Find out What to Photograph, Not How

Garden Grove, 2016 #cindyproject
Garden Grove, 2016 #cindyproject

“Find out what to write, not how.” – Seneca (Letters to Lucilius)

Dear friend,

I wanted to write you this letter on the importance of knowing what to photograph, rather than how to photograph.

As photographers we often get caught up in the gear, the lenses, post-processing methods, and technical approaches. We wonder whether we are better off using a rangefinder, a compact camera, what focal length to use, whether to use black and white or color— yet we forget the central question: “What is important in our life, and what should we photograph?”

What is a ‘photographer’?

As a photographer, you are nothing but a subject-selector. You are a filter. You take in reality through your eyes, and you determine what you find interesting enough (or important enough) to photograph.

Technical details— like aperture, shutter-speed, ISO, etc are all (mostly) done by the camera. Eventually we will reach a day when we will never have to worry about any technical details. However what will still be important 2,000 years from now? What to photograph.

What is meaningful to you?

I think most of us started off photography quite simply. We might have started taking photos on our smartphones to document family gatherings, or snapshots during travel. We might have picked up photography as a way to express ourselves, and to photograph our loved ones. We might have started to photograph because we were interested in architecture and the man-made environment; and photography was a way for us to document whatever we found interesting.

There is a lot of stuff out there in the world. There are an infinite amount of subjects to photograph: flowers, trees, houses, cars, people, animals, architecture, etc.

But what is important or interesting to you? What are you so passionate about that you just need to go out and document it?

Why I do what I do

Personally, I love human beings. I’m that annoying guy at the cafe who speaks far too much to the baristas. I’m that guy who is always asking you questions, learning more about you and your life, and asking “why” you do what you do.

Why do I do this? I don’t know— but I am drawn to my fellow human beings. As an extrovert, I enjoy “small talk” (especially with uber drivers, bus drivers, grocery store clerks, baristas, servers, or anyone else I encounter on the streets). I think I learn this from my mom— she has always taught me (through example) that everyone in the world is your friend, you shouldn’t be afraid of anybody (even though they may look frightening on the outside), and you can learn a lot of wisdom from others.

In the pursuit of wisdom, love, and human-understanding; I love talking to people. And for me honestly— photography comes second. I remember the first taste I got for street photography was the fact that I had a fascinating, deep, meaningful conversation with a stranger— and I wanted to take a photograph to document and remember that interaction. I didn’t care so much about the camera I used, my technical settings, my lens, how sharp the image was, or how the photograph turned out. I just wanted to make the most faithful depiction of what I experienced— for myself, and perhaps to show to some other people as “proof” of the experience that I had.

Even nowadays I feel that photography isn’t my #1 interest in life. Rather, it is the pursuit of “wisdom” (I love to read philosophy books), the pursuit to be less shitty of a person and more compassionate towards my family, friends, and loved ones, and also the chance to share a few of the things which I find personally helpful with others.

I have a lot to thank “street photography” for— the chance for me to build up my courage to talk (more) with strangers, the chance for me to wander the world, and enjoy the “beauty in the mundane.” Street photography has taught me that I don’t need to be in some exotic country— but rather, I can find as much beauty within a square-block from my house, and photographing a stranger can be much more meaningful than photographing some African villager in a developing country.

To make it more general— photography has given me the opportunity to be more perceptive of the world around me. And what I want to photograph is what I personally feel emotionally connected to.

The “Cindy” project

At the moment, my #1 subject (or ‘what’ to photograph) is my partner Cindy. She is my better half, she is the reason I wake up in the morning (literally, I have to tempt her out of bed with the smell of freshly-ground coffee in the morning, throw off the blankets, and sometimes drag her out of bed), and she is the person who has always believed in me from the beginning— and daily pushes me to achieve my “personal maximum.”

Sure, there are a lot of rough-edges in our relationship. I often get petty about small little jabs she attacks me with. No relationship is perfect; and I know my relationship with Cindy will never be perfect. But it is the imperfection of our relationship which I find the beauty— how can I truly love Cindy if I never get angry at her, how can I learn to be compassionate with her if I am not insensitive, how can I learn how to be more mindful of others if I always put myself first?

Anyways— the reason why I photograph Cindy is because she is beauty to me. She is the reason humanity exists— she reminds me that love is about a connection between two human beings. To take it further, love is what holds humanity together, in community, friends, and families.

So why do I photograph her? Because to me, it is the way I can show my love for her, and I hope to share that love with others— and with you.

I know you have a lot of loved ones in your life. It might be your best friend, your child, your parents, your spouse, your girlfriend/boyfriend. Whoever. Why not treat them as your #1 subject to photograph?

And if you find something you are passionate of photographing (it doesn’t have to be human beings, it can be nature, the city, etc) you won’t really care “how” to photograph it. I mean, if you know “what” to photograph and “why” you photograph it— the “how” of photographing is very unimportant. Just get a small compact camera, and shoot in “P” mode. It is far more important to document what you are passionate about, to capture the “decisive moment” rather than worrying about what camera to use, what lens to use, and what technical settings to use.

Capturing what you feel

Often I get trapped in thinking too much about “how” to photograph. I obsess endlessly on whether I should shoot digital or film, whether color or black and white, whether JPEG or RAW, what focal length to use, or whether to use flash or not. But I need to remind myself— this is the wrong question to ask.

If my primary concern is what to photograph — why should I obsess so much over how to photograph?

What do I want to photograph? Cindy. Why do I want to photograph her? Because I want to capture my love for her, and share that with others. How do I photograph that? Well it doesn’t really matter so much— a camera that is always with me, easy to carry around, as long as I can capture the moment and the feeling I have towards her.

This is why lately I’ve been shooting more black and white and adding a lot of grain— I feel it is a timeless look which truly conveys how I feel about Cindy (nostalgic, soft, and tender). What I do not want is super-sharp, high-resolution, “bokeh” photos that look like commercial shots. The irony of photography is nowadays the cameras are a little “too perfect”, and the downside is that aesthetically it is uglier. Rather than the image showing the emotion and feeling of the moment, it is rather to get everything technically perfect. This is why watching Blu-Ray movies look horrible (it is too perfect); I prefer the imperfections and the soft glow of movies shot on film.


To a certain degree— what camera and the technical settings you use is important. After all, “how” you photograph will change the aesthetic and what the image finally looks like.

To clarify what I am trying to say: the camera, lens, processing-method, and technical settings are important, but far less important than deciding “what” to photograph.

Start off by deciding what subject to photograph, what kind of project to photograph— by determine what you’re passionate about, and what subject you love. Then afterwards figure out how to shoot it (rather than starting off with “how” to shoot, and then figuring out “what” to shoot).

Photography 2,000 years from now

I just finished reading Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius— in an edition that was printed in the 1920’s. First of all Seneca’s original letters were written to his buddy Lucilius around 2,000 years ago (around the time of Christ). And funny enough— what Seneca wrote is still super-relevant to today’s society (how to deal with death, wealth, and how to live a virtuous life). The technologies have changed (instead of having chariots today we have cars, and instead of worrying about wearing purple robes we worry today about wearing the latest designer label clothes).

Which has me thinking— I would hope to write things about photography that will be relevant 2,000 years from now. Not to say that what I say will exist in 2,000 years (I will be dead, my kid’s kids will be dead, who knows if the internet will still be around, nobody is going to pay for the hosting for my blog, it will all evaporate into digital dust). But at the same time— I want to write things which will have “timeless value.”

In the past, I have wasted too much time writing about cameras, technical settings, equipment, etc. Every year a new digital camera comes out, which is always slightly better. And 2,000 years from now— I can guarantee you that cameras and “still photography” will still be around. But what kind of devices will people use? Nobody knows, but I know that 2,000 years from now, people are still going to be concerned about what to photograph. In the future, we will no longer need to think about any of the technical settings (computers will calculate this all for us).

Therefore I feel like it is my task and life’s mission to contemplate these questions, on what to photograph, asking why should we photograph, and how to live a happy life.

These are some personal “truths” I have discovered about photography which has made me a lot happier (and less miserable) in my life:

  1. Buy books, not gear (I regret spending a ton of money on cameras, I wish I invested that into photography books and education instead)
  2. Buy experiences, not stuff (similar to the prior point— but investing in ‘experiences’ like traveling is a far better ‘bang-for-the-buck’ than buying stuff, which will eventually lose its novelty)
  3. You don’t need to travel to enjoy your life (after traveling to 30+ international cities, I have discovered that the world is a lot more similar than dissimilar. Travel is fantastic to open up your mind, but ultimately my lesson was ‘home is where the heart is.’ Ironically enough, traveling away from home has taught me how much I love and value home. Therefore I can honestly say if I went for the rest of my life and never traveled again, I would know that I’m not ‘missing out’).
  4. You need a purpose (having a sense of purpose of photographing and living is what drives us forward. Trust me, buying a new camera won’t ‘inspire’ you to shoot more. The only way to stay inspired is to have a burning sense of passion and mission— a purpose to photograph. Or else you will die both creatively, mentally, and spiritually)
  5. Enjoy the process (we cannot control whether or not we make good photos, but we can control how much effort we put in, how much passion we put in, and the enthusiasm we put in. If we enjoy the process, we detach ourself from the results, and therefore we will be a lot less stressed and happier in life).

Personal conundrums: Film vs digital

As of right now, I am still debating between shooting film and digital for my personal work.

The benefit of shooting film is a lot— I enjoy the process more, the end-result more (I think photos shot on film look aesthetically more pleasing than my digital shots), I like the idea that the negatives will last a lot longer than my digital RAW files, and how I get less “Gear Acquisition Syndrome” because I don’t feel the need to ‘upgrade’ my film camera.

What I hate about shooting film is how it makes me dependent and a slave to others. Meaning, if I have no more money, I can no longer develop it (I pay labs to develop for me). Sure I can develop myself, but honestly I hate developing and scanning my own stuff — I would rather use that time to read, write, and meditate. Furthermore, I hate the physical baggage that comes with film— I have so many rolls of developed film hanging around in boxes and luggage bags which physically weigh me down. I’m going to be abroad for the next 2 years or so— do I really want to drag around film? I want to be light, and free.

Digital is fantastic in a lot of regards— in a sense it is “free”, but the downside is that digital technology is still very fragile. I know the JPEG standard will probably stick around for a while, but accessing RAW files can be a pain in the ass. I have everything sync’d on Dropbox, but how long will the “cloud” technology be around, and if a computer hacker got into Dropbox and deleted everybody’s digital data, we would all be fucked.

I know that physical things will last longer— that is why I am (at the moment) thinking of just sticking with digital (Ricoh GR II) and continuing to tweak my Lightroom presets to make it look as “film-like” as I can (Because I still pretty the gritty black-and-white aesthetic– download my new Tri-X 1600 preset for free). Not only that, but I want to print more of my photos (either in books, as prints, or in magazines).

I am still amazed that I can borrow a book from the library that is over 100 years old, and still use it just fine. I can’t imagine my Kindle still working 100 years from now.

Anyways, I am still personally trying to figure out things for me, but I will keep you updated with my findings.

Forever grateful

Thank you for always being here for me, lending an ear to the words that I write, and supporting me always.

I couldn’t do what I do if it weren’t for you. So thank you.

Always be strong, faithful, and know that you’re on the right track in your photography. Know that questioning why you shoot is the first step in discovering your unique voice in photography, and know that at the end of the day, as long as you photograph what you’re passionate about, you will be fully-satisfied and content in what you do. Oh yeah, and spend less time on social media— trust me, you will have a lot more peace of mind.

Now go forth and make beautiful images,

Thursday, Jan 21, 2016, Emeryville @ “Scarlet City Espresso” 1:58pm with a lovely ristretto espresso.

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