The 3-Step Process of Personal Photography

East Lansing, 2013 #cindyproject
East Lansing, 2013 #cindyproject

Dear friend,

If you’ve ever wanted to find more meaning, purpose, and direction in your photography— I recommend you to pursue “personal photography.” What exactly is “personal photography”? To me, it is a genre of photography that focuses on yourself— focuses on your personal life experiences, focuses on photographing your loved ones, and the other elements of your “boring” and everyday life.

Why personal photography?

Amsterdam, 2015 #cindyproject
Amsterdam, 2015 #cindyproject

Many of us have jobs that we aren’t crazy about, we don’t have a lot of time to go out and “shoot photos”, and we don’t feel like we live in an exotic place.

The liberating thing about “personal photography” is that you can literally do it anywhere— in your house, at your office, or when you’re with your family.

“Personal photography” only has one requirement: that it is personal — personal to you, your life experiences, and what makes you unique as a human being.

Getting started

Portugal, 2015 #cindyproject
Portugal, 2015 #cindyproject

To get started in “personal photography” — consider what you find meaningful in your life. Who are your close loved ones, and how do your photos reflect those relationships?

Death is something that hangs over all of us, like a dagger, suspended in the air, and we aren’t sure when that string is going to snap. I’ve had friends who died suddenly (age 27), friends-of-friends who passed away in car accidents, and other friends or acquaintances who suddenly got cancer or some other rare disease.

We never know when we are going to pass.

So the point of “personal photography” is to truly make photos for ourselves— not for others. “Personal photography” seeks for you to make personal memories— for yourself, your close friends, and for your family. According to “personal photography” — you want to create personal documents that generations-to-come (in your family) can appreciate. “Personal photography” is documenting the happy moments in your life, the tough times, and to document how you were able to persevere.

In terms of “personal photography” — the camera or documenting tool doesn’t really matter. My suggestion is to use the easiest, least-obtrusive, smallest, and lightest camera— something that is easy for you to carry with you. That can be your smartphone camera, a small compact camera, or anything else that can slip into your bag, and constantly be with you.

Step 1: Notice

Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject

In today’s society, we are constantly being distracted by flashing notifications, emails, text messages, social media updates, blogs, games, apps, and advertisements vying for our attention.

Personally I have found that most of modern technology prevents us from noticing the beauty in life— especially within our lives.

To “notice” more is to turn off your technology. So for example when you’re at home, turn off your phone. Appreciate the company of your loved ones— your children, your partner, or friends. Be fully-engaged in conversation with them, and know how to focus in your inter-personal communications.

Furthermore, when you’re out walking in the streets, walk slowly, and look all around you. Specifically— look down, and look up. Take a 360 degree view of the world around you— and just notice all of these interesting things around you.

A lot of photographers complain that their hometowns are too “boring” to photograph and that their lives are too “boring.”

I think it is all about perspective— I have friends in NYC who find it “boring”, friends in Paris who find it “boring”, and friends in Tokyo who think the city and their lives are “boring.”

“Boring” is just a state of mind— if you are like a child, everything is interesting. A child is constantly curious, always wanting to learn more, and notices every little thing.

Another way to “notice” — unplug your headphones, and learn how to listen to “quiet.” Don’t feel the need to constantly stimulate yourself with audio-visual information. Just stop, breathe, and enjoy the peace.

Step 2: Appreciate

Amsterdam, 2015 #cindyproject
Amsterdam, 2015 #cindyproject

Another part of “personal photography” is to appreciate the beauty all around you. Sure you can notice the beauty, but can you really appreciate it?

For me, I take a lot of things for granted. I take the amazing public transportation system for granted, I take my loving partner Cindy for granted, I take my family for granted, I take my smartphone for granted, I take my camera for granted, and I take the internet for granted. I become “used to” all these great marvels in my life— and the beauty that God and the world has given me in nature, human relationships, and my friendships.

To appreciate something is quite difficult. A simple exercise to better appreciate things: vividly imagine as if you lost it. For example, to better appreciate your loved ones, imagine hearing if they got hit by a drunk driver— how would you feel? What would you regret not saying or not doing? And furthermore, are there certain moments you had together that you would regret not photographing?

Everything in life is fleeting, including photographs. But I feel that through “personal photography” — documenting your personal moments helps you better appreciate the moments. By being able to identify, “This is a wonderful moment” — you are able to not only photograph it, but to relish in the moment.

Step 3: Document

Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject

As photographers, we are documenters. We document history, we document those around us, and we document society around us. Not only that, but we are creative; we make art, we interpret, and we analyze.

To document is the last step of “personal photography.” Generally if you want to document a moment faithfully— it is to compose and frame the scene well.

For example, decide what not to include in the frame. Decide what is not interesting— only focus on the essential in the frame.

I feel that photography is more about subtraction, rather than addition. So always ask to yourself, “Is this really an essential part of the frame? Can I remove this subject, element, or distraction from the background?”

By eliminating distractions and noise, you can focus on what is important in your photograph— your main subject. What is essential, and truly important to you.

Documenting emotion

Berlin, 2015 #cindyproject
Berlin, 2015 #cindyproject

When it comes to documenting your personal life and personally-meaningful moments, think about the emotion you see when you identify or appreciate a scene.

This means following your gut.

Often times in photography we try to “rationalize” everything that we see. We treat ourselves more like robots; rather than emotional human beings. Sometimes we think that our emotions get in the way of making decisions— but actually it is our emotions which are the driving force behind making decisions.

There was a scientific study in which the subjects no longer felt “emotions” in the traditional sense. However their “analytic” mind was still intact. But the problem was when faced with simple decisions (whether to stay indoors or go for a walk) they couldn’t make any decisions on their own. They didn’t have emotions or a gut-feeling to guide their lives.

In personal photography, we should let our emotions guide our picture-taking process. Not only that, but we should also strive to capture emotions in our photographs. After all, emotions is what sticks with us. Emotions are what embed themselves into our soul. Photographs with emotion are more personal, and burn themselves into our minds.

Shooting for yourself or for others?

Marseille, 2015 #cindyproject
Marseille, 2015 #cindyproject

In the genre of “personal photography” — the first person to always satisfy or impress is yourself. You are the main character in this play. Everyone else is just watching.

But of course, as human beings we are also social beings. As photographers, we like to share our work with others, and feel a sense of appreciation for our work.

In order to balance taking photos for yourself, and for others— my suggestion is this: photograph photos that you like and simply let others naturally find and discover and appreciate your work. Don’t seek to make photos to satisfy your audience.

Many artists lose their sense of integrity, vision, or principles when they start to follow the whims of the masses. A true artist has his or her own vision— and is unwavering. Take for example Steve Jobs, someone who would create a “reality distortion field” and project his vision onto others— rather than letting reality dictate its rules to him. This is what helped him create so many innovative products, by refusing to add a stylus or keyboard to the iPad. But now, the modern Apple is starting to lose its creative vision— by creating a slew of products to simply satisfy the masses.

As for you, if you upload any of your personal photos to social media— you might get distracted by the amount of “likes” or comments you get on a photograph. Trust me, it has happened to me.

One of the things that helped me re-focus on taking photos for myself is to not share my photos on social media. I took a brief hiatus from uploading images to social media for about 2-3 months, and I started to ask myself, “Do I like my own photos?” rather than always wondering whether others would like my photos.

If I made a photograph that I didn’t like, but others loved— would I truly be happy? On the other hand, if I made a photograph that I loved but others didn’t— would I be happy?

Ultimately this is a decision you need to make— nobody else can make that decision for you. But always keep this in mind, and always be mindful that your own opinion of your own photos matters the most.

The “Cindy Project”

Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject

One of my main frustrations in photography is that I am not always able to shoot “street photography.” Street photography is my first passion— but often when I am living in boring residential areas, there aren’t any people walking in the streets.

I still wanted to be creative, and to photograph, and to create art. I didn’t realize it— but Cindy was the best subject that I always overlooked.

My main inspiration to start documenting Cindy was from my friend Josh White, who passionately documents those who he loves and is close with. He made an interesting point to me, “Why is it that we take photos of strangers with cameras that cost thousands of dollars, and only take photos of our loved ones with iPhones?”

It is true. We travel to foreign or exotic places and take expensive DSLR’s and lenses, and try to create “art” of strangers— people we don’t even know. But when it comes to documenting personally meaningful moments, we take mindless snapshots or “selfies” — without consideration of composition, and making the photograph look beautiful.

So flip the equation— perhaps you should take more haphazard photos of strangers or people who aren’t as meaningful to you, and to take more “artistic” and more “considered” photographs of your loved ones.

How does Cindy feel about it?

Hayward, 2015 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2016 #cindyproject

One question I get a lot when it comes to documenting Cindy is “How does Cindy feel about it?” Cindy has told me that sometimes she feels that she has no control— because I am controlling her image and deciding which moments to document, how to present her, and I am indeed creating a certain image of her.

However what has helped tremendously is making her a collaborative partner. When I ask to take certain photos of her, she knows how to pose in a certain way to present herself in a way which she feels is faithful to herself. Not only that, but I will always ask her if I could publish a certain photograph of her. If she isn’t comfortable with me uploading a photo of her online, that is fine— I keep it for myself on my hard drive. Not only that, but I ask Cindy which of her photos she likes the most— so she is a collaborative partner in terms of the editing (selection) process as well.

Unfortunately not everyone out there has partners who are willing to being photographed. Your partner might be beautiful to you, but your partner might feel uncomfortable being photographed. In this case, you don’t need to force it. Furthermore, you can also tell them that you will not upload any of the photos to the internet without their permission. Or you can just take the photos for yourself, print them out, and put them into family albums.

Remember: you never want to let your photography or “art” supersede the dignity, respect, and feelings of your loved ones.

Every moment is precious

Berkeley, 2016 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2016 #cindyproject

Another aspect of “personal photography” is to realize that every moment is precious. There are not certain moments which are more “valuable” than other moments.

For example, the smallest moments are precious. The moment having your morning coffee, having lunch with your friend, or cuddling up on the couch with your partner in the evening.

When you are fully in-the-moment; is there anywhere else you’d rather be?

Personal Photography Manifesto


I’m currently putting together a new book: “Personal Photography Manifesto (19MB Direct Download). I will continue to update this blog with new excerpts from the book and keep you in the loop.

Below are some articles to get you started in “Personal Photography”:

  1. The “Personal Photography” Manifesto
  2. A Photographer’s Search For Meaning
  3. How to Find Your Passion in Photography
  4. Find out What to Photograph, Not How
  5. Why Do You Take Photos?
  6. Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself
  7. Do You Like Your Own Photos?
  8. Simple Contentment
  9. The Cindy Project
  10. The Things That Matter Most
  11. The Point Isn’t to Be a Good Photographer, But to Enjoy Life
  12. How to Make More Interesting Photos
  13. Social Media 4.0
  14. Express Yourself