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The One Question You Should Ask Yourself Before Taking Any Picture

Image: By Tom

By Tom

While teaching photography I am often asked, “What do you think about when you take a picture?” This can be a hard question to answer. I’m not bragging when I say I’ve been shooting for 20 years and the art of creating images has become more reflex than quantifiable thought process. I don’t think a whole lot when shooting.

But one questions that does run through my mind, and is the closest I come to thinking before shooting, over and over again before pressing the shutter release is a question I deliver to those looking to improve their photography. That question is simply:

Why am I taking this picture?

The answer to this question often reveals a lot about not only what I’m looking at, but also whether or not I should take up the megabytes and time editing this scene later. Taking a look at some of the likely answers to this question, I want to stress that there is no ‘right or wrong’ in this method. It’s simply a technique to help you figure out what’s going on in your head. It is not a law, just a suggestion.

Because It Is Pretty

This is the most common reason for most images to be taken. The scene in front of us is pretty and we want to capture it, preserve it or share it. The problem here is not every pretty scene makes a great or even good photo. So often the scene in front of us is maybe out of the dynamic range of our camera (a problem solved by using HDR techniques and the march of progress in sensor development). Or maybe it’s a tremendous sunset partially covered by trees. The problem is our mind often interprets the scene in front of us in a way the camera never can.

These types of shots will often remain on your harddrive and not even make it to Facebook to be shared. You get home and look and sigh. “Meh” is often heard when looking at these shots on a computer screen when the magic of the moment has long passed.

It’s my assertion that a scene being labeled as ‘pretty’ alone is not sufficient reason to take a picture. It surely is reason enough to stop for a moment and enjoy the beauty of life. Just don’t forget that ‘beautiful scene’ doesn’t always equal ‘beautiful picture’.

Because It Evokes Emotion

Here now is a great reason to take a photo. If you feel stirred inside with any emotion, chances are the viewers of your image will be too. Emotion is something that connects us as humans and crosses language barriers. If the scene is emotion evoking, I would not hesitate to take a photo at the appropriate moment to try to convey that feeling on a computer screen later. It’s important to note you may not like the emotion being displayed, but that does not mean it won’t be a good photo.

Because It Tells A Story

Sometimes the space inside a frame has a whole story coming to life. Action, suspense, a life well lived. Any theme is fair game and the greatest photojournalists of our time have been masters at finding those stories. When they know just one image is going to be used in a newspaper article, it is important to make that image tell as much as it can. Look for these types of images especially while traveling.

Because It Is Instructional

Photography is a wonderful way to teach. Some of the ugliest photos teach the most important subjects. And not every Pulitzer Prize winning photo is perfectly lined up according to the Rule Of Thirds or with a histogram that is not a pixel overexposed. In fact, taking a photo of something that shows a technique or a different way of doing something will not make the cover of National Geographic, but it will serve a purpose and explain things 1000 times faster than writing about it can.

Because I Want To Remember This Moment

The beach. Hawaii. Umbrella drinks in hand. The love of your life beside you. Toes in the sand. A setting sun.

We’ve all seen this image shared by friends at one time or another. It’s a boring picture. The sun, looking Hawaiian orange, just before it sinks into the bluest ocean you have ever seen. And the sun is centered. So is the horizon. It’s boring for most of us.

But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take that shot. It is a great memory for you and every time you look at that sunset image you will be instantly transported back to the warm beach. It also doesn’t mean you need to share the image. That’s the key for images like this. Blow it up and put it on the wall in your office, but don’t force your friends to look at a ho-hum image, because they don’t have that memory come to life when they see it. Share the spectacular images when the lava rolls into the sea while saving for yourself the special, private moments that make you smile.


There are any number of reasons to take a photo. I’m not here to say “Never take a picture because it is just pretty!” But I do think it helps one improve their technique and artistic eye if conscience thought is given as to why an image is taken.

I should also note that about a quarter of the time I simply shoot from a gut feeling and that gut feeling in any photographer should never be ignored.

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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