Thirty? Really? Thirty questions for every photo? The title of this article might make you think there’s a burdensome checklist that must be completed 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 viewpoint 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 viewpoint?
Once you’ve moved a few feet to your left, you might find an even better viewpoint 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.
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?
What else do you ask yourself before you click the shutter? Let us know in the Comments section, below!
Since I started doing photography (smartphone, then point-and-shoot, then DSLR), I think I took around 100,000 photos. If I was asking myself these 30 questions each and every time, i would have probably taken around 10 photos so far...
I bet those 10 photos would have been amazing!
And, I do hope the other 999,990 were, too! :)
Thanks for reading!
I added an extra "9!"
I meant to say, "99,990." :)
Some of these questions are for asking afterwords while editing or when you arrive on location.
When I arrive, I zero in the exposure and decide just what type of image I'm after, based on my decision and to fine tune the exposure, I'll adjust the shutter or the aperture. One thing that I don't worry about is the message, for me, that task is for editing. As a photographer on the scene, I worry more about taking as many images as possible while I work the shot. I will cull them down after I'm sitting in front of the PC.
That is an interesting technique, and, because we are talking about art, there is no right or wrong in any approach to a scene.
I won't hesitate to mention that your memory of a scene or a moment is scientifically proven to degrade with the more images you take—so be careful not to miss things by viewing the world through your camera!
Thank you for reading!
Thanks for this article. It helped me clear my approach to interviewing photographers and based on that I produced this: [Link Removed] and it turned out great!
Sorry we had to remove the link, but I am glad your approach was cleared up! Thanks for reading!
Perhaps Rule #31 could be, "Don't forget to look behind you. There may be something amazing there."
That is a great "rule." Thanks and thanks for reading!
Great questions, Todd. Thanks. As I was a family member earlier this month at a wedding, and everyone pulled out their cell phones to take a snap of the bride and groom, I instinctively pulled out my camera to do the same. Then, I asked myself the last question that didn't get numbered: Why am I making this photo? I put my camera back in my pocket and enjoyed the celebration.
Thank you for the kind words!
Yep, I have brought a camera to a wedding before, but I didn't shoot the ceremony as it was well covered by multiple pro shooters and tons of smartphone shooters! I did, however, do some landscape and creative photography during the reception. :)
Thanks for reading!
Wonderful article. I've read it a couple of times and have now forwarded it to my photo-group friends. So many other articles with similar headlines just offer some canned "rules" that if you've shot for long at all you've probably heard before; this one offers things to ponder over time. The standard "rules" lists tend to make everyone's photos look the same, while the sorts of questions here instead give a good framework for thinking. I imagine I'll keep referring back to it.
Thank you for the kind words! I very much appreciate it and I hope your photo friends enjoyed the article, too!
I guess there are "rules" and there are "guidelines" and there are "questions." :)
Thanks for reading Explora!
Sorry, but with all those things you have to think about when do you ever take a photo?
Over the years, I have tried to photograph more with a purpose and less to just take the photograph...probably thanks to my internal question-and-answer session. :)
Thanks for reading!
Tourists take photos. This is about making a photo.
Well said, Michael. I have been known to do both! :)
Thanks for reading!
I once made one of those "spur-of-the-moment" photos, pulling to the side when crossing the Arkansas River. There was a barge passing under the (Interstate) bridge and it hit me. What a contrast. The slow, slow boat against the "go-go-go" rush of the highway full of automobiles. A casual viewer wouldn't give it two looks (no context).
It's an ordinary B&W, bad mid-day lighting, terrible glare in one area, that hangs on my wall as one of my favorites....
Awesome stuff. Thanks for sharing!
I have a photo of a fuel tank and ladder on my wall that no one else seems to enjoy looking at. :)
Thanks for taking the time to share and thanks for reading!
I'm astounded that one of the questions isn't "is it safe for me to take this picture?". I've read too many stories about people shooting pictures who fall off a cliff or get run over by a bus. Another good question is "is it legal for me to take this picture?". Another came to mind, "is the subject OK with me taking this picture?". The questions in the article all had to do with the technical merits and definitely are good questions, but there is more to photography than the purely technical side.
Those are three very legitimate questions that could be added to this list.
It seems like most people are alarmed that the list is so long (and it is definitely not all technical), but perhaps I will update it in the future and add your questions...with your permission, of course.
Thanks for reading!
Sure, Todd, feel free to add these questions. As a casual photographer, being safe, legal, and considerate are paramount, and the rest is nice to know.
Thanks for circling back! You've made some excellent points there and I will update the article with them.
I appreciate the support!
Years ago, I got a great shot of a rattle snake Red Rocks Canyon. This was a dumb idea. The snake and I safely parted ways, but it could have ended up badly for me. In the eyes of wildlife, I am an unwanted visitor in their home. It is a privelidge for me to take photos from a distance with a telephoto lens.
I am glad you, and the snake, parted ways on good terms! Happy ending to that story. How was the photo?
Thanks for commenting and thanks for reading Explora!
I was living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa from mid April to the first weekend in November, 1994.
Quaker Oats has a mill on one side of the river. They operate a train to switch out and load boxcars. It frequently stops traffic on a daily basis.
I took a photo of the train while I was standing on the track. It goes so slow that no one is in danger. I call the photo "4ᵗʰ Street Blues".
Nice! Even when the train is slow, be careful! :)
20 things is finished when you see what you take a photo object instantly.
2~4 things is environments, what you can not control.
Rest of all make you think that how can I get this scene as I feel on photo.
Thank you for your comments. Good stuff!
I can speak for myself in saying that, often, my photographs fail to capture the feel of a scene. I am always working at improving that!
Thanks for reading!
I was both interested and concerned when I saw the title. Yikes! Thirty questions!! After reading them, I realized, as stated, not all apply. And I think through experience and intuition, some of those questions form naturally and become second nature without even thinking. Others are much more thought provoking. Question #10 of the second group, "Would I be better served to simply observe the moment or scene before me and not worry about making a photograph?" is part of what got me away from photography for some years. I found I was far to worried about getting the picture than enjoying to time and place.
Some of the other questions, about time, location, composition, you don't have any choice in the matter. As one who toured Chernobyl, for example, I would not recommend lying in the dirt to get that perfect composition, nor hanging out any longer than your tour lasts. Sometimes the best you can do is to record your experience and move on. Very good questions and good articles from you, Todd!
Happy to interest you and sorry to concern you! :)
Yes, with experience, a lot of these happen in the background, almost without thought...or even before the thought of taking a photograph has crossed the photographer's mind.
It is certainly interesting how photography does not help you remember, or be present, in the moment. Actually, that is probably one of the worst things about photography as I think about it.
And, yes, sometimes when and where and how you can take a photo is predetermined before your arrival and you have to play the cards you've been dealt. As much as I would enjoy the photo subjects around Chernobyl, I don't see myself headed there. I am slightly envious that you visited and I hope you got some great shots despite the challenges!
Thanks for reading!
Good list. Tricky to teach or even talk about this sort of thing. But, you started it. I will only add to look at each corner of the viewfinder before you push the button. This allows you to see like someone who might have dyslexia and gives you something of that rare ability to see the whole picture at one time. And, if your subject matter is not moving too much, your best friend is a tripod. You can look, adjust, look, adjust and give your image more strength each time you do.
Thank you for the kind words.
Great tips here! Yes, I suppose I should have mentioned "patrolling the corners" of the frame when determining your composition. And, I am a huge fan of the tripod [https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/ode-to-the-tripod] but did not incorporate that into a question, either!
Will the next update have 32 questions? There might be a mutiny as most are saying 30 is way too much! :)
A list of 30 questions is a lot to consider before pressing that button... ;-)
But these are all good and important questions, and even considering just one or two of these alone may make a great difference for the next photo.
Yes, 30 is a lot, I agree!
I think the 30 covers a wide range of photographic genres, but I guess you could pair the list down a bit if focusing (no pun intended) on a portrait or a macro shot or a still life.
It is my hope that if you only have a sense of a few of these, it can help improve your photography.
Thanks for reading!
When I saw the title I thought, "Wow! By the time I get done asking this person 30 questions they probably won't want me to take their picture, anyway". My mind wandered I reckon. Great article.
I guess I should have made it clear in the title that these questions are for your own internal monologue and not for interrogating your photographic subjects (especially organic ones). :)
Thank you for reading! I am glad you enjoyed the article!
Haha...maybe worded, "30 Questions you should ask yourself..." haha.
That probably would have been a smarter title. :)
That's a long list. Hopefully most of these questions, especially the first 20, have been internalized to the point where we ask them intuitively.
It is a long list and I was a bit surprised it turned out so long when I wrote the piece. And, yes, definitely, if you can scroll through these mentally in an instant when out making photos, then you are good to go. If reading them here help make them intuitive, then the article has a great purpose!
Instead of a checklist, these questions should be tucked somewhere in the expanse of the photographer's creative brain to be accessed and referenced during the making of photographs.
Thanks for reading!
I just stumbled on this article. This is a great list!
I would relate this to a golf swing. You do not want to try to run through this checklist in the middle of an important shoot just the same as not trying to remember every single training technique while in the middle of a golf swing. However, I would recommend using this list to practice with. Even if just shooting around the house or neighborhood, use this to practice these thoughts so that they turn into instinctual skills that train the way that you approach photo shoots.
Great article Todd!
Thank you for the kind words!
Great analogy there. Like many things in sports, the foundation of automatic movements and actions is solid fundamentals. In this case, having some of these questions in the back of your head while out making photographs should help guide you without getting in your way.
Thanks for reading!
Todd, thanks fort taking the time and effort to create this great essay. I'm glad you got the list to just 30! But they are all key questions and this is a great "thought starter" for any photographer or photojournalist. I"m president of the Detroit Press Club and I may just try to tap you for a future virtual meeting on this subject. Great work.
Thank you for the kind words. This article was a pleasure to craft, honestly. As I just told Ed in the next thread, putting these thoughts in print was a nice introspective look at how I approach my own photography and I am glad it appears to be helping others.
I would be happy to help out your club or answer any questions that might come up if you share this article with them.
Thanks for reading!
Todd — I don't care for rules or checklists, so I almost skipped this article. I was a little intrigued, though, to see what you had to say. I'm very glad I read it. It reminds me of the decision process I go through, usually quickly and instinctively. It is a good discussion of the creative selection process a photographer uses to refine a scene. I will keep a copy of this to remind myself and I will probably work some of this into a blog I write. Thank you for the great and compact summary!
Find me a photographer who likes rules and checklists and we will probably find a memory card without too many great images! :)
If this is quick and instinctive for you, then you are good-to-go! It might be that way for me as well, but it was a learning process for me to put it to "paper." At the end I was surprised I had so many (30) questions that, more or less, go through my head (in an instant, sometimes) when out making images. It was a fun reflection!
I am glad the title didn't drive you away and I very much appreciate the kind words!
Thanks for reading!
Thanks for the photos. This is what I like, Horizontal and Vertical Black and White subject matters.
I hope you enjoyed the words as well!
Truth be told, these images were part of my MFA Midpoint Review and got panned by the faculty of the school...so much that my final project was done in color and of a different/but similar subject.
Thanks for viewing!
What?! No B&W? But that's classic! I rediscovered the classic look in 2011 when I photographed Space Shuttle Atlantis; it was a pre-dawn landing, so color would have been wasted. I made a resolution to photograph the year exclusively using B&W film and use contrast filters. It took about 3 months before I began to visualize in B&W. I shot 56 rolls of film.
Yep, true story. I guess I didn't pay good attention in B&W class.
Actually, there wasn't a B&W class, but the instructors sure were picky when it came to B&W shots!
Thanks for reading!