The Philosophy of a Photograph: Three Simple Questions

Episode transcript:

I’m Josh Cripps and I’m going to show you how asking yourself a few simple questions can dramatically improve the artistry your photos.

Hi all, welcome to Professional Photography Tips. One of the most common questions I get while teaching workshops is “My photos always turn out looking like snapshots. How can I take the vision that’s in my head and get it to come out in a photo?”

It turns out that the answer to that is already there inside you, and you can bring it out by asking three simple questions: what, how, and why.

1) What?

Whenever you approach a scene you should consciously ask yourself What do I like about this scene? There are a million things to look at in any landscape. Your job as the photographer is to identify just those few elements you find most striking. That’s how your photo begins to take shape.

For example I really love the oaks and the warm sunlight. Those are the two elements out of this whole landscape that most catch my eye. Also note that I didn’t say, I really love this grass, or the blue sky. And that gives me a sense of what I should exclude from the photo. The elements in a scene you’re not drawn to should be minimized or just straight up excluded from your shot. Simplify your images as much as possible in order to gain focus and clarity.

And once you’ve identified the elements you like, don’t stop there. The next step is to ask yourself What do I like about those elements? Maybe it’s the way they interact; the way the warm light shines through the leaves. Or maybe it’s that I like how the oak trees form a canopy above me. And the better you can answer what do I like about the elements I’ve chosen, the better off you’ll be when it comes time to ask yourself the next question.

2) How?

Now that you’ve identified the elements you want in your photo and the characteristics you like about them you need to ask yourself “How can I exaggerate those characteristics?” Your duty as an artistic photographer is not to represent a scene as faithfully as possible, it’s to exaggerate the things you notice and show people what you want them to see.

Sometimes the way to do that is compositionally: I like the light coming through the oaks, so I’m going to move around behind them where the effect is most pronounced.

Sometimes it’s a technical choice: I love the warmth of the sunlight; I’m going to exaggerate that by setting my white balance to cloudy to bring out more warm tones.

And sometimes it’s done through post processing: I love the green of the tree leaves so I’ll saturate the greens in Photoshop.

But the bottom line is once you start thinking about ways you can exaggerate the things you’re drawn to in a scene you’ll see your particular artistic vision begin to shine through in your photos.

3) Ask yourself Why?

The final question is here to help you tie everything together and to help you understand the choices you’re making in creating a photo.

You should ask yourself Why? about every single aspect of your images: why did I include this element and exclude this one? Because I like this one and don’t care about that one. Why did I place this element in this spot in my frame? Because I like the rule of thirds and I don’t want an important element too close to the edge or too centered. Why did I use a wide angle lens and not a telephoto? Because I like the depth and sense of “being there” that a wide angle provides.

This goes just as strongly for the technical choices: why did I choose this aperture? To get a deep DOF or a shallow one, to isolate one subject or let the viewer’s eye drift through the whole frame? Why did I choose this shutter speed, am I trying to show motion in the image, or freeze it, or does it not matter? Why did I choose this white balance, what color scheme am I trying to enhance? Why this ISO? For everything in your picture: why why why?

The more you ask yourself why the more your photos become a direct extension of your artistic vision and choices.

4) Make a caricature: simplify and exaggerate.

Basically you’re trying to make a caricature of whatever you’re shooting: simplify and exaggerate.

Simplify your photos by asking What, then exaggerate by asking How? Then you look at every aspect of your photo by asking Why. Because in the end it’s your conscious choices that turn those snapshots into true art.

Thanks for watching and be sure to check out last week’s video. Don’t forget to subscribe for weekly photography tips and techniques, and for landscape photography, tutorials, workshops and more, visit my website, joshuacripps dot com. Until next time, have fun and happy shooting!

3 Responses

  1. Josh, This is one of the best videos I’ve seen you produce. The explanations, as always, are great but your inclusion of the various points discussed in the video and the final image put everything discussed into greater perspectives.

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