How To Choose What To Photograph

With the vast wide world out there waiting, and millions of cameras and lenses available to us, how do we choose what to photograph?

I’ve been pondering this lately and have honed down what and why I photograph.

Essentially, I practice two kinds of photography.

1. Family Photography

Defined as – 

Any photograph of a family member or members that is taken either to record a memory of a time, or to become a print to display or send to someone.

Why make these kind of photographs? 

As with most of us I imagine, we like ways to take advantage of the magic of photography to capture moments that our memories might not remember so accurately otherwise.

Once I had children this amped up massively, and even though we are still quite modest in the volume of pictures we take, our children of 10 and 6 years old must have each had thousands of images made of them already.

In fact I expect that there were more photographs of our youngest made in the first five years of his life than I have had made of me in my entire life, such is the prevalence of photography and the ubiquity of smart phones with decent cameras these days.

From this, the subject matter is obvious, my family.

2. Artistic Photography

Defined as – 

Any photograph I make with the deliberate intention of capturing something I find beautiful in the best possible way I can.

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Why make these kind of photographs?

The short answer is because I can’t not do it.

The longer version originates in fact with my discovery of poetry (as a writer, rather than a reader) in my late teens. This evolved over the years, into writing 5-7-5 haiku almost exclusively for a few years, which led me to photography.

I realised that a haiku and a photograph are essentially the same – defining a moment and a scene in a sensory and memorable way.

Behind the actual act of making photographs, the need is to find compositions I find beautiful and interesting, capture them as vividly as I can, and share some of them with others, to show that despite all the chaos and destruction in the world, beauty is still there if you pause to seek it out.

The subject matter comes from this, and I guess what I find “beautiful and interesting”.

In reality it’s usually something in nature, often decaying. Or nature reclaiming something man made that’s decaying.

How do you choose what to photograph? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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18 thoughts on “How To Choose What To Photograph”

  1. So simple, so clear. For me, photos of family and friends are in a class of their own, and not for sharing. but occasionally they are also artistic. Having an iPhone in my pocket has me constantly alert to bits of reality that are visually exciting or beautiful…as they rarely get shared either, they are more for fun than for the record.

    1. Hi Rachel, thanks for your words.

      Yes definitely, sometimes I use a family portrait as a starting point for some more artistic processing too, in a way I wouldn’t with one of my other pictures.

      And I have some b/w pictures of my wife and kids made with a very lo-fi body cap lens on my Pentax Q that are amongst my favourite of them. These could be classed far more as artistic than straightforward hi res shots.

      So what do you do with your iPhone shots?

      1. There is indeed a huge crossover between poetry and photography… I got into photography from writing haiku and realising it’s 90% the same, if not more…

  2. This is a really good question. I think for me something that stimulates an emotional reaction, “I like that” , “that’s beautiful”, “that’s funny”. These will often become a subject for a photo. I have noticed since using film, that the emotional connection becomes even more important due to the limits of 24 frames.

    1. Thanks Andrew. I am much the same, yes there has to be some kind of emotional reaction, and like you say it can be a range of different responses not just something that makes me feel sad or poignant.

      So many people love film because of the restriction of the number of frames per roll. I want to experiment with this concept on digital cameras more by using small capacity memory cards (in fact I have a post in draft about this at the moment) that emulate that same feature/limitation of film, rather than being able to taking hundreds or thousands of shots in one go like some do.

  3. I have some favorite things I tend to photograph over and over, like the huge antigues flea market upstate (the largest in the USA) that happens three times a year, as close to “street” photography I do. I have gotten some good pictures up there over the years. A lot are just record shots of my bike rides, camping trips, things going on on our street (like the neighbors escaped cows the other day) that I take to remember things.. Some of my favorite pictures are of people and children at social events and gatherings which is kind of ironic as I’m not too fond of people or children, or social gatherings.

      1. A little of both Dan, but dogs and people seem to be my favorites. The sun is finally out here and I was just outside trying the new old camera. So far so good.

    1. Oh and by the way yes that is a bit ironic, I tend to spend most of my photography time out in the countryside and in quiet churches to get away from the masses!

  4. Thanks for this post Dan. I must say my photography is largely taken for the same reasons you have outlined. Family shots as a record of our lives, and artistic shots as a form of self expression. I am also taking a lot of Nature shots to share with people as an appreciation of our natural world, something important to me. With the current state of our planet, it’s the least I can do!

    1. Hi Paul, yes absolutely, I do a similar thing, sharing nature photography in the hope that it reminds others of the beauty all around us.

  5. For years I photographed to document, currently I just go for creatively capturing pleasing aesthetics.
    Trying to disconnect myself from society as much as possible (something personal, has nothing to do with photography), I no longer feel the need to document what is happening there. And, I also quit IG, Tumblr, Flickr and WordPress – which meant a kind of transformation from shooting content that is possibly interesting for others, to photography purely for myself. It is like the pre-internet days: I’d rather have photographic “quality time” twice a month with a self-assignment (spring flowers, the beach during golden hours, working with a model, etc.) than just constantly collecting random images.

    1. Robert, sometimes that’s my favourite way to photography, just capturing that looks visually delicious, a shape, a texture, the fall of light and shadow…

      Very intriguing what’s going on with your photography and your “disconnect” generally. What have you found are the benefits?

      Do you have longer term projects that evolve with photography, repeating themes and patterns, or do they tend to all be self-contained within one session or assignment?

      1. No longer-term project, more a focus on creativity and aesthetics (colors, shapes, reflections, light, mood). And I definitely want to expand my experiments with “double exposures” and the Lensbaby Spark lens. I also worked with a model a few days ago – for the first time in years – and that was a lot of fun, so maybe I will do that more often.

        Photographically, the “disconnect” might mean more respecting my own pace. A kind of “slow photography”, not competing with people who are able to post amazing work almost daily on sharing platforms or blogs. I need more time to recharge myself, and don’t feel bad when I just don’t feel like taking photos for a month (which was very normal back in the film days).

      2. Absolutely, we each need to find our own pace of photography.

        I wrote a post a while back called something like How To Stop Making Photographs Just To Prove You’re Still Making Photographs. I think it’s easy to get into someone else’s pattern and schedule and then we can end up just taking photos for the sake of having something – anything! – to share. Rather than finding our own way and own pace.

        Sounds like you’re well on track for enjoying your photography on your own terms.

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