Good Photography Begins in a Question

I can still hear her saying, “this is so awkward, tell me what to do!” But I won’t tell her how to pose or how to smile, because I want a spontaneous portrait.

A few years ago I would have thought that good photography begins with an expensive camera — and upgrading it every year.

I also would have thought that good photography begins by mimicking what you see on Pinterest and learning the exact methods of your favourite photographers.

But now, I say that good photography begins in a question (before you even pick up your camera).

Whenever I’ve grown bored with my photography, or it become stale, I begin asking questions — of myself, the world, people — and then I get back to work and do something new.

Questions sparked by curiosity, exploration and wonder will get you closer to a good photograph than anything else.

But What Sort of Question?

Good photography is not a question of technology. Give a smartphone to a creative photographer, and they’ll come back with some great photos. What type of camera you have doesn’t matter.

So what should our questions be about?

Let’s take portraits as an example.

I was a school picture day photographer for 5 years. I basically took the same type of photo over and over thousands of times. There was nothing unique or original about what I was doing.

Along the way I discovered the paintings of Rembrandt and the photographs of Yousuf Karsh. Rembrandt and Karsh were masters who made incredible portraits. But these were not typical portraits. They’ve stood the test of time.

When we look at a portrait by Rembrandt or Karsh, we swear we see the very soul of the person in the portrait.

But how do you move beyond cookie cutter portraits?

Questions about people.

If we want to take better portraits, then we need to ask questions about people.

For example, why are people so fake in front of the camera?

Well let’s turn that question on it’s head and ask, what if they’re not being fake at all — rather, they’re being most truly themselves?

Truly vulnerable, nervous, intimidated. Truly awkward.

Awkward is real, but it’s only one little piece of that person’s experience, right?

What would draw out a more complete version of themselves?

Truly awkward.

How do you get people to be themselves in front of a camera?

Let’s imagine a portrait session that allowed a person to be themselves. I’m envisioning portraits that are completely raw and spontaneous — basically no posing.

If you want things to be spontaneous, then you must create an environment that encourages unforced moments — you cannot force, you must invite, the person to reveal their soul. Without being weird and saying, “okay, reveal your soul now!”

A conversation is the perfect environment for spontaneity.

People open up and reveal themselves in conversation. Personality and emotion have nowhere to hide.

What would happen if I photographed a conversation as a portrait session?

I found the perfect way to try this out.

My wife’s friend, Rachael, posted this on Instagram.

I’ve recently decided to let things simply ‘be’ and stop fretting over things I cannot control or change. My mind is so OCD that it’s hard for me to shut it off and I let myself and my mood be controlled by the need to have things go perfectly as planned. Instead — from now on — I’m embracing the glorious mess.

This is the photo that she posted to go with it.

“I’m embracing the glorious mess.”

She poured out her soul in writing — but then posted a typical selfie.

Immediately, I thought, “here’s a person that is willing to say what’s going on inside themselves. How about bringing that out in front of the camera?”

How about taking an un-posed, spontaneous portrait that says, “I’m embracing the glorious mess?”

There would be no posing or directing from me. She would sit, we would talk, I would take pictures.

What would happen during a portrait session with no posing?

I was scared to death at first! But after a while, when I knew I had some good photos, it was liberating to know that I didn’t have to tell her what to do. If we just talked the portraits would have the soul I was looking for.

It’s the tiniest gestures that I love. Laughter — a look of disgust — nursing her son — hand to her heart — the smirk hidden behind her coffee cup.

I couldn’t have posed any of this.

I’m no Rembrandt or Karsh, but my questions about people led to deeper portraits than I’ve ever done — simply because I grew tired of my stagnant portrait work and I was desperate for something more real.

This is Rachael “embracing the glorious mess.”

My two favourite photos that depict, “embracing the glorious mess.”

I didn’t just set out for a bunch of interesting portraits. I wanted to capture something that represented the theme from her post, “embracing the glorious mess.”

This is the photo I settled on at first.

Glorious Mess.

I settled on this photo as her portrait because, well, she’s a mess. Her hair is across her face with one small lock breaking away. Her shirt flairs out and looks sloppy. Her hands are cropped through.

As a portrait, everything is wrong.

But as a portrait with a theme, everything is perfect.

Maybe everything looks wrong. But her expression says, “I’ve embraced this glorious mess.”

I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect photo. Which leads me to another question.

One final question.

I absolutely LOVE the above photo.

But, I’m worried that it is too obvious.

I wonder, also, if it’s too shallow.

Shallow — because anyone can SAY they’re going to change themselves.

But who actually does it?

That’s why I love this last photo.

Having a son is an even more glorious mess.

There is a reason that she needs to “stop fretting” and get herself under control. She has a son. She’s his mom. Things will not go perfectly as planned.

She has the unfortunate ability to let her life slip away one stressed out hour at a time.

On the other hand, she can get herself together — maybe just a bit more each day.

And, she can call out the best in her son and build him up. Make him strong for life.

That’s a pretty good reason to “embrace the glorious mess.”

Look at this moment between them and tell me it’s not the sweetest thing ever. Spontaneous. Raw. Probably the most honest portrait I’ve ever taken.

Before your pick up your camera, ask questions.

Let your curiosity lead you to deeper questions, and your questions to deeper photos.

Eager to grow creatively and improve your photography?

I wrote a little ebook that’ll help you improve your photography. I share the question you need to ask before you take a picture, and introduce you to 6 photography ingredients you need to be using. Snag my book for free here. All the tips and ideas work for any camera you’re using, even your phone!

  • A note on the photography: I used a Fuji xT1 with the electronic shutter enabled. This meant that there was no distracting shutter clicking. Light was provided by a large window, ensuring no distracting flashes of light. There were distractions, however. I split my coffee, and her kids paraded through the set several times (allowing for some spontaneous portraits with them). I used face finding auto-focus so that I could hold the camera away from my face a bit to talk to her. I adjusted exposure settings manually as the light changed.