4 Questions Amateur Photographers Need to Stop Asking – And What They SHOULD Ask Instead

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woman snow winter
Photo by Jenna Martin

“Love your photos! What kind of camera do you have?”

“… …”

Look, I get it. I’ve been there. Being an amateur photographer is tough for a lot of reasons, but a large one is having to humbly ask questions you desperately wish you didn’t have to say out loud. At some point in our lives, every professional has started out as an amateur. We’ve all been on the other side of the coin, secretly trying to make sense of all the photo technical jargon while still trying to appear like a coherent adult that deserves to own a camera.

Photographers are irritated by this question because when someone asks this, they are virtually reducing their entire profession to what they are currently holding in their hand. It happens a lot, and it’s always on accident, but that doesn’t mean hearing it gets any easier. But while my blood boils every time I get asked this, I just have to tell myself to chill the eff out. It’s my fault for being annoyed, not yours. I know you don’t mean to be insulting; you just want to learn. You’re simply trying to figure out a little more about the process, and asking about the camera is your go-to step one. And that’s what everyone does! Hell I did the same thing as a newbie – upon observing the fact that my point-and-shoot just wasn’t achieving the same effect as a pro, the question out of my mouth to any photographer that would listen was, “What kind of camera do you have?” I was naive and stupid and I didn’t know any better.

But now I do know better. It’s not that it’s a stupid question, it’s just that it’s not the best question, and in the spirit of helping new photographers get the information they’re actually after (while at the same time avoiding pissing off every established photographer they ever hope to learn from one day), lets lay down a few ground rules.

Note: Don’t think I’m discouraging you from asking questions. That’s not the case at all. None of the following questions listed below are stupid or ‘bad’ questions, it’s just that they can’t be answered with any kind of valuable information that will help you progress. If you’re going out of your way to ask a pro for their insight (which, good for you), at least phrase your questions in a way that will render some useful answers.

Don’t: “What kind of camera do you have?”

Asking what kind of camera another photographer uses does nothing for your development. What useful information can I possibly answer that question with? I shoot a Canon 5D Mark II. Great. Is that what you wanted? To see me hold something and now know it’s technical name? Does that mean anything different to you than if I would’ve answered with Nikon D600 or a Leica M-P (Typ 240)? Probably not. Best case scenario I’ve barely given you something to Google when you get home, provided you can even spell out my answer correctly. That’s not snark or sarcasm either, that’s just an example from personal experience. The first time I asked a photographer what they shot, I didn’t understand the words “Canon 5d Mark II.” I thought she said something like “Canon ID Markadoo.” I went home and entered horribly misspelled words into the search bar until Google finally said, “Dude, give it up! The Markadoo isn’t coming out any time soon, why don’t you just take a look at a Mark II instead?”

Instead: “Why do you prefer that camera over others?”

I know why you’re asking about the camera because I’ve been there too. Secretly, what you really want to ask is, “I don’t know what kind of camera to get, I wonder if I should get that one?” That’s a valid question, but asking what kind of camera they have isn’t going to get you the info you need.

However, asking a photographer why they prefer that specific camera can give you boatloads of information, and get them to open up. In my case, I need a decent full-frame camera, compatible with a large majority of lens types that’s in my price range. I also prefer Canon’s menu system to that of Nikon or Sony; it’s just easier for me to understand for some reason. There are countless other reasons I’ve decided to make this my go-to camera, many of them completely insignificant (I love the way the shutter sounds), and if you ask me about it I’ll talk your ear off. I’ll mention that while I’m using this camera for this particular shoot, I’m also currently building a film franken-camera in my basement, and it’s thisclose to being useable. I’ll also list off everything I’m looking forward to in the Mark III and how I may or may not be contemplating taking out a second mortgage as soon as the Mark IV is released.

Now, instead of just the name of a make and model, you have a whole list of pros and cons. That’s the good stuff. So if you want to talk gear, this is how you break the ice.

Don’t: “What were your settings for this shot?”

Settings are useless. Stop asking about settings. They are completely irrelevant. Imagine going to a restaurant and having this conversation with the chef:

You: “Wow, what a fantastic meal!”
Chef: “Why, thank you!”
You: “Can you tell me what the oven was set to?”
Chef: “Um…I’m sorry, did you mean for the prime rib? Or the roasted asparagus. Or the soufflé…”
You: “Just the soufflé. I really liked it, I’d like to make it at home. What was the oven set to for the soufflé?”
Chef: “That was at a temperature of 350 degrees.”
You: “Great! Thank you!”

Later you return home and attempt to make a soufflé, without a recipe, without knowing how long to leave it in the oven or how long to let it rest, causing you to become horribly frustrated with your inability to produce the same result.

Sound a little familiar? It’s the same thing with photography. Camera settings are incredibly specific to the situation. A shutter speed of 1/50, ISO 2000 at an aperture of 2.8 might make perfect sense for a still life shot at a wedding in a candlelit church, but as soon as the light barely changes (someone opens a door, or a cloud rolls by), an adjustment needs to be made and the settings need to be changed. The settings are just a piece of the puzzle, and without the rest of the pieces, you’re kind of stuck. You can’t learn from just the settings – you need to know the context they’re being used in.

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Instead: “What was the process for this shot?”

So instead of asking for the oven temp, ask for the recipe! What was their process for achieving this shot? How did they set it up? What look did they want to achieve and how did they think through everything they needed to do? The settings will be included, but now you’ll understand the context they’re being used in. Now instead of rattling off “1/200, ISO 100, f1.8,” they can tell you they were looking for a smooth bokeh background, so they shot with a wide aperture for the shallow depth of field. They’ll explain how the room was crazy bright, so they had to crank their shutter speed to combat some of the light, then they placed their client in just the right place where the light happened to be reflecting from a mirror behind them, giving their hair that perfect rim light they were looking for. See how that works? Now we’re getting somewhere.

female model dusk bokeh
Photo by Jenna Martin

Don’t: “What Photoshop action/filter did you use?”

Take it back. Take it back now. Are you fucking kidding me? Filters are for Instagram. Actions are a baseline that you sure as hell better be tweaking later. Did you really think someone clicked a button and the entire photo came together? No. That’s what the general public thinks, but if you’re in the minors hoping to go pro, you should damn well know better. Post-processing requires just as much skill and finesse as the shooting itself. This question makes me want to steal your car and drive it into a lake.

Gimme a second, let me breath…Ok. (don’t worry, I just get a little worked up about Photoshop. As a fine-art photographer there’s definitely a love/hate relationship there…so that may have come off a little crazy, lol).

Instead: “Can you talk a little bit about your post-processing for this shot?”

Ok, that’s better. Asking a photographer to talk about their post-processing acknowledges the fact that you know there is some post-processing involved, you don’t know what it is, you’d like to learn more about it and you aren’t reducing it to the simple act of clicking a button. A true pro will explain to you the delicate art of color toning, adjusting curves layers, dodging, burning, frequency separation and a whole lot of other factors.

Oh and by the way, Photoshop haters, don’t you dare quote Ansel Adams in the comment section. Ansel spent some serious time in the darkroom doing about as much photo manipulation as was humanly possible. I’d like to think if he were alive today he’d have a freakin’ heyday with Photoshop…also we’d be best friends.

Photoshop is an essential tool that many photographers use, but it’s a beast, and it’s widely misunderstood. It’s not a quick fix and it’s especially not anything that can be used to save a crappy photo (which is, by and large, the main reason Instagram filters exist). If you’re going to ask about it, ask in a way that conveys the respect it deserves.

woman  sparklers night light
Photo by Jenna Martin

Don’t: “What does bokeh mean? What is a zoom lens? What’s the difference between auto and manual focus?”

Google. YouTube. Use them.

Don’t get me wrong now, it’s not that these are bad questions; I was full of all the same ones when I first started. But if you’re aspiring to be a professional photographer and you haven’t even taken the time to Google what bokeh is, don’t expect anyone to take you seriously when you ask. It takes 4 seconds to find countless, clear-cut, well-worded definitions…with pictures. I’m willing to spend hours with you going over even the most basic aspects of photography, but I have to know you’re putting in the same amount of effort learning this stuff as I am teaching it. So meet me halfway – the more time you spend researching the easy stuff, the more time we can spend together going over marketing strategies and pricing structures.

Think about it this way: if you were a writer and had one hour to interview Stephen King, you wouldn’t want waste time asking him the difference between a noun and a verb, right? Of course not. Those are easily answered questions you can do on your own. Saving the tough questions for Stephen not only gives you more time to talk about the really in-depth stuff, but it also shows you’re serious about being an author and you respect him enough to not waste his time answering the same questions a Yahoo forum can answer.

(While we’re on the subject of writers, I’ll allow this moment for any grammar nazi jokes by those that can’t overlook the fact that I’m a photographer, not a writer…go ahead….get it out of your system…aaaaand we’re done.)

Instead: “I’ve spent a lot of time looking this up online, but I’m still really confused about it. Can you tell me what aperture means?” 

Still got a super basic question and you just can’t find it online? No problem. Sometimes it’s just hard to find stuff if you don’t know what you’re looking for. If I know you’ve at least tried and haven’t been able to find the answer you need, of course I’ll take the time to help you out, and so will many other pros. Just show us the effort and you’re golden :).

In the end, you should never be afraid to ask questions, but do so in a way that will get you the best answers.

About the author: Jenna Martin is a photographer who specialises in Surrealist and Wedding photography. She currently lives in Billings, MT, USA. Do not miss the opportunity to take a look at her amazing work! http://jennamartinphotography.com She also offers photography coaching and mentorship sessions online. This article was originally published on her blog.

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