Shooting With Intent

Shooting With Intent

For this image of Lower Falls in Letchworth State Park in New York, I knew I wanted a creamy look to the falls.  They were flowing well so I knew a moderately slow shutter speed would give me what I wanted.  I also knew as I composed it that I wanted the falls framed by some of the gorgeous colors of the fall foliage.  I set my exposure based on two things- I wanted a slow shutter speed and I wanted deep depth of field. EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-300 f/4-5.6L, ISO 100, f/25, .3".

For this image of Lower Falls in Letchworth State Park in New York, I knew I wanted a creamy look to the falls. They were flowing well so I knew a moderately slow shutter speed would give me what I wanted. I also knew as I composed it that I wanted the falls framed by some of the gorgeous colors of the fall foliage. I set my exposure based on two things- I wanted a slow shutter speed and I wanted deep depth of field. EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-300 f/4-5.6L, ISO 100, f/25, .3″.

A good friend of mine is passionate about photography, and she recently acquired a reminder of the way she approaches photography.  A tattoo that wraps around her bicep that states simply “Shoot With Intent”. This is one of the biggest lessons a beginning photographer can learn.  It’s very easy to go out with a camera, set it on AUTO, and come back with some nice, perhaps even great images.  Today’s cameras make that fairly easy, even without shooting on full auto. If you’re using aperture priority or shutter priority, just allowing the camera to come up with an correct exposure, you can still great images without considering all aspects of the exposure.  However, without considering all aspects of the exposure and allowing the camera to make decisions for you, you’re not really shooting with intent.

I wanted to capture this image of trees reflected in the Merced, but the water was undulating just enough to cause problems with the reflection. A slower shutter speed helped smooth the ripples and give me a better reflection. EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-300 f/4-5.6L, ISO 100, f/16, .3".

I wanted to capture this image of trees reflected in the Merced, but the water was undulating just enough to cause problems with the reflection. A slower shutter speed helped smooth the ripples and give me a better reflection. EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-300 f/4-5.6L, ISO 100, f/16, .3″.

Shooting with intent means you take into consideration all aspects of the image you’re creating.  It starts with the lens you choose to put on your DSLR and carries all the way from subject and composition, to shutter speed, ISO, and aperture, you think through every aspect of the shot, and how those variables will affect the image.  Let’s assume you’ve chosen a lens, a subject, and decided how you want to compose the image, since those are the two most basic aspects of creating an image. You look through the viewfinder, or on the LCD screen, and you decide where things should go in the frame.  That’s about half of the decisions you need to make right there.

Next, you need to consider the three aspects of exposure- aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.  This is a balancing act where you need to prioritize what’s most important to you. Take your aperture. Let’s say you’ve decided you want everything in focus. You’ll want to select a smaller aperture, say, f/11 or even f/16 to provide the greatest depth of field.  But then what about your shutter speed?  If you’re in Aperture Priority mode, the camera will figure that out for you.  But if there’s something moving in the shot- trees blowing in the wind, a waterfall, or waves on the ocean, or even people- is that something you want to just leave to the camera?

You can still be in Aperture Priority  and pay attention to your shutter speed.  Let’s assume you’re shooting a water feature. If you want smooth, misty water, you’ll know you need a slower shutter speed.  But how slow?  That depends on what the water is doing, and on how you want the water to look. That’s where your INTENT comes in.  If you still want some definition in the water, you’ll want a slightly faster shutter speed that allows for that. How fast depends on how fast the water is moving. If you want that milky look to the water, you’ll want a slower shutter speed.  Again, how slow depends on the water’s movement.

The point is, before just allowing the camera to set the shutter speed, or the aperture, or anything else, regardless of what mode you’re in, figure out what it is you really want out of this capture.  Decide what your intent is, and double check what the camera is doing to be sure that your intent is carried through.  And if it isn’t?  Change it.

Make sure your images say what you meant to say. Be sure your intent is clear.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

Some Older Comments

  • Mike September 4, 2013 06:15 pm

    Love that reflection photo...nice article.

  • Chris September 1, 2013 09:36 pm

    I think intent means intent. If you are manipulating the settings on your camera with the intent to create one effect or another then that is shooting with a for the people who thought they saw cloning, its not there.....besides, it would make absolutely no difference to the authors point!

  • John Pettett September 1, 2013 04:00 pm

    If the man says there was no cloning then there wasn't.

  • Steve Coleman September 1, 2013 02:11 pm

    Call it what you will, there are at least nine areas on the right-hand slope where the exact same shape is duplicated at least once, and in a couple of spots more than once. If that's not a sign of cloning you photographed an extremely unusual piece of real estate.

  • Rick Berk September 1, 2013 01:32 pm

    I love people who go looking for stuff to pick on. Yes, there are areas that APPEAR to be cloned in the image. I know of one that always sticks out to me. No I didn't clone it. Not sure what the other two are. However, I cloned nothing in the shot. That's the truth. And I don't care whether you believe it or not.

  • Steve Coleman September 1, 2013 01:22 pm

    I think this is a good article pointing out what factors need to be taken into account when looking for a certain result. Howvever, when I looked at the waterfall picture that led off I immediately noticed three areas of really poor cloning done in post-processing. This I think seriously detracts from the professionalism of the author, and also of the editor. It's too bad, really, because I like the picture otherwise.

  • Rick Berk August 31, 2013 12:51 pm

    John B.- I don't believe there's a right or a wrong way to shoot a waterfall or anything else, as long as you capture a compelling image. That said, I do think there's a point when shooting water or anything else in motion, that if it becomes just a blob, it is no longer an effective image. I've made that mistake myself- many times it depends on the water and how hard it's flowing.

    Art is subjective. There is no right way or wrong way. It's as much in the eyes of the viewer as the creator.

  • John Pettett August 31, 2013 09:58 am

    I can't think of a single good reason to shoot with a priority setting. You can do it all in manual. If you want, say, f11 then dial it up in manual and then figure out the other settings for your shot; just like you'd do in AP. BUT, the beauty of being in manual mode is that you still retain the flexibility to change you aperture setting in a heartbeat if it becomes necessary.

  • John B. August 31, 2013 07:28 am

    In the picture of the water fall, I think the water is perfect. It would be my intent to achieve a shot such as that. I like the creaminess of the spray but I also want to see some detail to show it is running water.

    In another forum, a man was asking for criticism of his shot of a similar water fall. In my opinion his exposure was too long, resulting in what looked like a big blob of cotton wool in the middle of the photo. One had to imagine that it was water. I was quickly criticized by another member, telling me I was wrong, and the 'cotton wool' effect was exactly how it should be. The discussion went downhill from there, with him quoting a pro magazine saying that's how it should look. When I said that I would do it my way, he had the nerve to tell me I was wrong and that my opinion "is irrelevant." Apparently, he doesn't shoot with intent, but goes by what a certain magazine dictates. I feel vindicated by your excellent photo.

  • ArturoMM August 31, 2013 02:21 am

    This is one of the best advice I have received about photography.

  • marius2die4 August 30, 2013 06:35 pm

    With another words, You have to think before an image to create a great photo. I like the article, is well written

    Some of pics:

  • John bourne August 30, 2013 06:40 am

    Thank you for succinct and focused post. It is about focus, mentally as well as photographically. I am only just learning to stop, take a breath and visualise the finished product to look. If you don't then all you end up with is a pretty picture rather than a motif that could potentially be a stunning art piece. Thanks for an informative insight. Your sample images reflect where you are coming from, so don't worry about the other stuff.

  • Cheryl Garrity August 30, 2013 03:06 am


    Very nice article, simple and to the point! It is always good to be reminded to think before we click. I do have some photos that were just luck, but I have also wasted so much time when I felt rushed and just clicked away.

    My best photos are taken when I put thought into what I want my end result to be. I have heard it said, “If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?” It is true. You are correct. Know what you want your photograph to look like, consider all your choices and then act; make that that perfect photo. I do hedge my bets by bracketing for exposure and possible shudder speed and ISO, but random clicking is my enemy and yours. I like to take nighttime photographs and some of them include water. In situations like that, I can’t afford to leave my results to luck.

    Look at 2nd Avenue Pier.
    I was dealing with moving water and morning light. I made the choice that the light was my first priority followed by the appearance of the water. My lens was 16-35 at 17mm. I used a very small aperture, f/22 for the starburst. I wanted a low ISO to avoid excessive noise so I shot at ISO 100. My shutter speed was 1/13. I’m not sure if I made the best choices, but I did shoot with intent and I liked my results.

    So Rick, your lesson is one that we all need to be reminded of very often. I really love both photographs included in you post. What software do you use to process your photographs? I am just beginning to try learn to use subtle HDR and I think that is what you did. ??????


  • Felipe Fragoso August 28, 2013 05:19 am

    Rick, great article! Really understood your point of view and I will try to make my shots with "intent" in mind, allways! Just a question: if you shot the second one with a exposure time of about 10" or more, the reflection on the water would be like a mirror, won´t it? Only a question to me to learn more about your skills! Thank you very much!

  • Kevin Lloyd August 28, 2013 01:21 am

    Hey Rick,
    I apologise that my comment was a bit snarky, I guess I just was having a bit of a play on words.
    It's good that you're writing for this site, and don't let the odd opinion deter you. (I'm sure you won't)
    I can say, if nothing else, we've got and interesting discussion/dabte going on here :-)

    Best regards

  • Rick Berk August 27, 2013 06:40 am

    I'm sorry, for those of you who don't see the "intent" of this post, you're missing the point. sillyxone- When I shoot a wedding, or a children's birthday party, or some other event, the LAST thing I want to do is just snap away for fear I may miss something. I want to create memorable images, not simply capture what happens in front of me. With people dancing on the dance floor, do I simply want to freeze the action, or do I want to drag the shutter a little, create some motion in the image, capture some ambient lighting in the background, while using a flash to illuminate my subject? THAT is what shooting with intent is. If you intend to simply get shots, that's fine, but that's NOT the same as shooting with intent. Obviously, there are different levels of intent.

    Kevin- I got EXACTLT what I wanted out of that second shot. Smooth water with an impressionistic reflection, and the tops of the trees glowing in the morning sun. I can assure you, the Merced was running fast that day, and the water was choppy. A faster shutter speed would NOT have given more definition to the reflection. It would simply have created a choppier one.

  • Evan R August 26, 2013 10:34 am

  • Ralph Hightower August 26, 2013 08:41 am

    I've photographed an annual Greek festival for myself for two years. One of the venues for the band has a backlighting problem at lunch time. My second time, The past two years, I have used my center-weighted averaging meter of my Canon A-1. Last year, I tried using exposure lock, but it worked out like the year before.

    This year, I'll be using Canon New F-1 with the center spot focusing screen. I won't know how it turns out until next month.

  • Mridula August 24, 2013 04:56 am

    I wish I did shoot with intent more often. I often go with such speed (and do not have the option to slow down) that I grab what I can.

  • Rogue Photographer August 24, 2013 04:27 am

    Seems that a few readers have missed the "intent" of your article, but not me.

    I have been laid up recovering from a knee replacement, and doing a lot of thinking about my photography, and why it has been feeling less than satisfying lately - which subsequent shows up in my results ... and it has boiled down to intent, or rather the lack thereof, or gaps therein.

    I did not have a word or phrase to describe what was missing ... and thanks to your article, I now do, and can keep that word in mind as I get back to my passion.

    As Ansel Adams once said, and I paraphrase, the most important part of the camera is the 8 inches behind the viewfinder.

  • sillyxone August 24, 2013 02:39 am

    I agree with Kevin on the use of the word "intent". When I come to a kid's birthday party, my intent is to take pictures of the kids and the activities. I may plan ahead on the lenses, minimum shutter speed, white-balance setting ... but my intent is already clear. If I have to decide what my "intent" is for every picture, I'd miss at least half of the good chances.

    I think this article is probably limited to non-event shooting, where you have more time to consider everything. In a related note, photographers can "see" the final image in their head before shooting and adjust the camera accordingly, but this can only come with practice and experience. I guess the article could be clearer by clarifying "intent" as "intended/expected/wanted/projected final image".

  • Debi August 24, 2013 01:52 am

    Great article! It's true we should consider every aspect of the image before pushing the shutter button. Sure, you can get lucky sometimes, but the best images come with thought. The most important tool you take with you is your brain.

  • Stefan August 24, 2013 01:30 am


    If you leave out (part or all of the) top part of the second picture you get a totally different picture with an impressionist touch to it ...

    I like the reflection but it's a matter of taste ... it's not only about exposing with intent but also about framing with intent ... but that's artistic license and up to the person taking the picture.

    Personally, I would crop about one third of the top out ...


  • Brad August 23, 2013 11:39 pm

    Very well put. I like that you don't take an extreme position here. It drives me crazy when I read an "always shoot 100% manual" posting. Often that's simply not necessary, and using something like aperture priority (and intentionally managed auto focus with the focal point manually selected) allows for "enough" control, and much greater speed and efficiency when you're trying to capture fleeting moments that simply don't allow for the time it takes to manually set every element of the exposure. Other times, as you say, capturing the shot you are going for really does require that you override some or all of the camera's "automatic" functioning. I'm glad that you take a reasoned view here: acknowledging that some of the more "automatic" functions (particularly aperture priority) have their place, but reminding the user that these can and should be manually overridden when the shot demands it.

  • Kevin August 23, 2013 07:25 am

    I'm sorry but I don't get this use of the word intent. People can go out with intent despite not knowing the optimum settings on their camera too. Example being the second shot in this article where the lengthy exposure may indeed have smoothed the water, but actually made the definition of the reflection quite poor compared to if the exposure length was much shorter. Bad example, despite the intent :-)