5 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Tripping The Shutter

5 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Tripping The Shutter

The following post exploring questions to ask when taking a photo is by San Francisco based photographer Jim M. Goldstein.

This year marks the 10th year I’ve been passionately pursuing the art of photography. In that time I’ve learned an incredible amount from photographers ranging in skill level from novice to professional. It should be noted you can learn as much from the mistakes of others as you can from individuals who can nail a difficult shot on the first try.

As they say, “Time flies when you’re having fun” and that has never been more true than these past ten years.

Now that I’ve hit this landmark I thought it important to relay some monumental advice. In the process of thinking of my “monumental” tip(s) I quickly realized that the lessons I’ve learned and used to improve my photography the most have actually been simple rather than monumental. It might seem counter intuitive at first, but small improvement add up to make big changes in the quality of ones photography

Five (5) key tips that I learned long ago now take the form of five (5) questions I ask myself before tripping the shutter of my camera.

1. Is my Shutter Speed correct to capture my subject properly?

The key concept here is to capture your subject with the proper degree of sharpness that you’re striving to obtain. Whether you want a sharp photo of your subject or to capture motion blur the first thing you’ll want to do is make sure you have the proper settings in place. Two (2) settings can impact shutter speed: ISO and aperture.

ISO specifies the sensitivity of your sensor/film to light. Lower ISO equating to lower light sensitivity versus higher ISO equating to higher light sensitivity. In general lower ISO settings equate to slower shutter speeds while higher ISO settings equate to faster shutter speeds.

Aperture specifies how wide open the shutter remains when the shutter is released. Smaller aperture settings (ex. f-stop f/22) require longer shutter speeds or longer exposures while large aperture settings (ex. f/2.8) enable faster shutter speeds or shorter exposures.

2. Is my selected Focal Length or my Positioning optimal to capture my subject?

Determining how much you would like your subject to fill your frame is indicated by your choice of focal length and how you position yourself in relation to your subject.

Wider focal lengths (ex. 16mm) have a wider field of view and magnify your subject less while longer focal lengths (ex. 300mm) have a narrower field of view and greatly magnify your subject. Lenses of varying focal length have different optical properties and can add different visual characteristics to a photo if applied creatively. Knowing your subject, how you’d like to present it and choosing the proper focal length can make the world of different. An important thing to remember is that even when you settle on a focal length that your greatest photo accessory can be your feet. Stepping closer or farther away from your subject can drastically change perspective. It is for this reason that you shouldn’t just rely on zooming a lens in and out when lining up your photo.

3. Have I chosen the proper Depth of Field to best highlight my subject?

Identifying what is most/least important to your photo and keeping it in/out of focus is critical to keeping your viewers eye on your subject.

To do this one must again pay attention to aperture. Smaller aperture settings provide greater depth of field. It is for this reason that landscape photographers who want more of a scene in focus will often use a tripod to keep their camera still during longer exposures. Conversely larger aperture settings provide shallower depth of field. It is for this reason that a lot of portraiture and event photographers who want only their subject in focus and a blurred background behind shoot with a larger aperture setting.

4. Is my subject in Focus?

This will seem like a no-brainer, but making sure your subject is in focus is critical. Having a sharp subject enables your viewer’s eye to settle in on an area of visual interest before exploring the rest of the image.

What may not be so obvious is what you focus in on to get a sharp photo. For example the key to sharp wildlife and portraiture photography is making sure the eye of your subject is sharp. In general for expansive scenes with settings for greater depth of field you’ll want to focus in a third of the way into the scene.

5. Have I checked the Edges of my frame to minimize distracting elements?

One of the more interesting characteristics of the human brain is its ability to filter out stimulus that we are not interested in. For some that translates to tuning out what our mother in-law is saying and for others it translates to seeing only what you’re focusing on visually.

After you’ve focused on what is most important to you be sure to check the edges of your photograph for distracting elements. Are there wires, bright spots, poles, people, distracting colors, etc? If so reposition your camera to minimize the presence of these elements. Minimizing distracting elements accentuates the ability of your viewer to focus on what you want them to.

The next time you’re lining up your next shot remember Shutter Speed, Depth of Field, Focal Length / Positioning, Focus, Edges. It may seem like a lot, but with practice thinking through these things becomes second nature and your photography is sure to improve.

This post was written by Jim M. Goldstein. Jim’s landscape, nature, travel and photojournalism photography is featured on his web site JMG-Galleries.com, and blog. In addition Jim’s podcast “EXIF and Beyond” features photographer interviews and chronicles the creation of some of his images.

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Jim Goldstein is a San Francisco based professional photographer. An author as well as a photographer Jim has been published in numerous publications including Outdoor Photographer, Digital Photo Pro, Popular Photography and has self-published a PDF eBook Photographing the 4th Dimension - Time covering numerous slow shutter techniques. His latest work and writing can be found on his JMG-Galleries blog and on 500px

Some Older Comments

  • Nancy April 11, 2008 05:54 am

    A worthy review. I'm new enough that I'm still consciously running through lists.

    One I'd add is White Balance. I know I can correct it in post, but it is disturbing to have a series of blue images shot in the sun, with the WB set to incandescent.

  • Bob March 16, 2008 01:58 am

    Great, practical, concise tips.
    Many thanks, Jim.

  • EJC March 13, 2008 04:30 am

    Great post and comments.

    My first question is always 'What IS my subject?'

    I don't want my viewers to have to guess.

  • OTTO March 12, 2008 10:52 pm

    A fab refresher and well done Bob Finn for another way to help newbies to the art.

  • Mr Bach March 7, 2008 08:51 pm

    These are all valid points, and certainly worthwhile to be considered in obtaining good photographs, but several points have been overlooked that lend to higher quality.

    (1)Don't shoot randomly, but think about the scene, (2)imagine the results, (3)use the five points mentioned in this article, (4)bracket, (5)review the image, (6)reshoot if necessary.

    All of us have flubbed a shot, but don't give up, learn from your mistakes, and work on improving your skills for the next time.

  • DKCN March 7, 2008 06:36 pm


    There's nothing wrong with Post Production =)

  • Louella March 7, 2008 01:28 am

    For me, the factor I need to remember the most is capturing a crisp, sharp image of the subject. Most of the other stuff can be fixed with post-processing, if needed.

  • Mandy March 7, 2008 12:20 am

    This is great for me I'm at the beginning of my journey just starting to look into dslr's (using point and shoot at moment) and this is the important basic bit I need to learn first.

    Knowing this now will help me produce better photographs, thanks

  • Paul Baarn March 6, 2008 05:26 pm

    It's all in the preparation. If you know what you're going to shoot, you'll make sure that you have your ISO, Aperture and/or Shutter Speed set for your creative choices.
    If you're going to do skateboarders you might go for Shutter priority and set a high shutter speed and auto-ISO if you have it. If I want to be ready for anything (snap shot style) I set my aperture and auto-ISO and let the camera take care of the rest.
    Of course composition usually comes at the moment you're taking the picture, but even that can be prepared.

    It's a good overview of questions to ask yourself, but I would say: 5 Questions To Ask Yourself LONG Before Tripping The Shutter.

  • Shutterhack March 6, 2008 05:06 pm

    Wrong there should be more than five. One more to add... this one should be number ZERO! The list should go on like this

    0. Will get arrested by the Feds or the MI6 for taking any kind of photos here? Please refer to this posting here
    In London
    A confiscated photo on PBase
    This ones's since 2003
    Warned by a security guard

    1. Is my Shutter Speed correct to capture my subject properly?

    Nice post Jim. That was very helpful. :)


  • Bilka March 6, 2008 01:36 pm

    Sorry about the typos above. SInce I cannot get back to reedit I present the corrected post here: (Looks like I fell victim to my own comment


    6. Disregard 1 to 5 we’ll fix it in post production workflow.

    Sad but sometimes true. A lot of digital photogs just don’t care about the actual image capture when they can pop it into editing software AND make bad junk look like good JUNK.


  • Bilka March 6, 2008 01:33 pm

    6. Disregard 1 to 5 we'll fix it in post production workflow.

    Sad but sometimes true. A lot of digital photogs just don't care about the actual image capture when they can pop it into editing software adn make bad junk look like good jung.


  • Lee March 6, 2008 06:43 am

    This was a good refresher. Like others have said, too often in the haste to get the shot I've forgotten to check my ISO, or not take the aperature into account. The main reason I got a dSLR camera is so that less is left to chance. Yes, I make mistakes which means it's only by chance that I get anything good.

  • Becki March 6, 2008 06:28 am

    ISO, ISO, ISO, ISO!!!

  • Chris Osborne March 6, 2008 05:40 am

    I guess sometimes you have more time to think about this than others. For example, I don't think you'd have as much time to think with the skateboarding picture here than you would with the spiderweb. Which can really make things a pain since they might not happen the way you think they will. Especially focus.

  • Lou Ann March 6, 2008 05:26 am

    Last summer I had the BEST skies and gorgeous weather to shoot the Oklahoma City Memorial. I was only in town for less than 24 hours. I shot the whole thing on ISO1600 (after a night time shoot in Dallas a few days before). UGH! Talk about GRAIN!!

  • Smitty March 6, 2008 05:15 am

    @Lou Ann

    So true.

    The other day I had a great opportunity to take some photos of Philadelphia from an open rooftop of a 27-story building.... and shot half of them with the wrong aperture settings!

    Lucky for me, some of the shots ended up looking better that way, but either way, you live and learn.

  • Bob Finn March 6, 2008 04:45 am

    You can make a nice acronym out of the 5 questions: SAFFE

    S -- Shutter
    A -- Aperture (depth of field)
    F -- Focal length/Positioning
    F -- Focus
    E -- Edges

  • Lou Ann March 6, 2008 04:26 am

    Count, schmount. Whatever. This is a good reminder. No matter how well I KNOW these things, I often find that I have forgotten one of them, and miss THE shot. :-(

  • Philip Mercier March 6, 2008 02:36 am

    I like the new way to count 1,3,2,4,5

  • Andre March 6, 2008 01:20 am

    The topic number order is not ok in this post

  • Christian March 6, 2008 01:03 am

    6. Is this worth taking?