If you've at least purchased a dedicated camera -- you know, one that's not your phone -- you've asked yourself this question (the one in the title of the post, 'ya rube). If you've gone further than a pedestrian interest in camera gear and editing software, investing significant money in photographic equipment, you ask yourself this question often. If you've fallen in love with a few of your images and deeply desire to produce more, to improve your skills, you're tortured by this question. What should I photograph? What should I...
I was in the same boat, for years, then I learned something. Maybe we shouldn't be asking WHAT we should photograph, but WHY we want to photograph anything. Yeah, I think for years I was asking the wrong question. Think about it. The why comes before the what, but the why is easy to overlook. It's such a closely held assumption that we completely look past it. Sure, we need a subject to take pictures of. That's a given. But why one subject or type of photography over another? Why do this at all? We'll get to that, but first, we all have defaults. You know, the things we think we should do because that's what others have done and mostly because we still haven't asked ourselves WHY.
I don't know what your defaults are, but I can tell you about mine and the path that lead me to stop asking the question of what I should photograph because I learned why I want to do this in the first place. Let's go there.
When I got back into photography, I was a new dad. Naturally I wanted to shoot images of my young family. But, I wanted to do more than that, I just wasn't sure what. I ended up going down a common path, the "dadtographer" path. After shooting some candid photos at a kids birthday party, the mother of the kid was over the moon with the images I shot and strongly encouraged me to start doing photography of families and kids. And so I did. For a few years I charged money and shot family portraits and had many happy clients.
Of course, I had to get into lighting (strobist all the way) and spend lot's of money on gear. I even shot a few weddings, which I enjoyed...sort of...we'll get to that. Anyway, here I was shooting for profit and you know what? It wasn't that fun. I just didn't love it. It felt like work. I decided to specialize in head shots. Again, not loving it.
Then, there was a bit of a crisis that I think anyone who takes photography seriously will at some point encounter. What the hell do I want to shoot? Fashion? Nope, I know nothing about it and could care less. Cars? I love cars and even did a photo series on cars. Nope, that's not it either. Landscapes? I have no time to go gallivanting around the country waiting for landscape shots to happen (maybe when I retire some day). Still life? Snoozefest.
After some soul searching I figured out why I love photography. I love photography because I value shooting candid images of people. To me, there's inherent value in creating images of people as they are, in their natural environment. I crave the genuine, I want veracity, and when I capture an unscripted moment, I'm happy. My re-entry to photography started with shooting my kids around the house. Sure, I set them up for portraits from time to time but it's the candid images of them that I love. All the time I was trying to figure out what to shoot, I was also doing street photography when I could and I loved it. Again, it's because I like shooting candid images of people. The few weddings I shot where a blast until it was time for the posed formal shots. Again, I like the candid stuff.
After discovering the why, knowing what to shoot is easy. I stopped doing family portraits and I stopped trying to figure out what to shoot. All along it was right in front of me. Now I'm happy shooting documentary style images of my kids, family events and doing street photography when I can and I love it. This realization was also reflected in my choice of gear. I got rid of all of it and bought a Fuji X100F because it's perfectly suited to the type of photography I love. I don't need much else and that's liberating. Sure, I'll still shoot the occasional portrait of my kids, but candid images of people is what does it for me.
Of course, this is just my reason for loving photography. Yours may be totally different. Perhaps you got into photography because you love fashion or posed portraits. That's great. Keep doing that. But if you're often asking yourself what you should shoot, take the time to back up and ask yourself why you like photography in the first place. Once you find the answer to that, you'll have no problem figuring out what to shoot. It's so obvious that we often miss it. And, it can take a while to figure this out, maybe years. It did for me. But, you'll get there just like I did. If you keep picking up the camera, you're doing it for a reason and eventually you'll figure out why.