The ‘What’ and the ‘How’ of great photography!

Joel Grimes on What makes a great Photograph?

This video by Joel Grimes ties in nicely with one of my prior posts about How to Become an Outstanding Photographer. Joel talks about what makes a great photograph, and his main point is that photographers get sucked into the technical side too much. Creating a great photograph is a creative process, above anything else. Of course, the technical side is important, but all the photography gear, all the shooting techniques and all the post-processing tricks are just tools. It’s your creative vision that counts.

The What questions

The first thing you should ask is not which camera do I need, which presets are the best and how do I use Photoshop. Your very first set of questions are what I call the What questions:

  • What do I really like in a photograph?
  • What visual ingredients do I need to create the type of photos that I love?
  • What makes photographs work for me?

The answers to these questions have nothing to do with the techniques that lead to those features. But they have everything to do with discovering and developing your taste and your creative vision – two tools that you need to sharpen carefully in order to create original work.

Joel talks about this in his video. He has adopted a technique by which he collects the photos he loves from other photographers and looks at them often. This sharpens his own creative vision and helps him focus on creating the best images he can create. Personally, I am doing similar things to stay creative. Note however, that this is not about copying somebody else’s style. Your goal is not to recreate existing photos. This is about finding and shaping your own style. When you extract what it really is that draws you to a particular image, you can build your own visual and creative library. Eventually, you will assemble the elements in this library in your own way, and that’s when you create your own style.

The How questions

Only when you’ve answered the What questions, you can really start tackling the How questions in a purposeful and goal-oriented way:

  • How did they do it?
  • How can I create a particular look in camera and in post-processing?
  • How do the tools that I need to achieve this actually work?

Most new photographers start with the How questions and never really ask the What questions. And this keeps you from setting real goals for yourself and your photography. By being stuck in the How, you will keep repeating what other people did before you instead of finding your own way to reach your own goals and build your own audience.

When was the last time you asked the What questions?

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2 replies
  1. Elle Bruce
    Elle Bruce says:

    Great post! I have am working towards taking my images to the next level – from “beautiful but boring” to “wow” and I will definitely be asking myself the WHAT questions. They hold all the key answers. Thanks for this.


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