The Principles of Success as a Modern Photographer

Today, anyone with a phone is a photographer. So now what?

What is at stake?

What does it mean to be a photographer, when everyone is a photographer? How do you stand out as a photographer? What do your pictures or photographs mean? What purpose do they serve to yourself personally — but also in a greater sense in society?


Marketing, Branding, Entrepreneurship Principles For Success

MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER is your new philosophical and practical primer to succeed as a modern photographer in today’s digital world.

We are drowning in images.

Table of contents from THE MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER
Table of contents from THE MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER

Consider, the average person looks at their phone several hundreds of times a day. Even ask yourself the question,

When am I not looking at a screen in my everyday life?

Maybe only when we’re taking a shower, or sleeping.

We look at screens and images in the morning, when we wake up to our phone alarm. We constantly look at images and pictures when we are scrolling through our social media feeds. We are constantly looking at images through advertisements on the web, on billboards, in stores, in the grocery market, at the mall, on TV, in magazines, in blogs, and at the movies.

We are addicted to visual images.

What is the value of an image?

What is the value of a photograph, from MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER
What is the value of a photograph, from MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER

Every second, tens of thousands of images and pictures are being uploaded to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and shared on What’s App, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, KakaoTalk, Line, and all the other social media apps and communication apps we have.

So— What is the value of an image nowadays?

Trust me there isn’t an absence of good pictures. If you go on Flickr, Google Images, 500px, VSCO, Instagram —you have an endless firehouse of good pictures.

If you own an iPhone, you can take very good pictures. Also, DSLR and full-frame sensors are so cheap now. Anyone can make a very good picture with automatic settings on their camera, and make them aesthetically pleasing with a filter via VSCO.

So once again — what is the value of a picture? And what kind of unique value can you bring to others as a photographer and visual artist?

Meaningful differentiation

Reflection: What is your value?
Reflection: What is your value?

The concept I want to share with you is “meaningful differentiation.” Of course, you are different as a photographer from the masses.

But the question you must ask yourself and understand is,

What unique value do I provide as a photographer, and how is the pictures I make meaningful, and different enough from others?

In other words, how do you provide value as a photographer?

On Value


What constitutes “value” in photography?

My theories on the value of photos and on value in general:

First, your pictures are “valuable” to the degree they help enhance the ego, power, confidence, to your viewer or client.

Also the concept or “utility” ; what practical use do your pictures provide to your viewer, client, or society are whole?

Picture vs Photograph vs Image

What is the difference between a picture, photograph, or image?

A picture is a two-dimensional image.

A picture can be a drawing, a painting, a photograph, and can be either digital or analogue.

All photographs are pictures. Not all pictures are photographs.

What makes photography interesting is that you can make an instantaneous picture.

Picture-taking with painting and drawing takes much longer.


An image is a concept that we can see in our mind’s eye. An image is how we see and perceive something. An image is used to communicate something to the viewer, which is done visually. An “image” can also be a map, graph, chart, or data visualization.

In a practical sense, “picture”, “photograph” and “image” are all used interchangeably. However, realize that while these concepts and terms are more similar than dissimilar, they are different at the core.

Therefore a modern photographer can make any type of picture. A modern photographer can make digital illustrations, photographs, or combine digital image collages. A modern photographer can and should edit, change, and modify their photographs as they see fit. They can make whatever kind of picture they desire, in order to make an image to affect the mind, heart, and soul of the viewer.


Images are no longer scarce.

In traditional economics, “value” is deeply tied into the notion of scarcity.

Water is not scarce. Tap water is essentially free. Yet with marketing, branding, and advertising, certain companies are able to sell us $3 bottles of water. How do they do it? They advertise “health benefits” of their designer water, like additional purity, minerals, taste, etc. Also, fear marketing: they scare you into thinking that drinking “normal” water is actually harmful for you.

Therefore, realize that your value as a photographer and image-maker isn’t tied to your scarcity. But, there are ways you can create additional value in your photographic services and pictures via scarcity.

For example:

  • If you teach a photography workshop, have scarcity of space (limited space)
  • Limited edition prints: Scarcity of the number of prints.
  • Scarcity of time: Limited edition sale, or early bird discounts.
  • Scarcity of you: That your photography style is so different and unique, that they want you and your photographic vision, because there is nobody who can make the same postures as you. In other words, your style is not replicable by anyone else.

How to increase your likelihood of success

How to increase value as a photogrspher from THE MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER
How to increase value as a photographer from THE MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER

Who would you bet your money on?

As a thought experiment, consider two photographers :

  1. Photographer A: Sits at home for 9 hours a day, and watches YouTube videos, reads photography and gear blogs, and only takes pictures or makes their own content for 1 hour a day.
  2. Photographer B: (Stands) at home and reads and studies the masters of art for 1 hour a day, and spends 9 hours a day making pictures and content, and marketing and advertising him/herself.

If I could bet who will become more successful after 2 years, I would put my money on Photographer B.

How to increase your odds of success

How to build extrinsic value from MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER
How to build extrinsic value from MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER

In photography, entrepreneurship, and life — there are no guarantees. You can hustle hard, be smart and talented, take risks, but still fail.

Your job is to increase your likelihood of success. Strategies:

  1. Take more chances/risks
  2. Create more
  3. Lower your expenses, and your chances of 100% terminal failure/bankruptcy.

The internet is essentially a massive copying machine. You can now make infinite copies of your pictures and images, for no additional cost.

So how can we thrive, and succeed in today’s brave new digital world—as photographers and visual artists? How do we measure success when institutions such as galleries, museums, publishing houses are changing? How can we track our progress, and know that we are “winning” in life?

How to become “successful”

Money sell out logo

In the past, this is how you became “successful” as a photographer or artist:

  1. To become “discovered” by an art dealer, publisher, or curator
  2. To have a solo exhibition, and have your works exhibited all around the world
  3. Become “legitimized” by the art world, and have your name written in the art history books

These concepts and barometers of “success” might have worked well 100 years ago, but no longer apply to the world of today.

A new notion of success as a modern photographer


I believe this should be the new notion of “success” as a modern photographer:

  1. To have creative and artistic freedom
  2. To not be tied down to a single location, city, or place; to be a nomadic photographer
  3. To not measure success by external markers, but to uncompromisingly judge yourself and your own personal feeling of progress.

Ultimately, the most important part of “success” as a modern photographer is freedom. Freedom to control how to share, publish, or print your work. To have freedom to travel. To have freedom to not share your work, when you don’t want to share your work, or when you don’t feel like it is ready.


To have the freedom not to compromise your artistic vision as a photographer. To not be the slave to the opinions of critics and the masses.

And the great thing? You can control freedom in your own hands. You can dictate how much freedom you want to give to yourself in your life — the only thing holding you back are the personal consequences you’re willing to give up.


For example, if you don’t want to be a slave to social media, know that some people might not take you as “seriously”— because you might not have the “social proof” numbers to back yourself up.

But as a modern photographer, you will not quantify yourself with numbers or statistics. You will only judge yourself according to your own inner scorecard and introspection.


Marketing, Branding, Entrepreneurship Principles For Success

MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER is your new philosophical and practical primer to succeed as a modern photographer in today’s digital world.

Taking control


Imagine —what if you could live a life as a photographer/visual artist where you had 100% control and freedom in your creative life?

What if, you were your own publisher, your own promoter, your own art dealer, your own manager, your own source of income, and your own self-directed teacher/leader?

What if you were totally self-sufficient, and not in control by anyone else?

Why you must own yourself

“Until you own yourself, you can’t be free.” – JAY Z

My business hero is JAY Z, who has taken control of his life into his own hands. When he was starting off in rap music, he couldn’t get signed or get a deal. So what did he do? Start his own music label.

Fast-forward, he hated how Spotify and other music streaming services gave so little control (and money) to the artists. So he took a massive risk and bought TIDAL— and relaunched it as his own music steaming service.

Ultimately, JAY Z owns himself because he retains rights to the “masters” (original versions) of all his music, videos, and content.

You want to do the same:

The goal isn’t to gain massive amounts of monetary worth, influence, or fame. The goal is for you to own yourself, own your pictures, and own your own creative destiny. To not hope for having others “discover” you, but for you to “discover” you.


You are the platform

HAPTIC INDUSTRIES: Crestive Tools to Empower You
HAPTIC INDUSTRIES: Creative Tools to Empower You

As a modern photographer, you don’t want to put your own artistic fate into the hands of others. What you desire is FREEDOM, AUTONOMY, and CONTROL.

That means, don’t build yourself, or your audience, or platform on someone else’s platform. Don’t become a “digital sharecropper”— essentially becoming an indentured servant to some massive company like Facebook or Instagram (Instagram is owned by Facebook).


Not only that, but you have less artistic freedom if you try to promote yourself and share your own artwork on a platform owned by a big corporation. For example, if you post nudity, or controversial images to Facebook or Instagram or any other social media platform, you can have your images removed or “censored” because your images don’t fit “community guidelines.”

That means the first step towards artistic freedom is to build your own platform.

Own Yourself


Own yourself and your own content, pictures, and art. Make your own website. I recommend or, and the free and open source framework.

This means, you can customize your website and platform to your heart’s content. You decide how to share your pictures or images, how to customize the viewer experience, and how to promote yourself.

The rule of thumb is,

You must pay money for your photographic services or platform.

If you’re dead broke, and cannot afford $9.99 a month, then just stick to free services and social media platforms. But, if you are reading this and own a camera worth at least $1,000– I assume you can afford very minimal monthly website hosting costs.

I get it, I get it — we don’t like to pay money for digital services. But consider, you’re paying a TINY amount of money, for your own artistic freedom and control.

You are the brand

Cindy laughing at red shrine. Kyoto, 2017.
Kyoto, 2017

In the past, the trends were advertising, then marketing, and now “branding” is the hot new trend.

To be honest, they’re all the same thing.

But what I want to hammer into you is:

You are the brand.

Your first name and last name is the brand. You are the brand.

Selfie in kyoto. Eric Kim.

You are not seeking to make a mega corporation for yourself. You’re not seeking to become the next Apple, Amazon, or Google. No, you’re an individual— and you should be proud of it.

As an individual, you are a human being —with human emotions, feelings, and your own personal individuality. You have your own style, your own character, and your own personality.

Creative Everyday by HAPTIC
Creative Everyday by HAPTIC

You are not a visual colonialist

vitruviancamera-eric kim

As a modern photographer, the more opinionated, different, and raw you are— the better.

The mistake a lot of past, romantic photographers made is that they sought to become emotionless, “objective” photographers. They didn’t want to “interact” or “disturb” the scenes they photographed. They were essentially like safari hunters, or visual colonialists — they saw their subjects as savages, exotic oddities, and didn’t want to harm the “visual ecosystem” of their scenes.


As a modern photographer, you are not a white colonialist, seeking to find “exotic” lands and “exotic” peoples. No, you already realize that the world is more similar than dissimilar — in terms of the fact that humanity is all one whole.


What your goal as a modern photographer is to share your own opinionated perspective and viewpoint of the world with others. For you to share your own personal thoughts, ideas, and feelings with your viewer — using your pictures as the communication medium.


Therefore, my suggestion is this:

Let not get “suckered by the exotic” (Constantine Manos). Rather than us wanting to travel to to foreign places, and photograph exotic culture, let us stay close to home, and document, analyze, and critique our own society back home.


Traveling won’t make you a better photographer

Vitruvian Camera by Annette Kim x HAPTICPRESS

The modern photographer likes to travel, yet doesn’t travel to “escape themselves”. Rather, the modern photographer knows that they can make meaningful, personal, and interesting pictures regardless of where they are.

The modern photographer never blames the city, town, or place they live — they only blame themselves.

A lot of photographers seek to travel because of escapism. They hate their lives, which they find too boring and routine. They’re hungry for adventure —and they think that by traveling, they will be able to satiate their feelings of dissatisfaction.

In reality, traveling will never make you a better photographer or visual artist.

Traveling will help teach you to learn how to life with less, to be less attached to physical stuff, to life and travel lightly, to become more economical, to be more scrappy and endure uncomfortable situations, to expose yourself to new cultures and ways of seeing, and will encourage you to become more open-minded.

But traveling will not make you a great photographer.

How to stay inspired

Sunset over Moabit. Berlin, 2017
Sunset over Moabit. Berlin, 2017

Personally, traveling does help “re-inspire” me to make pictures, because new foreign and exotic visual stimuli does excite me.

Yet, the visual novelty never lasts.

Cindy and red scarf. Berlin, 2017
Cindy and red scarf. Berlin, 2017

You travel to a new foreign and exotic place, and suddenly you get “inspired” to take pictures. Then, eventually —our visual stimuli become desensitized. Everything becomes “normal” and “boring” again—and we lack inspiration. And we think the solution is to keep traveling, for more and more visual novelty, to “stay inspired.”

Abstract clamp. Berlin, 2017

I’ve been the victim of this thinking, and still am. But I think I’ve found the solution to this problem:

Don’t seek to be “inspired” to make pictures. Rather, seek to make meaningful pictures. Seek to make pictures that fulfill your visual curiosity. And above all, don’t take your photography too seriously. Have fun like a child.

Seek to impress yourself with your own pictures

London Street Photograph . Woman and cell phone and poster
London, 2014

Warren Buffett tracks his own progress in life not by how many commas he has in his investments, but rather — he creates his own “inner scorecard” to measure, track, his own progress.

This means, you are the ultimate judge of your own pictures. Only you have the power to judge yourself, your progress, and your own pictures.

Flash. Ricoh GR II, popup flash, P mode. Tokyo, 2017
Low perspective composition. Tokyo, 2017

On a simple level, your first goal is to make pictures that you like to look at yourself.If you make pictures that bore you, you just work hard and strive to make pictures that bring you joy when you look at them.

Therefore, you are the most important person to impress with your photography.

Avoid boredom

Abstract red cell phone man by eric kim.

For example, for myself — there are certain pictures of mine that fall into two categories:

  1. Pictures that get better over time
  2. Pictures that get worse over time

1. Pictures that get better over time


These pictures stand the test of time. They are like cream that rises to the top. Or when you mix oil and water, with enough time —the oil will rise to the top. The oil/cream is a symbol of the good pictures.

Cindy in blue jumper

Or like a good bottle of wine— it gets better as it gets older. Or like good cheese or kimchi— the fermentation process improves the flavor over time (of course, up to a certain point).

For myself, I need at least 1-2 years to judge whether my picture is any good or not.

Cindy pink. Cindy project.

Generally the pictures that have survived (and thrived, and gotten better over time) include these characteristics:

  1. Strong graphical elements; simple yet dynamic composition
  2. Pictures which evoke emotion in my heart and soul
  3. Pictures which are mysterious, open-ended, and open to interpretation. Pictures that I can interpret in a different way, depending on what I’m currently experiencing in my life. A picture that can be interpreted in different ways.

2. Pictures that get worse over time

Umbrella and diagonal lines. Tokyo.

Then there are certain pictures which get worse over time. They are like certain kinds of food — when you first try it, you absolutely love it and you want to keep eating it, every day, but you soon become to hate the taste of it, and become nauseous even thinking about eating it.

For myself, there are certain pictures which I am super excited about and enthusiastic about when I first shot them. Then as time goes on, I become to HATE looking at them. These are the bad photos which must be deleted.

Never be satisfied

Eric Kim cubist

As a modern photographer, you are constantly in a state of flux. Of creating new images, and finding new sources of inspiration.

The secret to staying productive, prolific, and joyful as a photographer is:

Never be satisfied with your pictures.

Of course, you should be grateful for your past pictures. You should feel joy from your past pictures. But, in order to have the motivation to continue making new pictures, you must stay hungry, foolish, and dissatisfied.

Low perspective, and Superman effect. New Orleans, 2015
Low perspective, and Superman effect. New Orleans, 2015

Don’t think of dissatisfaction in a negative way. I think you can be both joyful and dissatisfied at the same time.

  • Joyful that you’re progressing in your photography.
  • Dissatisfied that you know you can do better.

Always seek to do better.

Why you must make money and be profitable as a photographer

Go ahead, sell out. MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER.
Go ahead, sell out. MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER.

If you want to make a full-time living (or a substantial side income) from photography, you must make money, and you must make healthy profits. Otherwise, you will not be able to pay your rent or feed yourself and your family.

Also consider, the stronger your income, profits, and cash flow as a photographer, the less stress and anxiety you will have in your personal life as a photographer. And therefore, you can focus more on helping your immediate family, friends, and the rest of society.

What If I don’t want to make a living from my photography?

Why money?
Why money?

If you already have a comfortable well-paying job, I don’t recommend quitting your job just to pursue photography full-time.

However there is nothing wrong with you making side income from your photography. I know on a personal level, there is a certain joy of making money through your photography and art. The small thrill of selling a print, or selling a book is very exciting and motivational.

To conclude, there is nothing wrong with making money from your photography.

What is more important to you: meaning or money?

Your labor is not free.
Your labor is not free.

Consider the two situations:

You can make $0 from your photography, and still find a lot of personal meaning, satisfaction, and joy from your photography.
You can make $1,000s of dollars from photography, yet find 0 joy or meaning from your photography.


Making money won’t necessarily add more meaning, or take away meaning from your life.

Just ask yourself,

What does money mean for me as a photographer?

For example,

Do you use money as a metric to ‘keep score’ of your ‘success’ as a photographer?
Do you hope to eventually bridge your side income from your photography into your full-time living? For example, if your income from your day job is $40,000 a year, your dream might be to eventually earn $40,000 a year purely from photography (this was once my personal goal/ambition).

Why additional side-income?


Do you want to earn some side-income to buy more photography gear to justify your photography gear-buying habit? (I know a lot of photographers who shoot weddings and portraits on the side to earn extra income, to pay for their new equipment and gear).

If you want to earn additional side-income from photography, what does that extra money mean to you?


For some of us, we imagine aids income from photography can help us do the following:

  • Buy new camera gear (without feeling guilty about it): I know some people who shoot weddings and portraits on the side, to justify purchasing new camera equipment.
  • Travel: Use additional side income to go on more trips, to travel to exotic places, to shoot more ‘interesting pictures’.
  • Live a more ‘comfortable life’


But friend, I want to challenge you— is this side income you hope to earn from photography really going to bring you that much additional joy and happiness in your life?


Don’t make pictures for the dominant audience

We all know what ‘popular’ pictures are that will get a lot of likes: cat pictures, cappuccino pictures, rainbow pictures.

Then in the more ‘artistic photography’ world — there are “IKEA photographs”(as my friend Charlie Kirk says)— which are pictures that appeal to everyone, and doesn’t offend anybody (ie, pictures that anyone would want to hand on their walls, including your mom).

To stand out, don’t create pictures for the dominant audience (credit: Cindy Nguyen). Create pictures that interest you, and a small and select group of people you want to appeal to.


Marketing, Branding, Entrepreneurship Principles For Success

MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER is your new philosophical and practical primer to succeed as a modern photographer in today’s digital world.

Make your viewers love or hate your pictures


To stand out, make pictures that shock, upset, or make people feel strong or extreme emotions.

In a sense, you want polar opposite reactions from your audience:

They must either LOVE your pictures to death, or absolutely and vehemently HATE your pictures.

You don’t want a lukewarm or “meh” response from your viewer.

That means, make and share pictures that are very personal. Pictures of yourself (self portraits), your family, or your loved ones.


Or in street photography, make street photos that evoke strong reactions. Make pictures really close, with a flash, with extreme facial gestures (that evoke laughter, extreme joy, or extreme disgust or anger, anxiety). Evoke pictures with hand gestures, body language that makes your viewer elated, hopeful, optimistic, or joyful, or the opposite — depressed, gloomy, sad, and depressed.

You are a social photographer


Ultimately as human beings, we are social creatures. No human would care to have all the riches in the world, if they were the only human to exist on planet earth by themselves.

It is my personal belief that all photographers and visual artists are trying to find deeper meaning and purpose in their photography and lives. And they are trying to do that by making pictures of things which are important to them, which gives them excitement and direction, and which expresses themselves and their creative souls.


To conclude, you are a modern photographer.

To win as a photographer, only judge yourself.

Be bold. Think big. Take massive risks.

Don’t make boring pictures; seek to impress yourself.

You have access to phenomenal digital tools. You can harness the power of the internet.

You have unlimited potential — think big, and shoot for the moon.



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