Sweat. Downtown LA, 2016 Leica m8.2

How to Make Your Photos Stand Out

Dear friend,

I think all of us has a unique voice in our photography.

But the difficult thing is this: “How can we make our photos stand out in a world that is over-saturated with images?”

Nobody cares about your photos

Hanoi, 2016 #cindyproject

To start off, realize that (unfortunately) nobody gives a shit about your photos. Everyone gives a shit about their own photos; but not your photos.

And also unfortunately, photography isn’t as valuable today as it was in the past. People used to pay photographers a lot more money for photos, because it was so technically difficult. Now anybody with an iPhone can take a great photo.

I love modern technology and the smartphone; because it has democratized photography. I believe photography is for everybody. And everyone should call themselves a photographer. Because we all are.

But at the same time, we face a difficult challenge of making our photos stand out of a sea of petabytes of images, floating in this digital sea.

Here is some advice I would give to have your photos stand out in today’s over-saturated social media world:

1. Be consistent

Downtown LA, 2015

The biggest mistake a lot of photographers make is that when they’re starting off, they don’t know how to be consistent.

A plant that is moved around too much will never put down roots, and grow big.

There is a Taoist saying: don’t poke your fish too much while you’re cooking it.

I do believe it is very important for you to experiment with your photography when you’re starting off. Experiment with different cameras, formats, lenses, black and white versus color, smartphone vs film, whatever. But once you find something that you’re 80% happy with — stick with it.

No photographer can stand out without having a distinct ‘look’ or style in their photography. And to build a style in your photography, you need to be consistent.

Henri Cartier-Bresson shot black and white his entire career with a 50mm lens, and shot ‘decisive moment’ street photographs. He stood out this way.

Alex Webb (who started off shooting black and white like Henri-Cartier-Bresson) ended up standing out by taking on color photography, and started to shoot complex, multi-layered images. This helped him stand out, in a sea of black-and-white photographers.

The Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama stood out from his peers (who all shot low-grain, sharp photos, with Leica cameras) by using a cheap, point-and-shot film camera, while making his images blurry, out-of-focus, high-contrast, and grainy. When he started shooting with this high-contrast black and white aesthetic, everyone hated it. Now it is an accepted aesthetic. And I also want to note that Daido borrowed this aesthetic from William Klein, who popularized shooting these edgy, wide-angle, blurry, grainy black and white street photos.

2. Go opposite

Kettleman city, 2015 #cindyproject

Another good way to stand out with your photos is to go opposite.

For example, William Eggleston stood out by shooting color — when shooting color was only for amateurs. Not only that, but when everyone was photographing these beautiful ‘fine art’ type of images– Eggleston only photographed mundane and common-place things like food inside his refrigerator.

My friend Aik Beng Chia stood out by shooting with an iPhone camera, when everyone else was shooting with fancy high-end digital cameras. I know that I attracted some attention shooting film, when many other photographers were obsessed with getting higher-megapixel digital cameras. And some other digital photographers started to stand out when everyone started to shoot film.

You want to stand out by not following the sheep and the herd.

If everyone shooting color photography, shoot black and white.

If everyone is doing these epic multi-layered photos, shoot simple single-subject photos.

If everyone is using a telephoto lens, use a wide-angle lens.

If everyone is using a DSLR, use a point-and-shoot.

If everyone is shooting ‘wide-open’, shoot ‘stopped down’ at f/8-f/16.

3. Put yourself out there

Prague, 2015

If you want to stand out for your photography, you need to put yourself out there.

There are many different ways you can do this. You can market yourself with social media, with your website or blog, via word-of-mouth, via local exhibitions, via photo books, photo magazines, or ‘zines’ (self-printed xerox copies of your work).

Many photographers don’t like the idea of ‘promoting’ themselves. They don’t want to be ‘shameless’ — and think that their work should speak for itself.

But in all honesty; if you want to stand out in your photography, you need to know how to market and advertise yourself. Even Apple, which probably makes some of the best products out there, spends millions of dollars advertising their products.

Honestly the only reason anybody knows me is because of this photography blog. I’ve been able to attract photographers who want to learn about street photography (usually via Google searches on YouTube). This is a way I’ve been able to make a name for myself in the realm of street photography (even though there are many street photographers far more talented than myself).

But you need to have the courage to put yourself out there. Because putting yourself out there is a risk. You risk being criticized, you risk being ignored, and you risk being disappointed.

My personal suggestion is this: imagine the worst-case scenario before you put yourself out there. For example, imagine that if you put yourself out there, nobody will respond to you, everyone will ignore you, and you will have people who criticize you. Imagine the worst-case-scenario before the fact, and you will find out that the worst-case scenario is actually not so bad.

My opinion: it is worse to be ignored than criticized.

4. Work on a personal project

Vancouver, 2015 #cindyproject

Another practical tip on how to make your photos stand out: don’t focus on just making good single-images. Rather, focus on a personal project.

How do you know what kind of personal project to work on? Practical advice: just photograph what is personal to you. Photograph your loved ones, photograph yourself, or photograph your own village, town, or city.

To take ‘personal’ photos means to show your own soul in your photos. You want to make your photos intimate. You want photos that only you can shoot, not others.

Many commercial photographers have made their names for themselves through personal projects. For me, all of my personal photography is mostly street photography. And I have been able to get some commercial jobs, because companies were interested in my street photography style and aesthetic.

I know for myself, I am drawn to photographers who work on personal projects because they tend to be more memorable. I still remember personal projects from other photographers who documented their fathers on their deathbeds. I remember personal projects like how the photographer Harry Callahan photographed his wife Eleanor– with tender love and grace. I remember how Lee Friedlander humorously put himself in his own self-portraits. I remember the personal photographs of Josef Koudelka, who bares his soul through his wanderings in his ‘Exiles’ book.


5. Never stop innovating

Berlin, 2015 #cindyproject

The secret to standing out in your photography is to never give up. To never stop innovating. To never keep moving the ball forward.

If you want to stand out, you need forward momentum. You can’t stop moving. You can’t stop shooting. You can’t stop sharing your work. You can’t stop putting yourself out there.

Honestly, whether you stand out in your photography or not isn’t in your control. Meaning, you can be the world’s most talented photographer, but if you don’t have good timing or luck — you will not be ‘discovered.’

But it is in your power to hustle hard, and to push yourself. You can control the effort you put into your photography, but not the results.

Why do you want to stand out?

Seoul, 2009

I am sorry I wrote this section a bit too late– but wonder to yourself, ‘Why do I want to stand out?’

Do you want to stand out as a way for you to build up your self-esteem? Do you want to stand out because you want to make a living from your photography? Do you want to stand out for your photography because you are insecure about yourself?

Be honest with yourself. Always ask yourself the ‘why?’ question as much as possible.

Figure out your true intentions. Then you will discover yourself, and find the real truth behind your photography.

Shoot yourself

Vancouver, 2015 (photo by Cindy Nguyen)

Ultimately, shoot to impress yourself. If you have millions of followers who love your photography, but you don’t like your own photography — is it worth it?



Learn how to make your photos more personal

Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject

To get started with personal photography, read these articles:

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