One Question Every Beginner Should Be Asking

When you're first starting out shooting a genre like street photography, one question will help you dramatically improve your skills over time.

There are several of my blog posts which originate because of conversations I've had with other photographers. This is one of them. In this instance, I was asked to review some pictures shot by someone who had ventured out on her first session of street photography. Specifically, she wanted to know if she had a knack for the thing.

The answer to this question is easy. If one has a camera and the passion, then yes, one's skills will naturally develop over time. Learning how to see imagery in an entirely different way will emerge. Talent will develop. While some people may have a "great eye" for things, more often than not a beginning photographer will have to develop the artist's eye. This was in effect what I told her.

What I offered up in the way of advice to improve her photography was to watch her framing. I knew this wasn't exactly helpful, so then it occurred to me that I should advise her on a process that I already do naturally with every shot I take.

Ask yourself - Why?

When I began shooting street photography, I didn't know what the hell I was doing. The streets of Mumbai and Kolkata seemed too hectic to make sense of in a way that would produce good imagery. [see my prior post Making Sense of Chaos: One Method For Street Photography]

Besides not being too comfortable with it (lack of experience), I never asked myself why I was framing something the way that I was at the time. It's a good question for a great many reasons. And when I looked at this beginner's street shots, I didn't see bad photos or good ones. I didn't see a bad photographer or a good one with potential. I only saw that 'why' needed a more definitive answer.

Why? will slow you down - at first

I believe the longer I shoot street photography, or any genre, the better I get because the question of why becomes more subconscious, an automatic process. If you ask yourself this question before you take any shot when you're starting out shooting strangers in the streets, the process will likely slow you down. Naturally, there are times when it won't when certain subjects or scenes beg to be photographed and asking why would seem like a dumb thing to do. But even then, I would be asking another question, like "how?" But that's another discussion on composition.

So let's start with the obvious then. When wouldn't we need to be asking, why? For some reason, I think back to the photographer Burhan Ozbilici when he happened to witness and photograph the sudden aftermath of the assassination of Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov. The answer to why in this case, could have been the smartass reply, just because. For obvious reasons, right? The major one being that it was world news in the making.

Apart from scenes which beg to be photographed out in the streets (or anywhere), why becomes important when the photographer must be intentional about what he or she decides to shoot. The why comes first, the how comes second. But we'll stick to the whys for now.

Why does why matter?

The why is a precursor to a host of things which will be forthcoming in the photographer's development. Why ultimately determines your subject matter. Why determines whether you have a strong preference or not to shooting during the day or night; who you photograph, who you don't photograph. Any number of things. The why should ultimately direct a photographer to very specific camera gear when it comes time to upgrade.

For instance, if a photographer answered why he loved photographing close ups of people, he may eventually determine that he needs a camera or lens more appropriate for that kind of photography. I use this example because this is exactly how it played out for me. Over time I learned that the type of shooting I'd been doing was more in line with what a photojournalist does, which requires a different camera body and lenses than say what a landscape photographer would need. Answering why, is that important in the long term.

Shoot more, ask why more

In the beginning, the gear doesn't matter so much. The reason I say this is because most beginners have no idea why they're doing it, they just know they like to do it. This is fine, of course. But let me point something out.

In my opinion, most of the bad photography out there, regardless of genre or where it's shared, is terrible or forgettable simply because the reasons why shutter buttons were pushed were for throwaway reasons: selfies, vacation photos, pet shots, etc. These are what I call Tourist Shots, or snapshots. The people taking them aren't photographers in the traditional sense and their "work" certainly isn't professional nor is it meant to be.

So I'll ask this of any beginner who loves shooting street photography. If you want to take your photography to the next level and separate yourself from 99.9% of the digital garbage patch floating around in the middle of the Internet Sea, start asking yourself, why? Why am I shooting this building, this person, this bird? Why do I enjoy shooting street photography?

Furthermore, while you're learning to edit your images, ask yourself why you're choosing to share these particular images? Why? Just because. . .

Because if you know the answers or are willing to discover the answers by going out and shooting more, you will develop a knack for seeing exactly what you're seeking. Inversely, you will start seeking what you envision before you ever set foot outside your door. This will by default set your images apart from the masses and will advance you to the next phases in your photographic endeavors.

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