Free Photography Bootcamp

If you’re new to photography, consider this your free guide:

Democratization of photography

In the spirit of Silicon Valley — these intensive “coding boot camps” have taken off. They cost around $15,000 — yet promise graduates to get a $100,000 starting salary as a coder.

This has made me think a lot about photography. A lot of passionate photographers enroll in photography school (because they’re following their passion), yet they graduate with $200,000+ of debt, and end up picking up small freelance gigs (only perhaps earning the average graduate $30,000 a year).

In a world with free information, why go into massive debt to follow your passion — for a job or a career that won’t guarantee you money?

Why free information?

NYC, 2015

I believe in “open source” information. I believe that information can empower. Information can help you become the best version of yourself (of course, granted, that you work hard).

So my attempt is going to be putting together this free “Photography Bootcamp” to get you started in photography — with free tools, resources, and insights to get you started from ground zero, to becoming an “adept” photographer.

And my “creative constraint” is going to help you try to get started in photography, with zero money, zero startup costs, and everything for free.

Chapter 1: Getting started

Tokyo, 2016

Okay friend, let’s get started.

I’m going to assume that you are an absolute newbie to photography, and know nothing. Don’t consider any of my words to be demeaning or discouraging. I will just tell it to you straight— advice I wish someone gave me.

What camera and lens should I shoot with?

Amsterdam, 2015 #cindyproject

To start off, of course, you need a camera and a lens.

There is a wide-array of cameras, lenses, and systems out there. It can be quite confusing.

I’m going to assume that you don’t want to make a business or a living with your photography. If you do, check out my free Photography Entrepreneurship 101 series.

I will assume that you already have a 9-5 job, can pay your rent, and your photography is your passion. You might have first got interested in photography because you had a baby, because you started to travel, or you got an iPhone and started having a lot of fun taking photos.

So let’s assume you just have an iPhone or a smartphone. The first thing you might want to do is “upgrade” your smartphone camera to a “real” camera (like a big DSLR, which are the big cameras, where you can attach those fancy zoom lenses, where you can do cool effects like make the background blurry).

You won’t hear this much anywhere else

Berlin, 2015 #cindyproject

The first counter-intuitive advice I would give you is this: just stick with your smartphone camera. The irony is that a lot of beginner photographers want to buy the biggest, most “professional” looking camera possible. Yet most of the pro photographers I know (who shoot for fun) just prefer using a small, compact camera, or their iPhone’s.

First of all wonder — why do you want to upgrade your camera to a bigger, more “professional” camera?

Here are some reasons you might want to upgrade:

  1. You want to be taken more “seriously” as a photographer
  2. You want better image quality
  3. You want to do ‘cool effects’ like make the background blurry (they call this ‘bokeh’) or capture fancy light-trails (when you put your camera on a tripod and shoot with a slow shutter-speed)
  4. You (might) want to eventually make money with your photography, or make your passion for photography your career
  5. You think that buying a better camera will help you be more creative

Let me give my honest appraisal of these ideas:

1. You want to be taken more “seriously” as a photographer:

This is silly. Aren’t you taking photos to please yourself? Don’t seek to be taken “seriously” as a photographer to others, or else you will always be miserable (because you’re putting your own self-worth in the hands of others).

2. You want better image quality

It is true that by upgrading your camera from a smartphone to a “better” camera will give you better image quality.

Yet realize this — upgrading your camera will give you sharper photos, images with less grain or noise, and higher resolution. Having a ‘better’ camera won’t help you make ‘better’ photos. The only way to make better photos is by improving your composition, framing, timing, capturing good light, and having emotion in your photos.

Another thing to consider — if you’re a photographer who uploads 99% of your photos to social media, consider that people aren’t going to look at your photos anything bigger than a 5.5’’ screen. If you look at photos this small, you aren’t going to tell a huge difference between shooting with a smartphone or a high-end DSLR.

3. You want to do ‘cool effects’ like make the background blurry (they call this ‘bokeh’) or capture fancy light-trails (when you put your camera on a tripod and shoot with a slow shutter-speed)

I first wanted to buy a DSLR so I could shoot “wide open” (taking a photo where your subject is sharp, but the background is blurry). I wanted to create these novel effects that I couldn’t create with my smartphone.

Yet the funny thing is that there is a lot of software that can simulate these effects. Of course it isn’t as good as the “real thing” — but the truth is, eventually, all these novelty “looks” wear off.

For example, I used to be obsessed with “selective color” (making a certain part of the photo red, and everything else black and white). But soon, this became cheesy, and boring.

I used to be really into “HDR” (high dynamic range photos), where the photos look super-sharp and super-epic. But this became boring after a while.

I used to be really into shooting everything “wide open” (with a 50mm f/1.8 lens, everything at an aperture of f/1.8). It was interesting and novel. The subject would be sharp, but the background was totally blurry. Eventually this got boring.

Don’t seek for “cool effects” in your photography. Rather, seek for personal meaning in your photos. One of the first questions you should ask yourself as a photographer is, “Why do I take photos?” This philosophical questioning is going to save you a lot of time, headache, and money.

4. You (might) want to eventually make money with your photography, or make your passion for photography your career

If you already make a comfortable living with your 9-5 job, I would actually recommend against taking up photography full-time.

Why? If your passion is photography, you might not necessarily want to make a living from it. Taking photos you’re passionate about won’t necessarily mean you can make a living from it.

A lot of photographers I know lose their passion after becoming professional photographers. Kind of how chefs no longer cook for pleasure after they start working at fancy restaurants.

But if you really want to pursue photography full-time and know the downsides, I don’t want to discourage you. Rather, I will try to (later) provide some resources how you might want to do this.

5. You think that buying a better camera will help you be more creative

I believe that creativity is all about “creative constraints.” By having unlimited options (like having lots of cameras, lenses, and zoom) actually makes you less creative, and less innovative).

Why? If you have too many options, you become lazy. You don’t need to push yourself hard to innovate. Rather than relying on your own ingenuity, you outsource it to your camera, or depend on zooming to make a better photo.

Rather, I’ve found that adding “creative constraints” help make my photography more creative. For example, sticking with one camera, one lens, and one focal length. This is why I am a huge fan of “prime lenses” (lenses that don’t zoom). You are restricted in this one perspective, which helps force you be more creative with your framing.

Or take black and white photography for example. This forces you to innovate with how you see the world, because you can’t rely on color as a crutch.

Almost all photographers I know who are really creative, don’t really care for their gear too much. Of course if you want to become a good chef, you need the right knife. But do you really need dozens of the same knife, for the same task?

So to save you a lot of money and time, and headache — realize, upgrading your camera won’t make you more creative. Rather, later I will share some ideas on how you can truly be more creative with your photography (regardless of what camera you shoot with).

I’ll stick with my iPhone/smartphone

Let’s say you want to improve your photography, and stick with your smartphone. Good for you.

If so, start reading this article: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to iPhone/Smartphone Photography.

This will help you get started with some creative ideas on photography.

If you need more convincing the benefit of shooting with your iPhone/smartphone for photography, check out all my free iPhone/Smartphone Photography articles.

I already have a good camera

I want to make this bootcamp available to you without spending money. All of it for free.

So if you already have a camera (non-smartphone) just stick with it. Try to go through 30 days of this bootcamp, and then later on, figure whether you want to invest in a fancy camera setup, or if you just want to upgrade your camera, lens, etc.

But I really want to upgrade my camera

Before spending a ton of money on new gear (you probably don’t need), read some of these articles against “GAS” (gear acquisition syndrome):

Chapter 2: Free photography tools

Tokyo, 2011

If you want to shoot photography, you need the right tools.

I’m assuming you’re shooting with a smartphone, or just some standard digital camera. It doesn’t matter if you have a compact digital camera, a DSLR, a micro 4/3rds camera, mirrorless camera, or whatever.

Here are the free tools I recommend you to use.

Photo apps to download on your smartphone/tablet


I consider VSCO to be the best mobile photo app on the market. It is an “all in one” platform. Meaning, you can use it to post-process and edit your photos (make brightness adjustments, convert to black and white, apply filters), you can use it to store your photos for free (in a cloud-based library), and you can use it to publish your photos for free.

VSCO in their mobile app provides many free presets for you to use when starting off. Not only that, but if there are other “looks” you want, you can buy them as well.

2. Snapseed

The second tool I highly recommend is Snapseed by Google. The beauty of Snapseed is you can make more fine-tuned adjustments to your images (like Photoshop), and also post-process RAW photos.

I generally do most of my image-adjustments in VSCO, but if I want more control, I use Snapseed:

3. Dropbox

If you want free online cloud-based storage, you can’t beat Dropbox for functionality.

Dropbox will instantly sync your photos between your smartphone, computer, and tablet. If you sign up for free, you get some free storage — enough to get you started:

Photo apps to download on your computer

For Mac:

If you have an Apple computer or MacBook, I recommend just using the built-in “Photos” app. It is easy-to-use, flexible, and intuitive.

Also I recommend downloading the “Google Nik Collection” — which are great presets to make your photos look more epic.

For PC:

If you have a PC or Windows-based machine, I recommend using Google Photos. You can backup unlimited photos to Google’s servers with the free “Desktop uploader”, and also adjust the images online for free.

If you want an offline photo editor, download the open-source “GIMP” (like the free version of Photoshop, works both on PC and Mac).

Also for the best post-processing or photo adjustments, I recommend the free Google Nik Collection. You can make epic black and white photos with “Silver Efex Pro” (included as part of the Google Nik Collection), or great film simulations with “Analog Efex Pro”.

How do I use all these apps and programs?

For the purposes of this bootcamp, I will not provide in-depth instructions on how to use these free apps and programs.

Rather, I would recommend using Google or YouTube to figure out how to use the tools. My purpose is to just point you to the best tools.

Honestly, these tools can cover 99% of your photo needs.

Chapter 3: How to take better photos

Downtown LA, 2016

For this chapter, I want to give you resources and guides on how to make better photos:

Principle 1: Don’t just take 1-2 photos

One of the most important pieces of advice I would give is this: don’t just take 1-2 photos of a scene you find interesting. Rather, learn how to “work the scene” and take many photos of the same scene.

The benefit of taking a lot of photos of the scene is this: often you don’t discover the best composition or moment until after you’ve shot it.

Not only that, but I often discover the composition while I’m shooting.

I think the biggest misconception about photography is that we know what we want to shoot before we shoot it. In reality, our presence as a photographer will influence the scene.

cindy contact sheet hanoi


When you’re a photographer “working the scene” and taking a lot of photos, you’re dancing with your subject. Your subject will respond to you, and you will respond to your subject.

Therefore, if you see a good scene, try to think of how you can photograph your subject from different angles, perspectives, distances, and moments.

cindy halo-0000752
Hanoi, 2016 #cindyproject

The analogy I generally make is this: the more photos you shoot, the more likely you are to hit a home run.

Also the general myth is that there is only one “decisive moment”. In fact, there are many “decisive moments” in a scene. Not only that, but you will decide what you think is the best “decisive moment” after you’ve taken a series of photos, go home, and choose the best one.

If you want to learn more about “working the scene” and the importance of taking many photos, I recommend you to study “Contact Sheets” — seeing the “behind the scenes” of how to make a great photograph:

Afterwards, download my free contact sheet ebooks:

Principle 2: Emotion is key

London, 2013

A photograph without emotion is dead.

A lot of photographers try to make nice photos, with nice compositions, and nice light — but the photos are dead on arrival.

Why? Because the photos don’t have emotion. They have no soul. You can’t see the feelings of the photographer in the image.

A photograph with emotion is more personal. A photograph with emotion is memorable. A photograph without emotion is just another image that disappears into the ether.

In order to capture better emotions in your photos, look for hand-gestures, and try to empathize with your viewer. The easiest way to capture emotion in your photos: shoot with your heart.

Learn more on capturing emotions:

Principle 3: Do you see yourself in your photos?

eric kim photography wedding - black and white - ricoh gr ii-5

Lastly, to make a great photograph — put your own soul in your photos.

Are you the only person who could take the photos that you do? If not, try to switch it up.

For example, anyone can take a pretty sunset photograph, or a touristy snapshot of a famous landmark.

What sets good photographers and great photographers apart is this — the ability for you to make your photographs more personal, and a reflection of who you are. How you see the world.

Ask yourself the simple question when judging your own photos: “Am I the only one who could have photographed this?”

A practical way to address this is to focus on making your photography more personal. Photograph yourself (literally and metaphorically), rather than others. Photograph your loved ones, your own environment, and your own city.

Pursue “Personal Photography“. Here are some articles to get you started:

Principle 4: Only show your best photos

Seoul, 2009

Be your own harshest critic. You’re judged based on your worst photo in your portfolio. You’re only as good as your last photo (that you share).

I am a big fan of letting your photos sit and “marinate” a long time before sharing them. The biggest problem we have in our photography is that we share our photos too quickly. As a general rule, if you’re unsure about your photos (whether they are good or not), let them sit, and wait before you share them.

Generally, the longer you let your photos sit, the better your judgement of them. If I share a photograph I shot on the same day, I generally end up regretting it later. Why? Because a week or so later, the photograph wasn’t as good as I remembered it. I was so caught up in the moment, that I didn’t take a step back, and judge the photograph more objectively.

To learn more on choosing your best photos, read the articles below:

If you’re not sure which photos are your best, here is a practical guide:

Principle 5: Learn from the masters of photography

Amsterdam, 2015

One of the best ways to become a better photographer is to study the masters of photography. These photographers have dedicated their entire lives to photography. Not only are their images inspirational, but their personal photography philosophies are also insightful.

Here are some master photographers to start learning about:

For further learning, see all the masters of photography, or read the distilled book: 100 Lessons From the Masters of Photography.


Additional guides to make better photos


To learn how to make better compositions, learn from these composition lessons:

For a summarized version, download the free ebook: “The Street Photography Composition Manual.”


If you want to learn how to be more creative with your photography, start with these articles:

See all creativity articles >


Practical Photography Tips:

If you want practical photography tips, start with these articles:

See all practical photography articles >

Chapter 4: How to use social media

Tokyo, 2016

Social media is a blessing and a curse.

The great thing about social media is you can easily get your photos to a wide audience, for free.

The downside: often we over-obsess about social media followers, likes, and comments. We out-source our self-esteem in our photography to random people on the internet.

If you want to learn how to use social media (mindfully), start here:

  1. A Photographer’s Guide to SEO, Blogging, and Social Media
  2. Don’t Trust “Free” Photography Social Networks
  3. Social Media 4.0

See all social media articles >

Chapter 5: How to find more meaning with your photography

Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject

At this point, you probably know how to shoot with the fundamentals of your camera, you know how to post-process and edit your photos to your heart’s delight, you have a decent social media following, yet you still feel a bit empty inside.

You want deeper meaning with your photography. You want to make your photos more personal.

If so, read the resources below:

See all personal photography articles >

Chapter 6: How to make a living with photography

If you want to make a living from your photography, here are some resources to get you started:

See all entrepreneurship articles >

Chapter 7: How to stay motivated in your photography

To stay inspired and motivated in your photography is one of the most difficult things. Every photographer will sooner or later hit a creative block on their journey. If you find yourself falling into a hole, here are some resources to uplift you:

See all motivational articles >

Chapter 8: How to find zen in your photography

Honestly, the point of photography is to find peace, tranquility, happiness, and joy in your life (not to become a great photographer). If you’ve reached this point in your photography, you’re essentially at the end of your journey.

If you haven’t found peace in your photography yet, read these articles:

See all zen articles >

Your next (and truly) final step is to use your entire life, energy, and resources to uplift, motivate, and empower other photographers in the world:

Ultimately, I know the purpose of my life is to empower others with photography, yet I always fall off the horse. I get too caught up into the social media numbers game, worrying about fame, money, etc. So whenever I need encouragement to stay focused on my life’s task, I try to remind myself to be both a Stoic (and Zen) photographer:

Then once you’ve learned everything you need to learn, start unlearning. Start your photography journey all over again, like a child, and retain your “beginner’s mind“.

And if you feel like you haven’t found personal meaning in photography, study philosophy to find more purpose in your life.

Go forth, and discover who you are.



Free Downloads

For further resources, check out these free downloads:

To begin fresh, Start Here >