The Worst Question You Can Ask When Learning Photography

When you're first starting out in photography, it can be difficult knowing which questions to ask, especially given the multiple facets of the pursuit. However, there seems to be one question that both beginners and professionals seem to fall into asking, and it's way less important than we make it seem to be.

Hop on Facebook or Instagram, find a nice photo by a photographer you admire, and find the first few comments by other photographers. I guarantee that somewhere in there is the question: "what were your settings?" It's almost automatic for most of us to ask that when we see a photo we like, but as Tony Northrup talks about in this great video, it highlights a flaw in how we think about what makes a photograph. Sure, settings matter, but with a second look, you can normally make a pretty educated guess at what they were in a given image. More importantly, they don't matter to the degree we pretend they do when it comes to understanding how a great image was made. I think we latch onto them because shutter speeds and apertures are hard numbers that are much more easily grasped than the creative process. But if we want to become better photographers, we need to ask the more difficult questions. 

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17 Comments

david squire's picture

haha! So true... In addition, I've seen so many comments from people, from a few different sites/communities questioning or even dismissing a respective photographers' voluntary [even) settings admission only to be met with accusations of lying or incompetence. This is truly the updated, "what kind of camera do you have?" comment or question...

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

While you are making a very valid point, Tony, there are some situations where it is helpful to have some insight into settings. Perhaps we get that insight best, from experience - I can't say.
One obvious example is action shots - how fast, to freeze the action? Another is astro photography - how long, before the stars turn into dashes instead of star shaped spots in the sky?
And then there are issues with bokeh, or with star-bursts from the diaphragm.
Or digital noise associated with savage increases in ISO.
Perhaps it's one of those things where it's neither black nor white. Or where it's "right" to know some of this stuff, but "wrong" to think you're going to take over from Ansell Adams by jumping the queue, using what you find out about other people's settings.
I must say, the only time I released that kind of information I was howled at by a supposedly professional photographer - but only because he completely missed the point and had some axe of his own to grind.
On a personal level, I do keep records of that kind of information. It is part of the process of reviewing my photos during post processing, and part of the process of learning from what I have done - hopefully helping me to improve my photography. And when I am using a more portable piece of gear to explore a photo opp, the readings from the exploratory photos are of definite assistance when I set to work to take "the" shot that I've been planning.

I thought you were going to say "what camera did use?"

Oops, I see David above beat me to it.

I'm going to disagree. An educated guess requires an understanding of settings that a new photographer might not have.

Take the bird picture. I know it is fast shutter speed but that's it. I don't know if you cropped, I don't know if it is 400mm lens or 100mm. I don't know what of the multitude of focus settings you've used. If I am trying to learn how to do birds in flight and can't seem to get that tack sharp image why wouldn't a question on settings be good? Even if I camp birds if my settings can prevent me from ever getting that shot why not ask? You can correct in post is not a valid answer to the question of how to capture tack sharp birds in flight.

Or the big moon picture. You nail it, it is a 500mm lens. If I think a super moon picture will just look big and have no idea how you did it how do I learn?

Getting the shot that's in your head requires understanding the correct settings. All the artistry in the world won't help. You can only plan those shots because you have the technical basis to move beyond settings but people new to photography do not. They know what kind of stuff they want to try but not how to get it. Asking what your settings were is far more valuable then telling them you spent a year camping a bird, that's not what they need to know at that point.

When you are learning settings are important, they can be the line between success and failure. You are at the point where settings aren't important but new photographers are not.

So there is such a thing as a "stupid question"?

just the one that you don't ask. no such thing as a stupid question. if you want to help people then help. no reason to be a jerk. that's my feeling. i have no problem answering questions if someone has them. but on the flip side, if you are shooting a college or pro game you should not be asking anyone that kind of stuff, you should know the basics by then.

I didn't watch the video so am not aware of the context. My comment wasn't intended to be provocative.

Cannot disagree more about your take on settings. In many photography forums I belong to people are encouraged to share setting info because that helps in the learning process. Understanding settings is critically important to improving the technical aspects of photography ... it's what separates truly outstanding photographers from the mediocre. I find it hard to believe you would be so easily annoyed at such questions.

Alex Cooke's picture

I’m not annoyed by such questions; I just think way too much emphasis is placed on settings at the expense of investigating other aspects of the process.

Michael Dougherty's picture

I think setting up your body BEFORE YOU SHOOT is really important and then I don't worry about it during the shoot, although I may check in to make sure I didn't do something wrong or the conditions are significantly different than what I had planned for. For example, if I'm going to shoot scenics in daylight, I'll set the ISO down to 100, F8, and let the body decide what shutter speed. If I'm shooting late afternoon to evening football, I'll set my D500 + 120-300 F2.8 combo to F3.3 to an ISO that keeps the shutter speed above 1/1000th of a second. As the sun goes down and the stadium lights go on, I'm regularly increasing the ISO. I know there is an automatic way of doing this but I prefer to do it myself. Otherwise the default setting for all my bodies, including those not in use, is ISO 200 and F8. I can pull out a camera combo at any time and start shooting without worrying about settings in most situations.

It would be interesting to know if he used one of the auto exposure modes when he shot the panorama. I did a panorama photograph using film and it made since to me to switch to manual mode. I didn't want depth of field changing or other factors.
When I was researching photography techniques for photographing Space Shuttle launches, I reached out to Florida Today and got some good advice, such as ISO 100 since it was a day launch, and underexpose by -1/3 stop.

I think Tony is wrong this time. We all have to walk before we can run. Shaming a person into not asking basic questions, when their knowledge is basic, does nothing to further their work.

I routinely meet would be bird-in-flight photographers that are somehow wed to using too low ISOs. They read in such and such a review that noise with their camera became noticeable at ISO 400, so they cap their ISO at 400, shoot wide open and back into a shutter speed that's far too low for their subject. I've seen quick turnarounds with several people after I explain that shutter speed is the king and that most birds in flight need to be shot at 1/1000 to 1/3200-sec. and some, like puffins, at 1/4000-sec. Shutter speed is first, focus is right up there at almost the same degree and ISO is tail of the dog. ISO shouldn't wag the dog. Get some sharp images first, then start learning behavior, sites and getting close to achieve stunning results.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at Versaille, shooting the gardens. I was asked about the settings on one shot. My answer was, I had the ISO on my full-frame body low, because I knew that shutter speed was not a big deal; I was using my exceptional EF 14mm f/2.8 L II USM rectilinear lens, for an ultra-wide view of both sky and grounds; I was in aperture priority at f/8 because that was all the DOF that I needed and, most importantly, I waited 45-minutes for the clouds to break and give me beautiful light. MOST newbies would have no idea of either the focal length that I chose, or the need to wait on the light.

I love to hear other photographers' processes, and I admit that includes camera settings. After I ooh and ahh over an image that I love, I can't help wanting to know the technical details.

Kyle Medina's picture

People, People! Tony is referring to people asking for settings and just using that and thinking there's is going to be just like Tonys. That's not learning, that's just copying.

I have to agree with the author. Rarely have I ever cared what settings someone uses for a photo. Even fast action and long exposures don't take much to figure out. It seems to me that there are two kind of photographers-those who live and die by the technicals and those who let their artistic vision be their guide. Back in the film era, it might have mattered more, but even then, I often took photos without knowing exactly how they might turn out. Now in the digital era, I can't think of a time when that question could be more irrelevant. For no cost at all, one can try different settings and decide what he or she likes best, and with instantaneous feedback. So to hell with the settings someone else used. Try your own and you may find a result you like better. The point is the image, not how you got there.

Kirk Darling's picture

The basic camera settings--shutter speed, aperture, ISO, focal length--are rarely the significant factor in the pictures we see online. More discussion of lighting would be more significant, such as not only the size of the modifier but also the distance. Exposure settings don't mean much to me unless they varied from a straightforward ambient light exposure--and in that case I'd want to know HOW MUCH they varied...which is hardly ever stated. And seldom is there any discussion of how the photographer made those choices rather than other choices. When inexperienced photographers get only basic camera settings and heave a hearty "Thanks," it saddens me.

Spy Black's picture

Actually, I thought that "how can I get laid doing photography" was the worse question you could ask people when starting out in photography...