Let’s face it, we’re all looking to improve our craft. There’s always someone out there who’s doing something we wish we could emulate, some skill we have yet to attain. While it might seem like a curse to never be satisfied with where you’re at no matter how great a photographer you are, I think this is an essential trait to becoming a great photographer, or artist of any kind in the first place. The hunger to improve keeps you curious and engaged in your craft, and keeps your work from floundering, shooting the same scenes the same way over and over again.
But how to go about improving?
Sure there are countless educational video tutorials, books and blogs (like this one!) that you can turn to for advice, or learning a specific technique, but I think there is another source of knowledge that is more often than not overlooked.
That’s right, one of the greatest sources of knowledge in improving your craft lies between your ears. I know, I know, “How can I teach myself something I don’t know???” you say.
I’m not saying that you can necessarily teach yourself new shooting or editing techniques necessarily, but you can definitely improve your photography all on your own, simply by asking questions of yourself, and thinking analytically about your process.
This article is part one of a three part series on using questions to improve your photography. Part 1 will focus on questions to ask while shooting in the field, Part 2 on post production questions to ask, and Part 3 on questions to ask when comparing your work to the work of others. These are not meant to be definitive questions, just a starting point to get you thinking more about what you are doing, and why you are doing it.
Questions To Ask While Shooting
1.What is my primary subject?
The first thing you need to establish when approaching a scene, whatever it may be, is what your subject is. If you’re taking a portrait, the answer is fairly obvious, but even landscapes should have a primary subject that is more prominent than the other contents of the scene.
Defining your subject should be one of the first questions you ask yourself, as it will often play a role in your answers to the following questions.
2. What am I trying to convey here?
Once you’ve established your subject, it’s time to think about how you want to present that subject. What is your goal with the image? What’s the story you’re trying to tell about your subject? How you answer this question will have a huge impact on the image.
You may frame the image in drastically different ways depending on what your goal is for the image. The same subject and scene can tell very different stories when shot from above as opposed to straight on as opposed to below, by changing the subject’s relation to your light source(s), or any number of other tweaks.
If you’re shooting something like a landscape where your primary subject could be one of many elements, and you’re trying to tell a story about the scene as a whole, you may want to start with this question, and then choose a subject based on the narrative you’ve decided on.
3. How will my lens choice (and focal length) affect the composition and scene?
Once I know what my subject is and what I’m aiming for with the image, one of the first questions I ask myself is what is the appropriate lens for this situation? A number of factors come into play here, most importantly focal length and maximum aperture.
If it’s a dimly lit scene, I’ll generally reach for a lens with a wide maximum aperture immediately, so as to let in as much of the available light as possible and hopefully avoid having to step up the ISO too much.
More commonly however my choice of lens is due to the field of view it offers, and how that affects the scene. Super wide angle lenses allow more elements to be included in the scene and exaggerate the distances between elements. Telephoto lenses conversely, compress the distance between elements, and are great at singling out specific elements in an image.
If you know your lenses well, you’ll probably know when you walk up to a scene which lens is going to give you the field of view and compression/expansion that you want, or at least have a pretty good idea.
If you’re starting out with a new lens or two play around with them and find out for yourself how differing focal lengths affect the composition, even with your subject framed at the same size by moving closer to or further away from it.
4. Are there distracting elements I can avoid in camera through framing or otherwise?
Once you have your scene composed to where you think it’s looking pretty good at an overall angle, scan through your scene again and ask yourself if there are any elements present in the viewfinder that will be distracting in the final image. Sure, many distractions can be removed in photoshop, but sometimes they can prove difficult, or impossible to remove, and can prove time intensive.
I always prefer to remove what I can before taking the shot by physically moving the distracting element out of the scene, or through creative use of framing, composition, and lighting.
People often think of landscapes when talking about removing or avoiding distracting elements. But don’t forget this step just because you’re shooting a portrait on the street. Common distractions to watch for when shooting portraits include posts or other objects that appear to be coming out of your subject when your subject is standing in front of them, distracting background patterns, other people, etc.
5. What depth of field is most suitable for this scene?
The depth of field you use for your image can drastically alter the effect the image has on the viewer. Each scene is different, and even one scene could work at multiple depths of field. It all goes back to what you’re trying to convey however.
An extremely shallow depth of field draws all of the focus to one specific area of the frame. This is great for simplifying a complex or distracting background and isolating your subject, but in other circumstances it removes potentially valuable context from the image.
A deep depth of field is generally preferable for landscapes, or other images where the context is important in conveying your chosen narrative, but don’t let that stop you from experimenting with your scene and settings, finding the DOF that you think is best for your image.
6. How will changing my shutter speed affect the image?
Like depth of field, altering your shutter speed can have huge changes on your final image. Especially when there is an element in your scene that conveys motion through a long shutter speed, the results can be dramatic.
Water is perhaps the most common element used to convey motion through long exposures, and can also be used to great effect by freezing it’s movement with a very short shutter speed. Get creative though, and keep an eye out for other elements that can complement your subject through their conveyance of time and/or motion.
One of my favourite techniques when shooting people is to have them stand as still as possible while taking a longer exposure, allowing moving elements in the scene to contrast their lack of motion. Some favourites of mine for this technique are tall grasses or trees moving in the wind, and traffic or people moving along a street.
Conversely, using an extremely fast shutter speed can work wonders on subjects which we don’t often (or ever) see frozen in time. Raging water as I mentioned above is one such subject, another favourite of mine is fast moving animals frozen in time. Who doesn’t look in awe at an image of a hummingbird’s rapid wings captured sharply with a fast shutter speed, or a fox suspended in the air mid pounce?
Find a way to use shutter speed to capture something that we don’t regularly witness in our day to day life.
7. What is the light doing to my scene? How/should/can I manipulate it?
Light, perhaps the most important element of making a great photograph, is something seldom thought about by beginner photographers, and obsessed over by true pros. Outside of studio photographers, many of us - especially when starting out - seem to feel that we’re confined to whatever light we’re given when we encounter a particular scene. While we may not have the flexibility of studio lighting when out shooting with natural light, we should still be taking the light into consideration and asking how we can best use it as a tool to achieve our goals for the image.
If we know in advance we’re shooting street portraits for example, even without bringing additional lighting, we can make sure we’re equipped with reflectors and diffusers, allowing us to mold and shape the light to suit our vision.
Even without modifiers or lighting of any kind, we can position our subjects in such a way as to make the most of the available light. Often compromises will have to be made, a certain composition may not offer the best light, but make no mistake, how you make use of the light you have available to you will make or break your image.
When shooting landscapes we’re even more inclined to think that we have no control over the lighting of the scene. This is true to some extent, as - at least to my knowledge - it’s not currently possible to diffuse or reflect light onto an entire landscape (although if I had a fleet of drones and a big enough diffuser/reflector…). Despite this fact, there is still one option we have left when shooting landscapes that will affect the lighting of our final image.
Yep, we can always wait out our scene until the lighting improves. Not that it will always improve, but it’s still worth considering if you’re happy with your composition but the lighting doesn’t do it justice. Maybe hanging around for an hour, two, six, twelve will make the difference.
So that’s all I’ve got for in the field questions. I’m sure there are many more questions that are worth considering, but these are the main ones that run through my head while out shooting. I hope that if you’re not currently asking yourself why you are doing what you are doing, and what you are trying to achieve with your image that this article has prompted you to start considering your motives. I’d also love to hear what questions and considerations run through your mind while you're out shooting. Let me know in the comments!
Stay tuned for next week where I’m going to look at some of the questions I ask when I’m back at my computer and am preparing to edit my photos!
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