Why? This simple word turns out to be a pivotal question in photography. Why is this so? We use why all the time. It starts when we are very small, becoming the first question we ever ask. After four children, I’m all too familiar with this question. It’s time for dinner. Why? This tree is tall. Why? Daddy is going to the bathroom. Why? The Yankees are better than the Red Sox. Why? I’ve answered these questions and thousands more. How does this shortest of questions become so important to our photography?

The Why in Photography

I purchased an on-line class about photo composition called “Inside the Composition” taught by Matt Kloskowski, one of my favorite instructors. In this class there is a module on “The Most Important Question,” which is, “What is your why?” Matt poses the question, “Why did you snap that picture in that particular spot?” In the tens of thousands of pictures I have taken, I think about “how” I am going to take the photo. What f-stop will I use? What lens? Where is the main subject going to be placed in the image? These and many more questions I contemplate before I press the button to take a photo. But the question of why take the photo? Not so much. Matt spends ten minutes hammering home that I need to ask why, reiterating that it is an incredibly important part of my image making. This concept of “why” is abstract, but I didn’t completely dismiss it.

A couple of weeks later, while attending the on-line KelbyOne Wildlife Photography Conference, I came across a module by Scott Bourne called “The Why is as Important as the How”. Here it is again, “why?”.  I have been photographing seriously for ten years and “why” never came up. Now, in just a couple of weeks, it has been there twice front and center. Scott says determining the “why” can get me to the master level of photography. Photography Master, that sounds like a great title. Perhaps this will go on my business card. He notes that the “why” is always behind his best photographs:

  • Why did I buy that piece of gear?
  • Why did I go to this place?
  • Why did I pick this subject?
  • Why did I post-process the image in this way?
  • Why did I share this photo?

By answering the question “why” he was able to re-target his time in such a way that his photography improved dramatically. He promises it will subconsciously help me make better images. How is this possible?

Finding My Why

I decided to give “why” a try at a two-day photo retreat to photograph birds. I settled in, determined my why as the beautiful red cardinal. Then I ripped off fifty images in just a few seconds. I don’t think this is what Scott (or Matt) meant. I refined my “why” to a red cardinal posing on a dead cactus. I ripped off another ten photos. I think I am understanding the “why” as my cardinal images look pretty nice (see The Cardinal Rule blog post). We have another trip coming up very soon where I can further search for my why.

Fast forward to our short getaway this past weekend to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southernmost Arizona, on the Mexico border. These days when we think Mexico we think WALL. More on this in a bit. I was determined to find my “why” during this weekend’s photography.  As we were driving to our first photo shoot, there it was, right in front of me. I pulled the car over to contemplate this miracle.

I don’t know why Matt or Scott did not mentioned this. [taken with iPhone]

Why did I spend all that money on classes and online seminars? I just had to drive south toward Mexico. Now it is just a mere 10 miles away. In just a few more minutes I will have my why! As the ten miles sped by we arrived at the only building in Why, a gas station/convenience store. Maybe they have “My Why” inside? What will it cost? I can’t believe there is an entire town created to provide photographers like me with their why. Unfortunately, when I took a closer look, it turned out it is not “Why”, but “Why Not”.

It looks like finding my “why” is not so simple. I am going to have to work at it.

Our first photoshoot of the weekend was at an area seldom visited. There were Organ Pipe cacti all around. There were nice looking mountains in the background. I take in the scene and contemplate my why, an organ pipe cactus with mountains glowing red in the background. But, as the sun sets and the light gets good, I fall back into using “how” instead of “why”. This is going to take a lot more practice.

A nice scene, but not the result I was looking for. Perhaps, I should replace the sky with something more interesting? Would it then negate the “why”?

I finished up the trip with a visit to the wall. This time I thought of my “why” immediately, a photo with an Organ Pipe cactus (and maybe other types of cacti) with the wall in the background Politics invades a national monument.

Do you see the speck in the sky? When I zoom in, it is either a UFO or a drone. Interesting.

I’m finally starting to connect the “why” to my photography. Hopefully, the images I take in the future will demonstrate that I am, Jeff Dannay, Master of Photography.