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20 Questions to Ask Yourself to Improve Your Photography

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When I find myself in something of a photography rut, it's a good time to ask more questions. Ruts usually happen from running on auto-pilot, plodding along, doing the same-old same-old. I’m good at landscape photography so I keep taking landscape photos as it is easy, comes naturally and is enjoyable. But without times of reflection or questioning, it is hard for us photographers to improve.

Improving your photography is likely why you are reading Phototuts+ and that is a great first step. It shows you have an interest in continuing your progress. But if you do find yourself in a rut or looking to improve, here are 20 questions that may help you be more critical of your shooting rather than passive. And from that, I hope you can find ways to make even better photos.

NOTE: I am not saying you need to ask yourself these questions before every photo. That would be nuts. I'm hoping, instead, to help you shake up your thinking and look at your photography differently.


1. Why am I Taking This Photo?

The number one question to ask. And there is no right answer. But it is important to be aware of why you are taking any particular photo. This gets to the ‘passive’ mode you may be in.

Pretty sunset? Snap. Cute cat? Snap.

But why? Are you going to share those images or will they live in the purgatory of your computer’s hard drive? Does the subject speak to you? Does it tell a story or help expand your worldview?

If it is a pretty scene, like a sunset, go ahead and snap the photo if you like. But also consider for a second that you don’t need to snap a photo of every pretty thing. I believe that it is true that something being pretty is not always cause for snapping a photo. And it is also true that you don’t have to heed my advice. But please do give some thought to “why.”


2. What do I Hope to Communicate?

You take in a scene with five (or in most cases, four) senses. But your camera can only handle one. You may know it is a loud, cold, smelly city street, but how do you communicate that through a photo? A shot down a sidewalk might not cut it.

You need to show people in thick coats or someone’s breath escaping as a cloud of vapor. Capture some litter in the street. If you want to communicate more than just how the light is falling in a particular scene, you will need to stop and think about it and then take action.

PeterWestCarey-Jordan2012-0713-2346
What am I trying to communicate? Garbage is a problem.

3. From Where is the Light Coming?

When beginning, photographers get into technical aspects of shutter speed, ISO and aperture. They are still trying to master the controls on their camera and make sure subjects are actually in focus. One thing that is obvious, but I have seen often overlooked, is thinking about where is the light coming from in the scene.

You see a nice car on the street and want an ‘action’ shot with motion blur or you finally made it to the Empire State Building and want your own image. These quick shooting situations often leave out a conscience effort to examine where the light is coming from and to conform to it. Or to find a way to bend it to your will.

This question should be asked for just about every image because photography is nothing without light. It is the most important element in any image. So, from where is your light coming?

PeterWestCarey-Jordan2012-0712-1950

4. Is This the Best Angle?

Back to the Empire State Building example above. Just because you arrived at point X by the building doesn’t mean point X is the best shot. If you are pressed for time, sure, take that shot and move on. But if you have time, think about how you can achieve the shot you want.

To get the angle and light to match up, if using a naturally lit scene, you may need to come back at another time of day or season. Studio photographers do this almost non-stop, shaping light and angles and tinkering until they get it right. But the sun is much harder to manipulate.

Thamserku and Kantega, Nepal


5. What’s the Mood?

You can take a photo at the world's most jubilant New Years Eve party, but if you happen to get a shot of the one guy who has a raging headache and just wants to go home, the mood of the scene as a whole will not be captured.

Mind you, the mood you wish to convey is entirely up to you as an artist, unless you are shooting from a photo-ournalistic standpoint. Maybe you want to show that one guy because you too have a headache and wish you were home instead of in a crowd of drunk people. Either way, give some mind to the mood of the photo.


6. Will my Camera Capture the Full Dynamic Range?

Digital cameras are improving, but they still aren’t quite to the point where they faithfully capture the dynamic range of what our eyes and brain can handle. Until they get there (soon!), you will need to consider if there is too much dynamic range and if so, what to do with it.

What I mean by dynamic range is the amount of light in the scene from darkest shadows to brightest brights. With a wide range of light to dark, you can choose to expose for the highlights, the shadows or in between the two. Any of these methods will sacrifice the details in the opposite selection. Or you can shoot an HDR composite image to exposure for all light levels.

PeterWestCarey-100228-085427-0082
Inside a cave looking out? My camera couldn't handle it.

7. Do I Need a Tripod?

The sun has set and the light is fading, but there are still images to capture. The ISO is set as high as you are comfortable with but the colors are still rich. It’s time for a tripod. Some people are fastidious about always shooting landscapes with tripods and others can’t imagine being locked into one spot while shooting fashion.

Rarely is there a “you must use a tripod” moment because it depends on the effect you want in your images. If the light is anything other than a bright, sunny day, it may be time to employ a tripod for crystal clear images.

Sunset From Nahargarh Fort, Jaipur, India
1/10th of a second while holding a reverse gradient neutral density filter? Tripod saves the day.

8. Can This be Shot at a Different Time of Day?

I deal with travel photography often and at times there isn’t an option to come back at another time of day. For the rest of us, especially shooting in your home town, it is worth considering the time of day when you stumble upon a beautiful scene.

One easy step is to make a project of shooting the same scene at every hour of the day and night. Okay, maybe that's not easy if you enjoy sleeping, but even shooting the same scene at sunrise, noon and sunset helps tune your eye to the idea that most scenes you come upon look better in a different light. Don't accept what is given to you unless it is already perfect.

PeterWestCarey-Jordan2012-0711-1758The Treasury at Petra, Jordan by day...
PeterWestCarey-Jordan2012-0711-1894...and Petra, Jordan at night.

9. Whose Work do I Admire?

Plain and simple: Do you like other artists' work? If so, who? They can be photographers or welders or that crazy guys down the street who does chalk art on the sidewalk with no shoes. Google them, browse their books at the bookstore or library.

Heck, even email them if you have specific questions (the worse they will do is not reply. Take the chance), or even if you just want to tell them they have inspired you. If you don't admire anyone else's work, it might be time to start looking outside your comfort zone for some inspiration.


10. How Did They Take That Shot?

Starting out in the days of film had its benefits. One of which was the ability to accurately deconstruct an image and figure out how it was shot. This is harder in the days of digital because any image you see on sites like 500px or even here on Tuts+ have been edited in a computer far beyond what the original capture data showed.

While that may be true, many photographers, myself included, often share "how I shot it" posts for those looking to learn. SLR Lounge is a great resource for these tutorials in regard to studio lighting as is Phototuts+.


11. How Did They Edit That?

This is the one that is a hard to just intuit. Tutorials will be your friend here and I am finding new ways of editing for realistic effect as well as 'playing' with subjects each week. Phototuts+ has a large library of tutorials for editing and they can be found here.


12. Is Anything Distracting from the Subject?

Best asked before a photo is taken, this question can still be asked after in the age of digital manipulation. Most beginners are just happy to get that 'perfect' shot of the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal or a beautiful sunset that they don't see the flaws through their rose-colored glasses. I'm not talking about taking an image down to minimalists proportions here, I'm talking about removing objects that distract from the subject.

For instance, the image below is a crop of the original. I prefer it better to the original (shown below it) because the original's sun is too blown out to be useful and actually detracts from the subject, which, for me, is the light laying upon the land.

PeterWestCarey-Utah2012-1021-7309
PeterWestCarey-Utah2012-1021-7309-2

13. How can I Better Highlight the Subject?

This goes hand in hand with distractions. Once the distractions are away, are you highlighting the subject(s) the way you want to? For instance, in the image below from Snowmass Rodeo, the rider and horse don't stand out against the blurred background.

PeterWestCarey-110629-202506-2188

Not only that, as in #12 above, the magenta blotches in the stands are distracting me from the rider. Using the Adjustment Brush in Adobe Lightroom I am able to adjust the background's Exposure -1.3 stops and reduce sharpness and clarity. I then paint the rider and horse with another brush and increase exposure one stop as well as increasing contrast and saturation. Overall, I also reduced magenta and purple saturation to take out the distractions in the stands.

PeterWestCarey-110629-202506-2188-2

The rider and horse are now better highlighted and not a lot of work had to be done.


14. How Will This Image be Used?

This is one I challenge photographers with all the time, often receiving blank stares as a result. They see a pretty site, take a photo and then I ask, "So, what are you going to do with that photo?"

They often don't know. They just 'wanted' it. We do this all the time. I do this all the time. Pretty or interesting things must be captured on a memory card!

But really, how will the image be used? Do you see it as part of something bigger or will you blow it up and put it on the wall? Will you share it on social media sites or send it to a family member? I'm not saying each photo has to have a specific use or it should not be taken. But I am saying not every photo has to be taken, especially if you have no plans to use it.


15. Is This a Stand Alone Image or Part of a Series/Story?

I get asked "why are you taking a picture of that" often. 'That' is something boring, uninteresting or not very photogenic. By itself, 'that' is a waste of even digital film to most people.

But I often take pictures of 'that' because it fits part of a broader story I am telling. In my public speaking engagements, my slideshows are not all pretty sunsets and mountain peaks. When I'm telling a story of everyday life in Nepal, for instance, 'that' might be a photo of a knife or pot of water boiling or something mundane. By itself, boring.

But in the context of life in Nepal, 'that' boring photo shows how similar cultures are and helps people relate. We've all seen images of far off lands and the exoticism of it all, such as Ascetics with their wild hair and crazy looks. But when I show people photos of everyday Sherpas in the Himalayas, it's not flashy. I made a project on my last trip of taking pictures of people's shoes and while one image can stand alone, 20 images of people's shows shows you a better-rounded tale of the people I met than one picture of a stereotypical old person some have come to expect.

PeterWestCarey-Nepal2011-1003-9245

16. What Happens if I Wait?

Watching a special on Yosemite National Park today I was struck by the quote of a painter. To paraphrase, she noted that painters spend an hour or more in location, soaking in the scenery and atmosphere while photographers come along to prime viewing areas in the park, snap their picture and leave. And she's right.

How often do you arrive at the scene of a beautiful or interesting picture and wait? What would happen if you did? While we like to freeze action, life keeps moving in the stillest of locations and often a more profound image can be captured if we wait.

By way of example, here are three images of the same scene. The first one is lifeless and it is what I thought I wanted. The second isn't quite right as the gentleman is blocking too much of the bowl of water. The last one is the image I will keep. These were all in a short amount of time, but waiting for another scene to transpire is often worth the wait.

PeterWestCarey-Nepal2011-0929-8483
PeterWestCarey-Nepal2011-0929-8484
PeterWestCarey-Nepal2011-0929-8485

17. Is my Depth of Field Appropriate?

There is no right answer to this next question, but it is a useful tool. If you have been shooting in Auto or Program mode often and are venturing into taking more manual control of your images, depth of field is one of the areas you can have the greatest impact.

There are books and books about the value of strategic blur, or bokeh, in an image. Realize that not every picture is best served by having every object in focus. Nor should every photo be shot at f/1.0. Is your depth of field, the amount of objects in focus, appropriate for what you are trying to communicate with your photo?


18. Do I Want Blur and How Will I Create It?

Beyond blurry areas in your image attributed to a wide open aperture, you can also introduce blur with movement. You can move (panning blur or zoom blur, for instance) or the subject can move.

Here's the thought process that went through my head in this set of image.

"Hey, that's a nice stupa and group of birds" [click]

PeterWestCarey-Nepal2011-0929-8541

"And it is a very boring group of birds. They aren't doing much, maybe some zoom blur would help."

PeterWestCarey-Nepal2011-0929-8544

"Nope. What if I lean up against this wall and slow the shutter speed via closing down the aperture?"

PeterWestCarey-Nepal2011-0929-8553

The last image is the one I like the best because the blur is intentional while still being able to tell they are birds.


19. What do I Want to Learn Today?

Before you go clicking those random links from Facebook and Twitter and Google+ tomorrow morning (even if one of them led you here), take five minutes and think about what you want to learn. Sit, quietly, without the computer in front of you. Without breakfast in front of you.

If you are serious about improving your photography, sit and evaluate what is working for you and where you need improvement. Self evaluation is critical to improvement and you don't have to do it every day. But do make a conscience effort to sit, maybe once a week, and think about what you want to learn in the day, week, month ahead.


20. How Can I Help Someone Else Learn Today?

For me, this is one of the most important questions and I don't ask it as much as I should. The best way to learn something is to try to teach it to someone else. It helps you and it helps them because it forces you to think critically about what you are doing and articulate it.

I'm not saying everyone has to be a photography instructor, but helping others in the photography community can be its own reward. I believe more people taking better pictures and appreciating the world around us is a good thing.

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