If you’re new to photography, it can be quite daunting. There is so much information on the internet about photography, but a lot of “mis-information” as well. If I started photography all over again, this is the advice I would give myself.
Through my personal journey of photography, I’ve learned a lot of lessons. This list is a distillation of all the lessons I’ve learned so far. None of these are “right” or “wrong” — they are just opinions of mine that can hopefully spark some new ideas in you. Feel free to pick and choose what resonate with you, and throw away the rest.
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Table of Contents
- “When in doubt, click.”
- Be selective about what you decide to photograph; but once you find something good, shoot the hell out of it
- Big cameras are overrated
- Don’t “take” photos, “make” photos
- Focus less on technical settings; focus more on composition and framing
- “Set it and forget it”
- What you subtract from a frame is more important than what you add to a frame
- The most important question to ask yourself in photography: “Why do I make photos?”
- Buy books, not gear
- Photography workshops are a better “bang-for-the-buck” experience than attending photography schools
- Aim to make 1 good photo a month, and 1 great photo a year
- More megapixels, more problems
- Some useful compositional tips
- The best investment for a photographer is a good pair of shoes
- Photograph what you’re afraid of
- Creativity is about constraints, not about having unlimited options
- It is hard to make a good body of work in exotic countries
- Seek to make connections, not photos
- “Shoot from the gut, edit with your brain”
- The point of photography isn’t to become a great photographer, but to live a great life
- Every photo you make is a self-portrait of yourself
- Have a strong visual anchor in your photo
- The 3 things that make a great photograph
- How to capture emotions
- Don’t crop your photos
- Share fewer photos on social media
- You can never get enough “likes” on social media
- Seek to unlearn photographic myths
- Do you like your own photos?
- Would a master photographer from the past shoot with an iPhone today?
- Don’t just take 1–2 photos of a scene (work the scene)
- Never compare yourself with others
- Aim to improve your photography by 1% everyday
- Aim to make complex photos, not complicated photos
- Distrust social media
- Print your work
- The journey is the reward
- Photograph everyday for 5 minutes, rather than photographing for 5 hours once a week
- The best camera is the most invisible camera
- Seek to have fewer people like your work
- Cross-pollinate your photography to be more creative
- If nobody else existed, would you still make photos?
- The photos you decide not to make are more important than the photos you do make.
- Photography is 90% editing your work (choosing your best photos) and 10% actually making photos.
- Aim to make one memorable photograph before you die
- Photograph like a child
- Aim to reduce the size of your camera
- “Creepiness is proportional to focal length.”
- The best “zoom” is “foot-zoom”
- When in doubt, drink more coffee
- A good way to judge your compositions: flip your photos upside down
- Be a flaneur
- The more time you spend on social media, the less satisfied you will be with your photography
- You are only as good as your last photo
- Aim for longevity in photography
- “If you aren’t busy being born, you’re busy dying.” – Bob Dylan
- Seek to know a few photographers very well, rather than many photographers superficially
- Apply the 80/20 rule in your photography
- Print your work as small 4×6’s to select your best photos
- There are no “good” or “bad” photos, but there are certainly “interesting” and “boring” photos
- Purge your photos once a year
- Aim to get one good photo from a thousand photos
- Make your own website portfolio
- Don’t be suckered by nostalgia from the past
- Train your eyes daily like a bodybuilder trains his body daily
- Be a lazy photographer
- Don’t “chimp”
- How to kill envy in photography
- Only take photos when you feel like it
- A question to ask yourself: “Is photography adding stress to my life, or removing stress from my life?”
- Shoot both horizontal and vertical photos
- Use minus-exposure compensation in harsh light
- A photographer’s best tool is his/her smile
- Shoot with your flash more often
- For portraits, put your subject’s eye in the direct center of the frame
- If someone criticizes your photo; remember, they aren’t criticizing you as a human being
- If you travel, always try to pack as light as possible
- “Kill your babies”
- Sequence your photos like a movie
- How can you turn your obstacles into an opportunity?
- Make interesting photos out of boring things
- Shoot RAW+JPEG
- Don’t buy a photography book you don’t plan on re-reading
- Bokeh is overrated
- Don’t just study photographers
- Don’t define your photography
- The more you give, the more you receive in return
- When shooting, look down, and look up
- Assume other photographers know better than you do
- Don’t trust photography editors who don’t know how to make photos themselves
- When conflicted between buying two cameras, buy neither
- Why do we take photos of strangers with cameras worth thousands of dollars, whereas we photograph our loved ones just with our iPhones?
- Don’t take photos of everything; know when to just enjoy the moment
- Start off shooting black and white, then transition into color later
- Post-processing, filters, and presets are not “cheating”
- Don’t think years, think decades
- Shoot everyday as if it were your last
- Give away your old gear
- Start your own photography blog
- Create your own list of 100 tips
1. “When in doubt, click.”
One of the biggest regrets I often have in my photography is not clicking the shutter.
For example, I might see a good scene, but I might hesitate. I let fear get the best of me.
For example, I get worried if the subject might get angry at me. I get worried if the photo I am taking is a “cliche” photo. I worry about my technical settings, focusing, and the light.
However my suggestion is whenever your heart tells you, “Take that photograph!” — listen to that voice.
Don’t let your brain and rational mind dictate your shooting style. Let your gut, intuition, and emotions control your shooting process.
2. Be selective about what you decide to photograph; but once you find something good, shoot the hell out of it
One of the biggest lessons I wish I knew if I started photography all over again is this — to be more selective about the scenes that I find interesting. But once I find a scene that is interesting, take as many photos of that scene as humanly possible.
For example, when I started photography, I took 1–2 photos of everything I saw in a day (around 300 photos). However often none of these photos were interesting.
However I recommend doing the opposite — only look for 1–2 interesting situations or scenes or “photo opportunities” in a day. Once you find that situation, then take 300 photos of each of those scenes/situations.
Why is this a better tactic?
In photography, it is rare that we find a good scene which makes us excited, and our hearts beat. Once that moment is gone, it is gone forever.
So once you find that scene that really speaks to your heart, “work the scene” and take as many photos of the scene as possible. That can be 3 photos, 5 photos, 10 photos, 30 photos, 50 photos, or even 300 photos.
The difference between beginner photographers and master photographers is this — the beginner photographer is satisfied with “good enough.” The master photographer seeks perfection.
3. Big cameras are overrated
One of the big myths in photography is that the bigger your camera, the more “professional” you are, and the better photos you will take.
I take the opposite approach — I say that big cameras are overrated, and small cameras are underrated.
I am a huge fan of small and compact cameras, because the smaller your camera, the more likely you are to take it with you everywhere you go, and the more likely you are to make photos.
In my personal photography journey, I started off with a small Canon digital point-and-shoot camera. It fit in my front pocket, and was easy for me to take it with me everywhere I went.
However as time went on, I wanted to make more “professional” photos that I saw online. I saw people shooting with photos with shallow depth-of-field (later figure out this was “bokeh”) and I was enamored. I invested all of my meager savings into buying a Canon 350D (Rebel XT), and soon got suckered into buying a “full-frame” camera (Canon 5D) or else I wouldn’t be taken as a “serious” photographer by others.
The problem was as I acquired more gear, the bigger my camera got (and the lighter my wallet got). And the bigger my camera became, the less likely I was to carry it with me everywhere I went.
I used to carry my point-and-shoot camera with me constantly in my front pocket, and and it brought me so much joy — because I was making photos constantly. Once my camera got too big, it started to collect dust on my shelf. I would never take it with me, because it was too much of a bother.
If anything, the ideal camera to shoot with is a smartphone. Why? It is small, invisible, and always with you. Sure the image quality isn’t as good as a high-end digital camera, but I feel the trade-off is worth it.
If anything, photographers focus too much on the quality of a photograph in terms of sharpness. They never focus on the quality of a photograph in terms of emotion and composition.
So when in doubt when buying a new camera remember: the smaller the better.
4. Don’t “take” photos, “make” photos
Probably the biggest breakthrough I made in my photography is when I learned the difference between America and Europe — Americans usually say “take” photos, while Europeans tend to say “make” photos.
What is the difference?
For me, “taking” a photo implies you are stealing something from someone. It sounds forceful, aggressive, and unfriendly.
Whereas “making” a photo implies you are collaborating with your subject, that you are making art, and you are doing something altruistic.
Even as a tip, whenever I approach strangers that I want to photograph, I will ask them, “Excuse me sir, do you mind if I made your photograph?” (instead of asking them to “take” their photograph).
Generally this question gets a lot better response. Why? Because it implies that I want to work with my subject to make something artful.
A small change in terminology can drastically change how you approach photography, creativity, and collaboration as a photographer.
5. Focus less on technical settings; focus more on composition and framing
One of the regrets I have in my photography is worrying too much about technical settings, trying to master “manual” mode, and trying to brag how all my photos were shot fully-manual.
I do believe that having some technical knowledge of photography is important— it can help you make the photos that you want to make.
However knowing technical settings for the sake of knowing it is a bit of a waste of time. Furthermore, if you can use an easier camera setting that creates the photos you desire, go for the easier route.
If you have an exhibition, nobody will care whether your photo was shot fully-manual or in a more automatic mode. What matters more than technical settings is emotion, soul, and creativity.
6. “Set it and forget it”
I’m a big fan of using “P” (program) mode in photography.
99% of the time when I am shooting in “P” mode, I get the photos I want.
To take it a step further, I try to simplify my technical settings as much as possible in my camera. For my ISO I set it relatively high (ISO 800–1600) which prevents me from getting blurry photos. As for autofocus, I just use the center point, which tends to be the quickest and most accurate.
While these aren’t the best settings for every situation, they work for 99% of the situations for me (especially when shooting street photography).
I think that the less you have to worry about your technical settings, the more mental energy you will have to focus on composition, framing, and capturing emotions in your photographs.
Furthermore, if your camera can make your life a little easier— why don’t you let it? Insisting on shooting fully-manual for the sake of it on your camera is like insisting only on sending handwritten letters (and never using email).
So once again, with technical settings— think of the classic American Rotisserie Chicken commercial: “Set it and forget it.”
7. What you subtract from a frame is more important than what you add to a frame
Having a good composition in photography is more about what you decide to subtract from the frame, rather than what you decide to add to the frame.
For example, many beginner photographers have the issue of making a photo that is too cluttered. Not only that, but they are generally too far away from their subject.
So instead of trying to add more information to your frame, seek to subtract distractions, noise, and superfluous elements.
If you are a beginner photographer, the best composition advice I can give is to start off with a simple background. Start off by looking for a white, grey, or neutral background if possible. Then add in your subject.
Furthermore, focus on framing by looking at the edges of your frame. If you have clean edges in the frame of your photograph, the less likely you are to have a poor composition. And the less likely you will need to crop a photograph.
So the next time you’re making a photograph, think to yourself: “Is this element in my frame adding or distracting to my image?” When in doubt, subtract from the frame.
8. The most important question to ask yourself in photography: “Why do I make photos?”
The common questions we are asked in photography include:
- What camera do you shoot with?
- What lens do you have?
- What do you like to take photos of?
Very rarely do people ask us, “Why do you make photos?”
The why of photography is probably the most important question you will ask yourself.
To start off, ask yourself these questions:
- Why did I first pick up a camera?
- Why did I first start taking photos?
- Why does photography bring me joy?
By answering these questions, you will better discover who you are as a photographer and human being.
One of the lessons I’ve also learned in photography is that the point of photography isn’t to become a great photographer. The point of photography is to enjoy your life.
Photography should be a tool which enriches your day-to-day life, and your living experiences. If photography becomes a chore or a burden to you, why do you make photos?
And once you figure out why you make photos, you will have a better insight in terms of what camera to shoot with, what to make photos of, and how to share your photos.
9. Buy books, not gear
I’ve spent thousands of dollars on camera equipment over the years. I regret about 90% of my purchases.
However I’ve also spent thousands of dollars of photography books over the years. I regret 0% of my purchases.
Any camera you buy today will be redundant or outdated in about 5–10 years.
Any photography book you buy today will probably still be relevant 5–10 years from now. If anything, many of your photography books (if you buy art books) will increase in value.
The mistake I made in photography is that I thought my photos weren’t good enough because my camera wasn’t expensive enough. I thought if I bought this new camera, this new lens, this new tripod, or whatever— I would suddenly become more “creative” and “inspired” in my photography.
The effect lasts a week, then you are back to square 1.
The only lasting effect to improve my photography was to invest in photography books — especially photography books from the masters of photography.
Think about it— a master photographer will probably spend his/her entire working life (30–50 years) to create a body of work. And that photographer will invest thousands of dollars to produce this book, market the book, and share it with others.
A photography book is a well-curated, well-considered, and well-edited collection of images. In today’s social media society, we are drowning in cat photos and selfies by sunsets. The more time we spend on social media, the more we are eating “visual junk food.”
You are what you eat. Therefore if you look at great photography (especially in the form of photography books), you will aspire to make great images. You will learn what makes a great photograph, what great composition is, and how to make a body of work that lasts through the years and decades.
Don’t get me wrong, I am still suckered by G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). I still have moments where I doubt myself, and think by investing in a new camera system I will suddenly make better photos.
But in those situations when I have an urge to buy a new camera, I will spend $50 on a book instead. And that urge will go away, and I will be inspired to make greater photos.
Never forget, #buybooksnotgear
10. Photography workshops are a better “bang-for-the-buck” experience than attending photography schools
I have never been to photography school, but I have many friends that did. While they had a great experience, many of them are $200,000+ in debt.
Was it worth it? I don’t think so.
Honestly, all of the information you need about photography can be easily learned on the internet and YouTube. And if you want feedback and direction in your photography, it is much better to attend photography workshops or hire a photography tutor.
I attended a photography workshop by the Magnum photographers Constantine Manos and David Alan Harvey — and had nearly a decade-worth of photography knowledge from both of them in a week. I regret not taking one of their workshops earlier on when I started photography. I would have saved tons of time, money, and effort.
11. Aim to make 1 good photo a month, and 1 great photo a year
One of the biggest challenges I had in my photography starting off was how easily disappointed I was. I had the wrong idea that every time I went out, I had to make a great photograph.
However upon studying the work of the master photographers, I discovered that they rarely got good shots. The only difference between us and the master photographers is that they are more selective in terms of which photos to share (and which photos not to share).
Upon studying many master and contemporary photographers, most of them only admit to making 1 good photo a month, and 1 great photograph a year.
And think about it— if you can make 1 good photo a month, that is 12 good photos in a year. 12 photos is good enough for a nice little coffee shop exhibition, or website gallery.
If you make 12 good photos in a year, then in 3–4 years you can easily put together a photography book of 36–48 good images. You can either self-publish your work, or approach a publisher.
If you make 1 great photograph a year (depending on how old you are), you can aspire to at least make 5–10 great photos before you die.
I feel that if a photographer is even remembered for 1 photograph, he/she has done their job as a photographer.
And think about the master photographers from the past— very few photographers are remembered for more than 1 memorable shot.
So set your expectations low, but work hard. This way you will never be disappointed in your photography.
12. More megapixels, more problems
This goes back to the G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) point. We think our photos aren’t good enough, and we need better cameras with more megapixels, better sensors, etc.
However what I’ve discovered in my photography is this — more megapixels, more problems.
When you upgrade your camera, you often need to upgrade your lenses (let’s say if you’re going from a crop-sensor to a full-frame sensor). Not only that, but you will probably need to upgrade your computer (to handle the bigger megapixels of the files). And not only that, but you will probably need more hard drives or invest in more storage to house all your files.
Also consider— beyond a certain point (let’s say 8 megapixels) you don’t need any more. Unless you are a commercial, studio, or fashion photographer and plan on printing your photos as big as billboards.
An 8-megapixel photo is good enough for a quite big print (12×18 inches, or even 20×30 inches). And to be honest— 99% of our photos are just going to be shown on our mobile devices and computers. How many megapixels do you need to see an image on a 5–6’’ screen?
So nowadays, whenever I see cameras with more megapixels, I feel leery. I like to stick to cameras with fewer megapixels whenever possible.
Fewer megapixels = less stress = more time and energy to enjoy photography.
13. Some useful compositional tips
If you want to improve your composition in your photography, here are some good photography tips:
- Integrate more diagonals into your work: Diagonals are more dynamic than horizontal and vertical lines. Try to shoot from different perspectives or angles which create more diagonals. Try to look for arm-gestures that have diagonals. You can event tilt your camera to make a stronger composition.
- Start off with a clean background: The fewer distractions in the background of your photograph, the better composition you can make of your subject. And the more your subject will “pop” from the background. Furthermore, if you are shooting street photography — start off with an interesting background, and wait for an interesting subject to walk into the frame.
- Avoid overlapping figures: Overlapping subjects that are merged in the background look messy. Try to separate your subjects in your frame with a little bit of negative space in-between.
- Look for curves: Curves are even more dynamic than diagonal lines. Honestly, I have a hard time finding curves when I’m out shooting, but whenever I do, these images are much more dynamic than my other photos.
- Composition is often discovered after you shoot: One of the biggest lessons I learned from Henri Cartier-Bresson is that we discover many of our compositions after we’ve made a photograph. He said that composition should be used as a tool to analyze our photos after-the-fact. It is hard to see composition while you’re shooting. But know the more you study the composition from the master photographers and your own photos, the more intuitive it will become.
- Triangles: Try to arrange elements in your frame (faces, hands, other subjects) into a triangle. This adds balance to your frame, while also filling your frame to kill dead space.
14. The best investment for a photographer is a good pair of shoes
I got this idea from the street photographer Matt Stuart. Rather than dumping hundreds of dollars into new lenses or gear, perhaps you should invest a substantial amount of money into good, comfortable, walking/running shoes.
If you are a street/travel/documentary photographer— you all probably spend a lot of time on your feet. The same goes with wedding/landscape/commercial photographers.
The more comfortable your shoes, the longer you can walk, move around, run around, crouch, or even jump up to capture “the decisive moment.”
In terms of ideal shoes for street photography, I recommend a pair that doesn’t have too much foam. Rather, I recommend low-top shoes that are close to the ground (minimalist shoes). Personally my favorite shoes are the Nike “Flyknit” Free shoes— which mimic barefoot walking. I can walk for miles without fatigue, crouch easily, and jump around when I’m shooting on the streets.
15. Photograph what you’re afraid of
For me, photography is an inner-journey. Photography is less about capturing the lives of others. Photography is more about discovering who I am as a person.
It is hard to make “good” or “interesting” photos. We aren’t sure of what to look for when we’re shooting in the streets.
However we very well know what makes us afraid. We’re afraid to photograph strangers in the streets, we are afraid of hiking to high cliffs to photograph epic sunsets, and we are afraid of making photos that others might hate.
So my suggestion: photograph what you’re afraid of. Lean into your fear. Rather than trying to avoid what you’re afraid of in photography, channel that fear into becoming more fearless and creative.
For example when I’m shooting street photography, I can go hours without seeing anything interesting. But once I see something interesting, I feel my heart rate increase, I feel my eyes dilate, I feel cold sweats go down my back, and I feel the thumping in my chest. These signs of fear are like a “photo opportunity” reminder.
My body is telling me, “Eric — this might be a good photograph. But you’re afraid that the person will get upset. But you know you really want to photograph it.”
So my new personal rule is this: if I see a scene, person, or situation I am afraid to photograph — I must photograph it. Therefore I take the photograph, and deal with the consequences later. 99% of the time I have no issues, and 1% I do. But the negative consequences are rarely as bad as I ever think it might be.
Often the fear of something bad happening is worse than the actual happening itself. Meaning, when someone actually does get angry of you taking a photograph, it isn’t as scary as you might imagine.
16. Creativity is about constraints, not about having unlimited options
I had dreams of owning dozens of camera, with all the exotic and expensive lenses. I thought of being able to constantly travel the world, and have unlimited options.
But I quickly discovered that isn’t the secret to being creative in photography. Creativity breeds on constraints, not on having unlimited options.
For example, by only sticking with one camera and one lens, you are forced to make the best photos given your constraints. You might be shooting in a crowded alleyway, or you might be too far away. But these constraints will force you to be more creative with your composition and framing— and might allow you to make more interesting photographs.
Furthermore, if you are working on a photography project, you don’t want to photograph everything. You want to be selective about what you photograph and what you don’t photograph.
I also find that constraining yourself in terms of a location is helpful to a photography project. For example, try doing a photography project where you are only allowed to shoot 1–2 square blocks for an entire month. Trust me, you will find lots of interesting things in those 1–2 blocks, and you will be forced to be more resourceful to make interesting photographs.
Making interesting photographs isn’t always shooting sunsets, double-rainbows, or “exotic” people overseas. It is about making the best photographs given your own situation in life.
17. It is hard to make a good body of work in exotic countries
We’ve all seen the famous photographs of Steve McCurry and National Geographic photographers in exotic countries. We desire to shoot the colorful walls of India, walk by the temples in Kyoto, and shoot in the crowded streets of New York City.
However the problem is that it is hard to make interesting, memorable, or strong images in foreign countries. Why? Because it is very easy to get “suckered by the exotic” (as my teacher Constantine Manos once taught me).
For example, let’s say you travel to Vietnam. The first thing you will find interesting and exotic is the locals in rice-paddy hats, the motorbikes, and street vendors. You will take tons of these photographs.
But all of these photographs are pretty boring, touristy, and not interesting to locals. We’ve all seen these photographs a million times before.
What you want to do instead is to approach photographing in a foreign country from the perspective of a local. What would a local find interesting in his/her own country, given that he/she has lived in that country for his/her whole life?
Not only that, but if you travel overseas, it is hard to make a strong body of work in a foreign place. Why? You only have a week or two (or let’s say a month) while you’re traveling. That isn’t enough time to make a strong body of work. A strong body of work often takes months, years, and sometimes even decades.
My suggestion instead is try to make the best photographs in your own neighborhood, your own city, or your own town. If you dutifully photograph any location or place for a decade, how can you make a weak body of work?
18. Seek to make connections, not photos
I think that making connections through photography is more important, meaningful, and personally-fulfilling than making photos.
What I mean by that is this — I value the friendships I’ve made through photography and the life experiences that I’ve had through photography more so than the photos themselves.
I know at the end of my life, I’m not going to care about the photos that I’ve shot. Rather, I’m glad of the social connections I’ve made through photography that enriched my life.
I think one of the main reasons people love photography is that it forces them to be more social. Even though you might shoot photos by yourself, you definitely want to share them with someone. You might share your photos on social media, with a local photography group or a club, or with your friends and family.
Also another thing to consider is that your personal ethics is more important than making a good photograph.
If you are in a situation where taking a photograph might hurt your relationship or connection with those around you, I say value the connection over making the photograph.
Of course at the end of the day it is your own personal decision what to photograph (and what not to photograph).
But don’t forget, having a heart, ethics, and soul as a photographer is just as important as making good photos (if not greater).
19. “Shoot from the gut, edit with your brain”
In photography, we often value logic, theory, and “rationality” more than our gut reactions.
And it is true — at least when we are editing or selecting our best photographs.
The best advice I got from the photographer Anders Petersen is that when we’re out shooting, we should shoot from our gut. We shouldn’t think too much when we’re shooting. We should follow our instincts, and photograph what feels natural, emotional, and exciting.
However when you’re done shooting, and relaxing at home in front of your computer, then use your brain and rationality to choose your best images.
Many photographers “choke” when they try to think too much while they’re shooting. They fall victim to what psychologists call “paralysis by analysis” — they analyze a scene too much, become too self-critical, and end up making no photographs.
As a general rule, I think it is better to take more photos (than fewer photographs). Why? The more you click the shutter, the more likely you are to hit a homerun. If you were a baseball player, would you rather have the pitcher throw you 1–2 balls, or 100 balls?
20. The point of photography isn’t to become a great photographer, but to live a great life
Is photography adding or removing stress from your life?
When I started photography, I was just an innocent beginner. I loved just hanging out with my friends, traveling, eating out, and taking snapshots of whatever I did. This is when I was the happiest and most fulfilled in my photography.
As time went on, I wanted to be taken as a “serious” photographer — therefore I started to take myself too seriously, and only wanted to make “serious” photographs.
This actually added stress, anxiety, and frustration to my life. I stopped making photos for myself; I started to make photos for others. And the more I started to make photos for others, the less satisfied I was with my own photos.
Many of us enjoy the process of photography, because it exercises our creativity, helps us explore, wander, and notice the beauty of life. But if photography is adding undue stress to your life— ask yourself, “Why am I making photos? Am I making photos to get a lot of ‘likes’ on social media? Am I making photos to bring myself joy? Am I making photos to impress others?”
Our lives are stressful enough. Photography should be an art form that removes stress from your life. Photography should add joy, purpose, and meaning to your life.
And know you don’t always need to be making photos. Sometimes it is more important to enjoy a moment with close friends and family than take photos. I have a personal rule nowadays not to take photos of my food, and not to take photos of fireworks. I’ve learned to just enjoy the moment without the need to obsessively document everything.
21. Every photo you make is a self-portrait of yourself
Every photograph you make is a self-portrait of yourself— which means that you have a unique view of the world, and your photos reflect that.
Let’s say you and I walk down the same block. You and I will probably see two totally different things. You might be drawn to the architecture (which says something about your artistic interests), while I might be drawn to the street people.
As a photographer, you are a “subject-selector.” You decide what to photograph and what not to photograph.
In-fact, one of the best ways to discover your “style” in photography is to discover what photos you don’t like to photograph.
For me, I dislike taking photos of landscapes, flowers, and products. What is left? Mostly photographs of people.
Not only that, but the best photographers are the ones who are able to imbue their soul and emotion into their photographs.
The best photographers are the ones in which their photos correspond with their personalities. For example, photographers like Daido Moriyama show the darkness, sense of alienation, and loneliness of people on the streets (which also shows who Daido is as a person). A photographer like Martin Parr makes colorful, ironic, and critical images of others (which shows how he is a social critic, and uses his camera as a tool to analyze society).
For me, I have a generally optimistic demeanor — but my photos are quite depressing. I studied sociology in school, and while there are a lot of things I love about society, there are a lot of things about society which frustrate me. I use my camera as a tool to analyze the inner-emotional states of other people, as a way to reflect my own vision of the world.
So what do your photos tell about you? Only you know.
22. Have a strong visual anchor in your photo
A photo without a strong visual anchor will cause your viewer’s attention to sway.
What is a “visual anchor”?
A visual anchor is a subject, an element, or an object which is the most powerful in the frame.
For example, whenever I look at a photograph — I try to find the primary subject (visual anchor). If I am not able to quickly identify this “visual anchor” (let’s say if it is a face, a boat, or a flower) my eyes wander.
By having a strong visual anchor, you capture the viewer’s attention.
In today’s society, we are so easily distracted. Most of the photographs on social media are only seen for a split second. How do you get your viewers to stop, pause, and really look at your photographs— inspect them, introspect, and make a story out of your photos?
Some examples of strong visual anchors:
- Strong or bright light
- Powerful color
- Powerful gesture or emotion
- Interesting face
- Abnormality in the frame
What are some other visual anchors you can think of? What are the elements which cause you to linger on a photograph longer than a second, when you are a viewer?
23. The 3 things that make a great photograph
Upon studying millions of photographs, I feel the three most important elements that make a great photograph include:
- Composition: A great photograph needs to have a strong and dynamic composition.
- Emotion: A great photograph needs to have a strong emotion, gesture, or mood which makes it memorable.
- Personal: A great photograph says something unique about the photographer, in terms of how he/she sees or perceives the world
Of course there are many other things which make a great photograph, but consider these 3 elements as a visual check-list of whether your photograph is great or not.
24. How to capture emotions
Many of us know how to capture a good composition (there are tons of tutorials on the web about this).
However very few of us know how to capture strong emotion in a photograph.
To me, emotion is more important than composition in a frame. Why? Because emotion is what hits us in the gut, and burns itself into our memory. A photograph without emotion is dead.
Not only that, but as humans— we are emotionally-driven creatures. Anything that strikes fear, excitement, or novelty into our minds will be more memorable.
But what is the best way to capture emotion? Some suggestions:
- Hand-gestures: If your subject leaning their body against their fist? Is your subject scratching his chin? Is your subject giving you the middle-finger? Try not to photograph your subject with their hands just by their sides. Try to engage them to make an interesting hand-gesture by commenting on their face, hair, or bodily accessories. Or be patient and wait until your subject makes an interesting hand-gesture— then photograph.
- Body-language: Is your subject slouched over, or standing upright? Is your subject leaning towards someone, or leaning backwards? A person’s body-language shows a lot of their emotion, and inner-thoughts. Also as a tip, if you mimic the body language of another person, you can better empathize and feel their emotions.
- Eye contact: The saying: “Eyes are the windows to the soul” is very true. A photograph with strong eye contact can strike fear, excitement, or sensuality into our photographs. It is very difficult to make sustained eye-contact with someone else, that is why whenever we make a photograph with strong eye-contact, it tends to be more memorable. Experiment making photos with your subjects looking directly into the lens and away.
- Aesthetics: You can feel certain emotions in a photograph based on the aesthetics. For example, a black and white photograph will tend to feel more nostalgic, sad, and retrospective. A vibrant color photograph shows more excitement, joy, and has a more contemporary flavor. There is no “right” or “wrong” type of post-processing to use in your work — but know that the aesthetics of an image will affect the emotion.
25. Don’t crop your photos
Cropping is a tool which has been used for decades. Photographers cropped in the darkroom, and now we do it digitally as well.
However one of the best tips I got in photography was Henri Cartier-Bresson, who suggested for us not to crop our images.
Cropping your photographs (while sometimes it might make your photo slightly better), generally makes you a lazier photographer.
I used to be a “crop-a-colic” in my photography. I would unnecessarily crop all of my photographs. Therefore a lot of photographs would have unnatural aspect-ratios (not the standard 3:2), and I would be lazier when composing my scenes. Rather than taking a step closer to my subjects, I always told myself: “I can just crop it later.”
However when I made it a practice not to crop my photographs, my compositions got better. I knew that I was too far from my subjects, so I had to take a step closer. Furthermore, I would experiment more with my angles, perspectives, and compositions. This practice helped me work harder to make a good image.
I’m not saying you should never crop. But if you’re starting off, try to go a year without cropping your images. I can guarantee your framing will improve. And moving forward, I generally don’t recommend cropping more than 10% of your frame (and if you crop, keep the aspect ratio consistent).
If you need to crop more than 10% of your frame, you probably didn’t get the shot— and you’re just trying to salvage a “so-so” photograph. And by not keeping a consistent aspect ratio, it will be harder to frame your photos down the line, and it will be less consistent in your portfolio.
26. Share fewer photos on social media
I love and hate social media. I love how social media has empowered us as photographers, and allows us to share our photos with millions of people around the world.
I hate social media because we get suckered into constantly uploading photos, getting addicted to “likes”, and not letting our photos sit and “marinate” for a long time.
Generally as photographers (myself included) we share too many of our photos. Rather than sharing more of our “so-so” photographs, we should aim to share fewer photos. To share only our best work.
That means not uploading everyday. Only upload a photograph if you feel that it really speaks to you, and sparks joy in your heart. And also consider whether if it will spark joy into the lives of our viewer.
A good test whether you should share a photo or not: ask yourself, “Would I re-share this photo if I saw it on someone else’s stream?”
Also realize there are certain photos that you love and are personally-meaningful to you, but you don’t need to share these images. You can keep certain photos to yourself, and print it just for yourself and a few friends or family.
When in doubt, share fewer photos. You are only as good as your last photo.
27. You can never get enough “likes” on social media
Social media is the equivalent of crack-cocaine for a photographer. We are social beings, and we desire a need to be connected with other humans, and also receive external affirmation.
Unfortunately, many of us photographers (myself included) get addicted to “likes”, comments, “favorites”, and getting lots of followers on social media.
Whenever we get a “like” or a new followers, we feel ecstatic. We get a shot of dopamine which hits our brain. It feels good, and we want more.
But trust me, you can never get enough “likes” or followers on social media. Whenever you think you have “enough” — you will desire more.
When I started photography, I thought I would be able to die happy once I got 100 likes on a photograph. However once I hit that point, I started to envy my other photography friends who had 200 likes. And those with 500 likes, 1000 likes, or even 10,000 likes.
Don’t get caught up in the social media rat-race. Too often we compare ourselves with other photographers based on how many likes/followers they have. But only judge your photography according to your inner-scorecard. How do you feel about your own photos?
If someone has more followers or likes than you, it doesn’t mean they’re a better photographer. It just means they have more followers or likes than you.
And whenever you feel dissatisfied with how many likes/followers you have — always consider those who have fewer likes/followers than you do. And try to recall how excited you were when you got even 5–10 likes on a photograph, or even 1 new follower a day.
The antidote to dissatisfaction is gratitude. So be grateful for the likes/followers you already have, and seek to please yourself before anyone else.
28. Seek to unlearn photographic myths
There is a lot of photographic “mis-information” out there. There are certain “rules” and restrictions that other photographers try to make on you.
But realize there are no “rules” in photography. Only tips and suggestions. Even everything in this article— it is only my opinion. You have the freedom and power as a photographer to accept/reject new ideas.
When I was starting off in photography, I tried to absorb all the photographs insight I could. I wanted to keep learning new things.
But now that I am more experienced, I want to unlearn things in photography — specifically myths I used to believe in.
For example, for every “rule” you find in photography— there is always a counter-rule.
I used to believe the secret to creativity was only having 1 camera and 1 lens. But there are many creative photographers (like the Japanese photographer Araki) who owns hundreds of cameras.
Some photographers only take 1–2 photos a day. Others take thousands of photographs a day.
Some photographers travel non-stop. Others never leave their home.
Who is right? Who is wrong?
Nobody is right or wrong. Everyone is just different.
As you become more experienced in your photography, don’t get trapped into certain rules or concepts. Try to unlearn one concept in photography everyday.
At the end of the day, photography is about discovering yourself as a photographer.
Don’t forget the ancient words of wisdom: “Know thyself.” Do you know yourself in photography?
29. Do you like your own photos?
Before asking another photographer for their opinion on your photo, ask yourself: “Do I like my own photo?” If so, why do you care what they think?
Many of us are insecure in our photography. We care more about what others think about our own photos, rather than how we feel about own our photos.
Seek to make photographs that bring you inner-joy and excitement. It is better to make photos to please yourself (and let an audience naturally find you) rather than to make photos to please an audience.
The photographers who stay true to themselves are the one who are able to stay constantly inspired over the years. They are able to constantly evolve, because they follow their passion and muse. Whenever something bores them in their photography, they switch it up.
If you aim to make photos that please yourself, you will never be disappointed. Because you have a purpose and direction in your photographic life. You are not the slave of others’ opinions. You are the master of your own photography.
And what greater joy is there in life than photographic freedom?
30. Would a master photographer from the past shoot with an iPhone today?
This is mostly a reminder to myself, never forget: the master photographers from the past always tried to use the best technology at-hand. They weren’t seeking to be “hipsters” by using old technology for the sake of it. They were trying to use the best tools that worked for them.
Humans co-evolve with tools and technology. We started off hunting food with bows and arrows. Then we traded our weapons for shovels and hoes, and started to become farmers and till the land. Then we traded in our shovels and hoes for smartphones and computers. Now we mostly subsist in an “information and knowledge economy”.
In the past, photographers shot with large-format box cameras. Then they moved onto more “compact” medium-format cameras (that allowed them to shoot 10–12 photos a roll, instead of just 1 photo a sheet). Then the 35mm camera came along, which allowed photographers 36 shots a roll (instead of just 10–12). Then the digital camera came along, which allowed hundreds of photos. Then more advanced digital cameras, which allowed for thousands of photos. Now we have smartphones, where everyone is a photographer and trillions of photographs are being uploaded all-around the world.
There is no one ideal camera or tool to use. It is about finding the right camera for you and for your given purposes.
I have shot quite a bit of film photography in the past few years. I was enticed partly by intrigue, curiosity, and the desire to connect with the past photographers.
I learned a lot of lessons shooting film. I learned patience, the artistry and craft of photography, and how difficult film photography was. However nowadays I don’t feel the urge to shoot film anymore, because I’ve learned the lessons from it which I desired. I now approach digital photography with more enthusiasm than ever.
It is good to shoot with film, and try out old processes. But know why you are doing it. Are you shooting film or using older technology because you want to learn the traditions of the past? Or look cool and be a hipster?
Whatever it is, just be honest with yourself. And know that at the end of the day, photography is about images— not tools. In the future we might make photographs just by blinking our eyes (with contact-lens cameras). And maybe the hipsters of the future will shoot with old “retro digital cameras.”
31. Don’t just take 1–2 photos of a scene (work the scene)
The master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “Sometimes you need to milk the cow a lot to get a little bit of cheese.”
There is this “myth of the decisive moment” in which photographers assume that Cartier-Bresson only took 1 photo of a scene, and captured the “decisive moment.” However Cartier-Bresson would often try to anticipate a “decisive moment”, and whenever he thought he saw a potential decisive moment— he would make multiple photographs.
When you see an interesting scene, there might be multiple
“decisive-moments.” Your job as a photographer, is to try to evaluate every moment and click whenever you think something interesting or memorable is happening.
You can “work the scene” by taking photographs from different perspectives. Take a step forward, click. Take a step back, click. Take a step left, click. Take a step right, click. Turn your camera from landscape-orientation to portrait-orientation, click. Crouch down, click. Tippy-toe, click. Turn on your flash, click. Wait for your subject to do an interesting hand-gesture, click.
Why limit yourself to taking just 1–2 photos of a scene? Whenever possible, milk the cow as much as you can.
32. Never compare yourself with others
Never compare yourself to another photographer; only compare your photography with your past photography.
Are you happy with your photography today, compared to your own photography from a year ago?
The problem with competing with other photographers is that we have different life circumstances from other photographers. Some photographers don’t have children, aren’t in a relationship, and can just travel all around the world without any strings attached. We might be stuck in the suburbs, in 9–5 jobs we dislike, and obligations to our family and community.
However we shouldn’t be envious of other photographers. Realize all the joys you have. Sure, another photographer might be world-famous and be constantly touring, but they might have few friends and connections back home. A photographer might have more followers than you, but they might be envious of other photographers (even more famous than they are). Remember, the higher up you go, the longer the fall.
I think competition is a healthy drive that helps us push ourselves to the next level. But only compete against yourself. Compare against your past self.
Seek to become a better photographer today than you were yesterday, a week ago, a month ago, or even a few years ago.
Progress is growth. Growth is happiness, and optimism for the future.
Never stop growing as a photographer, and use your past self as a benchmark against your current self as a photographer.
33. Aim to improve your photography by 1% everyday
It is hard to set concrete goals in our photography, because the future seems so uncertain, and we aren’t sure which direction our photography is going.
My suggestion, aim for a modest 1% improvement in your photography everyday.
This 1% can be interpreted in many different ways. Below are some ideas:
- Make 1% more photos everyday
- Learn 1% more about photography
- Edit down your portfolio by 1% everyday
- Learn 1% more photography techniques and insights everyday
- Learn 1% more about the masters of photography everyday
- Walk 1% more everyday
- Seek to improve your composition 1% everyday
- Be 1% more self-critical (in a positive way) with your photos everyday
- Be 1% more selective with your photos everyday
If you improve your photographic skills by 1% everyday, by the end of the year, your returns will be massive. Compound those gains by a few years, or even a few decades, and you will become a master in photography.
Many of us over-estimate what we can accomplish in our photography in 1 year, but we also under-estimate what we can accomplish in our photography in 10 years (credit Tony Robbins).
34. Aim to make complex photos, not complicated photos
- Complex photos: Photographs that challenge our visual senses, that are engaging, dynamic, and “edgy.”
- Complicated photos: Photos that confuse,disorient, and frustrate us as viewers.
The words “complex” and “complicated” are often confused.
We want to seek complexity in our work, not complication.
For example, you can make a photograph that is visually simple, but emotionally complex.
A complex photo is a photograph that engages the viewer. A complex photograph invites the viewer to come up with questions. A complex image has mystery, and isn’t easy to explain.
How can you add complexity to a frame? Think about how you can create more dynamic angles, by integrating different lighting-situations in a scene, and by having more complexity of emotion.
How can you remove complication from a frame? Remove distractions from the background, look for a strong visual anchor, and edit out photos that have too much going on in the frame.
35. Distrust social media
Social media is a great tool. But don’t be suckered by social media.
Do you remember MySpace? It was supposed to take over the world. Then Facebook quickly took over.
Do you remember Flickr? It was once the biggest photo-sharing site on the web. Now very few people use it; most people are on Instagram.
Apparently young people aren’t even using Facebook much anymore. They use Snapchat now. They don’t use email, they just text or SMS one another.
No matter how “revolutionary” or hyped-up a social media platform is, don’t trust it 100%.
For example, a social media platform can change their policies at any moment. A social media platform can die, and all your photos will die alongside it.
The solution is to own your own platform.
For example, host your own website and domain. Even though it might cost you money, you will have a lot more control over the long-term.
The most stable form your photographs can take are in the form of prints. Prints can last for centuries. Do you think your photographs will last for centuries on social media? Do you remember putting your old digital files on floppy disks? Can you even find a floppy disk reader anymore? What makes you think cloud storage will be as reliable 100 years from now?
36. Print your work
Floppy-disks were replaced by CD’s, CD’s were replaced by DVD’s, DVD’s were replaced by flash drives, flash drives were replaced by the cloud.
I remember when I was in Korea visiting my 80-year old grandmother, we sat down in her living room and looked at old photo albums of when she was a child.
These photographs still exist, and are easily-accessible. I also enjoy the photo-albums my mom made of me as a child. They store easily, and we can access the photos easily.
However I have a hard time finding old photos of me in college that were shot digitally. And furthermore, I have no idea what happened to all of my MySpace photos.
The joy of a print is that it is something physical, something tangible. In today’s digital world, we are so disconnected with the sense of touch.
A photographic print is beautiful. It shimmers in three-dimensions. You can see the depth of the ink on the paper, you can feel the texture and weight of the paper, and you can easily hang or display a print.
Furthermore, as humans we value physical objects more than digital objects. I am very willing to spend $20 on a printed book, but less likely to spend $20 on an e-book.
Also consider what brings you more joy— if you receive a handwritten letter, or if you receive an email? The content may be the same, but the emotion and feeling is different.
The same goes with prints. If you give a friend a print of your photo as a gift, they will be much happier and more excited than if you just emailed them a JPEG file of it.
Today, more than ever, we have more freedom to print our photos. Digital technology has made it easy for us to upload digital photos, and print for extremely cheap.
Print your personal photos and make them small 4×6’s, and make photo albums for friends and family. Print your art photos big, and frame them in your own home, and give them out to friends and family as gifts.
Even taking it a step further— try to at least take one analog-film printing course in your life. There is a certain magic of the darkroom that you cannot replicate with printing off an inkjet.
And the question between printing your work and sharing it online? Do both. Print and share your photos digitally.
37. The journey is the reward
For me, the photographic journey I’ve had is more exciting than the final result.
For example, one of my goals in life was to be a “full-time photographer.” I’ve realized my goal of subsisting on photography as a full-time living (by teaching workshops).
However once I arrived at my destination of doing photography full-time, I wasn’t as happy as I was during the struggle and journey of becoming a full-time photographer.
You might have certain goals in your photography. You might aspire to acquire a certain camera, to print your work, have an exhibition, or make a book. But once you’ve achieved your goal, you will feel listless, and just want to hit another goal.
So enjoy the process of your photography. Enjoy the journey. That is what brings you the most satisfaction in photography.
For example, the pleasure of taking a photograph, walking the streets, and using my visual skills to the utmost is more exciting than getting a good photograph.
If you forget to enjoy your journey in photography, your life will quickly whizz on by, with little satisfaction towards the end of your life.
By enjoying the process of photography, you slow down time, you appreciate photography more, and you will have more inner-satisfaction.
38. Photograph everyday for 5 minutes, rather than photographing for 5 hours once a week
There are many different ways to make photographs. Some people photograph everyday, whereas some people photograph only once a week (some only once a month!)
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to approach this — it depends on your personality.
However based on my personal experience, I think it is better to photograph everyday for 5 minutes, rather than photographing 5 hours every weekend.
Consistency is key.
When I played tennis in high school, one of the most important things about mastering my serve was to practice my serve everyday. If I practiced my serve everyday, my serve would get better. If I practiced my serve every-other-day, my serve would stay the same (wouldn’t get better or worse). However if I practiced my serve every 3 days (or only once a week), my serve would get worse.
Aim to make it a practice to try to photograph a little bit everyday. This will cut through the “resistance” of making photographs.
And use the simplest tool possible. Don’t feel obliged to use your expensive high-end digital camera. You can just use your smartphone.
But make sure that you are making photos of things that are personally-meaningful to you. Don’t just photograph things around you for the sake of photographing 5 minutes a day. Take 5 minutes a day to photograph your loved ones, personally-meaningful events in your day, and even of yourself (artistic ‘selfies’). This will help you find more appreciation in your daily life.
Don’t forget your “daily practice” of 1% improvement, and once again — you will never face “photographer’s block” in your life.
39. The best camera is the most invisible camera
An idea I got from the philosopher Nassim Taleb is that technology is the best when invisible.
I will take that concept and apply it to cameras— the best camera is the most invisible one.
For example, you want to use a camera that is attached to you. Invisible. You don’t even need to think to bring it with you everywhere you go. You don’t even need to think about it when you make photos. Your subjects don’t even notice you when you make a photograph, because once again, your camera is invisible.
This means having a small, compact, and inconspicuous camera. I prefer using black cameras because they blend in with my black clothing. Also the smaller your camera, the less likely you are to be noticed by others.
Also try to use the simplest technical settings where you can just “point and click.”
I think for 99% of photographers the best camera is a smartphone camera. It is a part of us, always in our front pocket, and we don’t need to think when clicking the shutter.
Your ideal camera can still be a huge and massive camera, as long as it is invisible to you — and requires little thought for you to use.
40. Seek to have fewer people like your work
Another idea I got from the philosopher Nassim Taleb: It is better to have a small group of people intensely like your work, rather than have a large group of people moderately like your work.
Why? By having a small and devoted following— they will buy your prints, they will attend your workshops, and they will share your work with their friends.
People who are “moderately” interested in you won’t do any of that. They might see your work here and there, and feel indifferent about your work, and simply move on.
There is a myth that having a big following is desirable. You can shoot photos that are cliche, boring, yet acquire a large following. Yet you might have nobody intensely like your work.
To have a few people intensely like your work means to alienate some people. It means that if you try to take photos that please everybody, you will please nobody.
Therefore it is better to have a thousand people intensely like your work, than have a million people moderately like your work.
The futurist Kevin Kelly shares a concept of a “1,000 true fans” and says that an entrepreneur who wants to make a living from their passion only needs a thousand people who intensely like their work.
And it doesn’t need to be a thousand people. It can be a thousand, ten thousand, five hundred, a hundred, fifty, or even just ten. Or even just one intensely loyal fan (if you happen to have a very wealthy benefactor— this is how Renaissance artists made a living).
41. Cross-pollinate your photography to be more creative
Imagine a bee that is going from one flower to another, “cross-pollinating” the flowers.
This is a great method of creativity. Try to seek creativity in your photography by studying many different fields. Then mix these fields together with one another— and you will come up with new, novel concepts.
The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson mixed surrealism, painting, and photography to create his style. The photographer (once economist) Sebastiao Salgado mixed his interest in economics, politics, working-situations, and photography to create his own style of photography. The photographer Saul Leiter combined his passion for colorful paintings with his photography, to create his own style. The photographer William Klein used his extroversion and his passion of street life and kids to become a “director on the streets” in his street photography.
So how can you mix it up with all of your different interests (outside of photography, and inside of photography) to create unique work?
42. If nobody else existed, would you still make photos?
As a thought experiment consider the question: if nobody else existed, would you still make photos?
In the psychology of motivation, scientists use two different types of motivation: “intrinsic” and “extrinsic”.
“Intrinsic” motivation is the type of inner motivation you have. For example, you make photos for the sake of making photos, rather than seeking some external reward.
“Extrinsic” motivation in photography means to make photos to please others. It means you are inspired and motivated by the affirmation of others.
As human, we need both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to move forward.
But if you want true happiness and productivity in your photography and life, focus on intrinsic motivation.
Making photos in itself is the reward. As a photographer, the greatest privilege you have are your eyes, your feet, and the camera in your hand.
Nothing else is guaranteed. You can’t guarantee whether you will make a good shot or not. You can’t guarantee whether you will become famous or not, or get sponsorships or have a fancy exhibition.
So whenever you are looking for motivation in your photography, always seek from within.
43. The photos you decide not to make are more important than the photos you do make
There is a lot of visual information in the world. Your job as a photographer is to be a filter of reality. You decide what to include in your frame, and what to exclude from the frame.
There is no way to be a wholly “objective” photographer. In fact, the best way to become a great photographer is to be as subjective as possible. Be opinionated. Be biased. Your view of the world is unique; share your perspective as honestly as possible.
In your quest in photography, you’re going to ruffle some feathers. Not everyone is going to love your work. In fact, you’re going to have a lot of people hate your work, call it overrated, and dismiss your work.
So what do you decide not to photograph is more important than what you decide to photograph.
What do you not want to show in your photography? Perhaps you’re frustrated by all these photos of poverty, injustice, and death. Maybe you want your photography to be an affirmation of life. You intentionally don’t photograph the negative, you decide to only photograph the positive.
Or maybe you’re bored with pretty sunsets. You want to show the grits of the streets. It might be a good idea to not to pursue pretty nature photography, and might be a good idea to work on raw street photography.
Be selective, pick and choose. Do what’s authentic to you, and bury everything else.
44. Photography is 90% editing your work (choosing your best photos) and 10% actually making photos
The problem we make in photography is we share too many of our photos. We don’t learn how to “edit” our photos (select our best work).
In fact, “editing” our photographs has become synonymous with “post processing” our photographs. This means that there is too much emphasis on post processing your photos, and little emphasis in selecting your best work.
Furthermore, if you have a great photograph, you don’t need to post process it much. I see post processing as seasoning food: a little salt makes food taste better. But too much salt ruins the food.
My suggestion is to “marinate” your photographs and let them sit for a long time before sharing them. Think of putting your photos into a wine cellar. As time goes on, you will have more clarity whether your photos are good or not.
Apparent novel writers do the same. They write a novel, lock it in a cupboard, and read it again a year later. This helps them better evaluate their work in a more objective sense.
45. Aim to make one memorable photograph before you die
If you can make one memorable photo before you die, you’ve done your job as a photographer.
One of the most difficult things about being a photographer is being patient. We want to rush to become famous, make money through our photography, and get millions of followers.
I personally believe to be happy in photography, we should set our expectations pretty low (making one memorable photo before we die), and then work our asses off.
I think that any diligent photographer, me, you, anybody – can aim to make one great photograph before we die.
So work hard your entire life for that one shot. And when you think you got that one shot, keep hustling even harder, to get an even better shot.
46. Photograph like a child
There is nothing more inspirational to me than a curious child. To a child, the world is full of possibilities. They wander, explore, and everything is a new and precious experience to them.
When I started photography, I photographed like a child. This was before I learned any “rules” in photography, and I felt truly free. I had no resistance in my body or mind when shooting. I simply photographed what brought me personal joy, curiosity, and happiness.
What does it mean to photograph like a child?
It means to not censor yourself while you are shooting. Photograph whatever the hell you want.
However afterwards, learn how to select your photos like an adult.
What that means is that being adults, we want to be more objective in choosing our best images. We want to judge our own photos based on composition, dynamism, as well as light, emotion, color, shadows, and edginess.
Shoot like a child, edit like an adult.
47. Aim to reduce the size of your camera
The beginner photographer’s camera constantly gets bigger with time; the master photographer’s camera constantly gets smaller with time.
It has happened to me and millions of other photographers. In trying to master our photography, we end up acquiring more and more gear for our cameras. We upgrade our camera bodies, they get bigger, gain more megapixels, we buy camera grips to make our bodies look (even) bigger, we get bigger and longer lenses, until the point that we hate dragging around our cameras.
However whenever I see master photographers, I see that they do the opposite– they aim to have a smaller and less obtrusive camera. Many professional photographers are trading in their bulky DSLR’s for smaller bodies, that allow them to be nimble, flexible, and creative.
Whenever it comes to deciding to buy a new camera or not, I suggest you to try to optimize for size and handling. Try to use the smallest possible camera for your purposes.
48. “Creepiness is proportional to focal length.”
This is a case against using telephoto lenses in your photography (especially street photography). The longer your lens is, the creepier you look.
Of course this depends on what kind of photography you’re trying to do. If you’re photographing birds and landscapes, that is fine. But try not to aim a bazooka into the face of a stranger. It makes people feel uncomfortable, and creeped out.
My suggestion: when you’re shooting on the streets use a wide-angle prime lens (I recommend a 28mm for a point-and-shoot, or a 35mm full-frame equivalent). This allows you to blend in more with the crowd, and not always have to point your lens directly at your subjects. You can point your camera in the direction of your subject, but place them in the left or right of your frame.
49. The best “zoom” is “foot-zoom”
I remember when I first started photography, I asked a lot of other photographers what the best zoom lens was. They told me, “Foot zoom.”
I’ve discovered that using a zoom lens makes you lazy. Rather than moving your angle and perspective, you just zoom into the scene. There is a saying that a zoom lens only has two focal lengths: the widest focal length and the furthest focal length. In photography, we tend to always use the furthest focal length.
By having the “creative constraint” of not being able to always zoom into your scenes, you might need to get physically closer. I believe that with physical proximity comes emotional proximity. If you get physically close to your subject, you can feel the space in which they are. Not only that, but it might give you a chance to interact with your subject, and elevate your experience to another level.
50. When in doubt, drink more coffee
Caffeine is a performance stimulant. I find whenever I am feeling tired and sluggish when out making photos, a lovely shot of espresso (especially single-origin) is a photographer’s best friend.
The same goes when you’re editing or post-processing your photos, if you’re blogging, designing your photography books, or meeting other photographers.
Of course you can substitute your own beverages – wine, tea, beer (or maybe even red bull and vodka); it is all free game.
51. A good way to judge your compositions: flip your photos upside down
This is a good tip that I learned from my buddy Adam Marelli, who originally learned this technique from Henri Cartier-Bresson.
When you flip your photos upside down, you get a better sense of your composition. Rather than getting distracted by your subject, you look at your subject as an abstract form.
You can even make your photographs into small thumbnails, and judge your compositions this way. This is what photographers used to do when they inspected their “contact sheets” – a series of small thumbnails to preview their film photographs.
52. Be a flaneur
The word “flaneur” in French means an individual who simply wanders, without having a destination in mind. A flaneur decides his/her next step based on the situation at hand.
Let’s say you’re out shooting in the streets – don’t have a pre-planned route. Let spontaneity and randomness guide you.
This is what will guide you down exciting new parts of time, down romantic alleyways, and allow you to walk at your own pace – rather than just being a tourist.
So when you’re out shooting, put away your smartphone and Google Maps. Let your personal curiosity lead the way.
53. The more time you spend on social media, the less satisfied you will be with your photography
As humans, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others. I know that whenever I am on social media, I always compare the likes/comments I get compared to that of my friends, peers, and colleagues.
And honestly, I get easily envious on social media. No matter how good I think I’m doing, there is always someone out there doing better than me.
Therefore as an experiment, I decided to take a break from social media. To “fast” from social media for a few weeks.
Those few weeks were the most refreshing moments of my life. Rather than being distracted by the popularity contest of social media, I really felt like I was making images to please myself (rather than others).
Of course you can use social media in another way – to let the work of others inspire you to take your work to the next level.
But regardless, I feel it is a good practice for any photographer to take occasional fasts or breaks from social media. It can be a few hours, a day, a week, a month, or even a year. Or perhaps even giving it up all-together. See if you feel cleansed or purged in any way; and try to use social media as mindfully as you can.
54. You are only as good as your last photo
There is a saying in film director circles: you’re only as good as your last film.
The same applies in writing: you’re only as good as your last book.
The same in music: you’re only as good as your last album.
And of course, the same concept applies in our photography. We’re always being judged based on the last photo, project, or exhibition we put on. Then it is onto the next one.
As a practical tip, only show your best work. I know a lot of photographers who are very good, but whenever I see “so-so” photos of theirs, their overall portfolio suffers. I would rather a photographer show his/her best 5 photos, than 50 “so-so” photos (with a couple of gems sprinkled in).
So the next time you decide to upload or share a photograph, ask yourself: “Is this photograph as good, worse, or better than the last photo I shared?”
55. Aim for longevity in photography
The thing I admire the most in other photographers isn’t skill, fame, or notoriety — it is longevity.
Longevity means to be able to stay inspired and motivated in your photography for years, decades, and your entire life.
Even Henri Cartier-Bresson lost his motivation for making images after 30 years. The photographer Josef Koudelka thinks it is because Henri Cartier-Bresson kept shooting the same way (Leica, 50mm, black-and-white, decisive moments), and never re-invented himself.
In physical fitness, I used to aim to have big muscles and lift heavy weights. Now I am more focused on longevity – I want to stay as healthy and injury-free as long as I can.
It is like the parable of the tortoise vs the rabbit. I would rather win the long race, than the short race.
To live a life of passion, where you are constantly excited and interested in photography is the best life.
To be able to achieve longevity in your photography, work on long-term photography projects. Document your local town, your loved ones, or a local community. Or document your own personal life. Make it something meaningful to you, and you will never be bored to photograph it for your entire life.
56. “If you aren’t busy being born, you’re busy dying.” – Bob Dylan
The movement of life on earth is that of evolution, adaptation, and progress. Organisms are constantly evolving to become more fit; to avoid dying or becoming redundant.
Seek the same concept in your photography. How can you keep re-inventing yourself over several decades in your photography? Does that mean changing your equipment, changing from shooting black and white to color, working on different projects, traveling to different places, collaborating with different artists, or something else?
Never let your passion for photography die.
57. Seek to know a few photographers very well, rather than many photographers superficially
As a general tip, I think it is better to deeply know the work of 3 inspirational photographers, rather than to generally know the work of a lot of photographers.
Aim for depth over breadth. Find the few photographers who really speak to your soul. Consume all their interviews, YouTube videos, books, articles, and try to attend one of their classes or workshops. Whenever you’re looking for new inspiration, just go back to their work again, and try to see it from a new perspective.
By getting to know the work of a few photographers very well, their images, working methods, and technique will sink into your mind.
If you want to dye a piece of wool, you need to let it soak for a very long time, and soak it many different times. The same is with inspiration for photography.
58. Apply the 80/20 rule in your photography
In economics, there is a concept called the “80/20 rule.” The basic concept is that certain things in our life have the biggest impacts in our life.
For example, 80% of the photos we shoot are generally on 20% of our lenses. 80% of the happiness we have in life comes from 20% of our friends. 80% of the stress comes from 20% of the negative people in our lives. 20% of the photographers we know have influenced 80% of our work.
It isn’t always a perfect 80/20 split. It can be 90/10. 99/1. 60/40.
But the general theory can apply in different ways in your photography.
What is the 20% of your images in your portfolio which you feel has 80% of the value? Only show that work.
What is the 20% of your gear that you use 80% of the time? Get rid of the rest.
Who are 20% of the photographers you follow on social media who inspire 80% of your photography. Only follow them, and unfollow everyone else.
What are some other ways you can apply this 80/20 percent concept to your work?
59. Print your work as small 4×6’s to select your best photos
I’m a slave to the computer when it comes to looking at my work. Sure it is more efficient, but it lacks the soul of printing out your work, and selecting your best work.
If you want a more emotional and hands-on approach to your photography, print out your photos as small 4×6’s. You can sit down with your photography friends and ask them to separate them into two piles: a “keep” pile, and a “ditch” pile. You can do the same yourself.
Or when you are putting together a photography book, spread all your 4×6 prints on the floor, and let spontaneity do its job. Mix around the prints, and see how you can pair and sequence your photos in an organic way.
60. There are no “good” or “bad” photos, but there are certainly “interesting” and “boring” photos
It is difficult to judge your photos as “good” or “bad.” After all, what is the ruler in which we measure how “good” a photo is? Do we judge it by the composition, how others perceive it, or our own judgement?
My suggestion: it is easier to judge a photograph as “interesting” or “boring.”
For example, when you look at your own photo, does it excite you? Does it cause you to re-live the moment? Is it a mysterious photograph that invites the viewer to ask more questions about the scene?
Or is your photograph boring? Does it not say anything, and is just a photograph of the scene?
If you want to make more interesting photos, think of how you can transform the scene in which you photograph into something else. Try to elevate reality into an abstraction. Try to make a photograph that has more mystery. Don’t make the photograph easily explainable.
Another way you can judge your photographs: “Is this photograph easily duplicable by someone else?” If the photo you just took can easily be found on Google Images, it might not be worth you photographing it again.
No matter how epic your photo of the Eiffel tower, it won’t be as interesting as all the other Eiffel tower photos out there.
Try to make photos that only you can make. And also try to make photos that nobody else can make.
61. Purge your photos once a year
There is scientific proof that by purging your body through fasting, you become healthier.
Similarly, if you want to become stronger in your photography, an occasional purge also helps.
Once a year, I always go back to my catalogue of images, and try to edit down my photos. I try to only keep the photographs that still “spark joy” in my life. For the photos that no longer tug at my heart-strings, I end up deleting them, or removing them from my social media profiles or website.
If you feel frustrated with your photography, try to experiment with a social media purge. For your social media profile, go back and delete all of your photos in your stream. You can still keep your photos on your hard drive, but by purging them on your social media channels, you will feel clean.
Then systematically go back to your archive of images and ask yourself: “If I started my social media stream all over again, which photos would I re-share? Which photos would I not?”
The problem that many of us have as photographers is that we hoard our photos. We keep all of our photos; whereas we should only keep a select few. Instead, we should delete the photos that no longer have personal meaning or relevance to us.
So as a practice, go through your archives once a year and purge your meaningless photographs. This way you won’t be held back by the past, but optimistic about the future.
62. Aim to get one good photo from a thousand photos
Everyone has a different “hit rate” or “keeper rate” in their photography. For me, if I can get 1 photograph that I really love from 1,000 – I’m doing really well.
I do believe that the secret to becoming a great photographer is to make a lot of photographs. The more photos you make, and the more you introspect on your images, the more you will improve.
Not only that, but I think everyone can get 1 meaningful photo from 1,000. By putting off pressure on yourself, you are more likely to perform better as a photographer, be less disappointed in yourself, and have more inspiration in the long-run.
63. Make your own website portfolio
A classic mistake that newbie photographers make is that they only have social media profiles, and don’t have their own website portfolio.
What separates the more “serious” photographers from the meddling amateurs is their website portfolio.
I know this sounds elitist, but it is true. I always want to feature the work of other photographers, but if they just send me a link of their “portfolio” by sending a link to their social media site, I don’t take them as seriously as a photographer who sends me their portfolio on their own personal website.
There are many benefits of having your own personal website.
First of all, you have more control over how you decide to display your images. Social media websites constrain your creativity in a negative way. For example, in Flickr and Instagram – you can’t reorder the photos in your stream. Also you can’t decide how people navigate your images; whether they scroll, swipe up, swipe down, swipe left, or right. With your own website portfolio, you can easily customize the viewing experience of the viewer.
Furthermore I’ve found that psychologically, having your own photography website portfolio makes you take your photography more seriously. Rather than seeking to get lots of likes on random single images, you seek to make more meaningful projects.
If you already have a body of work, I recommend registering your own domain name (firstnamelastnamephoto.com) and trying to keep your portfolio constrained to your top 3 projects. This will ensure that you will only show your best work, and you won’t water down your portfolio with your so-so images.
64. Don’t be suckered by nostalgia from the past
A mistake that I’ve made in my photography is to be suckered by nostalgia from the past. Meaning, I always think the past was much more interesting than today. I wish I was born in the 1920’s because everything was interesting back then.
However in reality, in the 1920’s, seeing people wear top-hats wasn’t very interesting. It was common-place, just like how everyone uses an iPhone nowadays.
Similarly realize that 80 years from now, seeing street photographs of people with iPhones will look very “retro.”
There is no better time in history for you to make great photos than now. You have access to the best tools ever imagined for photographers. You have access to the best forms of digital and online communication to share and publish your work. You have easier ways of transportation, and on average– we are much wealthier than we were in the past.
Know that today (and the future) will be the best time to make great photos.
65. Train your eyes daily like a bodybuilder trains his body daily
The most valuable asset we have as a photographer is our eyes. What differentiates a great photographer from a mediocre photographer isn’t his/her camera– rather, it is his/her vision and perspective of the world.
Great photographers can use any camera to make interesting observations about the world. A photographer has eyes which are curious, observing, and can re-interpret reality in novel ways.
If you want to become the strongest bodybuilder, you need to train your body daily. One day you might focus on your chest, the other day your back, and the other day your legs. Similarly in photography, you might train your eyes one day by shooting, another day by looking at photo books, and another day by studying the work of the masters.
A key to becoming a great bodybuilder is variation. If a bodybuilder trains the same muscle everyday, he/she will not get any stronger.
Treat the same in your photography. Aim for variety in your photographic and visual diet. Consume the work of various photographers, and don’t just look at photography – look at the vast variety of visual art out there.
66. Be a lazy photographer
In America and the west we are told, “No pain, no gain.”
I used to believe that as well – but now I’m starting to believe in the benefit of laziness in your photography.
Only do what you want to do in your photography. Never let your passion in photography be dictated by someone else, and only photograph when you want to photograph.
So if you are a lazy photographer, perhaps it means that you only shoot for 30 minutes in a day. But when you shoot for those 30 minutes, you do it efficiently and effectively. Rather than photographing for 8 hours in a day, and just half-assing it.
Being “lazy” in photography doesn’t mean being sloth-like. Rather, it means learning how to be efficient and effective with your energy, time, and attention.
Also there is a benefit to procrastination in your photography. I don’t upload a photograph until I feel truly ready to do so. It might take me a few weeks, or a few months, sometimes even a few years. But once I do it, I know that it is a strong image.
I know the idea of being a lazy photographer seems very contrarian and counter-intuitive. But once again, interpret this idea however you see fit that works for you, or discard it all-together.
67. Don’t “chimp”
As digital photographers we all do this – whenever we make a photograph, we instinctively look at the LCD screen to check if the composition looks good, if the lighting is good, and whether we caught the moment.
They call this “chimping” – because whenever we look at our own photos on the LCD immediately after we shot them, we point to them and start yelling out “ooh-ooh, ahh-ahh” (like a bunch of chimps, or monkeys).
If you are an uber-newbie in photography, chimping will help you learn the fundamentals of photography lighting and technical elements. However even as a beginner, “chimping” too much in your photography is deleterious.
Every time you look at your LCD screen, you become distracted and no longer are focused and “in the zone” of shooting.
When you’re shooting, only focus on shooting. When you go home to review your photos, only do that. Don’t review your photos while you’re shooting, or else you might miss an even better moment.
As a practical tip, turn off the “LCD Confirmation time” on your camera to 0. This means every time you make a photograph, it won’t appear on your LCD screen. Therefore you are less-likely to be distracted.
But how do you know if you got “the shot” if you don’t check your LCD screen? You don’t. That is what forces you to work harder– the uncertainty of not knowing whether you got the shot or not.
What do I know what my composition looks like? By not checking your LCD screen, you focus on the composition while you’re shooting. Then you can learn from your mistakes afterwards.
How do I know whether my technical settings are okay? Whether the shot will be blurry, in-focus, or the exposure looks okay? Easy – “set it and forget it” in terms of your technical settings (P mode, ISO 800–1600, center-point autofocus) and shoot in RAW. Even if your exposure is off, you can always adjust it in post-processing afterwards. I feel that capturing the moment is more important than capturing a good exposure.
68. How to kill envy in photography
I easily envy other photographers. No matter how “successful” I feel – there always seems to be (many) other photographers doing far better than me.
As a practical tip – to kill envy in your photography, don’t look at photographers with more followers than you, look at photographers with fewer followers than you.
No matter how popular your photography is, there will always be someone who is more popular and successful than you are.
Similarly– no matter how “unpopular” you are, there will always be someone who is even less popular than you.
By looking behind us rather than looking ahead of us – we become more grateful for what we already have.
We might be dissatisfied with only having 50 followers, but there is someone out there with only 5 followers. And with someone out there with only 5 followers, there is someone out there with 1 (or no) followers.
The same thing goes with our photography gear. There will always be someone out there with better gear than you, or more gear than you. But similarly, no matter how bad your gear is, there will always be someone out there with worse gear than you.
Don’t forget to count your blessings in photography, and always make the best out of what you are given.
69. Only take photos when you feel like it
Every photographer deals with dips in terms of inspiration. When we first start in photography, we are so passionate, curious, and marveled by photography. We take photos everyday, of everything, and everywhere.
But somewhere along the line, we don’t have that same urge to photograph. Our cameras (rather than being by our sides all the time) end up collecting dust on the shelf.
In order to re-spark our passion for photography, we try to embark on these “365 photo projects” in which we have to (no matter what) make at least 1 photo a day.
I used to think these projects were a good idea, but I quickly discovered (through my personal experience) that it isn’t.
You don’t want to make your photography feel like a chore. If you are forced (against your will) to make photographs everyday, you’re going to end up hating photography. Just like when you were forced to play piano as a child (but hated it). Some of my friends I know who were forced to play piano play brilliantly– but hate it.
Only make photographs when you feel like it. Perhaps that means you only pick up a camera once a day, once a week, or maybe even once a month. Remember, the point of photography is to enrich your life – not to be the world’s best photographer.
When you photograph when you feel like it, you will truly do it with your heart and passion. Also sometimes the best way to re-spark our passion for photography is to intentionally put down the camera, and pursue other forms of art. Because who knows– maybe photography isn’t your calling? Photography might just be your entry-drug to some other form of visual art.
70. A question to ask yourself: “Is photography adding stress to my life, or removing stress from my life?”
When we start photography we do it because it is fun. But the more “serious” we get in our photography– it often becomes more stressful than fun.
So ask yourself, “Is photography adding stress to my life, or removing stress from my life?”
Most of us have stressful lives. We stress about paying the bills, taking care of our kids, our spouses, our families, work drama, and putting food on the table.
For me, photography is a “zen” or meditative experience. When I worked my 9–5 job, just walking around on the streets with my camera for 15 minutes was more effective in relieving my stress than anything else. I love photography as a way for me to clear my mind, and to remove stress from my life.
When I started to make photography the central focus of my life, it added stress in many different ways. I would feel anxious if I wasn’t constantly posting images online. I worried that people would forget about me. I was worried that my workshops wouldn’t sell out, and I would become homeless. When I got to the point that I was too critical with my own photos, I no longer had the drive or zeal to go out and make images.
Don’t take your photography too seriously. Treat it like a holiday. A chance for you to take a break from “real life”, and explore reality on your own terms. Have fun with your photography. Treat your photography like a visual-puzzle. See how you can dissect reality, and re-order it in your frame however you see fit.
71. Shoot both horizontal and vertical photos
There are certain scenes which work better as horizontal (landscape) photos, and other photos that work better as vertical (portrait) photos.
When it comes to “working the scene” – try to shoot both. Switch up the perspective of your camera, while you’re taking multiple shots of a scene. It is hard to figure out whether a horizontal or a vertical shot will work in a scene. Try to do both, and then when you are reviewing your photos afterwards, it is easier to choose the best photograph.
72. Use minus-exposure compensation in harsh light
When I was a beginner photographer, what always confused me was this: when I made photos during the middle of the day, why did my photographs turn so white and washed-out?
I realized that I wasn’t using exposure-compensation correctly. When you are shooting in harsh light, try to use minus exposure-compensation.
For example, have your subject stand in the harsh, direct-light of the sun outside. Have them close their eyes and look up, and then experiment taking photos at –1, –2, and –3 exposure-compensation. Then check your LCD screen and check whether your exposure looks good (learned this tip from my friend Neil Ta).
See which exposure-compensation works best for you. You will see by minusing your exposure-compensation in bright light, you will create deeper blacks in your shadows, which look more dramatic. Furthermore the skin tones of your subject should look more faithful to life, and less blown-out.
Experiment with exposure-compensation in different ways. If you’re shooting in very dim situations, use plus exposure-compensation. Or if your subject is standing by dramatic window lighting, try plus (and minus) exposure compensation – and choose what you think works the best.
73. A photographer’s best tool is his/her smile
No matter what genre of photography you shoot, a smile is always your best tool.
A smile will make your subjects feel more at ease, a smile will help you wake up at 4am to shoot the sunrise, a smile will keep you motivated and positive, and a smile will make you look less threatening while you’re shooting on the streets.
I always try to make a practice of smiling with my subjects when I’m making photographs. This puts them at ease, and they tend to smile back. And if your subjects smile back at you, you feel good. You feel even more motivated to make more photos.
When in doubt, smile.
74. Shoot with your flash more often
As beginner photographers, we are told not to use our flash (especially during the day). Wrong. Try to actually use your flash more often.
99% of the time, our lighting situations aren’t ideal. Generally the light looks best during “golden hour” – sunrise or sunset. Or the light is good with natural window lighting, or if your subject is standing in a door-way entrance (tip from Steve McCurry).
However if your subject is outdoors in the harsh sun, try to experiment using a flash. By using a flash, you will fill in the shadows in your subject’s face, and under their eyes.
Furthermore, if you use a flash in the shade, you will add more contrast and “pop” to your subjects.
If you’re shooting in color, using a flash also allows your photographs to have more saturated colors.
In terms of technical settings for the flash, the easiest is to just keep your camera in “P” (program mode), ISO 400, and let the flash determine the settings. I also am a big fan of using the integrated or pop-up flash (if your camera has it), because it is a lot more convenient to use than using a huge off-camera flash.
Another tip you can experiment when using your flash in the bright light, set your camera’s exposure-compensation to minus 1 or minus 2. Then use the flash – and see the interesting effects it will make.
75. For portraits, put your subject’s eye in the direct center of the frame
Another tip I got from my friend Adam Marelli – if you’re shooting a portrait of a person, have one of their eyes be directly in the center of the frame. Why? It gives the illusion that your subject is looking directly at you from all angles. This is what the Renaissance painters often did. Also for many portraits by Steve McCurry, he incorporates this technique.
Furthermore, if you want to learn how to pose your subjects, study sculpture. Generally you want the bodies of your subjects to be more dynamic, by turning and twisting their bodies. So if you want a more engaging portrait, have your subject stand (initially turned away from you), and then ask them to twist their body and turn their head towards you.
Also experiment with eye-contact in different ways. Sometimes ask them to look directly into the lens, or away, or up, or down. Shoot many different variations, and only choose the best photograph you feel speaks to you.
76. If someone criticizes your photo; remember, they aren’t criticizing you as a human being
If someone says “your photos suck” they aren’t saying that suck as a human being. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you – it just means that they don’t like your photos.
The problem is as photographers, we treat our photos like our babies. Whenever someone calls our babies ugly, we get offended. Because no matter how ugly our babies are, we always see them as beautiful (if you have friends on Facebook who post photos of their babies non-stop, you probably know what I mean).
This is also because we fall victim to what psychologists call the “IKEA Effect” – if we make or build something ourselves, we over-value it. I know that personally by building IKEA furniture, I think it is the greatest work of art.
So when we make photos, we think it is great (just because we made it).
A tip to better judge your photos: how would you judge the photograph if you knew that someone else photographed it? Would you still like it? Would you criticize it, or compliment it?
Furthermore, when we hear our friends criticizing other people, it doesn’t offend us. So if someone criticizes our photos, imagine like they’re criticizing someone else’s photos. Don’t become emotionally-attached to your photos, and don’t attach your own ego to your own photos.
Sure you made the photos, but once the photos are created– they no longer belong to you. They exist separately from you.
77. If you travel, always try to pack as light as possible
One of the big mistakes I did when I did my first backpacking/photography trip as a college student: I brought too much stuff, and my camera was too big and heavy.
For my month-long backpacking trip through Europe, I brought a DSLR (Canon 5D) and a 35mm f/2 and 24mm f/2.8 lens. I thought that was packing “light” – but I was wrong. For the entire trip, I dreaded bringing such a huge camera. I wish I just had something small (like a point-and-shoot camera or something).
In 2009, most small cameras didn’t have good sensors or image quality. Now we are blessed by all these compact cameras with fantastic sensors.
So if you plan on traveling for your photography, optimize for weight. Just pack 2 pairs of clothes (non-cotton, and quick-dry), just pack 1 lens and 1 camera (if your camera breaks while you’re traveling, you can always buy another on the road), and the lightest laptop possible.
Also as a tip, whenever you pack – take whatever you packed initially and divide it by half. Because we all tend to over-pack, and bring more things than we truly need.
The more crap you have to lug around while you’re traveling, the more miserable you will be. By traveling light, you will walk longer, with less fatigue, have more fun, and make more meaningful photos.
78. “Kill your babies”
In writing circles, they call it “kill your darlings” (or “kill your babies”) – the idea is don’t get attached to certain parts of your work.
For example, if you’re not sure whether your photograph is good or not, it probably isn’t. A great photograph is obvious. A photo that you are unsure of, or feels like a “maybe” photograph is generally not good.
When in doubt, ditch.
Of course you want to judge your photos by the composition. But also judge your photos by your emotional gut. And if you are really really in doubt, ask a friend that you trust and tell them: “Be brutally honest with me, help me kill my babies.”
79. Sequence your photos like a movie
Sequencing photos in a project is more like poetry than a science. I’ve found the best way to figure out how to tell a story through sequencing photos is through studying film.
Generally movies have a structure which makes sense: the opening scene, the establishing shots, the close-ups, the panning shots, the wide-shots, more detail shots, b-roll, action shots, and then closing shots.
The cinematography for great films are also inspiring. So rather than watching junk movies, watch the work of the masters. Look at the cinematography of the old film noir films and contemporary masters. See how the film directors sequence their shots, and vary the perspectives of the camera.
Then seek to incorporate similar ideas and theories into your photography.
Also another tip to sequence your photos – print them as small 4×6’s, and ask your friends or family to sequence them in an order they like, and tell them to try to tell a story. This can give you further insight into how to use your images to make a compelling sequence.
80. How can you turn your obstacles into an opportunity?
We all have a million excuses in our photography. We don’t have enough time to shoot. We’re too busy with work. We don’t have enough social media followers. Our camera or lens isn’t good enough. We aren’t naturally-gifted. We live in a boring place. We spend too much time commuting to make photos.
Trust me, I’ve made all the excuses too. But what has helped me the most is to think to yourself: “How can I turn this obstacle into an opportunity?”
By re-interpreting your constraint as a challenge, you become more creative.
For example, let’s say you’re stuck in a suburb. Try to make an interesting “urban landscape” series of your own town.
If you spend a lot of time stuck commuting in a car, try to shoot from your car window when you’re stuck in traffic, and use the car window as a natural frame.
If you commute via public transit, try to do a “commuters” street photography project.
If you live in the countryside, do macro photos of pretty flowers and nature you see.
If you are busy with family and kids, try to take the most artistic and creative photos of them (not just snapshots).
With every obstacle comes an opportunity. Life is how we interpret it, so always stay on the positive side.
81. Make interesting photos out of boring things
This is a tip I learned from the photographer Martin Parr: make interesting photos out of boring things.
Our major complaint is that most of our lives and the things that we see are “boring”. But how can we use that to our advantage?
Try to make interesting photos of boring things by really looking at them, deeply. Try to understand what makes something so boring. Inspect it closely by using a macro lens, or even a flash. Think of yourself as a forensic scientist.
If you’re traveling and you only see boring tourists, don’t photograph the landmarks– photograph the tourists (something Martin Parr has also done well).
Try to document the absurdity of the world, and make it interesting through your lens and perspective.
82. Shoot RAW+JPEG
When I started photography, I only shot JPEG. Then once I got a DSLR, I started to only shoot RAW.
I’ve found that the middle-ground works the best; shoot RAW+JPEG.
Sometimes you want the flexibility of the RAW files in terms of post-processing. But other times, the JPEG files look better than RAW files (even after post-processing).
In the past, most people didn’t like to shoot RAW+JPEG because storage was expensive. But nowadays, it is extremely cheap. So there isn’t much downside to shooting both.
Also for RAW photos, I recommend sticking to presets. Why? It helps you have a consistent look in your photos, and it also helps you spend less time in post-processing, and more time choosing your best photos, and going out to shoot.
83. Don’t buy a photography book you don’t plan on re-reading
I believe in “buying books, not gear” to improve your photography.
But I also made the mistake of buying photography books for the sake of buying photography books. Rather than buying a few photography books (and getting to know them very well), I bought a ton of photo books and only ended up looking at them once or twice.
I think that it is better to own one photography book that you look at a hundred times, rather than own a hundred photography books you only look at once.
As a practical filter, ask yourself the question before you buy a photo book: “Do I actually see myself looking through this photo-book many times?”
A good way to also find inspiration in your photography is to go to the local library, and borrow the books. This will also be a lot cheaper than constantly buying photography books online.
84. Bokeh is overrated
Nowadays many of us are introduced to photography with smartphones, where everything is in focus. We end up investing in high-end digital cameras, because we can achieve “bokeh” (or photos with shallow-depth of field). Photos shot on full-frame cameras at f/1.4, f/1.8, or f/2 look more novel than photos shot at f/5.6, f/8, or f/11.
However bokeh is overrated. It is a distraction. We waste time trying to buy more expensive lenses with larger apertures to achieve more novel forms of bokeh.
But if you look at all the great photos in history, very few of them are shot wide-open. Most of them have a pretty deep depth-of-field (at f/8-f/16).
A great photo should have an interesting foreground and an interesting background. By shooting wide-open (for everything) means that only the subject is interesting, and we blur out everything behind it. And that is a lazy form of shooting (not in a good way).
Shooting at f/8 is more challenging. We are more likely to have messy or distracting backgrounds in our photographs. But then again, this is what forces us to be more creative in our photography. We seek to simplify the background by moving our feet, or changing our perspective, rather than just shooting everything wide-open.
I’m not advocating for you to never shoot wide-open. There are many cases when you want to shoot wide-open, like if you are shooting at night and don’t want to use a flash. Or if you want to take a dramatic photo of your wine glass or cappuccino and want to share it with your friends.
But don’t get obsessed with bokeh for the sake of bokeh. You will save a ton of money, and also be more creative in your photography.
85. Don’t just study photographers
The greatest photographic insights I’ve ever had were not from photographers, but from other artists. I have gained much inspiration from painters, rappers, architects, graphic designers, poets, philosophers, scientists, engineers, psychologists, sociologists, and even baristas.
If you only pigeonhole yourself into studying photographers, you miss out on the vast sea of creativity out there. The most creative photographers are the ones who “cross-pollinate” their interests between various fields.
Art can be seen anywhere. The way an old woman sweeps the house can be seen as art. The way that a mother takes care of her child can be seen as art. The way the child scribbles on a piece of paper can be seen as art. The way a monk meditates can be seen as art.
Don’t constrain your definition of art; and then you will be able to draw inspiration from anywhere, anything, and anytime.
86. Don’t define your photography
For a long time I’ve tried to create my own name for myself as a photographer. I tried to “brand” myself as a certain type of photographer.
When I started off, I didn’t even call myself a photographer. I just went out and made photos of whatever I liked.
However as time went on, I wanted to be more focused so I started to call myself a “street photographer.” It helped me a bit in the short-term, but in the long-term, it started to hurt me. Why? Because when I moved to places where it was very difficult to shoot street photography (like the suburbs), I no longer knew what to photograph.
I have discovered that it is best not to define your photography. This way you can photograph whatever you want, without having any constraints which will hold you back.
Sometimes you might want to shoot landscapes, your family, flowers, the streets, or sunsets. Shoot it all; the world is a visual feast. Enjoy all the different flavors.
What I do suggest though is separating your projects into different categories. This way you can have variety in your subject-matter, yet be consistent at the same time.
Also a good way to find your style in photography is to figure out what photos you dislike shooting (rather than what you enjoy shooting). Just don’t photograph what you don’t like, and you will soon enough discover your own voice in photography.
87. The more you give, the more you receive in return
I’ve discovered in my photography and in my life, the best “investment” strategy is to be generous.
The more you give, the more you receive in return.
For example, when I was starting off in photography and wanted feedback on my photos, I found out the more feedback I gave to other photographers, the more feedback I received in return.
Also in terms of photography blogging, the more generous I was with my information, the more I received in return (of people attending my workshops, purchasing my products, or just encouraging me and sending me love).
I think the only way to be “successful” as a photographer is to create value for others. To empower other photographers.
As a photography teacher, you don’t want to turn your students into mini-versions of yourself. You want to help them achieve their personal maximum, and to help them discover their inner-voice. So be generous with your advice and insight to those of you who you teach photography.
I’ve done a lot of generous things in my photography that others thought was crazy. I gave away all my lecture and workshop materials online for free (videos, slides, information). I gave away my Lightroom presets for free. I gave away my ebooks for free. I gave away full-resolution images of mine away for free.
Yet none of this has hurt me in any way; if anything, it has helped boost my popularity, my value, and my contribution to others. I have been helped a lot more through this generous strategy far more than if I just hoarded everything to myself.
I’m not saying you have to do everything for free. But think of ways how you can be more generous in your photography that will both help you and help others.
88. When shooting, look down, and look up
As photographers, we generally look at the world at eye-level. We generally look ahead. However, a tip I learned from David Gibson is to look down, and to look up.
We miss a lot of what is on the ground, and a lot of what is in the sky.
By expanding your perspective of the world, the more likely you are to see great photo opportunities.
What discarded trash do you find on the streets which can make an interesting photo? If you look up, can you see interesting architecture in buildings, or even planes soaring above you?
89. Assume other photographers know better than you do
A strategy to always keep learning in photography: assume other photographers know better than you do.
When we are beginners, our eyes and ears are open to everyone else. Everyone else is our teacher, and our rate of learning rapidly increases.
However as we become more experienced, we assume we know better than others. We become more stubborn, less flexible, and more set in our ways. And this is what prevents us from learning, growing, and evolving.
It is hard to think that others know better than us, because naturally we put ourselves in the center of the world. It is hard to imagine that others are smarter than us.
But always have your eyes and ears open to everyone else. The most common person can be the most profound teacher.
90. Don’t trust photography editors who don’t know how to make photos themselves
This is a bit controversial, but I personally don’t trust photography editors or curators who don’t know how to make photographs themselves.
Why not? Because someone who doesn’t make photos (or even worse, doesn’t know how to make photos) won’t understand the same nuances and artistic sensibilities of photography.
While I appreciate the feedback and thoughts of my photography from everyone I meet, I give a lot more credit to other photographers in the same field as me.
For example, when it comes to judging my own street photography – I trust other street photographers more than landscape photographers. Landscape photographers (while they can offer interesting outside perspectives) will never understand the nuances of the genre of street photography. They probably don’t know the work of the master street photographers as well as other people in the same field.
So my general suggestion is when it comes to creating your portfolio of your work, give more credence to other photographers in the same field of photography that you practice.
91. When conflicted between buying two cameras, buy neither
I know this happens a lot – we feel dissatisfied with the gear we currently own, and we debate to buy a new camera. We compare a lot of different cameras, and read a lot of different reviews. Yet we cannot make up our minds and we feel conflicted.
Another great idea I’ve got from the philosopher Nassim Taleb is this: when you’re conflicted between buying two cameras, buy neither.
If you really need a new camera, the purchasing decision will be obvious. By stressing over buying between two (or several) different models of cameras, you’re just trying to rationalize a purchasing decision you probably shouldn’t make.
If you need a new camera (if it breaks, someone steals it, or if the technology is far too dated) – buying a new camera will be an easy decision to make.
Whenever you trying to find reasons to “justify” your purchase; you probably shouldn’t make it. Save your money for photography books, education, and travel instead.
92. Why do we take photos of strangers with cameras worth thousands of dollars, whereas we photograph our loved ones just with our iPhones?
My good friend Josh White once posed the question to me: “Why do we take photos of strangers with cameras worth thousands of dollars, whereas we photograph our loved ones just with our iPhones?”
I feel one of the mistake that many of us make as photographers is that we seek inspiration from the outside world, rather than our inside world.
For example, we are more interested in photographing strangers from foreign countries, rather than photographing our family and loved ones. Why? Because we get used to those we are constantly surrounded by. We seek for novelty, rather than personal meaning.
It is not to say that taking a photo of a loved one with a smartphone camera is any less meaningful than photographing our loved ones with a high-end digital camera. However what I mean to say is that we don’t take our photography of our loved ones as seriously as we should.
For me, I want to make the most artistic and beautiful photographs of my close friends and family. I want to make these images– because I know at the end of my life, these photographs are going to be far more meaningful than the random photos I’ve taken of strangers.
93. Don’t take photos of everything; know when to just enjoy the moment
You know you’re a master photographer once you can enjoy reality without taking photos of it.
For example, I make it a practice to just enjoy the moment. I love nature and natural landscapes. However I don’t always feel the urge to photograph and document it.
Whenever I am watching a sunset and frantically trying to make photos, I don’t know how to sit back, and just enjoy the sunset.
The same thing goes with food. I find that when I obsess over trying to take nice photos of my food, I end up enjoying the taste of the food less.
The same goes with fireworks. I lose the sight and beauty of fireworks when my eye is plugged behind a viewfinder.
Know when it is better to not take photos, and when it is better to put away the camera, and just enjoy the moment.
94. Start off shooting black and white, then transition into color later
If you want to improve your composition, understanding of light and contrast, and shapes and forms – I recommend starting off in black and white photography.
Monochrome tends to simplify a scene. Color adds more complexity to a scene.
For example, if you want to make a great color photograph, you need to think about how to integrate colors (as well as the composition, framing, shapes, and forms). It is a lot to consider when you’re a beginner photographer.
So start off simple. Set your shooting mode to RAW+JPEG (and shoot the JPEGs in black and white). This will help you visualize the world a lot easier when you’re shooting. It will also help you better understand exposure, highlights, shadows, and composition.
When it comes to your composition in black and white, look for diagonal lines, triangles, circles, curves, and the difference between light and shadow.
I recommend every beginner photographer to start off shooting exclusively black-and-white for a year to develop their eye. Then after that, trying to transition into color for another year, and focusing only on color photography.
Very few photographers are able to master both color and black and white photography in a lifetime. You want to experiment with both, because you’re not sure which you prefer.
Experiment as much as you can in your photography when you’re starting off, but also focus with consistency. This way you will truly be able to build your artistic vision.
95. Post-processing, filters, and presets are not “cheating”
On social media, we sometimes see the #nofilter hashtag, and people brag about the fact that they don’t “Photoshop” their photos.
When I started off in photography, I also had the wrong understanding that using post-processing techniques, filters, or presets was “cheating.”
I think of post-processing like salt. A little bit of salt makes your photos taste better. You wouldn’t call a chef a “cheater” for using salt in their food.
However what is also true is that no matter how much you polish a piece of turd, it will still be a turd.
For example, sometimes I have photographs which I know aren’t great photographs. But I think that by adding a lot of post-processing to a so-so photo, it will somehow become better. I crop the photo, add a heavy vignette, add a lot of sharpening, apply clarity or HDR, selective-color, or another cheesy post-processing technique. But it never improves the photo, just like how adding some salt on a rotten piece of meat won’t make it tasty.
My suggestion is to experiment with different post-processing methods, presets, or filters. Once you find a certain “look” that you like, try to keep it consistent. At least within a certain project.
For example, all of your street photographs can be post-processed in a gritty black and white aesthetic. But perhaps you want your portraits of people to be vibrant and colorful.
Aim for aesthetic consistency.
96. Don’t think years, think decades
As of writing this article, I’ve photographed for a decade (from age 18 to age 28). I feel like I’m finally starting to really find my own voice, style, and vision in photography.
The first decade of your photography is going to be full of self-doubt, experimentation, and the need to please others. It is natural. We all need to go through this “apprenticeship” phase in our photography, very much how the Renaissance artists did with their masters.
We are all so impatient. We want to make quick progress. We hate waiting.
But patience is probably one of the most important virtues of a photographer. Think of your photography as a lifelong journey. In any art, you need to devote a lot of focused time and attention to make great progress.
So don’t think that within a year or two you can become a great photographer. Think at least a decade, or several decades, to create a truly compelling body of work.
Also by having a longer-term view of your photography, you will be less stressed, anxious, and enjoy your journey in photography more.
97. Shoot everyday as if it were your last
This is contradictory from the prior point; but another tip I have is to photograph everyday like it were your last.
I try to take a long-term view of my photography (I aspire to become a great photographer in several decades). However I also embrace a short-term view as well. I try to shoot everyday like it were my last. I try to blog everyday like it were my last. I try to communicate with my loved ones like it was my last day.
The most valuable asset that we all have in life is time. Time is the only resource that no matter how rich we are, we can never gain more of. Don’t delay on a certain photography project if it is something that is truly meaningful to you– because you don’t know what day might be your last.
98. Give away your old gear
If you have an old camera or gear that you want to get rid of, don’t sell it– give it to someone in need. Give it to a family member, a loved ones, a friend you know, or someone who could use it better than you can.
If we sell old gear, we can get a few hundred bucks for it. But I have gained a lot more joy from giving away my old gear to those it could help empower.
You can even give away your old gear to photography clubs in schools, or donate them to organizations in other developing countries that teach photography to impoverished youth.
99. Start your own photography blog
I recommend every photographer starting off to start his/her own photography blog.
You learn as you teach, and as you share your personal journey in photography.
When I started my photography blog, my biggest deterrent was that I knew nothing. But that was precisely what made the blog valuable. I treated the blog like my playground – I experimented, had fun, and tried new things.
Through the blog, I have interviewed other photographers, shared photography ideas and tips, journaled my personal experiences, and helped build a community of like-minded photographers.
The blog has brought me so much joy, happiness, and opportunities into my life. It is seriously the thing that I am the most grateful for.
The great thing about a photography blog (compared to just traditional social media) is that we have more freedom. We can share videos, text, as well as images. We can mix up our media the way we want to. We can customize how we present our photography, images, and thoughts– with different themes and templates. Best yet, we actually own the content and platform – whereas when you share on social media, you are a slave to the platform.
I personally recommend WordPress for blogging, as it is the most stable, popular, and has the most support on the internet. If you want a free option, you can just use wordpress.com. However if you want to really have more power and flexibility and customization, purchase your own domain name, and install wordpress.org. I recommend using bluehost.com and using the “1-click wordpress install” option. Sure it costs money, but paying for your own server and domain will help you a lot more in the long-run.
As for blogging ideas– just write whatever is on your mind. Don’t take it too seriously. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just put together blog posts which are 80% good to you – and hit publish. You can always go back and re-edit it later.
Share photos of your travels, your daily life, of your friends and family. Disable the stats on your blog (or don’t check it) – which will help you stay intrinsically motivated (doing it for the sake of it), rather than extrinsically motivated (only blogging to increase your pageviews).
Treat your blog as a personal diary, that happens to be public. And be persistent– my blog only caught a lot of traction after blogging three times a week for close to three years. And now after about 6 years of blogging, and close to 2,000 posts, I find that everyday I am still learning, having fun, and sharing useful ideas with others.
100. Create your own list of 100 tips
No matter how “inexperienced” you are, you can probably come up with 100 tips in photography. In writing this epic list myself, I have helped myself. I distilled my primary personal beliefs in photography, and I hope that some of the tips in this list can also help you.
Lists and tips are good ways for us to organize our thoughts in a structured manner. And once again, tips aren’t truth or guidelines. They are just suggestions, and auto-biographical.
Share your soul through these tips, and don’t be afraid of being negatively judged. Share your ideas which are contrarian, and might be controversial. Don’t be afraid; put yourself out there.
In my personal journey of photography, I’ve found personal meaning through empowering other photographers. I encourage you to do the same.
Unleash your creative potential:
- November 7th, 2020: ERIC KIM BLOGGING MASTER CLASS (Online, via Zoom). [Register Intent Here]
- April 10-11th, 2021: BOSTON / Discover Your Unique Voice in Photography Workshop [Register Intent Here]
- May 1-2nd, 2021: CHICAGO / Street Photography Composition Masterclass [Register Intent Here]
- May 22-22nd, 2021: NEW YORK CITY / STREET PHOTOGRAPHY MASTERCLASS by ERIC KIM [Register Intent Here]
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