This is a personal manual for how you can master photography for yourself– based on the last decade of my photography experiences.
Ultimately, all of this advice is auto-biographical. This advice I’m gonna share with you is advice which has helped me. It might or might not help you.
My suggestion: take the advice that you like, and use that as a STIMULUS for you to elevate yourself and your photography to the next level. For the parts that don’t vibe with you– just discard it.
Chapter 1. Why Photography?
Primo — why photography?
I think as human beings– we all need a creative outlet. Why?
My theory: as humans, we have evolved to have human ingenuity (some people call this ‘creativity’).
We have this inner-creative drive. If we do not have an outlet to manifest this creative power and will — we start to wither and die from within.
As an artist, you are like an eagle. You were born to soar. Imagine if someone clipped your golden wings, and forced you inside a cage? That golden cage is modern society.
Anyways, you need to make pictures, because that is the way you can manifest your creative power and will.
Therefore in other words, if photography is your passion– if you cannot make new pictures, you start to die.
You will die without photography.
Chapter 2. How to See as a Photographer
To start, don’t call yourself a ‘photographer’. You are a VISUAL ARTIST.
- Visual: You like to look at the world — the visual world.
- Artist: You were born as an artist as a child.
And yes, all photographers are artists. And the reason I like to use the term ‘visual artist’ is because you don’t want to restrain yourself.
You might like to draw, to paint, or manifest your creative vision in other artistic mediums. So don’t limit yourself with this silly genre of ‘photography.’ You might eventually evolve beyond photography — and start doing sculpture or something else.
So once again, don’t call yourself a photographer. Call yourself a ‘visual artist’ — or better yet, a child who likes to play with the visual world.
Your most valuable asset as a visual artist are your eyes. Your visual perception.
Ask yourself the question:
How do I see the world differently than others?
Your originality as a photographer can be defined by your perspective.
– Where you stand
– What direction you point your camera
– What you include in your frame, and what you exclude from your frame
Perspective can also be seen as your opinion. For example,
What are your political beliefs, your socio-economic beliefs– that is your ‘perspective’ of the world
Realize– the best artists are the opinionated ones.
All art is subjective. There is no objectivity in art. Therefore, disregard this silly notion that photography somehow needs to be ‘objective.’
Once you can realize that your photography is a very personal, and subjective, and your opinionated view of the world– then you can really start to develop, evolve, and soar in your photography.
What makes visual art or photography what it is is the FRAME.
What you decide to include in the frame, or what you decide to exclude from the frame.
Consider, you have this little rectangular box. What you decide to include in this little box shows what you find interesting, important, or beautiful in the world. What you decide to exclude from the frame is what you want to SUBTRACT from reality — you EXCLUDE from the frame whatever you consider ugly, or aesthetically unpleasing.
However you decide to frame or compose your scene denotes your meaning. However you frame a scene signifies the meaning of the picture.
Let me give you a practical example: If you shoot a portrait of someone– what specific detail about them do you find interesting? Their eyes? Their lips? Their hands? Their waist?
A practical word of advice: To make better pictures– be more specific.
Specific: Focus on the details.
Don’t just use a fish-eye wide-angle lens, and photograph everything. By photographing everything, you photograph nothing.
Very general pictures are boring to look at. This is what we generally call a ‘snapshot’.
For example, imagine like you visit Paris, specifically the Eiffel tower. By taking a picture of the entire scene, with all the tourists, and the trees in the background — the picture is too general. Therefore, boring.
An interesting picture is manifested by how you frame a scene. What you decide to include in the frame.
By framing a scene, you are saying:
I find this interesting. This is beautiful, and aesthetically sublime. Look at it.
Chapter 3. What Makes a Good Picture?
To transition, let us talk more about what makes a good picture.
The Trifecta of a Good Picture
Composition: what you decide to include in the frame, or exclude from the frame.
Specifically — simplify the frame. Make the picture more DYNAMIC.
Do you feel something in your heart when you look at the picture? Do you feel joy, happiness, joy, or something else?
Can you see your own soul in your picture? Are you the only one who could have made that picture?
Why Make Good Pictures?
A good question to also ask yourself: ask yourself,
Why should I strive to make good pictures? What is the purpose of a ‘good’ picture– and can anyone truly judge a picture as ‘good’ or not?
Life is too short to look at bad pictures.
Of course, photography should be 100% personal to you. Only you have control whether to decree your pictures ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
Therefore, when you are judging your own pictures, be uncompromisingly sincere towards yourself. And at the same time — don’t over-think it.
I see the world in black and white; no grey for me.
Therefore, to me — either a picture is good or bad. No in-between.
If you look at your picture, and you’re not sure whether it is good or bad, it is not a good picture.
An easy way to edit/choose your best pictures:
“When in doubt, ditch.”
You have the rest of your life to make good (or better) pictures. So don’t get so caught up or hung up on your past or present pictures. If anything, you should always be inspired, excited, and looking forward to making future pictures– better, stronger, more ambitious, more dynamic, more edgy, more simple, and more interesting to both shoot and to look at.
Chapter 4. Aesthetics
To go on from the prior chapter, let us talk about aesthetics.
The philosophy of what makes something beautiful or ugly.
These are some of my theories on aesthetics:
Imperfection is Beautiful
If you have ever met anyone with (exclusive) plastic surgery — there is something ‘off’ about them. Even though they may have anatomically-perfect proportions, I wouldn’t call them ‘beautiful’ in the aesthetic sense.
To me, anything overly ‘Photoshopped’ (in real life or in media) is not beautiful.
To me, there is beauty in imperfection.
For example, photographs which are ‘too cropped’ or ‘too perfectly cropped’ don’t look good. Why? The pictures don’t seem effortless– they seem too sterile and ‘too perfect.’
I think as a photographer, you should have some ‘sprezzatura’ in your pictures. ‘Sprezzatura’ (Italian word) can be described as ‘effortless’ artistic creative power– to not strive like a nerd to make something beautiful. Rather, to make art without effort (Eastern philosophy of Taoism calls this ‘wu-wei’ — effort without effort).
To take this idea further– when you’re shooting pictures in the streets, think of yourself like a ‘flaneur’ (French word)– someone who wanders the streets, walking at a slow pace, and just following your nose. To not be a nerd on Google Maps, always needing a ‘destination’ in mind.
Another aesthetic philosophy I love is Zen aesthetics — there is a concept called ‘wabi-sabi’ in which the more you use something, the more beautiful it becomes.
For example, a nice RAW pair of denim (untreated). When you first buy a pair, they are stiff and dark-indigo. But the more you wear the pair, the more it softens, and molds to your body’s curves. It becomes your favorite pair of jeans, and becomes more comfortable and fashionable, the more you wear it.
To apply this theory of ‘wabi-sabi’ to your photos, ask yourself:
Do your photos get better over time, or worse?
For example, there are some photos I shot several years ago– that as time goes on, they become more interesting for me to look at. These are the good pictures.
Then, there are other pictures which I (once) thought were great. Now when I look at them, I find them ugly or boring. These are the ‘bad’ pictures.
Too much symmetry is boring. I prefer off-balance, tilted, ‘Dutch angle’ compositions.
Symmetry is boring. The real world is DYNAMIC.
Have you ever seen a 100% straight or symmetrical tree, or animal? No.
One of best ways to study aesthetics is to simply observe nature.
There are no straight lines in nature. Rivers, veins, and arteries are always curved. Trees, and most organic life-matter tend to grow in a ‘fractal’ pattern — a self-contained growth pattern of self-similarity. For good example of art and beauty of fractals, study the ‘Mandelbrot set’. You can see how the ‘Golden Spiral’ or ‘Fibonacci Spiral’ is related to fractal curves.
‘God is in the details’ (or ‘The Devil is in the details’) — which means that true beauty is through the details.
For example, in a leather product, I find the greatest aesthetic beauty in the stitching.
In Cindy, I find her beauty in the shape of her nose, or the almond-curves in her eyes.
I like to find beauty in the details.
Therefore, as a photographer, don’t try to shoot ‘the big picture’ — no, focus on the details.
Focus on a specific part of a person you find beautiful. Highlight the details.
A fun assignment with taking pictures:
Touch a texture, then photograph it.
For me, I prefer to shoot rough, irregular, and colorful textures. I like to photograph peeling paint, rusted surfaces, and anything that is NOT smooth.
I hate smoothness. I prefer rough textures, because I believe there is a lot of intelligence in our ‘haptic’ senses of our fingers and body. Anything that is too smooth is unnatural. Everything in the real world has texture.
Examples of textures:
– Fur, hair
– Tree bark
– Wrinkles in an old person’s face
– Beautiful decay of organic or inorganic matter
Generally if you want to photograph a texture, get very close to it. Try to fill the frame with the texture. That means, look at the edges of the frame, and make sure the texture fills 100% of the frame.
Also, experiment using a flash. Sometimes using a flash brings out more interesting textures — sometimes it doesn’t. So practical suggestion: photograph interesting textures with both a flash, and without a flash.
Chapter 5. Evolution
As a photographer, visual artist, you are constantly in a state of becoming.
What that means is that as an artist, you will never be ‘perfect.’
You are constantly in a state of flux. Today you are a different artist than you were yesterday. That means — give yourself permission to grow, contradict yourself, to not stay ‘consistent’ to your past style, to shoot new projects, to shoot new subject-matter, and to follow your own personal visual curiosity.
You’re Always Evolving
I think human evolution is still going on. A human being 5,000 years from now will look very different than a human being today.
Even consider you — you have evolved quite a bit in your own lifetime.
For example, you have evolved as a visual artist from when you were 2 years old, until now. You’ve embedded your life experiences, aesthetic tastes, and your knowledge to your artwork today.
In photography, you have probably learned new techniques, new approaches, and new aesthetic tastes. You might have started with film, and evolved to digital. Or perhaps started with digital, and evolved and experimented with shooting film, or different camera formats. Or perhaps you started in color, went black and white, or perhaps you started monochrome now shoot color. Or perhaps you shoot both.
Avoid Boredom to Evolve
Anyways, the biggest practical advice I can give about your personal evolution as a photographer and artist is this:
‘Even the gods vain to avoid boredom’. Consider all the mischief the Gods of Mount Olympia have wrecked onto human affairs simply to entertain themselves.
As a visual artist, consider yourself a child– constantly changing, growing, evolving, and playing.
A child learns via playing — without ‘forcing’ themselves to learn. They simply do what is fun, and they naturally evolve, learn, and advance.
Photography should be fun — or else, why are you doing it?
Your life is short and uncertain. Why waste your life making pictures and doing shit you don’t like doing?
The more fun and challenging your photography, the more you will evolve.
Generally, I find ‘fun’ things have a built-in difficulty embedded into it.
For example, ‘fun’ video games are hard. If video games are too easy, they are not fun.
The same thing in photography — I only have fun making pictures when there is a challenge.
To make more challenging pictures, that might mean getting closer (physically and emotionally), by taking photos that are scary (shooting street photographs of strangers who might frighten you), or by trying to simplify your pictures (to make a simple picture is more difficult than making a messy picture), or perhaps playing with perspective (shooting really low angle or shooting from a very high angle looking down), or adding more dynamic lines to your pictures (leading lines, diagonal lines, curved lines) or playing with depth and layers (multiple-subjects in your frame, different hand gestures, and different directions that people’s eyes are looking at).
If your photography is boring you, have more fun by adding difficulty and challenge. It doesn’t mean to beat yourself up. It doesn’t mean making your photography so challenging and difficulty that you stop having fun.
So once again, if you are at any point where your photography is no longer challenging or fun, just stop– reflect, and ask yourself:
Why is my photography boring me? How can I make it more fun?
Ultimately– follow your child-like gut. Follow your spirit of play, fun, and adventure.
Let’s keep photography simple and fun.
Make dynamic pictures– pictures with hand-gestures, eye-gestures, pictures that challenge the viewer (making pictures that are hard to look at, and challenging to comprehend, with the multiple layers of emotions, and mystery).
Seek to make simpler photos — by subtracting clutter from the background. By focusing on simple details, textures, and colors.
Make photography more fun by making it more challenging for you. Add layers, multiple-subjects, try to shoot with a wider-angle lens, get closer, take more risks, and add difficulty for fun.
Ultimately photography is a very personal journey. Photography should always be for you.
Never let anyone judge your own pictures but you. And judge your own progress in your photography by asking yourself:
Do I like my own pictures? And are my pictures today more interesting to me than they were yesterday?
BOOKS by ERIC KIM
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- STREET PHOTOGRAPHY MANUAL by ERIC KIM
- THE PHOTOGRAPHER by ERIC KIM
- The Photography Manual
- The Art of Street Photography
- 100 Lessons From the Masters of Street Photography
- The Art of Photography
- Zen Photography
- Photography by Eric Kim
- Street Photography by Eric Kim
- Personal Photography Manual
- Street Photography Contact Sheets Volume II
- Street Photography Contact Sheets Volume I
- Street Photography Composition Manual
- Street Portrait Manual
- How to Shoot Street Photography
- Street Photography 101
- Street Photography 102
- Color Manual
- Monochrome Manual
- 31 Days to Overcome Your Fear in Street Photography
- Letters From a Street Photographer
- Street Photography Aphorisms, Heuristics, and Sayings
MASTERS distills the key lessons from the masters of street photography. MASTERS Volume I is your essential photography primer– to push your photography education to the next level.
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