Photography / Tips and Solutions

30 Questions You Should Ask Before You Take a Photograph

         

Thirty? Really? 30 questions for every photo? The title of this article might make you think there’s a burdensome checklist that must be accomplished every time you release the camera’s shutter.

There is not.

However, if you want to take your photography to new dimensions, this list of questions—some dealing with the physical act of the photograph and some dealing with the inner thoughts behind the image—might be just what you need to get your head, feet, or camera in the right place, to help make a good photograph great or a great photograph iconic.

1. What is my subject?

There’s a reason you put your camera to your eye or frame up a shot in the LCD. Ask yourself what you are trying to capture. And, as you operate the camera, do not lose focus on that. Sometimes the vantage point through the viewfinder or on the screen can distract or distance you from the subject. If the view distracts you, it will be even more distracting for your audience.


All photographs © Todd Vorenkamp
 

2. How do I best highlight the subject?

You know what your subject is, but will it be obvious to the viewer? Will it be obvious to you years from now when you look at that photo? There are myriad ways to make your subject stand out: composition, lighting, angles, lines, etc. Start thinking about this and keep reading—some of the upcoming questions will expound on this query.

3. Where is the subject in the frame?

Is the subject directly in the center? Sometimes that works. Divide the frame into thirds vertically and horizontally. Does the composition work better with the subject on one of those lines or at an intersection? How does the picture work if you put the subject in a corner or way off to the side, top, or bottom?

4. Am I close enough to my subject to emphasize it?

Being too far from your subject might mean that it gets lost in the background noise. If you have to explain to the viewer where your subject is in the frame, it means you might not have been close enough to that subject or that you failed to emphasize the subject in some other way. In the words of the legendary photojournalist and Magnum co-founder Robert Capa: “If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough.”

5. Am I far enough from my subject to allow the viewer to have a sense of time and place of the photograph?

Contrary to the last question, the subject can take up so much of the frame that the context and location of the photo is lost. If you are seeking to capture a memento of a shared experience by making a photo of your friend or loved one in front of a famous place or picturesque vista, be sure to include some of that place in the frame. Of course, there are times when you just want the subject to fill the frame.

6. Is there something in front of or behind the subject that distracts me?

Sometimes foreground objects can be a distraction, but it is often something behind your subject—the Martian antennas coming out of the back of your subject’s head are only acceptable if photographing a Martian—that ruins a good photo, creates a good laugh, or both. Try to isolate your subject from the background, repositioning the subject, moving yourself and the camera, or using a shallower depth of field.

7. Is there something else in the frame taking my attention away from the subject?

Shiny things, like that bright yellow Ferrari in the corner or that super-bright neon light in the background, may easily live within the framing of your photograph and draw your attention away from the true subject. If the subject is the brightest and most beautiful thing in the frame, that makes your job easier. If there is competition for your eye as the photographer, there will be a lot of competition for the viewer’s attention, too. If possible, be ready to reposition, zoom, or—borrowing from photography master Henri Cartier Bresson—wait for the “decisive moment” to isolate your subject. Sometimes, in the words of the late architect Ludwig Mies Van de Rohe, “Less is more.”

8. Is there something outside of the frame that I could incorporate to enhance the image?

Sometimes it pays to look beyond what you see in the viewfinder, or on the screen. Are there elements just outside your initial composition that would better frame the image or help direct the eye to where you want the viewer’s attention to go? Recompose. Move back. Zoom out.

9. Where is the light coming from?

If you are outside during the day, you are at the mercy of the tilt and rotation of the Earth in relation to the sun. However, the lower the sun is, the more directional the light becomes. Directional light means shadow. Look for light, but also look for shadow. Light can be redirected, reflected, or created. And, sometimes you can reposition yourself in relation to the light to take best advantage of its effects.

10. How does my eye move through the scene?

Initially, the eye might perceive a photograph as a whole, but, after a fraction of a second, its focus narrows to initiate a journey through the image, moving from one part of the frame to others, unless something grabs its attention. Compositionally, sometimes you can make this journey easy for the eye or you can force it into a different pattern. How does your own eye move when looking through the viewfinder? Make that part of your consciousness.

11. Am I standing in the best place to make this photograph?

If you are lucky, the answer is: “Yes.” But don’t always trust that your feet have delivered you to the best point of view. Dramatic changes in perspective may be gained by simply taking a few steps in another direction. Do not be afraid to move, especially if you see something you want to capture, but the composition is not working for you. Also, what does the view behind you look like? Do a 180 and check it out.

12. Should I be standing straight up and shooting this photograph from eye level, or is there a better perspective?

Once you’ve moved a few feet to your left, you might find an even better perspective by kneeling down, standing on a chair, holding the camera above you, or holding it below your waist. A vast majority of images are taken from the eye level. Simply changing your altitude might make your photos different from the rest.

13. Is it the best time of day to make this photograph?

The light is constantly changing as the Earth rotates and artificial lights cycle on and off. What might be an unexciting vista at one moment might have a completely different personality a few hours before sunset, or at night. Distracting shadows may be nearly nonexistent during the sun’s meridian transit. If you have the luxury of time, use it to your advantage to make the photograph better. In the fading light of day, a bit of patience can go a long way to getting a magical shot while others have packed up their gear and departed.

14. Is this the best moment to make this photograph?

Aside from the time of day or night, ask yourself if there is an advantage to delaying your photograph. If subjects are in motion, try to predict their movements in the frame and wait until they get, hopefully, where you want them to go. Is the stoplight about to change colors? Will that car be gone in 30 seconds? Will that pedestrian stop to read the sign in that doorway? Hopefully, the right moment wasn’t 10 seconds before you decided to take the photo. In the age of digital where images are virtually free, it might be safe to take the immediate shot, and then wait to see what develops. Sometimes I find the initial composition is the strongest and nothing further develops. If the first shot worked best, smile and go about your day.

15. Is this the best weather to make this photograph at this particular place?

Again, it is nice to assume the luxury of time. Were you hoping for sun or puffy clouds? Why is it overcast? Take a deep breath, fire off a snapshot, and then check the local weather forecast. In 30 minutes or a few days, it could all change. Depending on your subject matter, you might have all the time in the world to wait for the perfect moment.

16. Are my lines straight or intentionally angled?

The ocean is always level unless you are in a trough looking up at the crest of a wave. But, even then, level is level. Leaning towers in Pisa and exploratory architecture aside, most structures are built straight up and down. Compositionally, you may decide to make the horizon askew. Not a problem as long as you did that with some purpose in mind. A slightly skewed horizon usually highlights inattention to detail rather than creative perspective. No one intentionally tilts his or her horizon by 1 or 2 degrees. If your lines are not straight, it’s best to have a reason for them being skewed.

17. Is the camera lens distorting lines or perspective in a way I don’t want them to distort?

Speaking of lines, the lens distorts those straight vertical lines of buildings when it is tilted off of the horizon. This is a rule of physics. Specialized perspective control (PC) lenses may remove this distortion, and this can also be removed digitally. Minus that trickery, be conscious of effects such as keystoning and other geometric distortions. Embrace them, avoid them, or accept them. Sometimes you’ll find that keeping the camera level removes some distortion and provides an acceptable composition. Other times, you’ll have to bite the distortion bullet when the camera is moved off the perpendicular.

18. Are my camera’s settings correct for this image?

You might think that this should have been first or second on the list, but there is no real hierarchy to these questions. These questions are, depending on the photograph, of equal importance. Camera settings can make or break a photo. The good news is that, unlike the trash bag on the sidewalk or that car that you wish hadn’t parked there, camera settings can be firmly under your own control. If the image you seek to capture is a fleeting moment passing before your camera, by all means, take the shot as soon as you can. If you have a moment, however, check and double-check your aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, metering, autofocus mode, shooting mode, and more.

19. Is the camera capable of capturing the dynamic range of the scene?

Digital sensors and film can only see so far into darkness and light. The human eye is much better at this. With experience in photography comes the ability to know the limitations of your camera or film when it comes to capturing the spread of light and darkness across a scene. Some photographers try to defeat this digitally with high dynamic range (HDR) manipulation, and others embrace the limitations. Regardless, before you release the shutter, it is important to sense how that particular scene is going to look to the camera.

20. Should my camera be stabilized?

Not all of us carry tripods in our back pockets, but when light is low or apertures are closed down, adding stability to the camera might help make the photograph sharp by avoiding camera shake. If you need a tripod and you have one, great! If you need a tripod and do not have one, use proper technique, look to see where you can rest the camera, or look for something to lean against in an attempt to steady yourself and your hands.

Going Deeper

Now, let’s take this conversation deeper. There are a lot of great photographs out there and a lot of great photographers, but often the most iconic images taken by the greatest photographers transcend the print or the computer screen. The photographs have meaning and provoke an emotional response in the viewer. There will always be a time and place for the snapshot and family portrait, but if you want your photographs to be more profound, you might want to start digging deeper.

1. What is my concept?

In art school, I struggled with “concept.” A lot. Contrary to the views of my art-school professors, I will say that not every image needs a conceptual base holding it up, but having a concept for your image or images will give your photographs deeper meaning to you, and hopefully to your audience, as well. “That is a great photograph. What does it mean?” If you can answer that question you will enter the brave new world of the Artist.

2. What am I trying to say?

Along the lines of concept, if you have a mission for your photographs—a message for the world—ask yourself if the image you are about to capture is truly worth 1,000 words, or does it only kind of express what you are trying to say?

3. If this photograph is part of a series, does it fit with the style and emotion of the rest of the series?

Sometimes a single image cannot tell the story completely. You need multiple photographs, shown together, to make sense of or bring context to the individual images. If you are creating a series of images, always ask yourself if your new image complements the others, takes the series in a new direction, or is a simply a photo you like that is best left out of the group. Some of my favorite photographs are rarely seen because they did not fit into a particular series.

4. Who is the photograph for?

If the photo is only for you, then, by all means, make the photograph you want to enjoy. I tend to think that your photography should be for you, the photographer, and should not cater to what you think an anonymous viewer wants to see. There are surefire ways to get a ton of “likes” on social media with a photograph, but would you rather create a photograph that you love looking at yourself or one that is loved by others? Sometimes this is a tough question to answer. If you are photographing for a client, a particular audience, or the admiration of others, it is important to try to put yourself in his or her shoes when creating the image.

5. If the goal of the image is to make a statement, will this image hit that mark?

It might be easy for you to make an image and say, to yourself, “That says exactly what I want to say.” Then, step back from the image and try to imagine other viewers’ responses. Is the message obvious or is it subtle? If subtle, is it reachable through logical thought processes? A photograph of an apple might mean “World Peace” to you, but for most of us, it is just a photograph of an apple.

6. Will this image create negativity and criticism or positivity and praise?

I do not know many people who like to upset others intentionally, but there are times when art creates a negative response from the viewer. If that is your goal, then, by all means, pursue it. Are you making an image to bring attention to something negative or are you making an image of something negative for your own perverse pleasure? Are you ready for the possible incoming fire? If you do not intend to upset your audience, be mindful not to do so. There are times when it might be better not to make (or to show) a photograph for just this reason.

7. Will this photograph capture the essential feeling of the moment?

Sometimes it does not work to capture a sad moment on a sunny day or a happy moment in the pouring rain. You don’t always have control over the environment, but sometimes you can tailor your shot to better fit the mood you are trying to convey using color, light, perspective, and composition. If your image or images are telling a story, mood is critical to the overall effectiveness of the story telling, so be conscious of your surroundings and try to make sure they complement, not detract from the mood you are seeking to convey.

8. Has this photograph been taken before?

Portraiture is always unique, but sometimes we photograph places to prove we were there or things we have seen because we liked how they looked to our eyes. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but if we are reconstructing the work of another artist, are we improving upon it? Are we seeing anything differently than those who came before us? Are we adding to the discussion or subject? Maybe this is the time to push our own creative vision and capture something in a more personalized way. By all means, get the “postcard” shot, but then look harder and capture something uniquely your own.

9.  Am I forcing the photograph?

Nearly everything can be photographed, but not everything can be photographed well. There are times when you really, really want a photograph of a certain subject, but no matter what you do, where you stand, or how long you wait, it just does not come together. Step back, take a breath, see it with your own eyes, and move along. My guess is that very few “forced” photographs make their way into frames on walls.

10. Would I be better served to simply observe the moment or scene before me and not worry about making a photograph?

This is a tough one as, if you are reading this article, you are likely a photographer. Photographers like to photograph a lot of things, but the camera can, at times, get in the way of experiencing a moment and can prevent you from capturing the memory of the scene. Be aware of the balance between making photos versus simply absorbing the moment—then put the camera away while you exist in the scene, or perhaps, just don’t take the camera out at all.

Missing the Moment?

Obviously, all of these questions can be asked for any given photograph, but not all can be answered. There are situations when time is of the essence. There are millions of scenarios in which neither you, nor the subject, can be moved. The light isn’t always perfect. The moment is sometimes missed. But, guess what? That is all OK. Live to shoot another day and move on, searching for the next great photograph.

The last, and perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is:

Why am I making this photo?

Discussion 54

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Awesome 

Thank you, Abdo!

Because of the first five points, I'll sometimes take a few different pictures; some zoomed in and some zoomed out so I remember clearly what it was, even when scrolling down a lis of thumbnails (and even when seeing the picture in large, as the writer noted; sometimes even you yourslef will not remember what the focus ('er pun-intended) was!

Great idea, NesanelS! Of course, in the days of film, that could be an expensive practice! 

Thanks for sharing and reading!

Great article. Like most activities in life, thinking about what you want to accomplish and planning help to produce the desired result. 

Thank you, Bob! And, thanks for reading the B&H blog!

Good points, and the final one - Why am I taking this photograph? - remains the most important. If the moment captured is meaningful to you as photographer, there's a good chance it will be meaningful to others. Not a guarantee of course, sometime images are so personal that they remain indecipherably enigmatic, but at the very least it will have pleased one person, the photographer. Attempts to copy or mimic others may be a good learning tool for mastering the technicalities of photography but they are not ultimately going to produce meaningful results. I strongly believe in developing your own artistic vision and following that wherever it may lead, but then again I photograph as a hobby and not as a profession where other considerations come into play.

Hi Richard,

I tried to save the best for last because I didn't want to send the readers into deep thoughts right away!

Well said! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and thanks for reading!

For any Cinimat / Vide / Phot ographer, at any level, this is an excelent read and great referance for rereading (just the questions) before any shoot. Thank you!

Thank you for reading, jon! I am glad you enjoyed the article!

Some very helpful questions. I would guess I do about 10 of them ech time. Definitelyy need to think more about my surroundings and loght. Very helpful. Thanks!

Thanks, Steve! One thing about this list is that you can think of these questions when you are not photographing so that you can have some answered before you put the camera up to your eye! Thanks for reading!

This explains why it takes me so long to get it right!  For me, photography is not easy. I don't know why anyone thinks it is. I carefully pick the scene. I suffer over the planning for test shots on a scene. Then I try it and find I have nearly everything wrong. Then I have to work through why. But, at one point or another, AM asking these 30 questions.

Hey Christopher,

You hit the nail on the head...

Taking pictures is easy. Photography is not always easy. 

Keep on shooting, keep asking these questions, and keep being critical of your own work...but, most importantly, keep having fun doing it. Making art and having fun is the whole point!

Thanks for reading!

Great article with challenging questions.

18. Are my camera’s settings correct for this image?
Don't forget exposure compensation, which is an adjustment of the ISO (at least on my film cameras). I imagine that it tells the digitals to adjust the ISO by that amount if using Auto ISO.

Going Deeper
4. Who is the photograph for?
8. Has this photograph been taken before?
I could say that 4 and 8 are interrelated. I had a 30 year old bucket list. Finally in July 2011, on the final flight, I was able to check off my only bucket list item. But why after a 134 flights with hundreds of thousands of photographs taken, would I want to take photos of the 135th? I think it's a part of human nature to say that "I was there."
By the way, this was the second final flight that I saw. I know that sentence sounds weird, but I saw the US half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which was the final flight of Apollo in July 1975. I didn't have a camera then.

Hey Ralph,

Thanks again! You are correct. You should definitely take a photograph to prove that you were somewhere. I have photos from Tunnel View at Yosemite—likely one of the most photographed vistas in our National Parks system. In fact, I took a lot of photographs there!

One thing I did, after getting the "postcard" shot, was I started shooting abstracts of El Capitan and other features of the scene to add my unique vision to the experience. I definitely believe that those shots had been taken before, but you wont see them in the Yosemite postcards!

Thanks for reading, Ralph! See you next time!

Thank you.This was great,thought provoking,teaching me of my self awareness.I am aware most of the time except when I am in a hurry.I have learned to slow down.Thanks,please keep writing these kind of rules,I am sure it will come,the more  practice it.

Hi vijay!

Thanks for the compliments and thanks for reading! I think that if I write more than 30 questions that no one will want to do photography because there are too many questions to be asked!

Great article without overdoing the technical aspects.  I love industrial photos, can you share what and where your photos were taken?

Hi Ed,

Thank you very much! The photos were taken at an abandoned pulp mill in Manila, California just outside of Eureka. I got special permission to access the site as a student working on my master's degree in photography.

Thanks for reading!

As an amateur B&W film photographer who is beginning to photograph again, after several years of "photographer's block" I found this lesson a valuable refresher course on basics.  I also found it to be inspirational in that it stirred some of the feelings that caused me to become a photographer in the first place.  Thanks!

Hi W!

Thank you very much for the comments and thanks for reading! I am very glad you enjoyed the article!

I was so busy reading the 30 and then trying to remember I missed the shot, NUTS

Hey Lawrence,

Yep. Sorry about that! You might want to do the first 29 as homework and save only one for the event so that you don't miss the next shot!

Thanks for reading!

This is a very good checklist for photographers, thank you for sharing. Every thing you list should become natural to the photographers eye.

Thanks, Steve!

Yes, a lot of this should become natural to the photographer, but a good reminder is always...good!

Thanks for reading! I am glad you enjoyed it!

I found myself continually distracted from the thoughtful text by the images: insightful compositions and subtle light and shadow.  Long live black and white.  I need to learn conversion to black and white in Lightroom. 

Thank you, John! Sorry to distract you with the images!

Thank you for reading and thank you for the compliments!

Vorenkamp-Enjoyed your photos. The industrial/construction theme has been my topic for 60+ years. I have an exact replica of your photo # 1 (in color) looking down a tower crane access ladder. Same same. Some of the machinery and such reminded me of some photos I took of an abandoned sugar mill in SC. I'd love to go to Detroit for some abandoned site pics.

I found your photo tips interesting but admired the fact that all this info is crammed into all your photos.

Hi WATCHDOG,

Thank you for the kind words! I very much appreciate it! I, too, would love to go to Detroit on an industrial photo safari. There are some great books from great photographers with images from the area, if you are curious to see more!

Thanks for reading!

Great article. I will have my Photography Professor read this!!  Joe

Thanks, Leland! Let me know if he/she likes it and agrees or disagrees with parts!

Thanks for reading!

Too many questions and way too much theory. Take it and then sort it at editing. Take a tip from your own quote - less is more. A piece of advice not included - vary your subject matter. Fashonable industria gets really boring and owes a lot more to the original designed of the machine/factory than the photographer

Hi David,

Thank you for your input. I certainly wouldn't encourage a lengthy discussion of each question every time you take an image, especially if shooting 12 frames per second, but I am comfortable with the ideas I have shared here.

The images are from a series of photographs I produced at that one site, intentionally. When I started in graduate school, I was forced to narrow my "focus" for academic purposes to create coherent and consistent photography projects instead of shooting the random things that I often did and still do. What you see here is the results of one of those series of images.

Thanks for reading and writing in again!

Great stuff, Todd! I wish I could load it into my camera's menus for easy referral. In lieu of that, let's try my memory.

Hey Tom,

No worries! Again, I am glad to enlighten you! Feel free to condense it to a pocket-sized checklist! 

Thanks, as always, for reading the B&H blog!

Good article. I printed it and will read tonight. Will think about the recent photos I've taken and see how I score against your 30 questions.

One additional item I use: If I don't feel any kind of passion about the scene I'm looking at, I don't photograph it.

Thanks.

Hey Peter,

Great tip there! I agree! If you don't like what you are looking at, you probably won't like a photograph of it either! Of course, feelings change over time, so you could photograph it as some sort of insurance policy!

Thanks for reading!

As others have commented already, many if not all of these questions become second nature, mostly subconcious, as a photographer gains experience, but even someone with decades of experience should actively think about them now and again -- one of the ways to remain fresh, and focused.  I have a very limited range of subjects, mostly steam locomotives and their crews (some recent examples at https://www.facebook.com/oren.helbok/photos_all), and I have photographed them since 1972; I continually have to try to find new ways of seeing them, and many of these questions help that process --

Hi Oren,

Great stuff! Thanks for the link and thanks for sharing your experience. I am glad the article resonated with you. Thanks for reading!

Wonderful article. I've been shooting for 30 years, and the first 20 points made for an excellent refresher. Going Deeper raised a bunch of questions that have been plaguing me for years. Concept, message, impact... I haven't a clue how to apply these to my photography. The only point in Going Deeper that I truly get is the last one, why am I making this photo. I had to start asking myself that question several years ago when I took up film again. Now I can't seem to finish a roll!

I've bookmarked this article in the hopes that rereading Going Deeper will eventually shine some light on those open questions. Do you have any recommendations for further reading? Thanks again for a great article!

Hey Fred,

I feel your pain on the going deeper part! I was there and sometimes find myself struggling with it to this day. Art school helped, but, before then, I was just taking photos that I enjoyed capturing.

Further reading...yes. There are a lot of books on photographic technique, but a lot less on photographic theory. Here are a few compiled by myself and a coworker working on his PhD in photographic art history: Classical Essays on Photography edited by Alan Trachetenberg, Photography Theory and Historical Perspective  by Hilde Van Gelder and Helen Westgeest, On Photography by Susan Sontag, Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, Towards a Philosophy of Photography by Vilem Flusser, and one of my favorite books, Letting Go of the Camera: Essays on Photography and the Creative Life by Brooks Jensen.

That is a lot of homework! Good luck and thanks for writing in and reading the B&H blog!

This was very thought-provoking and a good read. I think it's something I will want to re-read a few times and really ponder. Thanks.

Thank you, Cynthia! I am glad you enjoyed it! I hope it is as good the second time around! 

Thanks for reading!

Not so much technical info, as I expected - because tech tidbits are a dime a dozen on the internet.  Instead, a very thought-provoking read for photographers at any level!  Thank you!

Hi Krysten,

You are very welcome! Thank you for the compliment. I am glad you enjoyed the article!

Thanks for reading!

Thank you so much! :D

Eduardo,

No worries! Thanks for reading the B&H blog!

I think this is a list of things that Automatically start to come to you the more you indulge in Photography ,and then you forget some of them when you get started because a visual delight will suck you in and you could easily get distracted from your initial intention .Sometimes it falls in your Lap and sometimes you make it fall in your lap . A paid gig with a set of guidlines and a non paid adventure will also tell a different story. This list is worth every Photgrapher keeping and I'd bet money it wouldnt be too long before they forgot a few Points on the next shoot .
 

Hey Damian,

Thank you for the thoughts on the article. I agree. Many of these questions will live in your subconscious after a short while, especially if you take your photography seriously. Of course, there are moments where we all take a photo just because we can and we are there!

I am glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for the comments and thanks for reading!

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