The One Question You Should Ask Yourself Before Taking Any Picture

The One Question You Should Ask Yourself Before Taking Any Picture

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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.

Conclusion

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 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.

Some Older Comments

  • Paul February 29, 2012 03:21 am

    Interesting, different pictures are taken for different reasons. I'm a wedding photographer from devon and am usually either recording detail or trying to evoke some emotional response.

  • Jason February 20, 2012 07:08 pm

    The one question I keep asking myself right before taking a picture: Now?

    Before any picture is taken you would have already seen something that caught your eye, you already chose the angle, the settings, the object or scene or person(s), and then the only thing left is to decide when to press the shutter release. The question "now?" is in my opinion the most important question of all. It serves many purposes but some of the most important include paying attention to other distracting elements and being prepared for the shots you take. Its not as glamorous a question as some of those listed above, but one of the most important.

    If you are shooting a sunset for instance, being in the location at noon obviously is a bad call on the "now?" question. In many ways the examples for nearly ANY shot are just as obvious. You want your photos to be exceptional and stand out, then you must master the "now?" question. What it really boils down to is capturing a specific moment rather than shooting rapid burst and keeping one if you are lucky. Its where you stop being an amateur and start being a pro. It can be the difference as small as catching the subject between blinks so that their eyes are wide open, or as complex as watching hundreds of variables in the foreground, background and subject actions/motions.

    This is how I teach those around me who want to take better photos. I teach them to ask that important question each time they take a photo. A pro photographer is like a sniper, laying in wait for the perfect moment, taking in many variables in the decision, and being very precise to ensure that he hits only his target, that no one will see him, and that the job is finished. Many photographers use a sloppy machine gun on a drive-by shooting - the car is bouncing them and their gun all over the place and many times the target leaves the scene unscathed. (hope that is not too graphic- but its a perfect analogy)

    Be a sniper, anticipate the variables, lay in wait - never be surprised. If you are caught off guard, you are not taking your mission seriously. Too many shots get lost to incorrect settings, wrong lens, no memory card, etc etc. Pretend you are not using a digital camera. Pretend that each picture costs money to take. If you focus like each frame is special your photography will dramatically improve - or I will give you your money back! LOL

  • Greg Lawrence January 27, 2012 10:12 am

    Photographs are taken either because the photographer has an obligation to and/or wants to, hopefully with the desire to be artistically creative and document the experiences of life. Defining "why" seems to demand justification or provide a reasonable explanation. Isn't "I decided to" a reasonable answer?

    The basis of this position is that there are a very large number of possible answers and explanations to "why". Would it be reasonable to assume that a significant number of photographers just blindly make images without intent? To quantify or qualify "why" is to suggest that there are standards and expectations to be met. Doubtful that some omnipotent being made any one of you photographers responsible to stand in judgement of your fellow photographers, although it is in human nature to define worst, good, and best.

    Remember the quote that " any expert was once a beginner." Whether we see in our mind's eye or conjure up a vision of a potential image, the exercise to capture that image is a effort based on our psyche, skill set, tools on hand, and perhaps a bit of luck at that instant of time. The measure is in how well that effort captures what was seen or conjured.

    What is important to understand is that the context of that image can have a wide variety of interpretations and responses by those who view it, and who is to say that any one of those individuals, particularly the supposedly knowledgable critique, is right, unless the response, good or bad, is unanimous. Can we truly say that an image speaks for itself in unequivocal terms, or that some measure of a detailed backstory, and personal knowledge and insight of the photographer's intent is required? The assumption is that understanding is somewhere in between to be fair, but we cannot positively know the message and intent of the image, only to accept our own personal interpretation, a "decision" much like the "decision" of the photographer who pressed the shutter button. Do we ask the viewer "why"?

    Hopefully the image of a scene in that instant slice of time is the result of best effort, because we all fall somewhere on that grayscale between beginner and expert. A friend once said, "Until you can be as openly judgmental about your own shortcomings as you are about others, then keep your mouth shut, unless you are able to provide positive encouragement and instruction." If we conscientiously apply ourselves and make the best effort at capturing images of the more common mundane as well as the infrequent spectacular in any given situation, then we will improve over time, our images will improve over time, and our own judgment of each capture "decision" should improve over time. The method and madness of how we get there is of our own making.

  • Markus January 26, 2012 06:07 pm

    Well said, Pat!
    That self-obligation to create pictures every day also helped me a lot to improve not only my photography but with it my awareness of the world around me. And maintaining a photo blog is a good incentive to really carry a camera always and trying to use it.
    In the past years it never became boring, and while I had different phases of focusing on the various aspects of image-making, I observed that with more experience "seeing" becomes an easy habit, handling the camera is hazzle-free now, and interest in new gear is much much lower than it was in the beginning. Now I can concentrate on seeing and slowly start to feed my feelings into my images - and with that, it's less active thinking and a log more of "feeling", gut-feeling at that, that drives my photography.

  • Pat Kight January 25, 2012 03:53 pm

    Referred here by a mutual friend (Thom Whittier). What a good question!

    For me, the answer often has to do with something slightly removed from the actual image: my ongoing search for mindfulness in my daily life. When I make an effort to shoot every day, paying particular attention to how I compose each shot in the camera, it helps teach me to *see* the world differently, and more intently.

    Since the first of the year, I've been trying to carry my camera with me every day, with a goal of getting at least one "good" photograph (for extremely personal values of "good") each day.

    The result, beyond actual images (some of which are among the best I've produced), has been interesting. I find myself seeing the world around me in pictures, whether I have the camera with me or not, and paying closer attention to what I see. My routine drive to work each morning is suddenly alive with beauty: That tree. Those sheep. The way the recent floodwaters encroached and receded.

    For the moment, my answer to "why am I taking this picture" would be "to help me see, and experience, the world around me more fully."

    A little woo-woo, perhaps, but it's also resulting in objectively better photographs. Interestingly, I consider that a happy side effect of the effort.

  • Frank January 25, 2012 04:12 am

    Mridula, please read the article of this lesson entitled "6 More ways to Top Your Best Photos" by Jim Goldstein and especially # 11 Photo Editing. He describes just what I was trying to express in my comments about your photo of the flock of birds.

    But rather than critique your photo I should have included one of my own to demonstrate my point.

    What do you see in this photo? Well, you see a mountain range and if you look closely, part of a shelter and a pink stuff sack. Ho hum. I took this with my point-and-shoot on automatic settings with no thought to composition, exposure or lighting, etc. I had never taken a class in photography.

    But, what do I see? For me this brings a lot of emotion. I took that picture because in order to get to where I took it, I had to climb over those mountains you are looking at. To me that photo brings back all those wonderful emotions and sense of accomplishment and I was enjoying it all with my hiking companion, my daughter! Do you see what I mean, now? It is my emotions that I am putting into the picture, not the picture putting the emotions out. To the viewer, these are just mountains. To me the mountains remind me of the emotions of my hike, but how can the viewer be connect to this image in the same way? It is not a "wow" photo to anyone else.

    Now, I have seen photos of mountains that I have never seen and have been moved by the photo, by its composition, the art a professional used in its creation. (Ansel Adams!!)

    In short, we need to take our emotions out of the photograph and make a photo that will bring out an emotion in anyone that views it. Then we will have a photo that goes beyond the stage of just being a picture that we include in our own albums reminding us of some adventure or vacation.

    Having spent over a year now slowly learning about the art of photography, there is some remarkable beauty
    right out my front door, in my neighborhood and surrounding towns. I have leaned to look up and down as well as around. But....I digress....
    Here is the mountain photo: (2009)
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/74269984@N08/6755489803/in/photostream

  • Mark January 24, 2012 02:03 pm

    I don't think anyone should necessarily have to ask the question 'why?' before taking a picture. By the time you've answered the 'why?' the photo opportunity may have passed. Also, the best photos often come not from thinking, (or over-thinking as is most often the case), but in simply reacting. Too often the brain only serves to get in the way of spontenaity. Let your reaction come straight from the heart to the shutter finger, and bypass the brain altogether. The brain is often too clouded with the cares and concerns of daily life and/or trying to conform with meeting internal and external expectations to be trusted to make the best judgement. When you bypass the brain and all it's quirks, you tap into more of the subconscious - who you are - and the photo has a greater possibility of being a personal expression. And hey, if that quick reaction doesn't transform into a great picture you can always delete it.

  • Frank January 24, 2012 07:42 am

    Look at Erik's photo of the "Tulip Tree" He tells us that the tree can be up to 80 feet tall, but what does he show us? He picks out a small beautiful part of a massive tree. He found a small wonderful section of a wider scenic view. We know what his subject was. The title is helpful, but the image stands by itself even without the title. I find this a good example of "how less is more" and a nice contrast of color.

    We do not need to know what was in the background, so he does not show us. In editing I think it would help to make the background all one color, maybe all black. That one dark corner does bother me a bit.

    How about a closer view of the bloom with the water droplet!

  • Frank January 24, 2012 07:26 am

    I would like to use Mridula's photos to point out some of what I believe is expressed in this thread and specifically about "evoking emotions".

    Mirdula was in a beautiful place surrounded by the amazing scenery and then this massive flock of birds. She was "overwhelmed".

    But, what happened? Do we, the viewers, share this emotion? Does this photo bring out that emotion in us?

    I think not. I can only see the image. I cannot be in that same place with the sound, smells, overwhelming beauty that surrounded the photographer. I only have an image to look at. What do I see? I see specks that as far as I know could be sparrows. What is a Godwit? If it is an amazing bird to see, I do not see it here.

    Mirdula, this image brings back the feeling of awe you had because you were there and it reminds you of the grandeur you saw, but how can't be the same for me? In a way, you have put your feelings into the picture. The picture itself is not overwhelming, it was you that was overwhelmed. I see a flock of birds, but so what? They are birds, but hardly remarkable. Tour image is like photojournalism. It reminds you of where you were . It documents your journey, but it is not the same for me. I look at the image, the image does not evoke any special feeling of wonder.

    Look at the question Rod asks a few entries below yours. "Does this shot say anything?"

    Now, please do not take my comments as a put down of your skills, in fact I have many photos just like yours, not birds, but mountain scenery (I am a hiker). They remind me of where I was and what I was looking at, but what do others see and what emotions are evoked. None of the same as mine unless, the photo itself is indeed a "Wow"!

    Find the photo in Erik's album of the hockey game where the ref has his hands out and the player is looking down at the goal. We see a story there, just as Erik's title points it out. The faces are close enough and in clear focus for us to read the expressions, they evoke the feelings and even the thoughts of the characters.

    Then look at Scottc's image that he took quickly. Do we get the same feelings that he did? For me, not quite.
    The background is too distracting. I do not see what it adds, yet my eyes are drawn to it. What are those two guys in the rear doing there? Why are they part of the scene. We need only to be looking at the guys on the bench. So, why not crop out the rest of the image? Would it have been more powerful to zoom in closer on just one or two of the group? What if we were looking at them from a different angle, down lower perhaps?
    Are there other interpretations to what their expressions tell us? Why did you take the picture?

  • Frank January 24, 2012 06:26 am

    In his book "Nature Photography" John Shaw describes much of the ideas mentioned in this thread "learning to see photo-graphically". pp.98-99.

    After you ask "why", then ask "What do I want to show the viewer?" ."...If there are several answers to each question, you should be taking several photos, not one."

    He reminds us to "think graphically" "Be concerned with the basic elements of graphic design: line, color, pattern, texture and form" ...."we become more concerned with the content of an image (the subject) rather than its design".

    "Articulate what you plan on doing..what equipment and techniques...is the light good, the background pleasing....don't just take pictures make photo-graphs"

    Quoting a friend Shaw says, "It takes several paragraphs to describe a bad photograph, a few sentences for a mediocre photo, one sentence for a good picture, and just a phrase for a great photograph."

    "Please yourself first, not someone else"

    A recent publication on this subject is "Photographically Speaking: A Deeper Look at Creating Stronger Messages" by David duChemin

    In Part Two of his book duChemin looks at 20 of his own photos and explains the hows and whys. As some of you have pointed out, some photos have to be taken quickly and would not fit into the examples of excellent composition, but are successful regardless.

  • Michael Grooms January 23, 2012 02:34 pm

    Why I take a picture? Because I like it and I want to preserve it. That's all the reason I need!

  • Valerie January 23, 2012 08:22 am

    quite often, those so-called "boring" photos will reveal gems once they have been downloaded onto the computer.... no photo is a waste of time....it is a captured moment-in-time...e.g.. one Sunday I took some photos of a building that was being demolished.... I later discovered a brilliant shot where a book, sitting on a window ledge, was brought to life by the wind turning the pages ! I always have my camera with me, and as a passenger in a vehicle, I get awesome random shots... e.g.... a perpetrator running away from a pedestrian, decided to make a perilous getaway by stealing a ride on a 4x4 by hanging on to the passenger door of the moving vehicle !

  • Janie Garcia January 22, 2012 12:27 am

    Very simple...It is a moment captured in time..

  • Goldenguras January 21, 2012 03:04 pm

    The first lesson on nyip class is
    1. What is the subject ? If I don't relate to the subject I don't. Lick period gut feeling or not period
    1. How can I simplify ? If I cannot simplify the subject I don't click

    3 how can I bring focus to the subject? I need attention to the subject. If I can't bring focus do crazy stuff to being attention to the subject I don't click period
    Next time try this it's not easy. But just like they say practise makes aak perfect
    3.

  • Neelkant Sharma January 21, 2012 02:50 am

    Thats the first question i always ask myself.
    The second question i ask myself is, what will i do with the pic. ?

  • Pops January 20, 2012 04:52 pm

    I agree with your article and ask the same question of my students.

    One thing I do tell them is as follows.

    Let's suppose you take a marvelous picture. Focus is exactly right, lighting is perfect, depth of field is just fine. Composition is perfect for the subject and the story pops out at first glance.

    Then you take another photograph. This one has some problems with lighting, focus, composition or such.

    From which do you learn the most?

    Learn from your mistakes. You will make no mistakes if you take no pictures.

    Pops

  • Vivian Bedoya January 20, 2012 02:06 pm

    Why am I taking this picture? Because I like what I see.

  • Scottc January 20, 2012 10:50 am

    Good advice, and saves some decision making and post processing time as well.

    Go with your gut is also good advice. This one was literally shot from the hip, with just a second's notice.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5842380932/

  • Jorge January 20, 2012 10:42 am

    Now with new photographic technology I’ve seen that a beautiful picture stops being interesting when it can be easily capture by someone else. Still the reasons that I have for each photo that I take are most of the time the motivation on deciding the shot.

  • Ed Law January 20, 2012 10:15 am

    And the last sentence conveys the very best reason for taking a picture other than as a requirement of gainful employment or contract.

    For those of us who have been been privileged to satisfy our own pleasure for all the reasons you listed and not to please others, it has been the true "love of a lifetime" A challenge never equaled but always there.

    Few athletes, entertainers or professionals in other occupations have warranted my admiration and respect as those whose talent and imagination has captured the beauty, drama and events of the world as have artists, musicians and photographers.

  • Markus January 20, 2012 09:06 am

    Peter,
    I don't felt too satisfied with the reasons you gave, until your last sentence. I agree with you, that many of the reasons you name, in the end won't cut it in terms of a working image, and that holds especially true for tha mass of superficially "pretty" images. My god, we are drowning in flower macros and pet shots!

    But that "gut feeling" sometimes lets (at least me) sometimes press the shutter, even when the scenery has nothing extraordinary, except that things fall in line when seen through the viewfinder. These I count among my precious images.

  • Maarten Smit January 20, 2012 07:21 am

    Most of the times I ask myself after taking the picture 'why did I take it?' So yes, the gutfeeling is the most important. But my best pictures are taken when there is the perfect combination of 'seeing' the image before you shoot it and the gutfeeling that you have to take it now.

  • Tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead January 20, 2012 07:02 am

    I am shooting - well, learning desperately - because the shots will be for my book. So for me its the story, emotions and a piece of life. Painfully simple, when one tries to be sincere.
    Happy New Year from Mauritius
    Nikonly yours

  • CanonMan January 20, 2012 06:30 am

    Good discussion. My ongoing thought is, "am I shooting with a shotgun approach or do I have a plan". This forces me to focus, which leads to improved composition, if I do in fact take the shot.

  • shauna January 20, 2012 05:25 am

    You put into words many thoughts I have had. So many times I have come across something pretty that isn't quite captured the same way on my camera...some moments are too deep for a photograph...and we can keep that moment in our mind's eye. I've learned when one of those moments are and I feel like more of a photographer at those discerning moments than when I take a picture.

  • Marie January 20, 2012 05:19 am

    This is an interesting question and I find I don't often ask it of myself. I'm more of an emotional photographer... the look a daughter gives her Dad as he smiles, a tender hand on a shoulder, kids laughing their butts off. I can't resist these and even if I don't know the people I have the compelling urge to shoot. I also do a lot of sport photography and tend to take far too many shots but find it's the only way to get the truly great ones because they are so hard to anticipate ~ scissor kicks, the ball flying thru the air with the shoe, the unbelievable catch. Treasures! The worst feeling is when you realize you "should have taken the shot" and either missed it or worse, chose not to try. I loved my film cameras but have captured more spontaneous moments with digital. No matter what ~ Just shoot!

  • KB January 20, 2012 04:29 am

    I take pictures of things/ that I don't get to see everyday..

  • Ray January 20, 2012 04:21 am

    Why am I taking this picture? - simply because I want to

  • Tim January 20, 2012 03:55 am

    Duh?

  • subroto mukerji January 20, 2012 03:45 am

    I think Peter meant 'conscious' thought ! But I must compliment him on a thought provoking article, one with more than a little relevance. Me, I'm just out to capture colour, patterns and beauty, there's enough ugliness around us and I'm not going to try and take pictures of the drearier side of life. THIS what drives me, and I think Mridula is right on the button by going for that emotional lift when taking a photograph !

  • Joywalker January 20, 2012 03:36 am

    "I simply shoot from a gut feeling and that gut feeling in any photographer should never be ignored."

    Yep, that gut feeling always works for me.

  • Tom South January 20, 2012 03:31 am

    I have a young student working with me one day a week as part of her studies, and I asked her pretty much the same question a week ago, 'what should you be asking yourself before you take a shot?. I'm delighted to say that my suggestion to her was pretty much the same, ask yourself why you are taking the picture, and if you can't answer the question then don't take the shot. I too often relate back to the days of film to illustrate to her (and others) the importance of using the camera efficiently and correctly.

  • Uri January 20, 2012 03:31 am

    Thank you for bringing up this important issue I believe it is a gift to capture what our heart is leading the eye to admire it is the passion that gives us determination to persue perfection in delivery.

  • Rod January 20, 2012 03:28 am

    Before I take a shot, I ask... does this shot say anything?..

  • Abraham Friedman January 19, 2012 02:38 am

    @Don Giannatti, I agree with you that in this digital age we can take millions of pictures with almost no cost. Except there is a hidden cost, while small, does add up over time and quantity. You need to copy all those pictures to your computer. You need to import them into your organization program. You need to decide which are worth keeping and which are worth deleting, etc.

    What I believe the author was trying to get at was that many photographers (especially beginning photographers) just shoot using the shotgun style and hope that if they take 500 pictures, at least one of them will be great. There is nothing to prevent anybody from doing this but many photographers can benefit from slowing down and thinking about the photo before they take it.

    I used to take photos that I was disappointed to view and it took me a while to realize that, just because the world I was seeing was awe inspiring, that not every image of that same view would be. Now I pay more attention before I shoot a picture and the number of good pictures I take have greatly increased.

    I agree that, especially when you are learning, taking a lot of pictures is essential -- but there's nothing wrong with thinking before you press the shutter.

  • Mridula January 18, 2012 07:03 pm

    I never thought of it explicitly but I think the emotion bit works for me. Recently I saw a swarm of birds and was quite overwhelmed and I guess the pictures convey it quicker than any writing would.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/01/black-tailed-godwits-at-mangalajodi-near-bhubneshwar-odisha.html

  • kara January 18, 2012 06:05 am

    Honestly my reason right now is to practice with my new camera. I want to get used to the controls a little before I get into class :) but I love this article!

  • S.T. Ranscht January 17, 2012 06:28 am

    I guess you don't need "conscious" thought as long as you let your "conscience" be your guide.

  • Yuri January 17, 2012 06:03 am

    Not arguing with the original (and all followup versions of) big question, i can add another one - "Where can I use this photo later"?

    This question is relevant to all who does graphics design that can use photos - book covers, calendars, etc.
    So, shooting flowers, insects, moon, non-unique vistas may yield pretty mundane, boring results, but if the final goal is to use it all in your creative composition, then there shots are well justified.

  • Will Dochertaigh January 17, 2012 12:45 am

    So often a person will turn to me and say "get this picture!" not understanding that what the mind sees is not what the camera will capture. That's an important quality for a photographer - to know with some certainty what does and does not translate into a quality image, a 'keeper' worthy of showing and showing off.

  • Fuzzypiggy January 17, 2012 12:17 am

    "Why am I taking this picture?"

    To para-phrase Gary Winogrand, "To see what the world looks like photographed".

    When you look at anything you percieve it's beauty in all it's vastness, not only from the edges of your peripheral vision but off to the depths of the scene. In addition I can see huge ranges of light and colour, up to 20 stops of light. These work from the biggest vista to the tinnest object. All have a depth and reality to them.

    My digital camera, despite it's big price tag is a mere toy compared to my eyes and my understanding. It has limits to what it can do. My challenge is always to show you my world, my visions confined within a tiny frame and limited to the colour and light ranges of the current technology. Every time I pull the viewfinder up to my eye I am challenged to capture the scene as best I can and my ongoing challenge it so get images so good you lose yourself in them, believing you're actually seeing what I saw.

    All sounds a bit pompous I know but I truly believe in that immortal quote by Winogrand, I want to see if I can capture this wonderful world with my little box-of-tricks, light-capturing toy!

  • armis January 16, 2012 08:03 pm

    I go with a variant of this. "What am I taking a picture of?" helps me focus my composition.

  • kenna westerman January 16, 2012 01:38 pm

    I also tried to listen to that inner voice that tells me, "this is the one." Just a few days ago, I ignored that voice, and when I went by this place to take the picture, it was goine. Still upset with that one. :)

  • Mei Teng January 16, 2012 11:48 am

    "It’s my assertion that a scene being labeled as ‘pretty’ alone is not sufficient reason to take a picture".

    It all really boils down to an individual's preference. One man's meat can be another's poison. Sometimes, I take pictures of scenes or things that others may not see the reason behind it. But they may be missing on the aesthetic quality in that something.

  • WET January 16, 2012 08:42 am

    I recently discovered a good question for me: Would you put this photo on film/Is it worth to be put on film? If you've got 15 Frames on a 120 rollfilm then this question is essential and also works for SDcards! :D

  • Don Giannatti January 16, 2012 02:42 am

    Good article.

    I have to insert something though.

    1. If you have a vision statement, a purpose, a definition (no matter how loose) you have answered the question before you lift the camera in many situations.

    2. I am a big proponent of non-censoring shooting. Shoot it, capture it, save it NOW. Later it can be deleted with a push of key.

    It is digital. We always hear about how digital is not as fine as film and how film was better at and such. But digital s amazing for this. Let's give digital its due here. Digital allows us to experiment, try things again and again, get instant feedback, and have a wonderful experience for nearly no expense. It is a gift to photographers. (I also shoot 8x10 film, and there... well, let's say the checklist is long, and the amount of exposures not so high... heh.)

    SHOOOOOOOOOOOT!

    Why not? Take a thousand shots of the ducks in the park. Get down low and climb up high. Try this and that and that other thing.

    "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’."

    I cringed at that line.

    Who cares? Sufficient enough REASON?

    1. You can learn a heck of a lot by the images that don't work.
    2. Sometimes you get happy accidents.
    3. What is 'pretty' to one photographer may not be 'pretty' to me.
    4. An exposure is a moment with meaning, whether or not the end result is Facebook worthy.
    5. The emotional devastation of not 'getting the shot' is far outweighed by the 68MB of unused images on the hard drive... zilch. Delete/Move On.

    I agree with knowing why, but I am not a champion of the check list. I like to get those thoughts worked out in advance, in my interior, in my 'centered self' and then the questions are replaced by purpose. Check lists take time, and time is not on our side when making images. Having a sense of purpose, an over arching reason for taking photographs will trump the individual moment.

    Once again, I urge shooting... capture, edit, delete. And in the process learn about what happened, and what didn't happen, between exposure and edit.

  • Dave Hodgkinson January 16, 2012 12:59 am

    I come at this from the opposite end. When I've been looking at my students images, and those from people I know, the first question that pops into my head is "what is this picture *for*?"

    Quite a lot of street photography falls into this category: it's just people or things with none of the things you mention.

    When I look at my flickr stream when the Apple TV kicks in to screen saver mode, I'm happy that every picture that pops up has some kind of story to it, even the camera+ snaps and the obligatory sunsets!

  • raghavendra January 15, 2012 05:02 pm

    This is a good article
    i have not taken this picture so i am going for it
    That's how i take pictures
    after some experiences
    i think how a better way to capture image.

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/

  • Through the Lens of Kimberly Gauthier, Photography Blog January 15, 2012 08:09 am

    The question I ask is "what am I trying to capture?" My boyfriend taught me this when he was showing me how to use a DSLR camera and it never fails. I love your question; it's so important in helping keep us on track when taking pictures.

    Thanks for the tip!

  • Dann January 15, 2012 06:45 am

    You should really include some sort of image on every post. I hate when I can't pin good articles because pinterest needs an image to go with it.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck January 15, 2012 05:51 am

    @Allie

    Sometimes it helps to just slow down. Take time to really enjoy your journey, take a breath, look around, then decide if you want to compose a shot. Many times I have looked around, then chosen a lens, checked it again and said "No Shot"

    This shot took around 20 minutes to scope - the beauty is that I slowed down, smelled the Sea, relaxed and had fun. Isn't this what Photography is all about?

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/road-to-hana-the-african-tulip-tree/

  • Allie January 15, 2012 05:41 am

    Having just returned from a vacation with family in Hawaii, I have a lot of that last category. The most difficult thing for me was balancing it with the occasional artistic shot. I would get so stuck in the mode of just clicking to capture all the great moments that I was less diligent when composing shots for myself.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck January 15, 2012 02:20 am

    Wow

    A really thoughttful article. For me it depends on the intent of the shot. If it is Fine Art Landscape, it could be capturing the mood, if it is a Portrait, emotion, if it is Still Life, could be technique....Or it could be capturing the Moment.

    I attempted to Capture the Moment with this series of NHL Hockey pictures from Chicago - not easy but tried to look like the Pro shooter 10 ft away who had the prime spot shooting hole through the plexiglass. He had the same gear...Nikon D7000 with 70-200mm f2.8. Maybe I should have forged a Press Pass! LOL

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/chicago-blackhawks-vs-edmonton-oilers/