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First Principles in Photography

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Dear friend,

I want to take it back to basics to your photography: to respark your passion and enthusiasm for photography. Let’s take it back to “first principles” by asking ourselves, “What is photography, and why shoot photos?”

What is “first principles” thinking?

First of all, what is “first principles thinking?”

The easiest way I can define it is this:

What are the fundamental moving blocks to a thing, an activity or whatever you’re trying to achieve?

For example in photography, it means asking ourselves: what is the physical action of photography and what does it entail?

Photography in Latin means, “Painting/drawing with light”. Photo (light/photon) + Graph (draw, paint).

A camera is a tool which allows us to create photographs. A digital camera is essentially a box that has a digital sensor which captures light and encodes it into 1s and 0s, making a visual image. You use a lens to capture the light, and your camera has different aperture settings (how much light to let into the lens), shutter speeds (how long the lens opens its aperture), and ISO (the sensitivity of the camera sensor to the light).

Therefore the first Principle of photography is simple: Capturing light, and etching it into a paper or digital screen.

Photography is art

I believe if you’re a photographer, you’re an artist. Your passion is to make visual art, using the camera as your paintbrush or tool. The final product (photographs) is the physical manifestation of your art.

Now, there are silly arguments online and in society whether photographs should be considered art or not. I will plainly say yes, photography is the process of making visual art.

Now, whether a photograph is “good” or “bad” art is a different question; something which is dictated by the individual beliefs on beauty and aesthetics.

I believe that all photographs are art, yet we as individuals have the power to dictate whether the photos are good or bad; beautiful or ugly.

If your intention is to make photographs as art, they are art. But if you’re taking photos of a receipt, you’re not making visual art; you’re using the camera as an information-capturing tool.

Why do photographers have the impulse or urge to photograph?

The next inquiry we have is this: what impels or urges photographers to make photos?

And even a deeper question: How can we “hack” our own psychology to find more motivation to make photos, or how can we “stoke the fire” to respark this creative urge we have to photograph?

Even deeper: Even if we knew the secret of motivating ourselves to make more photos, should we? Meaning, if you don’t have a natural urge or impulse to make photos, should you force yourself to make photos?

My beliefs:

  1. You shouldn’t force yourself to make photos if you don’t want to. You should never make photos like it were toilsome labor (like filing your taxes). Rather, you should only photograph things which you’re passionate and enthusiastic about, because your true love for whatever you’re photographing will shine through to your viewer!
  2. The problem we face as photographers is this: we self-censor ourselves too much, and we prevent ourselves from taking photos of what we worry that others won’t “like”, or photos we’re worried is “cliché”. Solution: Whenever you have even a 1% impulse to photograph something, JUST SHOOT IT! Better to take a bad photo of something than to never shoot it.

  3. We all have a creative impulse inside us, a desire to make art! Thus, to be human is to make art!

What’s the best camera for photography?

“Best” is not an attribute which exists in the real world, like color or shape. I can accurately say this apple is red, and this box is square, but I cannot look at a camera and say that this camera is objectively “the best camera”.

All human judgements are subjective. There is no true objectivity, unless we talk about the deep trenches of physics (even a lot of quantum physics questions a lot on what is “real” or not).

Anyways, your goal as a photographer isn’t to buy the “best” camera. Your goal is to buy/own a camera which allows you to make photos with as little friction as possible.

That camera can be your phone, a compact camera (RICOH GR II), a film camera, or any other digital camera that exists.

In my opinion, when we are buying cameras, we shouldn’t optimize for “image quality” (because almost all modern digital cameras have phenomenal image quality). Instead, I recommend optimizing your camera based on weight, compactness, ease of use, ergonomics (how it feels in your hand), and the simplicity of use.

Some things won’t change in humans for a a long time: our hands won’t change shape or size, most humans prefer lightweight things, we don’t like shoulder or neck pain from heavy cameras, and we prefer to use simple things (easier is better).

When discovering whether a camera works for you or not; just try it out in real life. I actually discourage you to reading online reviews, because their reviews will always pertain to the reviewer, not you! Your lifestyle and preferences will always be different.

Also I would try to be careful of being suckered/caught up in the hype of certain camera brands. For example, just because a camera is more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean it will be better for you. For example on a day-to-day basis, I prefer shooting with my RICOH GR II over shooting with my expensive Leica.

Also, don’t think of your camera as just a jewelry object; it is a tool that you should use and abuse, to make beautiful visual art for yourself!

And don’t let anyone talk down on you based on the camera you shoot with. There will always be snobs, who think that they are superior to you, because they either know more about technical settings of photography, or because their cameras are more expensive than yours. To own expensive things and to assert your “dominance” is an example of a “[Veblen good](https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veblen good)”; an item which you assert your social standing, based on how expensive your possessions are.

Keep making photos and visual art for yourself to have more joy in your everyday life!

Anyways this essay is getting a little out of control, so let me summarize practical views:

  1. If you like to make photos as a visual exercise, you’re an artist. Your photos are visual art.
  2. It doesn’t really matter which camera you shoot with. I’m sure 1,000 years from now, the concept of a “camera” will be hyper different from anything that exists today.
  3. Don’t over-complicate photography. Just shoot photos of stuff that makes you happy!
  4. Don’t obstruct your urge to photograph. If you see something you want to shoot (and you don’t shoot it), you will feel creative constipation and frustration. Better to shoot anything that interests you, then later decide which photos you want to keep. For more assistance on deciding on which photo to keep or ditch, upload them to http://ARSBETA.COM
  5. The more you shoot, the happier you will be! Only shoot what brings joy to your heart.