The amount of available information is higher now than ever before. No matter what you’re seeking to learn, there are probably any number of articles, tutorials or blog posts out there related to that topic. However, one of the most effective ways to learn something new is by communicating directly with a professional, either by attending a workshop, seminar, one-on-one class, skype lesson or something similar.

The most important question

Despite the potential value of communicating with a professional, though, many don’t take full advantage of the opportunity. While they most definitely leave the conversation with lots of valuable information, many forget to ask the one simple question that will take their understanding of the subject to an entirely new level:

“Why?”

Every week I receive emails containing questions related to photography. I also run 1-on-1 classes, an occasional workshop and, in general, spend time in the field with others interested in photography. I’m always happy to answer any questions and, I hope, give a better understanding of the subject. Still, a bit to my disappointment, it’s rare that I get asked why I use a certain technique, why I use those settings or why I prefer one lens over another. It’s this question that will lead to a greater understanding of any subject.

Don’t end with “how?”

Christian, how can I achieve X or how can I do Y, are questions I often get asked. While these are valid questions that may provide results under a certain set of conditions, they don’t give an understanding of the subject, of why it works that way and the foundational knowledge that will allow you to correctly adapt your approach in a different scenario.

Let’s look at an example:

X: Christian, what settings are you using now?

Me: I’m using a 5-second shutter speed at f/11 and ISO100

X: Ok, thank you. 

So, what did X learn in this scenario? Well, he learned the exact settings I was using and he could use those on his camera at that place and time to get a similar result (unless one of us was using a filter… uh oh!)

What he didn’t learn, however, is why I used those settings. Why was a 5-second exposure best in that scenario? Why did I use ISO100 and why did I use f/11?

The next time he is out photographing, he might remember the settings I told him and use them again. The problem is that every scene is different and those settings will probably not be ideal next time. Had X continued and asked me why I was using those settings, he would most likely have understood that each scene requires different settings. On top of that, X would most likely also have an idea of why (and how) specific factors determined my settings that time; he would have a foundational knowledge for how he could adjust them to suit the conditions in his next composition.

This is a scenario I see way too often and although I normally take the initiative to go further by explaining why I use those specific settings or techniques, the next person might not think to.

Why is it important to ask?

Think back to when you were a child. Perhaps you’ve even got young children today that you can relate this to. The most common question we ask as children is “Why?” Even though we tend to ask this question slightly too often as children and our parents get annoyed at times, it shows a desire to learn and understand how the world functions.

The older we get, the less we tend to ask this question. We simply fall into our habits and believe that because everyone else does it, it probably means that it’s right.

Our learning curve starts to even out as soon as we stop asking why. Even the easier topics become more challenging.

I think that many, judging by what I’ve experienced with my younger clients at least, are afraid to appear stupid if they admit that they don’t know something. This saddens me as there’s no question that demonstrates as much intelligence and self-confidence as that one. None of us knows everything so why would we think that we should avoid showing it? Asking why shows that you’ve got an interest in really learning/improving your craft and you’re highly motivated to make that happen.

Don’t settle with being told how something works. Learn why it works. That’s where the most valuable information lies.

The question nobody asks