Mar 072016
Maiko Tomitae in Kyoto © Adam Marelli

Maiko Tomitae in Kyoto © Adam Marelli

Dear Adam, 

Hmm… As I’ve told you before, your Bridging the Gap video lesson really reset my ways of searching for scenes-can’t stop recommending it to others! Your introduction of the visual language helped me starting to discover its different elements when studying photographs of others. It’s so much easier now to decide whether a photograph “works” or not.

When it comes to my personal photographing I feel that I have quite a few more roads to walk to improve my framings, but when I’m out I aim to capture at least two visual elements. My question is; When trying to work a scene, what runs through Adam Marelli’s mind? Or maybe in other words; How and what do you look for when “fishing the spot”?

–Erlend Klevjer Aas

Hi Erlend,

If I could, I’ll break your question into two parts.

  1. How do I look for a spot to take pictures?
  2. What do I look for when I take a picture?

The complete answer to this is long enough that prior to your question, I was already working on a book addressing this topic.  The inner workings of every photographer are different.  The evidence is the photograph.  I don’t intend to speak for all photographers, but this is my approach.

Question 1:  How do I look for a spot to take pictures?

This one is easy…I shoot things that interest me, things I don’t fully understand, or things that I want to experience in greater depth. Most of my interests reveal themselves with a little research and thinking.  For example, if I’m interested in Japanese craftsmen, I go to Japan.  I can’t shoot that subject matter in NYC.  The hardest part is boiling down your interests.

Many people have their interests trained out of them.  People are unaware of what their interests are because they don’t have the time to really think about them. Being embarrassed by them, many people feel the need to find something “cooler.”  Or they have an interest but it is too big of a leap from where they are. Like wanting to photograph big mountains, but only having a weekend to travel from the Great Plains.

It usually takes me a long time after shooting something to fully understand why I was drawn to that place.  The inner workings of my own desires are not always clear.  Sometimes I get an urge and I just see where it takes me.  Instinct has never led me astray.

What I DON’T shoot are other people’s interests, such as:

Trends: When you’re a student of art history, one thing becomes immediately clear.  Trends change frequently, even within an artist’s lifetime.  Every major artist in history experienced periods of unpopularity or complete irrelevance.  Chasing trends is like trying to grab smoke.  Grasping it is an illusion.

Genres:  I have no interest in, for example, “Landscape photography.”  There are landscape shots that I find interesting, but the entire genre does not speak to me.  When you start to examine why you take pictures, genres fade away pretty quickly.

Sensationalism:  The camera allows many photographers to take pictures that will make headlines.  And for some, it is a way of life. For me, there is not a single “headline” photograph that held my interest over time.  Sensationalism dies off pretty quickly.  Cezanne painted apples, Morandi painted bottles, and Michelangelo painted muscles.  Nothing new there…the artistry is not in the subject matter, but in how they saw it.

For “Likes”:  No amount of writing will ever eliminate this trend.  But I see photographers breaking their backs in the quest for more “likes.” Some know they are doing it, others deny it, but it is a vicious cycle. Imagine someone said this to you:

We are going to give you a platform for your photography, here’s what it looks like:

  • Every picture will be displayed at the size of 4 postage stamps.
  • Your audience will only ever spend a few seconds looking at it.
  • It will appear next to ads for shopping and political campaigns.
  • And in 100 years there will be almost no trace that it ever existed.

This is social media, the best and worst thing to happen to photography since the invention of 35mm film.  Use it, but don’t let it use you.

Take pictures you feel passionate about, make actual photographs so other people can enjoy your work, and buy prints from photographers you admire.  Everything else is online photo masturbation.  If you think I’m making this up, just see how many of the higher ups at social media companies follow the viewing trends of online pornography.  Ask around, you might be amazed.

QUESTION 2:  What do I look for when I take a picture?

As I mentioned above, I have a book’s worth of ideas on the topic.  There are formal, conceptual and historical parts of my process, but right now I’d like to focus just on the moment that I push the shutter.

Once I find something that holds my attention, I watch and listen.  Everything reveals itself over time.  It is a matter of being patient enough and sensitive enough to know it is happening before you.

We see our interests…cultivate those and the world becomes a different place.  Or to put it in your words, I fish where I think there will be fish. That could be outside of your front door or 4,000 miles away.  Go to where your fish are waiting for you.

Best of luck Erlend,


If you would like to submit a question to “Your questions answered,” please leave it in the comment thread below or email us at


  3 Responses to “Your Questions Answered: What do you think about when you take a picture?”

  1. This is a fantastic series Adam! Love to see more of these questions answered articles.

    Take care friend!

  2. Dear Adam Marelli,

    I would like to redo the 2nd question above. What elements, message or idea do you look when you take a Picture? In other words? What makes a good photography?

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