To Make Better Photographs, Study More Photographs, Part Two

In Photographically Speaking, The Craft, The Life Creative, Thoughts & Theory by David15 Comments

The first installment of this two-part series began an exploration of the way in which we study a photograph, first to experience it and then to learn from it. If you missed it, you can read the first part of To Make Better Photographs, Study More Photographs here.

The main point in that first article was this: our first point of engagement with a photograph must be the experience of it.

We need to ask, “What does this image make me feel or think?” before we can then ask the next question, which is what I’d like to explore here. That next question, once we’ve given the photograph some real time to sink in and to bring those feelings, thoughts, and other reactions to the surface, is “What is it within the photograph that makes me feel that?

You’re asking: why do I feel the way I feel in response to what is visible in the image?

It’s not always obvious. Most often, it’s not just one thing, but rather a combination of things—very specific choices on the part of the photographer, not the least of which was the choice of this one image over many others, which matters when you feel inclined to ask whether the photographer was actually intentional about every choice. I mean, couldn’t some of it be a happy accident?

Of course it can, but accident or otherwise, the photographer made a decision later that might be expressed like this: “Yes, I made some very intentional choices, and yes, some of it was just pure luck, but they worked, and together they made a photograph that did what I hoped it would do.”

Accept that every image has an element of chance or serendipity and ask the question anyway:

What choices did the photographer make to create this particular photograph, and specifically, how do they affect my experience of the image?

Your answers might then include some version of the following:

For example, in the image below, the photographer chose a very high point of view with a wide-angle lens pushed in nice and close to the foreground, and that gives the image a lot of depth. Additionally, the shutter speed was slow enough to allow for a sense of movement in the clapping hands. The choice of moment was important as well, or we might not have seen the exact moment that the girl at the center of the image looks up and into the cell phone camera of the person photographing her.

Lalibela, Ethiopia. Click the image to see a larger version.

In the paragraph above, I’m trying to illustrate for you the kind of thinking that I have found helpful.

It’s not just noting what you see in the image. And it’s not just noting what you think the photographer did, though both are important. It’s connecting them. The photographer did this, and it accomplished this other thing.

How did the photographer use the light? How does that make you feel, or what does that accomplish? Do the dark shadows (and therefore a choice about exposure) give the image drama or mood?

What focal length do you suspect the photographer might have used, and from where (near or far)? What does this do to the image? Does it give the image more energy because of how the wide-angle lens exaggerates the diagonal lines? Or does that longer lens compress foreground to background? What does that contribute to the feeling or to the story?

Why did the photographer choose this moment over another, or what makes this moment so important to the image?

See the pattern? What did the photographer do (or what do you think they did)? How did that affect how you experience the image?

Istanbul, Turkey. Click the image to see a larger version.

Another example: in the photograph above, I see that the photographer chose to leave some strong foreground elements and probably used a wider aperture (because those elements are close to the lens and out of focus), giving the image its feeling of depth to make me feel like I’m right there. That hand coming out of nowhere is an important choice of moment and makes me feel more like I am part of the scene, and provides a key part of the story, placing it strongly in a coffee shop. The disembodied nature of that hand makes it feel like it could almost be my own, increasing my feeling of really being there.

Choice and Effect. This was done or chosen, and this is what it accomplishes for me.

What did the photographer choose to include or perhaps exclude? And how does that affect how I experience the image? Forget good. Forget bad. Forget (for now) what you would have done. Think photographer’s choice and respondent’s experience. This does that.

Does the chosen shutter speed have any effect on how you experience the image? What about the aperture and resulting depth of focus? What about the choice of colour or its absence? What other compositional choices were made, and do they contribute to how the photograph feels to you or what the photograph is saying? Did the photographer use a specific device like repeated elements or sub-framing (frame within a frame) to draw your attention? Did they use balance or tension in a way that makes you feel a certain way? What kinds of contrasts or juxtapositions did the photographer use, and what does that make me think or feel?

You might not be able to do more than guess at some of these, but this exercise will help. Just asking the questions is a way to raise your awareness of the possibilities, and, perhaps most importantly, the awareness of the connection between the choices photographers make in terms of gear, technique, composition, or choice of moment and the way we will experience that image.

Ultimately, you’re asking, “If I had to make this particular photograph, what decisions would I have to make so that the photograph would look and feel the way it does?”

Notice the wording? I didn’t say, “What would I have done instead?” You can ask that, but I suggest you leave that to the very last question you ask, not the first, as is so often our habit.

There’s value in turning it all around at the end and wondering what options the photographer might have missed or deliberately not chosen. Lord knows you’ll be faced with this when you’ve got a camera in your hand.

Training yourself to consider other possibilities is training yourself to be more observant and to think more creatively. But even then, consider asking stronger questions. Not “What would I have done?” so much as “What might I have done and what would that choice accomplish in terms of how the image looks and feels?” Sure, you’d have used a different lens, but why? How would that change the feeling of the image? You might have cropped it differently or chosen a different point of view. Why? To what effect for the person looking at the image?

These aren’t simple questions, but they will help bridge the gap between technique and all the many choices you make and the way the image gets experienced. And learning to ask these questions of photographs that have endured and become iconic in some way is a useful way to do it. I find it easier to look at the images of Sam Abell or Ernst Haas or Elliott Erwitt (just to name a few) and ask these questions, rather than asking them about my own work—because I already think I know the answers. I’m often blind for being too close to it, especially when the photographs are fresh. But looking at the work of others is where I learn the best, in order to then apply those ideas to what I make myself.

I hope this helps! If this interests you, my recent book, The Heart of the Photograph, asks these kinds of questions. More specifically, it is about the questions you ask with the camera in your hand, but can just as easily be used to guide your study of the photographs of others. You can find The Heart of the Photograph on Amazon here

Oh, one more thing before you go. I know one of the questions I’m going to get next is about which photographers I recommend studying or which books of photographs I recommend. Follow this link to a list I made back in 2017. My recommendations still stand, and I’ve updated it today with a couple more. Also, be sure to look at the comments for other recommendations, and I would love to hear from you. Did I miss one of your favourites? Let me know.

For the Love of the Photograph,


  1. Hi David,

    I have been pondering the question: Do we make photographs, or do we create photographs? I am not sure make and create, when it comes to art, can have the same meaning,,,, but maybe they do. I have been an artist my whole life, starting at age 7 when I picked up a camera…then I became a cellist, then an actress, singer, dancer, singer/songwriter, poet, and wearable art creator. When I am ‘in the zone’ I am feeling the creative vibe and the Zen headspace along with the zone vibe. I don’t consider what I am doing, in the creation of art as ‘making art.’ I am creating and materializing the feelings, thoughts and discerning ideas that will materialize in a finished result. I have had conversations among friends about this, but I wondered your thoughts on the matter….perhaps there is no create/make…. perhaps it just evolves!! Cheers, Stephanie

    1. Hi Stephanie. I have a thing for splitting hairs about words, but I think you’ve got the best of me this time. I see “make” and “create” as synonyms for “bringing into being.” Both can be done well, or not well, intentionally or not so much. But then I don’t tend to capitalize the word “art” either and I’m wary of getting too precious about what we do.

      Where I am intrigued by your idea is here: “When I am ‘in the zone’ I am feeling the creative vibe and the Zen headspace along with the zone vibe. I don’t consider what I am doing, in the creation of art as ‘making art.’ I am creating and materializing the feelings, thoughts and discerning ideas that will materialize in a finished result.”

      I think we can call making “creating” and vice versa, but it’s WHAT we are making that you’re touching on in the paragraph above. You’re making/creating more than one thing. One is tangible: created, made, whatever. But the other is intangible, experiential. The former is the gateway for the later that happens when experienced, either in the making or by those who respond to what you’ve made (an act of making over which we have no control, something with a life of its own). One of the mysteries of what we do.

      To me it’s less important than that we agree on the nomenclature so much as that we honour the possibility that what we make or create can transcend the materials and the final product and become something so much more. And yes, it does evolve, and it’s probably better not to try to pin it down too much. The moment we get too distracted by defining the thing we’ve lost the thread of making it. Or that’s my suspicion. 🙂

      1. Yes thanks David for your analysis of my rather ‘heady’ summation of creativity and art!!!! I can get up into the stratosphere some times and it’s hard to always articulate my thoughts!! I agree with you…. Loving these emails….

  2. Lately, I have been studying numerous landscape photographs trying breaking down the choices the photographer made to frame the scene aa well as light light choices including time of day and background. Thank you forth advice.

  3. I am a “newbie” and taking a senior workshop on Photography. Your blog is the first assignment!!
    I LOVE that you use the title …….. creative instigator…… We need more instigators in this world.
    I take a lot of photos, some I really like. (Now I have to ask myself – WHY?)
    I am looking forward to learning.

  4. I really love your content! You give so much value and I fall in love more and more with photography everytime I see your pictures. For that matter, have you ever tried special tools like preset? Check this out:

    Thank you for your time
    I really love your work

  5. I really love your content! You give so much value and I fall in love more and more with photography everytime I see your pictures. For that matter, have you ever tried special tools like preset? Check this out:

    Thank you for your time
    I really love your work

  6. I appreciated this post. I have really tried to think more deliberately and talk more deliberately about my photographs as far as why I chose to do certain things and what I was hoping to accomplish in the image by making those choices. I have tried to do this a little more when I share my photography with others as well. I think it helps me as a self exploration as well. This post will help me be more conscious of the choices I make and looking at my images to see if I did accomplish what my intention was with the choices I made.

    I don’t know that I have thought this way about the photography of others when I have looked at them before. I am looking forward to using this new lens to view the work of other photographers as well now.

    Kyle Reynolds

  7. You and your article were very inspiring for me. I’ve read it to times already and I will take note of all your recommended books from 2017. Great lesson. Thanks a lot, David!

  8. Thank you so much for your kind lessons. Your articles always are useful to me. Take good care of yourself in this hardest times. !

  9. “Why did the photographer choose this moment over another, or what makes this moment so important to the image?”

    David, over the last year I’ve been losing my vision– to a retinal degeneration of a not-yet-determined etiology. I am trying to sort out how/if to continue w/ photography in my increasingly blurry world (Best vision is 20/60, In bright light, I see what looks like a massively over-exposed photo w/ the highlights blown out & lower tones muted). For me, the joy in photography was feeling connection w/ what I saw & trying to make an image that evoked/mirrored the aspect/moment that had “life” for me.

    I can still make a few good photos– the camera can focus & make a sharp image, even if I can’t see it clearly while I’m taking it. I can see the details when I’m close & know they’ll be there in the image, but it is not the same kind of unified felt connection I used to have when I was in the flow w/ shooting. And I can’t reliably see “the moment” when I can’t reliably see faces. I’m trying to sort out where the life/energy is if I’m increasingly guessing at what I’m capturing.

    I know I have to find my own answer. I guess I just wanted to name my difficulty to someone who I believe will understand… I know that for now, at least, I can still make photos, but where do I find/feel the flow, the energy, the sense of connection. Maybe the answer is in letting go of what has worked in the past, and just being out in the world w/ a camera at hand & seeing what happens…

    1. Kathy, what a heartbreaking situation. I am so sorry you’re going through this. I wish I could understand—I can’t—but I can empathize and tell you that you are more resilient than you can know and that you are not alone. Have you done a Google search for “blind photographer”? There are many (here’s one story: ) and while I don’t know if they all resort to similar strategies to overcome the challenges, I’m sure reading the stories of others might help you feel like you’re not the only one. Here’s another from Canada –

      I think you’re probably right, that the answer is letting go of what has worked. But then that’s the answer for us all, everyday, isn’t it? It’s not often quite so obvious that we need to find today’s solutions to today’s problems, the change isn’t always so dramatic, but after long enough we one day awaken and realize our problems are so much different than they once were and the answers aren’t, and no longer fit. Of course, none of this makes your situation easier, but it make it universal. You’ve had a new set of constraints thrust upon you, I can’t wait to see what you make of them. Hang in there, my friend.

      1. David, I was deeply moved by your reply… by the thoughtfulness that showed that you’d actually paused and taken in my concern & then taken time to write a thoughtful reply. Thank you.

        My practice of photography was a practice of presence, and I know that yours is, as well, by your words & by your images. I appreciate you bringing that same kind of presence to come alongside me in my difficulty.

        Thank you for your witness, your wisdom, and your encouragement.

        Onward, right? Wherever and whatever that might turn out to be.


  10. Good morning, David!
    Today is my birthday, and my artist sister and my photographer nephew and I have a noon appointment at the Portland Art Museum to see the big, national touring Ansel Adams show. These are the kinds of questions we will be using to guide our conversation. I have been reading The Heart of the Photograph, as well, so my head was already buzzing with useful questions.

    BTW I just discovered your wonderful podcasts from, I think 2017 or so as they are connected to your Beautiful Anarchy book. They are so beautifully crafted and depthful; in fact, I just listened to one about entering the silence to do deeper work. That hit me between the eyes at the very time I needed to hear it.

    You seem to have been promoting an email series on marketing at that time? Is that still a thing? I’m thinking you may have retired that project along with abandoning your social media fans (sounding only slightly bitter about that!)?

    Your blog posts and pod casts continue to be a source of interest and inspo.

    Thanks so much for just doing YOU, as we say these days,

    Sandy Brown Jensen

    1. Author

      Hi Sandy – Happy Birthday! I hope you celebrate (and are in turn celebrated) in style! 🥂

      I’m thrilled you’ve discovered the podcast, though it’s not so old as you think. I just recorded Episode 70 and only began the project about 18 months ago, so it’s all current and ongoing. I’m so glad you enjoy it.

      As for the marketing program, it’s for creators, artists and makers of all kinds and it too is new and ongoing and the best place to get on board or find out more is – just let me know where to send it and I’ll start sending that to you!

      I hope you have a wonderful birthday!

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