Learning is a process that takes time. Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule applies to the so-called mastery of anything. By working hard on our craft, we are able to become proficient in the tools and techniques required to make the end product we desire. We go through stages of understanding and breaking our understanding. These are natural parts of our learning cycle, and the end goal should be to learn not how to do things, but how to ask the right questions to get where we want to go.
Stage 1: The Simple Questions
We've all been there. When we first signed up for an email address we messaged people to see if they'd get it. Facebook came around and we overused the poke button. We've all turned our new speakers up as loud as they'd go, only to realize volume isn't everything and we needed a decent equalizer to get the best from our music. Photography is no different from any new experience or purchase, we have to start somewhere.
When we begin with anything new, we spend all of our effort trying to understand how it works. This is our first step towards being able to master our craft. It is in this stage where we ask the simple questions. It is at this stage we also find ourselves asking things about equipment and settings. What settings did you use to get that exposure? Which setting gives you that blurry background? What software did you use to create those colors? What film did you use?
These are great questions when we are learning, but not particularly helpful when we try to make this craft our own. They feel so important at the time, and they are as stepping stones. But does the film really matter if the subject and light are garbage? Does the depth of field matter if the moment you're photographing is boring to begin with?
We gradually learn what is important to us in our own expression through photography, and that is where the more important questions start to become apparent to us. Once the simple questions have got us to a point where we are able to technically pull off some of the things we wish to do, then it becomes a matter of why we do them anyway. That is where we start to learn for ourselves and explore the craft more.
Stage 2: The Important Questions
As a former kindergarten and primary school teacher, the one thing I would always focus on was getting my students to facilitate their own learning. If you can ask a question that brings about a new way of thinking, you will be able to then ask further questions and deepen your understanding. From here on out, we'll look at ways to twist the questions into something much more useful.
The key to all of this is to find out why decisions were made, not that they were made. Asking "what" is great, but it will only ever return a straightforward answer. "How" is a great beginning, but most of the time it begs a simplistic answer. "Why" is a lot more useful.
Let's take the question above, "Which setting gives you that blurry background?" What a fantastic question. It will return you all that you need, technically, to recreate an image with a shallow depth of field. If you have a good teacher answer that question, they may even extrapolate and explain the concept of depth of field to you, giving you words to describe that bokeh-lust you are about to engage in. For a while, you'll most likely get snap-happy and feel that f/2 is the only aperture you'll ever need. However, quickly follow it up with, "Why did you choose a shallow depth of field for this image?" and you have a far more interesting question. You'll be learning what it means to use the creative tools at your disposal. From here, you'll learn the process one artist goes through in deciding depth of field. You might even begin to learn how you will decide depth of field.
Let's try that with another question from above. What film/camera did you use? The usual thing you'll hear following this is, "If I had a dime for every time this question was asked." If it weren't a valid question, it wouldn't be asked. It will give you a useful answer, but again, a limited one. Here too, "why" gives us so much more juicy information than what. "Why did you choose to use a Nikon D5 over the smaller, lighter, simpler Nikon D5500?" There's a question with answers that might actually teach you something useful. Why Portra and not Velvia? Now we're talking.
Where We're Going with This
If you find yourself repeating the same techniques or styles in your images, ask yourself why. It might be that you're developing a style, but it might be that you're falling into a rut. Asking yourself why will better your image making, either way. Spend some time before and after you make your image thinking on the choices you've made. It will show in your work.
Of course, this doesn't only apply to your own work. Make it a habit to ask yourself why you like an image, why a particular scene of a film moved you, what were the tools the photographer used to evoke this emotion in you, and why. Do this on Facebook when an image catches your eye, or better yet, sit down with a photo book you love and slowly thumb through it. Why do you love these images? This will begin to make its way into your own work as well, and you'll be able to ask yourself why you're choosing a particular way to shoot a scene, and what you might do to answer your "why" question more effectively.
If I haven't got my point across yet, I'm a big advocate of the question why. I feel that it breeds so much more discussion, and so many fruitful answers than other questions do. When you're starting out, tacking a why question on after you learn how will give you a slipstream into learning what really matters in photography.