How to Build Good Habits in Your Photography

Sapa, 2017 #cindyproject

Dear friend,

For me, photography is all about self-development, self-growth, and self-introspection.

Photography is less about examine the life of others. When you photograph others, you examine yourself. You examine what you find interesting, you capture what is beautiful to you, and you capture what brings you joy or excitement.

There are no “good” or “bad” habits in photography. But there are “good” and “bad” habits for you in your photography.

We are our habits

Sapa, 2017 (photo by Cindy)

Ultimately, I do believe as Aristotle said— we are our habits. Our habits guide our actions. And by building “good” habits— we make it easier to live our lives consistent to our own morals, ethics, and wants.

I’ve been trying to build my own habits in photography— to be the photographer I wish to be. Here are some personal habits I try hard to implement in my life:

1. Whenever possible, have my camera in my hand

Sapa, 2017 #cindyproject

I always have my camera with me, in my backpack. However when my camera isn’t in my hand— I don’t see as many photography opportunities.

Or other times, I will see a good photo opportunity, yet be too slow to take the camera out of my backpack. Therefore I have missed tons of “decisive moments” (because my camera wasn’t ready and in my hand).

Over the years I’ve experimented with different cameras and different systems. Ultimately I’ve discovered that the lighter, more compact, and smaller the camera— the better. I am currently using a Ricoh GR II camera with a wrist strap, which I barely feel. This way I can walk all day without feeling any fatigue. The lighter my camera, the more likely I will have it in my hand. And the more often I have my camera in my hand, the more photo opportunities I will spot, the more photos I will take, and the more likely I am to make a good photo.

2. When in doubt, click

sapa eric kim street photography
Sapa, 2017

The beauty of digital photography is there is essentially no cost of taking extra photos. In my personal experience, the more photos you shoot, the more likely you are to get a good photograph.

There is a myth of “the decisive moment” — that the master photographers only shot one photo of the scene, and somehow magically captured a great photo. But even Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Sometimes you need to milk the cow a lot to get a little bit of cheese.” For many of HCB’s great photos, he took many photos of the scene, and decided what was the best photo afterwards.

Therefore whenever I see something that I have even a small feeling that might be a good photo — I just shoot it. I use my guts, my instincts, and my intuition to guide my shooting.

On the other hand, whenever I think a photo is boring or uninteresting, I don’t photograph it (even if someone else tells me it might be interesting). To avoid what is boring to you is often a better strategy than following what is “interesting” to you.

As a random side note, one of the best ways to find your style in photography is to figure out what styles of photography don’t appeal to you. To find your style in photography is to avoid types of photography which bore you. For me, I’m generally not interested in standard pretty landscape photos, macro photos of flowers, studio portraiture, wedding photography, and many others. Therefore the only styles of photography which are left include street photography, personal documentary, urban landscapes, and portraits.

Going back to the point at hand — whenever you see a potentially interesting photo, just take the photo. You can decide later whether to keep the photo or not to keep the photo.

3. Don’t check social media everyday

Sapa, 2017

One of the ways I’ve found more creativity, personal satisfaction, and enthusiasm for my photography is to spend less time on social media.

The problem with social media is that it is a numbers game. We value our self-esteem for our own photography based on how many likes, comments, and followers we have. I don’t think anybody is immune to it — especially myself.

Even though I might get 1,000 likes on a photo, if my next photo I upload “only” gets 300 likes, I feel downtrodden. Not only that, but I am prone to envy — people who get 2,000 likes, 3,000 likes, 5,000 likes — or people with more followers than me.

I know envy is a futile emotion, but something I still haven’t shaken from myself. Therefore the less time I spend on social media, the less envious I am of other photographers, and the more I can focus on my own photography.

I still do think that social media is useful, especially in photography. But as a practical habit, I try to not look at social media everyday. And honestly, it helps me to focus on myself and my own photos. Rather than thinking, “How much will others like my photography?” I think to myself, “How much do I like my own photos?”

How to create your own habits in photography

Sapa, 2017

I feel one of the best ways to build good habits in your photography is to not judge your habits according to others.

For me, it means not forcing myself to build habits that others tell me is good. That means, knowing what I prefer, my preferences, and what I want from my photography. Therefore, I only put pressure on myself to create good habits for myself. It is easier to build these habits because I’m doing it for myself, not just listening to some schoolteacher.

Some practical ideas:

1. Do more of what you like, do less of what you don’t like

Sapa, 2017

First of all, if you want to build habits for yourself— you need to be self-driven, and you need to know what you like, and what you don’t like.

For example, I like taking photos, I like “marinating” my photos (letting them sit for a while before publishing them), I like finding personal satisfaction from my photography, and I like challenging myself.

I don’t like to compare my photography with others, I don’t like lusting for new camera equipment, and I don’t like being caught on a social media treadmill of wanting to get a lot of ‘likes.’

Therefore, I know that in order to take more photos, I need to have my camera ready more often. Therefore, I set the habit of trying to have my camera in my hand as much as possible. Furthermore, I try to distract myself less so I can see more photo opportunities. For me, that means turning off my phone— because it always distracts me. The less I look at my phone, the more I look at the world around me.

I don’t like to feel pressured to constantly upload photos to social media. Therefore, I train myself by uninstalling all social media apps from my phone. If I really want to share something on social media, I will do it from my laptop. Because my laptop isn’t always on and with me in my front pocket, I am less likely to build a habit of always checking social media, and constantly uploading images.

I don’t like comparing myself with other photographers, so I also try to spend less time on social media. I know that I am easily envious of other photographers (who have more likes/followers than me) — therefore I try to keep more of my photos offline, and to enjoy my images for myself.

As with not falling victim to GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) — I have blocked all distracting camera and tech websites/blogs from my browser. I know that I am prone to wanting new tech stuff, so I am like Ulysses (blocking my ears with wax, to prevent being tempted by the sirens).

2. Control your environment

Sapa, 2017
Sapa, 2017

Therefore to build new habits, you need to know your personal weaknesses. Therefore, you build roadblocks for yourself, to prevent yourself from “relapsing” into bad habits.

Alcoholics are instructed not to put themselves into social situations or environments which will “trigger” their alcoholism. It is easier to abstain from alcohol if they don’t always go to the pub, to the local bar, or associate with friends who are heavy drinkers.

3. Surround yourself with good role models

eric kim photography sapa
Sapa, 2017

If you want to be a better photographer, surround yourself with the best photographers. That means, hang out with photographers whose work you admire. If you don’t have any photography friends in “real life” — learn from the masters of photography, look at a lot of photo books, and listen to interviews with them on YouTube.

All the good “habits” I learned from the master photographers are from their example. Henri Cartier-Bresson always had his camera around his neck, or in his hand. Josef Koudelka always traveled light (like a homeless person)— another habit I’ve picked up. Richard Avedon made it a habit to photograph his subjects against white walls— another habit I’ve tried to integrate into my photography (choosing the simplest background possible).

Also on the other hand, you want to subtract negative influences from yourself. There is an ancient Arabic saying — keeping your distance from an ignorant person is equal to keeping the company of a wise man.

If you want to improve your photography habits, don’t associate yourself with those whose photography habits you dislike. If you want to be less addicted to wanting new camera equipment, don’t hang out with photographers always talking about gear. If you don’t want to be caught up on the social media treadmill, spend less time with your friends who are always on Instagram.


Sapa, 2017

Ultimately, you are your habits. And you can choose your habits, and choose who you are as a photographer and human being.

But we all fall victim into bad habits — because we’re not sure what direction we want to take our photography. Rather than thinking what we want for our photography, we just follow the herd. We feel pressured to always do social media, because we see everyone else doing it.

Ultimately, create your own set of rules, habits, and a direction for your photography. Do what you want to do in your photography. Follow your gut, and what feels right to you. Ignore the crowd.


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