around. I'm not trying to make statements about photography. I'm trying to use photography to make statements about what's happening in the world. I don't want my compositions to be self-conscious.

This compassion—which is particularly compelling in view of the death, destruction, and inhumanity he has witnessed for more than two decades—has enabled him both to be present at and to record the heart-wrenching moments in personal lives throughout the world.


Few careers offer a greater variety of opportunities than does photography. Some professional photographers work as full-time employees, some run their own businesses, and some freelance.

Commercial photographers who work for advertising agencies photograph products for advertising promotions, brochures, catalogs, and other purposes. Their work can range from simple, straightforward shots to elaborate studio setups. Some commercial photographers may specialize in certain product areas, such as fashion, food, or hardware.

Portrait photographers take pictures of people, singly or in groups, for display in homes and offices. Wedding photographers take formal portraits of the bride, groom, and wedding party and also provide a candid coverage of the ceremony.

Industry uses photographers to photograph plants, manufacturing processes, products, workers, and executives. Photographers who work on annual reports must produce pictures that are visually interesting and that show the corporation in a favourable light.

Photojournalists are reporters with a camera, photographing current events and people for newspapers, magazines, and the electronic media. This physically demanding, and sometimes dangerous, work requires both journalistic and photographic skills. Today most successful photojournalists are graduates of a journalism school that has a photojournalism department or offers photojournalism courses. Many photographers enter the field professionally after gaining experience as amateurs. They may spend time as assistants or apprentices before striking out on their own.

Even after the advent of digital photography, there are a variety of opportunities for specialists and technicians in photography. For example, highly skilled darkroom technicians are still needed by custom labs that cater to professionals.