How I Use Research As A Photographer
How employing design research techniques in photography can uncover opportunities to deepen your connections to your subject.
What I loved about the past 15 years as an editorial and commercial photographer was the vast array of subject’s I got to meet. Every week, I jumped into someone else’s world, ready to visually complete a story about them, with little to no context. Now, I’m pivoting into a career as a UX designer and both share a broad, but necessary process…Conducting research.
But… Why do the research?
In UX design, research is a necessary part of creating a user-centered product. Its purpose is to design a product that makes people feel heard and understood, creating a lasting emotional connection with the users. By using the basic principles of design research, we can:
- Identify and solve relevant design problems.
- Better understand the product’s end users.
- Improve your designs based on data-driven research.
So, how does this pertain to working as a photographer?
Researching our subject makes us familiar with their environment and helps us understand the way they see the world. Whether it’s about aging, death, and loss, wind energy in a pro-fossil fuel town, or automating milk production for a dairy farm, we’re able to acquire empathy to best tell the story. Their story.
How to research?
Whenever we’re about to take on a new project, we start by asking ourself the 5 W’s. These are our Research Questions.
- Who is it about?
- What happened?
- When did it take place?
- Where did it take place?
- Why did it happen?
The goal is to gain a deep understanding and familiarity around a topic where little or none is known about it by immersing yourself as much as you can. This type of research is called generative or exploratory.
We can start with Exploratory Research to:
- Find existing articles, books and research about the background of the subject and any important people involved with them and what roadblocks they’ve faced.
- Give us context with domain research, competitive analysis and market research.
- Conduct interviews — with the subject or people associated with them and their business. If there’s a story, speak with the journalist to gather key takeaways they’ve learned.
- Use google maps and social media to look at other shoot locations in the surrounding area.
The goal is to learn something new and be able to apply that to making the best decision when executing the photograph.
How to use what you learned from research?
Research Synthesis is making sense of the data we’ve gathered to discover what opportunities and implications exist for our design efforts. In design thinking, we start to define our key insights related to our user research by splitting large groups of data into smaller groups with Affinity Diagrams. This is a group activity to gain distance and perspective as well as identify patterns to generate a problem statement to communicate what you are trying to solve for.
In photography, on a singular scale, the research can’t be applied to anything objective or tangible. You might interpret the findings as a metaphor as you shoot, to make something meaningful as a photograph.
So why is research so important? Research allows us to understand and deeply connect to the subject by being absorbed into their environment with the goal of capturing a moment in time that is difficult to recreate. The design tools might be the same, but understanding and connecting to our subject’s is relative to each singular experience. Overall, the insights we collect through research allows us to make relevant and accessible decisions by forging a deep connection by acquiring empathy. It’s primitive and that’s why I love it. In the end, all we have is our consciousness and how we choose to relate it each other. What better way that to try to gain experience than from someone else?