Better Questions

In Pep Talks, Photographically Speaking, The Craft, Thoughts & Theory, Vision Is Better by David18 Comments

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Prevailing wisdom says there are no stupid questions. But some questions are better than others, lead us to deeper inquiry, raise new, stronger questions, and better address the reason we asked the question in the first place.

I hear a lot of questions. In emails, at live events, on my blog, and through social media channels. I suspect, with few exceptions, that they all come from a genuinely curious mind and a good heart. People just want to learn and sometimes they ask the only questions they know how to ask, in the only language they know, and we get so much of our language, as photographers, from the prevailing culture of photographic education. As that culture leans towards a heavy commitment to gear, if not a downright addiction to gear (see how gently I worded that?),  our questions about photographs tend to be worded in those terms.

What camera did you use?

What lens did you use?

What were your settings?

Do you shoot in sRGB or Adobe 98?

How many megapixels is the original file?

Did it really look that way?

I’ll give you 5 minutes and I bet you can come up with a dozen others. Some make you want to bang your head against the wall more than others. Learning photographers can feel so lost in the sea of technique and technology that it’s no wonder these questions beg for answers. But what if the technical were not the first concern? What if we asked, at least as our first questions, about more important matters? Here are my suggestions for questions that will get you more interesting, more instructive, answers. They’re the ones I would love to hear and could spend hours talking about, instead of the ones above.

What thought or feeling were you trying to express in this photograph?

What consideration did you give to the colour?

Why did you use the lens you did instead of something tighter or wider?

What was it about this specific moment that made you choose it instead of waiting a moment or two longer, or making the photograph a moment sooner?

Why did you use the combination of shutter and aperture that you did?

What considerations drove your choices when you processed and printed this?

There’s nothing wrong with the first set of questions, but most of us will learn more if we ask questions more along the lines of the second. In fact, these are the kinds of questions I encourage my students to ask of photographs they look at, whether or not the photographer that made them is there. How much more would we learn and grow as artists if we studied and asked better questions of the work in front of us, and of our own work? What if we asked these questions before we pressed the shutter? Don’t want to abandon your question about bit depth or colour mode? That’s fine, but try asking the other questions first. You’ll get a handle on the technical stuff soon enough if you go out and make more photographs.



  1. Pingback: Friday Roundup: September 27, 2013 | Eclectic Travel Girl

  2. True 🙂

    Re your firs sentence – “there are no stupid questions”. Once, at the psychology lecture at the University, our lecturer told such thing too… i asked him then “will i ride like a tram (trolley) if i stand on tram-rail and touch traction line with my hands?” he agreed – there are stupid questions 😛 🙂
    Cheers :)m.

    PS. hope you and your leg is getting well!

  3. David,
    Since this post is all about questions, I have a number of them about this piece. First off though, your image is enchanting. I would like to walk into it and soak up the peacefulness of this place!
    As for my questions:
    *This image appears cooler to me than nature. Did you do this in post? Big Stopper? Was this done purely to emphasize the peaceful mood?
    *You have five significant “steps”, comprised of six stones, as the entrance. Perfect uneven #. Although linear perspective can play into the look of their diminishing size, these stones seem to do quite a perfect job on their own. So…did you have to look near and far for this great arrangement, or did God have that all set up for you? 🙂
    *I love how you’ve broken the silly compositional rule “Thou shall not divide thy image in half”, with these stepping stones. Were you doing this to work outside of conventional rules, or for the peace that symmetry can provide?
    *The land seems to fall off toward the lower edges which could create the deeper values, but I assume that you darkened the lower corners also, as they are fairly even in value. Correct? Did you do this to divert the viewers eyes, or to emphasize the symmetry, or?
    *The upper reaches of the sky appear to me to be darker than nature would present. Did you darken this area to keep the viewers eyes lower in the frame, or?
    *I like the dynamic light diagonal in the water as reflected from the sky. Did you dodge that somewhat? Lights generally get darker when reflected, that’s why I ask.
    *And finally, one of those geekish, bad questions – what lens and f/stop did you use and why? I’m still filling my photography tool box with all the craft type technical know-how, that’s why I ask.
    So, a boat-load of questions.
    Hope that leg of yours is healing in fine fashion!

    1. Author

      Wow, that’s quite a series of questions, but good for you for taking the bull by the horns. I guess I should be careful what I ask for… 🙂
      1. Yes, I used a Big Stoppper, and intentionally kept the white balance cool in post. I was aiming for serenity, though I didn’t have to do much, this was just after a rain and it was so calm and peaceful already.
      2. I just sees’em like I finds’em, Anna. Walking through the water, I almost tripped over these before I saw the fascinating line they create.
      3. I’ve been playing a lot lately with symmetry – a lot of horizons in the middle etc., but this one just didn’t seem to even suggest a more dynamic alternative. Often the simplest solution is the best, being the more elegant one.
      4. I’m not sure what you mean by “the land seems to fall off” but if you’re refering to exposure values, no, there’s no dodge or burn here.
      5. Yes, I used a 3-stop NF filter with a hard transition to darken the sky and allow me to brighten the foreground. I think that accounts for the next question too, though I probably also tweaked this with a gradient in Lightroom
      6. See above.
      7. I made this with my Fuji XE-1, 14mm lens, 680 seconds at f/16 to give me the most amount of depth, and serenity in the stilled water and blurred cloud line.

      1. To me, I don’t see the stones as dividing the image in half, at least not visually. I guess that’s because of the visual contrast of the water and sky working the way it does.

  4. Excellent set of questions – one I shall endeavor to ask myself as I go about making images as this will cause me to pause a little longer before pressing the button, moving towards a more zen-like state and away from the sometimes rushed one in which I sometimes find myself shooting. Thank you again for your wisdom and insight!!

  5. Great post David, and fairly consistent will all you explain us since at least 2008 (sorry wasn’t following before that) and in your books. In line with a search for vision before anything else.

    That said, may I just say: thank you for allowing your EXIF to be accessible. More and more photographers delete them, but once in a while it’s interesting to take note of such technical details as DOF and minimum handable speed.

  6. Thought provoking as always! I wonder what time of day this was image was made, well after sunset? And how would the image have looked if it were taken at a different time.? What mood were you wanting to achieve?

  7. Very true. Thanks for this post David.

    The first set of question looks more like geeky questions. There are many people in forums talking about these things in all details but they tend to forget to actually make photos. They do not transport feelings or emotions. The second set is more related to the art of photogarphy to transport emotions.

    In my opion, the first set of questions might be relevant for a newbie who tries to get behind the basics of photography. Later one should switch to the more emotional questions to understand the ‘why did you do it this way’ of the picture and not the ‘who did you do this’.

  8. True enough David. I think it is the probing questions that are more important. I could go to the exact same spot above, set up my camera to the settings you shot on and get a really dull image. Why? Well the light will be different, we will edit the image differently and you were wanting to convey a certain message with this image. Very often, I shoot instinctively i.e. I try different settings until I get what I want, my exposure may look wacky on camera but on screen it works. So the more important questions are about…”what were you seeing, or looking for?” Great photos are like great cars (weird analogy, but stay with me) You can see all the specs of the Aston Martin DBS on paper, look at the horsepower and the 0-100km time, the fuel consumption etc, but when you sit in the car and turn the key and hear that engine kick, THATS when it becomes a thing of emotion and beauty. Photography is the same in many ways, its interesting to see what others did technically, but what does the photographer say to me through that image is more important…

  9. Great timing for this post. We have the first meeting of the year for our Middle-School (7th and 8th grade) photography club this Friday. These questions will be a great way to get the kids talking about their photos and to start thinking about their photos.
    Thanks for the post!
    Hope the leg is doing better!

  10. Well said, I couldn’t agree more.

    I also think it’s a great idea to leave “learning” aside once in awhile and just go out and make images, testing the knowledge you already have. Learning is good, integrating it into great images is better!

    Once what you already know is second nature, learning can proceed at a more relaxed pace as you acquire the “frosting” to round out your solid foundation of knowledge and the whisperings of your heart.

    Just my two cents….. 😉

  11. Good questions. I have one about the photograph above. What are your thoughts about the balance of this image as it relates to foreground, midground, and background?

  12. It’s very easy to get lost in the cold numbers that lie on MTF charts, and caught up in the persistent technological releases that this industry is blessed with. No doubt, this digital age makes for an exciting time to be a photographer. With that accessibility of gear, I find, it’s all the more important to remind yourself what you’re doing it for. Without fail, the answer to that for me, is in capturing ‘that moment’. And truthfully, it has far less to do with any specific lens, aperture, or shutter, as much as it does with just being there and recognizing it.

    When I look at a photograph, I want to feel the emotions I – or someone else had – ‘that moment’, when taking it – or even when processing it. How do we find and create those moments? Rather than: What’d you use to capture them?

    In other words: I agree.

  13. Great post. Very true most of us rather ask technical questions about f stop or ISO setting and not so much about why this particular moment in time moved you in a way that you felt compelled to photograph it. You’re absolute right that we will all get the technical info and knowledge down pat in time and practice and that we need to focus our curiosity on to the why of the photograph and not so much the how.

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