Shooting An Image With Meaning: 14 Questions To Ask Yourself

Over the past several months I have been working hard at making better photographs and having those images contain much more meaning. As I continue on my photographic journey I have been thinking a lot about meaning in an image and how I can make that image have much more impact on the viewer. I don’t want to simply show up at a location, Set up my camera, Snap an image and then pack up and go home. I want to become a part of that landscape or I want to learn as much as I can about the person whose portrait I am about to shoot.

Great actors don’t just show up and recite the lines of a script, They envelope themselves in the character and become that person. It’s believable and real and when I am shooting a landscape or a portrait I want to become a part of it. I am not simply recording what is happening in a particular scene but I am using all of my artistic skills to give what I am seeing meaning and impact for the viewer. As I explore an area I am interested in shooting I run through a mental list of questions in my mind to help me find my way so to speak within a composition. I am trying to break the image out of the ordinary to give it some feeling..Something to lift it up beyond a simple snap of the shutter.

Do I get it right all of the time?…No. Do I try my best to make the location and the resulting image special?…Yes. Asking yourself the following questions before you make an image is a great exercise and will force you to do more to get a quality image rather than just going through the motions. I suppose It’s like any endeavor in life…Do you want to be good at something or great?

1. Does the light in the composition have impact? Is it sunrise or sunset? Is it flat light? Always remember to take stock of what the light is doing when you come upon a composition you are shooting. Analyze it and envision how your final image will look. Sometimes the light can change quickly from shot to shot especially during cloudy days or at sunrise. Be aware and able to react quickly to the fast changing conditions. Everything we do is about light and it tells the story in your image. The light gives feeling and adds to the mood of your image whether it be cool or warm.

2. Are their lines, Shapes or forms that will lead the viewer into and out of the image. Do you have an S-curve or good Fore, Middle and Backgrounds? Try to think of the composition as more than just ” I am here, I showed up, I set up my gear, Snapped a shot off, Now it’s time to go!” Your images deserve more than this! Look for detail where you are shooting and investigate all that the scene has to offer. Take a few minutes to really slow yourself down and “look” at the scene with just your eyes. Forms and shapes are important to lead the viewers eyes into the image. Just as important is leading the viewer into the foreground, Setting them up with the middle ground and leading them out with the background of the image. Look at all corners of your image in the viewfinder and nail your composition before you even trip the shutter!

3. Am I “snapping” this image because I can or am I “making” this image? Snapshots have their purpose and I really do love their spontaneous nature. However when your shooting a landscape or portrait for fine art purposes You really want to own the image. Make that image yours not by snapping away because you can but by using all of your talents ans experience as a photographer. You put a piece of yourself into that image and also on the flip side you take something away with you from a scene. Remember to visualize the image in your head quickly and mentally see how you can change the image to make it better. You control everything about that image, You and your vision are unique so you should express that in your images.

4. Does the location in the image have meaning to you or do you have a connection with the location somehow? Establishing a connection or bond with the location or person you are shooting is important. I want to feel like I am a part of what is going on where I am shooting…I compare the feeling to surfers or snowboarders looking for the next wave or dropping in to a half-pipe. Just like the surfers are looking for a perfect set of waves or the snowboarders are looking for nice hits in the half-pipe,  You are looking for your “set” of images and spending a few moments taking everything in at the location is key to this. Certainly if you have been to a location several times before than the connection is already there but life experience is also helpful here as well.

5. Is the composition boring? This may seem like a simplistic question but how many times have you NOT asked yourself this and just kept shooting. I like to go with feelings or certain “vibes” that I get from a location and to be honest, Sometimes they just are not there. Sometimes there may be nothing in a composition really peaking my interest or the creative energy just is not there that day. Rather than struggle with something that just is not working I will often take stock of the situation, Ask myself this question and if the answer is yes than I move on.

6. Am I exploring all possible angles and compositions before locking down my tripod to shoot? This question goes right along with #4 in helping to establish a connection with the landscape or subject. Try to look at all of your possibilities BEFORE you set up your gear. Most times one element catches your eye, You set up and shoot and forget about everything else that may be at your chosen location. Look all around, Over and under everything and make some mental or written notes before you begin to shoot. You have as many frames as your memory card can hold so trying different angles, compositions and settings is a must because you really never know what interesting things you may come up with. Don’t regret not shooting something.

7. Does the composition or image impact you emotionally on any level? I have an emotional and environmental connection with my subject material because of where I live. I try to be a good steward of the environment when I am out hiking and shooting and leave no trace of being there but I also see the effects of various environmental forces on the landscapes that I shoot. I am very inclined to protect what I see around me and I get pissed when others don’t whether it be through the garbage and litter I see or general disrespect of hiking trails, etc. Ask yourself, “What does this image mean to me?”,  “Are there any themes contained within the composition?”

8. Is the current composition working? This is another simple question to ask yourself but it also goes along with #5. I don’t want to rush and make hurried images. It shows in the end result and it’s not the kind of work I want to post. I would rather go home with nothing than 100 poor or middle of the road image captures. Maybe I am picky but I care about what I do and what I show to other people. If a composition or image does not work after a few minutes then it’s really not going to work an hour from now. Just like in question #5 you have to know when to pack it in and move on. Work every angle but know when to give it up and move on.

9. Are there any possibilities for capturing motion? Is there any combination of static and moving elements within the frame? Moving elements like clouds or water captured through a long exposure are favorites of mine because when combined with something static you really have added a special element to the frame. You have added interest to the frame just like an awesome sunset with a great foreground subject to anchor the image would. Look for motion, Be a student of motion and give yourself some options when out shooting. Don’t dismiss anything when looking for possible subjects to shoot.

10. How does the weather influence the image? Weather can always add interesting elements to an image which bright blue skies with no clouds could never do. An important piece to the puzzle is scanning the environment you are shooting to see how the weather is affecting it and how you are going to show it in the final image. Weather in turn influences the light that you will get for the shot and it can create some really moody shots with much more impact than a bright and sunny day.

11. What will be the angle of the camera for your image? Look for different angles or perspectives other than straight on for your compositions. Get down on the ground, Get your feet wet or sit in the mud to get a more interesting image! Never be afraid to move your camera and your body away from the predictable positions and into compositions that are much more visually interesting. Explore, Explore, Explore and push yourself to find a new angle on a subject and don’t be afraid to try. I do this before I even make a shot to get a mental idea of the camera positions I want to try as well as while I am shooting.

12. Are their strong color elements in the composition that are dramatic or add some great contrast? Would this composition be better in black and white? Like really strong foreground elements a simple piece of color in the composition can add a great focal point to the image and really draw the viewer in. The color palette is an interesting mix here in Vermont with the Autumn being the strongest season. The Summer is dominated by green and the Winter and early Spring is greys and browns. Difficult to find those strong elements to be sure but often it will lead you to think out of the box. Look for those great contrasts in light and shadow to make strong black and white images as well. Know how colors turn into shades of grey and how different colored filters can affect a color image. Black and white can be an effective tool for compositions where color is mostly absent.

13. Do all of the elements in your composition make sense? Is there something distracting in the frame that does not need to be there? Everything should make sense in the image from foreground to background so make sure to scan your viewfinder from corner to corner when composing and shooting. I am guilty of not doing a thorough job of this at times and come home with some great captures that have garbage or other items distracting from the image. Zoom lenses can be good for this as you can crop out distractions at the edges of the frame. Just make sure to have a cohesive set of elements in what you are shooting.

14. If I were the viewer of this image and not the photographer what do I see? Oftentimes it’s helpful to put on your viewing cap as the person looking at your image and not as yourself making the image. As artists we see things one way but a viewer may see your intentions with the image in a completely different way. Don’t sacrifice your vision as an artist but try to keep in mind the view from both sides of the lens and print. Art is subjective but what is the message or intent with your image? How will the viewer see it? Your trying to build a connection and move the viewers eyes into and out of the image, Do your best to help them along!


5 thoughts on “Shooting An Image With Meaning: 14 Questions To Ask Yourself

  1. Great post! I have been guilty of “setting up and snapping away,” as of late. It has been a long time since did some personal shooting and love how you broke down your creative process. I need to slow down and create images and may write these points down and keep in my bag. Thanks for the great post.

  2. There’s a lot of deep thinking in this post. To be honest I’m rather surprised that up until I put ‘pen to paper’ just a moment ago, there was only one comment. This post deserves more than that. It’s an excellent piece of writing. But it has taken me a couple of days to chew it over and read it twice before thinking what I could add, and maybe others are doing the same. I hope so. My passion for photography goes back 40yrs. In the days of film, every image I shot cost me money: you really thought before you shot. Nowadays in digital, you can shoot a whole card and discard 299 out of 300. I think that makes us rather lazy, and maybe those who have known nothing other than digital have never had to mentally think through image-taking as a precious commodity. The concept of taking a large number of images of a scene as a process through which one arrives at the ‘final’ best image has a lot to commend it, but to maximise its value you really need to review your images during your shoot and evaluate your ‘journey’. That’s not easy. More often than not, that only happens back home in front of the computer and then you notice that annoying little imperfection you failed to spot at the time. I think we never stop learning (on the shoot and afterwards when we de-brief our images) but I also think that over time intuitively we tune our photographic eyes to see good compositions and the process of picture taking becomes easier.
    The issues around subjectivity and objectivity are an entire other ball game – but what matters at the end of the day is whether you/me the photographer is happy with what we capture, and if someone out there likes it too then that is a bonus. We all have to choose whether we shoot to please ourselves or shoot to please someone else. I’m just glad I shoot to please ME!
    Congratulations on this post – it challenges our approach to image taking, we can all learn something from it.

    • Andy…Many thanks for your comments! I think you can appreciate that it took me a long time to write this post the way I had envisioned it. It did surprise me that it only had one comment but I can only offer my opinion and how I feel about photography. Its difficult to put into words how I am feeling or thinking when I make an image but here I made the attempt. Over time I have greatly reduced the amount of images that I make for a particular scene..Mostly to correct exposure or a change of composition. I think I have also become more picky with what I post and how I compose scenes when shooting. I try to make images that are dynamic and that have a certain special feel and look to them. I don’t always succeed but I care about what I do and with a little bit of luck I may even be able to do this professionally one day. The only way I see to do this is to constantly learn and evaluate everything that I shoot. I think I had over 300 views on this post and your one comment really made it worth writing. Thanks again for the kind words…I can say that it is a struggle sometimes to continue doing my photography work but I seem to get a nice comment like this every so often that lifts the spirits and helps me to continue on this path.

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