We all make photos because it makes us feel something. When we see something, there is something in our gut, or in our heart, that compels us to take a photograph.
Often I think photographers forget the importance of emotion and soul when making images. We think too much about the composition, how “good” the photos will be, and how many “likes” we will get on social media.
But the number one question you need to ask yourself is this:
How do my photos make me feel?
I just took a look through some photos that I shot on black-and-white Tri-X film (pushed to 1600) that I shot in Europe last summer in 2015. I shot around 100 rolls, and looking back the photos– I got a huge rush of nostalgia, emotions, and feelings. I saw these intimate photos I shot of Cindy, my mom, and Cindy’s mom. I had immediately flash-backs to some of the things we did that summer, as well as the interesting strangers that I met, and the experiences that we had.
I am so glad that I made all those images– both for myself and for my family. I feel that these will be precious documents that will exist after I die (I plan on printing out all these photos as small 4×6’s, and hopefully making a little album).
There are all these things on the internet about what camera to buy, what lens to use, whether to shoot black and white, whether to shoot film or digital, or nowadays even whether to only use a smartphone.
But all of these questions are useless if you don’t consider– what does photography do for you personally, why do you take images, and how do your photos make you feel?
If you make photos that please others (get hundreds of likes on social media), but they make you feel indifferent and empty inside– why take these photos?
I do believe that as photographers, we need to be social. It isn’t good for us to simply hoard our photos for ourselves– we should be making photos that inspire and evoke emotions in others.
However I feel the danger is when we embrace either extreme– when we are only shooting for ourselves, or when we are only shooting for others. I feel that finding the middle path or the balance– of shooting both for ourselves, and also others is where we will find meaning in our photography.
Balancing photos for yourself and others
One of the things I learned after taking a break from social media is that there are two types of photos that I make:
- Photos I shoot for myself
- Photos I shoot for others
I know there are certain shots that I really love and really care about, but no stranger will care about.
In the past, I would feel obliged to share all my photos, but when it comes to sharing now– I try my best to be more selective. I try to only share photos which I feel will bring value to others.
As for photos that I shoot for others, I like the photos– but I’m not so emotionally attached to them. For example, I feel that most of my “street photography” of strangers is (mostly) to create images that others will like. However, all the photos that I shoot for myself (my “personal photography”) is of the #cindyproject– photos that I shoot that truly bring my heart to life.
Balancing shooting and reflection
I also used to think that my goal in life was to maximize my time so I could be shooting photos 24/7. However in reality– while I do love shooting, I also realize I need some time to stop, reflect, and admire the photos that I have already shot.
I think as photographers (especially in today’s digital and smartphone age), we don’t have a lot of time to reflect. Socrates said that a life un-examined isn’t worth living.
The problem with digital photos is this– we shoot the photos instantly, we download them instantly, and we upload and share them instantly. There is no delay which allows us to reflect on the images.
One of the main reasons I love shooting film is that it forces me to reflect. For example, I cannot immediately “chimp” and look at my photos after I have shot them. Instead, I have to let them sit and “marinate” a long time before I get them processed. And once I get them processed and scanned (usually will take me 3 months-1 year), I am able to look at my photos with a fresh pair of eyes, and reflect on my photos, my experiences, what I did right, and how I could improve my photos in the future. I find this delayed-gratification brings a lot of joy to my life.
Of course there are ways you can do this with digital– like taking photos, and not looking at them for at least a week (or a few weeks). But I find the problem is that with any digital tool, I feel hyper-active, and cannot get that zen-like bliss when I am working with older tools (either film cameras, or even writing notes on a piece of paper).
I think ultimately the life of the modern photographer is to be a hybrid– to embrace technology and the past. To shoot photos on film of personal moments and memories which are really meaningful to us. Perhaps shooting digital or with our smartphones for moments that are less important.
For me, that means shooting photos of Cindy on film, and shooting digital “street portrait” photos of strangers. I usually keep my film camera at home, and will shoot photos of Cindy around the house, eating breakfast, having coffee, studying, or chilling on the couch. When I’m on the streets and I want to be light and nimble, I will take my digital camera, and take photos of strangers that interest me.
That goes with reading as well– when I really want to enjoy my reading experience, I will read a paper book, and write notes in the margins, and also write some notes in a notebook. When I am traveling, on the road, and trying to keep my mind stimulated– I will read on my Kindle app on my smartphone, read blogs, or Wikipedia articles.
Do it first for yourself, then others
But to end this letter, don’t forget that at the end of the day, you take photos for yourself. Not for anybody else. You need to make photos that emotionally excite and fulfill you.
The more emotion you put into your images, the more emotion your viewers will get out of the images.
We are human beings– we have been around on Earth for millennia, and our biological DNA hasn’t changed much– we still sing, dance, laugh, feel pain, love, sorrow, and joy. The technology will always change, but we will never change.
Shoot to your heart’s content,
8:21am, Thursday, March 31, 2016.
Personal photography articles
- The “Personal Photography” Manifesto
- A Photographer’s Search For Meaning
- How to Find Your Passion in Photography
- Find out What to Photograph, Not How
- Why Do You Take Photos?
- Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself
- Do You Like Your Own Photos?
- Simple Contentment
- The Cindy Project
- The Things That Matter Most
- The Point Isn’t to Be a Good Photographer, But to Enjoy Life
- How to Make More Interesting Photos
- Social Media 4.0
- Express Yourself