Better Questions

David duChemin

Prevailing wisdom says there are no stupid questions. But some questions are better than others, lead us to deeper inquiry, raise new, stronger questions, and better address the reason we asked the question in the first place.

I hear a lot of questions. In emails, at live events, on my blog, and through social media channels. I suspect, with few exceptions, that they all come from a genuinely curious mind and a good heart. People just want to learn and sometimes they ask the only questions they know how to ask, in the only language they know, and we get so much of our language, as photographers, from the prevailing culture of photographic education. As that culture leans towards a heavy commitment to gear, if not a downright addiction to gear (see how gently I worded that?),  our questions about photographs tend to be worded in those terms.

What camera did you use?

What lens did you use?

What were your settings?

Do you shoot in sRGB or Adobe 98?

How many megapixels is the original file?

Did it really look that way?

I’ll give you 5 minutes and I bet you can come up with a dozen others. Some make you want to bang your head against the wall more than others. Learning photographers can feel so lost in the sea of technique and technology that it’s no wonder these questions beg for answers. But what if the technical were not the first concern? What if we asked, at least as our first questions, about more important matters? Here are my suggestions for questions that will get you more interesting, more instructive, answers. They’re the ones I would love to hear and could spend hours talking about, instead of the ones above.

What thought or feeling were you trying to express in this photograph?

What consideration did you give to the colour?

Why did you use the lens you did instead of something tighter or wider?

What was it about this specific moment that made you choose it instead of waiting a moment or two longer, or making the photograph a moment sooner?

Why did you use the combination of shutter and aperture that you did?

What considerations drove your choices when you processed and printed this?

There’s nothing wrong with the first set of questions, but most of us will learn more if we ask questions more along the lines of the second. In fact, these are the kinds of questions I encourage my students to ask of photographs they look at, whether or not the photographer that made them is there. How much more would we learn and grow as artists if we studied and asked better questions of the work in front of us, and of our own work? What if we asked these questions before we pressed the shutter? Don’t want to abandon your question about bit depth or colour mode? That’s fine, but try asking the other questions first. You’ll get a handle on the technical stuff soon enough if you go out and make more photographs.


David duChemin is the founder and Chief Executive Nomad of Craft & Vision. A world and humanitarian photographer, best-selling author, speaker, and adventurer, David can be found at

Craft & Technique Creativity David duChemin

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  • As someone who’s been around cameras a long time, your post resonated well with me. Yes, the technical details are important to understand if one aspires to be a photographer. (Anyone can point a lens and push a button; I don’t call those people photographers). In an interview with Andy Biggs that I listened to recently, he mentioned that he shoots for adjectives. I like that idea. Is this image inspiring? Moody? Colourful? Quiet? Disturbing? Those questions – looking for adjectives – can help you decide what it is you’re trying to capture.


    Mike Nelson Pedde on
  • As an instructor, I try to elicit the same type of questions from my students. This is a great learning opportunity for anyone, no matter their “level” or technical proficiency. Thanks, David.

    Alan Lawrence on
  • I am a trainer, instructor, and educator. And I’m a photographer. Your article brings up a thought that’s been developing in my mind over the last while. I’ve seen the situation in photo clubs in which people are often pressed to be “real photographers” and learn how to shoot in Manual mode (it’s really the only proper way to shoot, right?). I used to think the same way. Now I realize it can prevent someone from enjoying the experience of creating photos.

    I’m not saying that it’s not important to understand and be able to work with exposure, shutter speed, aperture and other basic photographic concepts. It absolutely is. But more and more people are involved in photography than ever before, and when we put pressure on them to “be real photographers” by shooting in Manual we are doing them an injustice.

    They can get angry at their equipment; angry at themselves. They are frustrated. They don’t see why they can’t get a good photo like everyone else. At best they muscle through the frustration til they feel they’ve got it right. At worst they feel they have wasted $300, $600, $1600 or whatever they paid for their camera equipment and put it on a shelf and only rarely use it. They’ve lost the excitement they once had for creating images. F-stops? 1/125 sec? ISO? Hyperfocal distance?! Gah! Make it stop!

    Now I promote Automatic or Program mode at first if that’s what the photographer wants to do. I love watching people compose their images, try to figure out what they think is the best angle, see them get down on the ground, or up on a stone wall. Now they are focused on the best part of photography: creating the image and having fun.

    By letting people shoot this way, they naturally become curious and generate questions. Why did the main subject come out so dark? Why are the clouds so bright? Why is the image so smeared? This is real learning–learner-generated questions motivated by experience. When someone wants to learn how to make changes in their photography they are more likely to work on understanding the concepts that will make their photos the way they want them and to make the changes they need in their method to deliberately create an image. Maybe they’ll learn how to shoot in Aperture-preferred or Shutter-preferred mode. Or maybe learn how to use ISO so their images don’t get so smeary.

    This is the learning and creative process at its best, and this is what will allow burgeoning photographers to enjoy themselves, hone their skills, and make better pictures. On the other hand, maybe they’ll want to stay in Auto mode forever. That’s OK, too.

    Neal on

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