Two Big Questions

In The Craft, The Life Creative, Thoughts & Theory by David8 Comments

Walking through Jodhpur with a friend last week he asked me a series of questions about the way I think when I photograph, specifically: how do I prioritize and make the decisions that I do? Do you choose aperture first, or shutter? Do you reach for a wider lens or a tighter? Do you back up, get close? So many decisions, how do you approach it? Here are a couple thoughts and then the two guiding questions I’ve recognized are always bouncing around my brain when I make photographs. The photographs I make depend heavily on how I answer these questions

First, it’s important to remember that how I, or anyone that’s been doing this for half a lifetime or more, think about things will be different than for those a little newer to the game. After years so much of the thoughts become sub-conscious, the program running in the background. Focusing and exposing and some of the mechanics is no longer the main concern, only because it just kind of happens in your hands if you’re paying attention even a little. So on that account, it’s a little easier. There’s less to think consciously about. The benefits of this, and so-called muscle memory, are many, and are the reason I wrote this article, The Best Camera.

The two big questions always running through my head, from which many smaller questions come, are these: What do I want to say? And, How can I best say that?


What do I want to say? I walk around a corner in India, Italy, wherever, and see something that makes me put my camera quickly to my eye. But why?What was it that lit me up inside? A beam of light? The dust? The mood? The action of the thing? The elegance? The grit? Let’s say it’s the woman sweeping in the image at the top of this post (rss readers can find it here): for me it was two primary things: the shape of the woman sweeping and the dust that she was kicking up. What I wanted to say was not a complicated thing, it had no agenda, simply: look at that. Look at the way the light catches the dust, look at the relationship between the woman sweeping and the woman just walking by. Now I ask the more practical question: how can I give that subject its strongest expression, or…

How can I best say that? Or, to put it another way, what do I want the photograph to look like? The latter question is more about possibilities than finding one specific answer. In the case of the woman I was photographing I knew it had to be backlit because moving around her would change the way the light hit the dust relative to my camera and I’d lose the magic of that. I’d also lose the silhouettes. I knew I needed to dramatically underexpose the scene, or expose for the highlights, and so I cranked my aperture down (to f/20) because I was already at a shutter speed that would work (1/125) and there was a chance I might get a pinpoint of sun poking through the overhead awnings, and y’all know I’ve got a weakness for sun flare and starbursts. The ISO was 800 which is my starting place on mornings like this and delivers perfectly good images. But had I wanted to say something about the motion of the scene I would have cranked the ISO down, and opened the shutter to give me something closer to 1/15 or 1/8 to make the motion part of the image.

Vision-Priority Mode. I’ve told you before I shoot entirely on manual these days. I’m faster this way. But it’s preference not dogma. Use whatever mode you need to to make photographs quickly and without too much messing around. The most important thing is that you remain in the moment and give your attention to answering the above two questions, not encumbering the process with a third question: ok, now which dials and buttons do I use to get there. You should know that. It should be second-nature. The camera can’t do it for you. What mode should you use? The one that you can use fastest, that allows you to make the images you want to make, that say what you want to say in the strongest possible ways.

When we start all we want is to answer simple (but vexing) questions: how do I expose this damn thing, and how do I get it focus. Once you can do that there are better questions. Try it next time you’re out. If “what do I want to say?” is too large a question, try: “what specifically about this scene am I reacting to?” Find a way to express that. Is it about colour? Light? Shape? Is it action that requires a different POV (point of view) or a relationship between foreground and background that requires a different lens. With time you’ll get better – faster – at finding these starting points. But they are only that: starting points. Rarely is my first try successful. I put the camera to my eye and play, try, experiment, looking at the results in the viewfinder as I shoot them (another advantage of mirrorless cameras and their electronic viewfinders), and then tweaking my approach. But all the while I’m asking myself, reminding myself, two of my most important questions are: what do I want to say, to point at, and how do I want the image to look, what will give that subject its best expression. We have an insane number of ways of accomplishing things with a camera.

Like this kind of approach? Around June 15, my new book, The Soul of the Camera, The Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making, will be released. You can pre-order it now on Amazon, or get your hands on a signed edition here while they last.


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  1. Interesting as always David! The question on “what am I responding too in this scene” is one my first mentor always hit me on the head with. We are often struck with some visceral sense about a scene but not often able to identify it, or what drew us emotionally to it. In those instances I often making “sketching” images to see if I can tease out what drew me in the first place. This can be good when there is time but all to often we are presented with fleeting moments and in many of those I just rely on my intuition and sense of composition, light, and exposure. I believe have such an understanding and connection to the camera – in such a way that it is automatic – helps move it out of the way so you can concentrate on just making images. One thing I can say is that all of this is ALWAYS a work in progress and all about the journey…


  2. What a helpful and insightful post. I need to GET to the point that the dials, lighting, shutter speed, etc. make sense…everyday I try a little something 🙂 but most importantly I want to get the “soul” of what I am shooting!

  3. Thanks for addressing the starting point of photography. The answer for me arises from your tip: what in this scene am I reacting to? Stated differently, where is the energy for me? What caught my eye, what made me look, what sparked my curiosity? When I start with this in mind I am more likely to capture a moment that means something to me, and maybe also to my viewers. Thank you, David, for your experience and help!

  4. Great image. Another question could be, “Why the heck is she sweeping?” Looks like there is enough dirt there to take forever and a day…. ;-).

  5. Thank you for the ever-inspiring articles. Makes me wanna dig deeper. It’s hard sometimes with straight-up portrait photography like I do, but I know there is a story there always. And definitely a soul to share. Please keep writing. Love your words! ♥

  6. Hi David, and everyone else here in our community, these questions are a great guide and also lead me to many others, some similar to yours, and a lot of my own. PHOTOGRAPHIC QUESTIONS LEAD US TO EXPERIENCES ! David, I’m writing excerpts of this, and many many other of your posts and books, in my pocket journal. I just finished your ebook Making The Image it’s simply amazing! I just can’t wait to experience The Soul of the Camera!

  7. David, Thanks for asking and answering these questions and keeping up the hard work of constantly reminding of us of what you have often called…dare I say “vision”? I came across these thoughts of Henri Cartier-Bresson which may be appropriate:

    “Our eyes must constantly measure, evaluate. We alter our perspective by a slight bending of the knees; we convey the chance meeting of lines by a simple shifting of our heads a thousandth of an inch…We compose almost at the same time we press the shutter, and in placing the camera closer or farther from the subject, we shape the details—taming or being tamed by them. Composition starts when you situate your camera in space in relation to the object. For me, photography is the exploration in reality of the rhythm of surfaces, lines or values; the eye carves out its subject, and the camera has only to do its work. That work is simply to print the eye’s decision on film”.

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