On the surface, photography creates a lasting record of a subject, freezing it in time so you can remember and enjoy it later. But it can also serve as scaffolding that allows you to construct an image showing how you view that subject.
It can seem somewhat intimidating when you first try to operate a camera. Camera makers have spent considerable sums trying to lower that hurdle, but new users still produce their share of blurry, dark, or crooked shots before they get the hang of it. Success comes when they can capture images that look like they did to you standing there at the time. Growing up, my father took pictures of us kids to preserve memories of how we were. Looking at some of them, I find it hard to believe I ever looked like that. He similarly used his camera to record famous attractions on our summer vacation travels. I'm glad he did and still wax nostalgic when I look at them.
Documentary photographers make a profession out of this. The primary objective is to record events, and the people involved as accurately as possible. They may be the only photographer fortunate enough to be there, and history is in the making. Or if others are clicking away right next to them, they all still have bills to pay. And the rest of the public has proven to be voracious consumers of what's happening in the world. Standards of objectivity may have shifted somewhat in recent years, but objectivity still counts.
The average photographer is perfectly happy emulating this approach to the craft. Smartphone makers know this. Convenience is paramount for the photographer who can fit his camera in the same pants pocket as he keeps his encyclopedia, world atlas, calculator, and solitaire card game. Oh, and his telephone. Somehow, the phone function almost seems secondary these days, but for today's article, it's the camera that matters. And it's incredible what they can make one so small do now.
After you've been using a camera for long enough, you begin to develop an appreciation for how a camera can render the same subject in so many ways. At first, through happenstance selection, you're likely to end up with images that looked quite different, though their subject matters were similar. As you become more comfortable with exposure and basic technique, you afford more time to focus on the nuances of composition, using the camera to say something about your subject, not merely portray it.
It's fun to go beyond the apparent subject. Think of it as scaffolding upon which you can construct an image about perceiving that subject in an interesting, unique way. Stive for subjectivity, not necessarily objectivity. What does your subject look like to you? Your camera is a tool, but the objects in front of your camera can be, too. That opens up whole new worlds for you to explore.
Crews use scaffolding on construction sites to facilitate building taller and reaching further. At different times and places, people have made such support systems from various materials. In the United States, it's common to see supports made from aluminum and galvanized steel reaching up before new building construction downtown. In southeast Asia, I've been amazed by the physical agility of crews climbing immense structures of lashed bamboo many stories high.
Because of its ubiquity, the term has developed a more generic sense. It has expanded to refer to a foundation or support for any lofty endeavor. So it seems appropriate it reuse it here as the underpinnings for great photographic composition. Don't look so much at the scaffolding that is your subject matter. Look to the heights of compositional excellence it can help you reach.