I wanted to write you this letter on how to enjoy the process of photography, rather than worrying about the results.
In photography there isn’t much we can control. We can control where to stand and when to take the photo. We cannot control whether we will have perfect light, whether we have the right subject, or whether there will be the right bit of “magic” that enters the scene.
I have written in a past letter that the point isn’t to be a “good” photographer, but to enjoy your life.
So building off that point— enjoy the process of photography, rather than the result.
Luck is required for results
In American society, there is an over-emphasis on the results of our work. The process isn’t appreciated or respected very much.
However the problem with focusing too much on the results is that a lot of luck goes into making a good result. If you’re a musician, sometimes you just get lucky getting the right mix of beats and the right few musicians in a room. If you’re a painter, sometimes you’re just blessed with a nice day of weather, which might inspire you to create that masterpiece. If you’re a writer, you might be lucky to have gotten a good caffeine buzz off your coffee that day, and got good sleep that night, which helped you get in the “zone” and write to your heart’s content.
With photography, being overly obsessed with the result means we get overly obsessed with “making good photos.” Which means, we get overly obsessed with having the most expensive high-quality camera (because “better” and “more expensive” cameras take “better” photos), we get more obsessed about being in exotic places (because being in a village in India is more “interesting” than being in the suburbs), and we also want more “bokeh” in our photos (because it signals to others that we are using “professional” equipment).
However let us take a step back and rather enjoy the process of shooting.
Put your heart into the process
Imagine if you had a camera in which you were never able to see the results. Would you still take photos?
Interestingly enough, Josef Koudelka (who is currently in his 70’s) is shooting non-stop, barely giving him any break to look at his photos. He says that while he is still in good health, he wants to enjoy the process of making images, and wants to dedicate himself to shooting as much as he can, before he becomes too old and sick to shoot.
Garry Winogrand was one of the most prolific street photographers in history. Legend has it that he was able to shoot an entire roll of film by walking down one block. He was fascinated and passionate about life around him, and the results of the photography came secondary. This is proven because his output of shooting far outstripped his ability to develop and print his work. He died with thousands of rolls of film undeveloped.
These are two men who put their absolute heart and soul into the process of shooting. Of course they care about the results (they still work hard to making the best possible image possible), but their trust and focus in the process is what made them great.
Film helps you enjoy the process
My good friend Vishal Somji (runs Camera Film Photo) and Bellamy Hunt (runs Japan Camera Hunter) are two passionate individuals who love film. Why? Not because it makes them look like cool “hipsters”, but because they better enjoy the process.
Vishal in-fact told me that the reason he loves shooting film is that the process is just more fun and enjoyable. He loves the act of loading his camera with film, advancing the film, processing and scanning his film, and archiving his film. He feels that while digital might get similar results, he doesn’t enjoy the process as much.
As an American, I am still overly obsessed with results. I am honestly not as sentimental about the process of creating art as I’d like to be.
However as time has gone on, I am starting to much prefer the experience and process of living life, rather than any of the “results” life might throw in my life.
For example, I prefer the process of reading paper-books rather than reading e-books. Sure they might contain the same “information” and e-books are more “convenient” and lighter than paper books, but honestly, reading an e-book is like trying to load a website when your phone is on 2G/Edge. The process is painful, jagged, slow, and annoying. While reading on a paper-book is smooth, fluid, the book has “physicality”, a nice smell, you can feel the texture of the papers, and the ability to write directly on the pages is also a lovely “haptic” and sensory experience.
Shooting film gives me similar joys in terms of the process. I prefer shooting with my digital Ricoh GR camera because it fits in my front pocket, is light, digital doesn’t cost anything to process, and how compact it is. However clicking is just whatever— I point-and-shoot. The results come out pretty swell, but the process isn’t special.
However when I’m shooting film, I enjoy the process of shooting far more. I love looking through the optical viewfinder, taking my time, not feeling so rushed, and feeling like I control the camera (rather than the camera controlling me). It is kind of like driving a manual-transmission car versus an automatic car— the driving “experience” and process is far more fun with the manual-transmission car (although both transmissions will take you from point “A” to point “B”).
Apparently there are also hidden benefits to writing on paper (rather than typing). Something about the sensory experience of your fingers pressing the ink onto paper helps you better retain what you learn. Same with shooting film: when I get my film processed and scanned, I am able to more vividly re-live every single experience and day (because I am constrained to 36 frames). Whereas with digital, it is just all one stream.
What is more important for you: the process or the result?
“The journey is the reward.” – Steve Jobs
The question you need to ask yourself is whether the process of shooting photography or the result is more important to you.
If the process of shooting photography is more important to you, shoot in a manner in which helps you maximize your enjoyment of the process.
If you enjoy the result more, screw the process, and just do whatever you need to get the maximally-best image.
Once again, this is a personal choice. There is no “right” or wrong.
Personally, I know that by focusing on enjoying the process makes me less miserable in life. Why? When I am overly attached to the result of my images, I am always disappointed. When I enjoy the process of shooting (enjoying going on a nice walk, chatting with friendly strangers, and having a nice coffee), I am generally a lot happier.
Also by setting high expectations of yourself, you are bound to be disappointed.
I am still a high achiever; so how do you balance working hard and yet not being complacent?
Simple: work really damn hard in your photography (put in a lot of effort in the process), yet detach yourself from the result.
Which means stay as focused and work as hard on your framing, timing, and composition when you’re shooting. Give it your 100%. But don’t expect to get fantastic results overtime.
How to enjoy the process of shooting
Some practical tips to lessen disappointment in your photography and to enjoy the process:
- Don’t look at your photos immediately: let your photos sit and “marinate” for a while before looking at them.
- Shoot film: a process that allows you to forcibly “marinate” your photos (whereas it is easy to ‘cheat’ with looking at your photos immediately in digital).
- Detach yourself from the results: work hard while shooting, but don’t expect to make good photos.
- Take your time: don’t rush yourself. Realize that to become a great photographer and to make great photos takes a long ass time. Can you expect to become a chess grandmaster in just one year of shooting? No, it might take you decades to become a chess grandmaster. So how do you expect to become a great photographer in just one year of practice? Give it time— decades.
- Don’t upload photos online: keep your photos offline, and don’t rush to upload them online. Often by sharing your photos online, you put yourself to mercy at the masses. What if you really love the process of shooting a photo, yet the result isn’t so good? If you still upload the photos, you won’t get as many comments/ “likes” on the photo as you might expect (which will lead to disappointment).
Enjoy the process, walk slowly, smile, enjoy your cup of coffee, say hello to a stranger, and revel in the moment.
Sunday, Jan 24, 2016 @ Philz coffeeshop in Berkeley.