Why Do You Take Photos?

SF, 2016 #cindyproject
SF, 2016 #cindyproject

Dear friend,

I wanted to share an idea I had with you in regards to philosophy, life, photography, physics, and Elon Musk from Tesla.

I am highly inspired by Elon Musk. Here is a “mere mortal” who has revolutionized many industries: electronic payments (Paypal), transportation (Tesla), energy (Solar City), and space travel (Space X).

To be frank; I don’t ever want to be like him or have a life like his. I’ve seen recent interviews with him, and man— he looks horrible. He probably hasn’t got much sleep, is constantly stressed, answering emails 24/7, and barely has time to see his kids or family.

Regardless, he is a truly innovative thinker who inspires me deeply. He throws a middle-finger to convention, and starts off with what is called “first principle” thinking:

Rather than following convention, he approaches the problem like a beginner and tries to start from scratch.

For example, when he started Telsa, rather than hiring a bunch of people from other car companies— he started the entire company from scratch. All their manufacturing methods and their concept of what a “car” should be was based on fresh new ideas, that were challenged, rather than blindly following what others did.

Another example; everyone said that batteries are super-expensive, and will always be. Elon challenged that and wondered to himself, “Why is that?” And by studying what a battery exactly is— he was able to deconstruct the costs and have a totally novel way to approach electric vehicles.

Furthermore, with Space X he was able to recently successfully have a ship take off, and re-dock (the total procedure only costs 2% of what a traditional space take-off took). Why is this so innovative? Well, everyone has always thought (at least at NASA) that you “had” to have a traditional rocket: where you took off, the boosters would eject parts into the atmosphere, and then go to outer space, and then crash-land back to Earth. Elon was able to figure out that by re-docking and re-using the spaceships would mean huge savings.

Be a beginner

In Zen Buddhism they have a similar concept called “beginner’s mind” — that you approach the world like a newborn child, without any “knowledge”, “theories”, or “ideas” and certainly no “pre-conceived notions.”

The great thing about being a beginner or a child is that you explore the world first-hand. You don’t ask others for their opinion; you experience the world directly.

For example, learning photography by myself (with a little Canon point-and-shoot camera when I was 18 years old) was the most fun and exciting thing. I never attended a photography class, and learned all the basics in terms of how to use the camera by trial-and-error. And for this, I am grateful. Because a lot of people I know who went to photography school or formally studied photography end up following these rigid “theories” and “styles” in photography— which prevents them from finding their own voice, for breaking new ground, and innovating.

Even now, my biggest problem is that I have too much knowledge about photography. I want to be a beginner again— and to have that childlike curiosity.

So if we applied this concept of “first principle” thinking to photography— what are some common “truths” that people talk about, which might not necessarily be true?

For example, are these statements (generally understood) really true?

  1. If you want to be a better photographer, buy a more expensive camera
  2. If you want to take better photos, travel more
  3. If you want to be more creative, buy more lenses
  4. If you want to gain recognition for your photography, share them on as many social media sites as possible
  5. You need to live somewhere interesting or be an interesting person to make interesting photos

These are “common” truths that I have discovered on the internet just based on my personal experiences, and also by talking to other photographers.

But let’s do a thought experiment— what if today you were born without any theory or knowledge about photography, and if you had no access to the internet. Imagine that someone just gave you a point-and-shoot camera (or let’s say an iPhone)— how would you shoot photos differently?

What is photography?

As for me, let’s consider this common idea:

You must buy an expensive camera to take better photos.

Marketing, consumerism, advertising, and the internet all tell us that if we want to truly unlock our creativity, and take “better” photos, we need to buy “better” cameras.

But how true is that?

Let’s start from the beginning. What is a photograph?

A photograph is an image that is recorded that the human eye can perceive.

What is needed to take a photograph? A camera.

But what is a “camera”?

A camera is a device that captures light and records it into an “image” and saves it.

What is “light”?

To be frank, I have no idea what “light” truly is— but I know it comes from the sun, and there are some crazy metaphysics that is behind it. But even without knowing what “light” is— it is the most important thing of photography; capturing light. Apparently the latin derivation of the word “photography” means “painting with light.”

I know we often get caught up in the discussion of whether film or digital is better, what camera or lens to use, and what makes a great photograph.

But to take it back to basics— photography is just capturing light.

So what makes a “good” photograph? Well, to be honest— you can never objectively say what makes a “good” photograph— because a photograph is just capturing light. And there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” light (regardless of what photography schools say). Light is light— darkness is not necessarily a “bad” thing, and a photograph doesn’t necessarily have “poor” exposure— it is just a different type of exposure.

I think it all comes down to what kind of images you want to make.

Without even considering what makes a “good” photograph— let’s ask a more fundamental question: Why do we take photographs?

Why do we take photographs?

So taking everything from the beginning and working backwards— let us discuss why we take photographs, not how we take photographs, or what we use to take photographs.

So ask yourself,

“Why do I take photographs?”

To jump in a time machine, when I was 18 years old, I took photographs because I had a terrible memory, and taking photos was an intimate way for me to document my memories of my loved ones, experiences, friends, and life.

It was only when I started to learn more about photography that I wanted to take “better” photos.

But once again, what exactly makes a “better” photograph? It is all subjective at the end of the day. A better question would be, “What kind of photographs make you happy and satisfied?”

I have been espousing the importance of making your photography personal, and not caring about what others think about your work. After all, if you don’t love your own photos, why do you care whether others love your photos or not?

It is kind of like life— if you don’t love yourself, why do you care about what others think about you?

Anyways— currently I take photos because I want to document my love for Cindy, the love of my life. I hope to share that love with my friends, family, and you, and the rest of the “internet”— in the hope that others will also value their loved ones, and also document and photograph their loved ones with much intent.

So to take it back— I take photos to document my loved ones and personal experiences. So why does it matter what camera I use? Well, it technically doesn’t.

I just know that for me, the bigger my camera is, the less likely I am to carry it with me wherever I go, and the less likely I am to take photographs.

So the logical conclusion is that I should not use a big and cumbersome camera.

Another debate I’ve been having with myself about digital versus film. I prefer the convenience and cheaper cost of digital, but I prefer the aesthetics and the process of shooting film.

However if my true purpose of taking photos is to document my memories and photograph my loved ones (my main purpose isn’t to take super high-definition, super-sharp, and super high-quality images), then the tool doesn’t matter so much). Yet at the same time, I tend not to like taking photos with my phone. Why not? I like using the flash quite a bit, and the flash on a smartphone is generally under-powered and is a bit too slow. However at the end of the day, I have no problem taking photos on my phone (especially if it is going to be taking a selfie and sending it quickly to a friend via text message).

Challenge conventions

So friend, challenge your own assumptions and “convention.” Ask yourself, “Why do I take photos?”, and work backwards from there.

I think one of the great ideas in photography is to avoid the wrong questions. So please don’t start off with these questions:

  • What camera should I buy?
  • What lens should I buy?
  • Where should I travel to take good photos?
  • Which photographers should I study?
  • How do I use the technical settings on my camera?

Rather, ask these questions:

  • Why do I take photos?
  • What kind of photos do I hate?
  • What kind of photos do I love?
  • How do I like to have photos shared with me, and how do I plan on sharing my photos with others?
  • Do I want to leave behind a “legacy” with my photography— and does this really matter?

Ask the right questions, and life becomes a lot simpler.

Disregard “common knowledge” in photography— discover the truths yourself, and always challenge convention.


Thursday, 2:21pm, @ Paris Baguette Coffee, Jan 7th, 2016 in Berkeley.

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