The Art of Photography


The Art of Photography

Dear friend,

I want to share you practical tips, insights, and advice on how to be a more ‘artistic’ photographer.

1. Is photography art?


For me, art is creating things out of your imagination and soul. Whoever says that photography isn’t art is a pretentious asshole.

2. Why do you shoot photos?

First of all, one of the things you want to ask yourself is this:

“Why do I take photos?”

By asking yourself this question, you have a deeper understanding why you click the shutter. By answering this question, you find meaning, purpose, and direction in your photography.

For example, I take photos because it helps me truly connect with a deeper level with the world. Without a camera-in-hand, I am another zombie on their smartphone. I fail to notice and appreciate the beauty of everyday life around me.

However when I have my camera in my hand, and I can feel the weight of the camera in my hand, I look around and actively look for photo opportunities. By actively seeking photo opportunities, I feel the sensitivity of my eyes go up. I can perceive colors, shapes, forms, and gestures on a deeper level.

When I’m really ‘in the zone’ in street photography, I can notice every gesture, facial expression of people on the streets. I feel connected with the streets. I lose a sense of myself, and I feel like I’m on a different level.

Not only that, but I take photos because I am trying to encapsulate my love for those I photograph.

If I am only remembered for one photo project after I die, it will be the ‘Cindy Project’ — photographing the love of my life with all of my heart and soul. I hope not only to photograph Cindy, but to photograph the feeling I have for her. And I hope this project can inspire others to photograph their loved ones with as much tenderness and compassion. Because we don’t know when our loved ones will die. Photographing your loved ones is to think about death.

3. What makes photography different from painting or other arts?

First of all, in photography — you have to deal with physical atoms, shapes, and forms in the real world.

A painter can sit down, and simply imagine his environment or final painting. The painter can choose whatever colors, tools, or materials to create what is in their mind.

In photography, we are a little more enslaved to our environment. Without the right subject, the right background, light, or color — we can’t make images.

Some photographers pre-visualize their photos before shooting them. Richard Avedon once had a dream of photographing an albino man, with bees all around him. When he woke up, he sketched it, then put out an advertisement looking for an albino man. Then he photographed it.

Other photographers (myself included) — we don’t know what we’re looking for until we see it. For example, I often wander the streets, camera-in-hand, just being open to any opportunities.

I feel especially in the art of street photography — the secret is to make yourself malleable, flexible, and fluid like water. If you close off any of your options, you will not be as reactive, and you will miss out a lot of street photography opportunities.

4. What is your style?

Going back to the point at hand, each photographer has his or her subject-matter. Some of us like to photograph landscapes, some of us like to photograph our families, some of us like to photograph strangers, some of us like to photograph buildings, and some of us like to photograph ourselves.

As for me, I don’t think you should limit your subject-matter as a photographer. I think it is dangerous to over-specialize in your photography. Because you lose creative energy and steam.

For example, when I was too focused on street photography, I became frustrated. When I wasn’t in a busy city with an exciting downtown area, I felt I couldn’t make any photos. Being frustrated, I soon discovered the best subject to photograph — Cindy, the love of my life. Then I started to pursue ‘Personal Photography’ with full zeal and enthusiasm.

Now my style is a combination of photographing my loved ones (personal photography), strangers on the street (street photography), and I’ve actually been shooting more landscapes and nature. I don’t want to define myself anymore. If a person on the street asks me what I like to shoot, I usually say ‘Street Photography’ (because it is easier). But personally, I don’t even define myself as a photographer anymore. Because I don’t want to limit myself to just one medium — I want to draw inspiration from Jazz and Hip Hop music, from the impressionist painters, from the ancient greek and roman poets, and from sculpture, dance, and theater.

5. Don’t specialize in your photography

So in the art of photography, my suggestion is this: don’t specialize in your photography. Be open to any opportunities photographically. Photograph anything that draws your eyes.

I still do believe if you want to commercially make photography your living, it is good to be a specialist. Then once you master your one field of specialization, then you can branch out. For me, I started off as a generalist photographer, then started to specialize in street photography. Then people began to know who I was. I built a career for myself, teaching workshops specializing on street photography. But now, I am starting to branch out of street photography — focusing on other forms of photography. Now I see all photography as photography — I wish I knew this sooner.

6. What camera should I shoot with?

My suggestion with camera choices: use the simplest, smallest, most compact, and ‘frictionless’ camera.

That might be a point and shoot camera, or your smartphone. It can even be a larger camera— anything that fits and suits you well.

“Not every shoe fits every foot.”

When you’re starting off in photography, you’re going to need to experiment with different cameras to figure out what fits you.

But after my personal experiences, the bigger your camera is, the less-likely you are to bring it with you everywhere you go, the fewer photos you are going to shoot, and the more frustrated you will be in your photography.

So my practical advice is this: optimize for a smaller camera, lighter camera, and more flexible camera whenever possible.

This advice can be given to any other form of artist. Artists often over-obsess about their equipment. The same happens with writers (what pen or paper should I write with?), it happens with painters (should I use acrylics or oil paint?), it happens with musicians (should I play electric or acoustic?). But with every art form, the simpler the tool, the better.

I know for me as a writer, I try to use the simplest writing tool possible. For my writing app, I use an app that is full-screen, has no other distractions, and just focuses on typing.

7. What makes my photography unique?

To start off, because you shot the photo, the photo is unique.

However, just because your photo is unique doesn’t mean it is a good photograph.

So in a sense, being a ‘unique’ photographer is overrated. You can take a commonly photographed subject (let’s say the Subway) — but you can make it great. It doesn’t matter how original or novel your idea— what matters the most is the execution of your images.

8. How to make better photos

In order to make better photos, you need to shoot with more soul.

That is what is lacking in today’s photography. There is too much emphasis on technical settings; rather than photographing with emotions and soul.

In photography, put your entire body, mind, and soul when you are shooting. Don’t over-complicate it. Don’t try to be too clever when you’re shooting.

What you should aim for is to create more authentic, personal, and transparent photos. Your photos should reflect who you are as a human being.

And of course, if you want to make good photos — you need to learn how to make good compositions.

To make good compositions is to have fewer distractions, less noise, and more ‘signal.’ Which means, when you’re shooting, try to make your photos as simple as possible. The simpler your compositions, the more emphasis you can put in the emotion and soul in your photos.

9. Limit your palette

If you want to keep your photos simpler, limit your palette. Start off in black and white, because it is the simplest form of photography. You can only focus on the blacks, the whites, and the grey in-between. By focusing in black and white photography, you will be able to focus more on composition, hand-gestures, body language, the light, shadows, reflections, and forms.

Then when you start to advance in your photography, I recommend picking up color photography. Because color is another variable which complicates your photography. With color, you have different shades, hues, intensities, luminance, and contrast. It is a whole new bag of worms.

Even when you shoot color photography, keep your palette and colors pretty simple. Nature prefers simple colors. You see green trees, with red fruit (so it is easy for animals to see the fruit). You see blue water, with some orange flowers sprouting out of the water.

You see animals that are colorful, yet limited in color. Peacocks are mostly green and blue. Tigers are mostly orange, black, and white.

Even when we see sunrises and sunsets— the hues are pretty much in harmony. Either there are mostly warm colors (red, orange, and yellow) — or there are mostly cool colors (blue, purple, green).

10. Dynamism in photography

To make better photos, you also want to make more dynamic compositions.

If you look at nature, there are no straight lines. Trees grow in a fractal pattern, which means they split out into smaller sub-forms in a “V” pattern.

Try to create compositions in your photography with curved lines. Or if you can’t find curved lines, try to incorporate more diagonals in your photos.

If you put a ball on a horizontal surface, it will not move. If you put a ball on a diagonal surface, it will roll, and gather speed. A diagonal line is easy to topple and push over. If we learn from physics, it can help our composition.

11. Eyes are the windows to the soul

In photography — if you’re photographing people, remember: eyes are the windows to the soul.

If you look at the last few thousand years, most portraits of human beings focus on the eyes. Either having the eyes look straight at the viewer, or off into the distance.

In real life, when we make eye contact with someone else, it is intimate, and often scary. If you make eye contact with a stranger, it can be a provocation or a threat. If you make eye contact with a loved one, it can sometimes cause someone (you or the other person) to cry.

As human beings, we are programmed to be drawn to eye contact. It is what kept us alive for thousands of years.

Even if we’re sitting in a public place, we can literally feel someone looking at us. I know personally, if I’m sitting at a coffee shop, minding my own business, maybe reading a book — I can feel someone looking at me (through my peripheral vision). My shoulders tense up, and the corners of my eyes twitch. I feel uncomfortable, and I have to turn around and look at the person.

So in your photography, if you want to make more intense images, make sure your subject looks straight into your lens. When I’m shooting portraits, I often ask my subjects: “Stare into the lens and don’t smile.” To capture more authentic portraits, don’t force them to smile. If you want a genuine smile, it is better to tell them a joke, or ask them to think of a pleasant memory— then start taking more photos.

12. Take a lot of photos

“Sometimes you need to milk the cow a lot to get a little bit of cheese.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

One of the biggest misconceptions in photography is that you should only take 1 photo of the scene. While some photographers like William Eggleston use this technique, I think it is impractical for almost everybody else.

The more photos we shoot, the more likely we are to hit a home run. Very rarely is the first shot is the best shot.

Even if you look at the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson (the master of photography) — he shot many different photos of a scene. He would then choose the “decisive moment” after he shot a series of photographs.

Nobody can predict the future. Therefore when I’m shooting a scene, I often discover the composition and the ‘decisive moment’ while I’m in the process of shooting. The saying: “I don’t know what I want until I see it” rings true.

13. Push yourself 25% more

When you’re taking photos of a scene, another practical tip: try to shoot 25% more than you think you should.

I have a practical rule for myself:

When I think I ‘got’ the photo; I don’t. Then I need to shoot 25% more than I think I should.

Many of my best photos happen after I push myself. Many of my best photos happen on the last frame.

The mistake all of us make in photography is we quit too soon. This doesn’t only apply in photography; it applies to life. We quit our businesses too soon, before we turn a profit. As runners, we quit too soon — just when we are in-sight of the finish line. When we are climbing a mountain, we often quit before we make it to the summit.

So friend, don’t quit too early in your photography. Don’t become easily discouraged. Keep pressing forward. If you want to climb a steep mountain, you need to learn forward.

Also when you’re photographing a scene, I recommend shooting both horizontal (landscape) and vertical (portrait) photos. You often don’t know which will work better, until you go home and inspect your photos afterwards.

14. Focus on the edges

The best compositional tip I can give is this: focus on your edges when you’re shooting. Keep your edges as clean as possible. And make sure to get close enough to your subject, to fill the frame.

15. Get closer

Often in photography, we are too far from our subjects. Either too far physically, or too far emotionally.

You can get closer in your photos by using your feet. I am a big fan of ‘foot zoom.’

You can get closer to your subjects emotionally by engaging with them. If you’re photographing your subject, talk to them. Have a conversation with them. Ask them for their life story, their hopes, their dreams, or ambitions. Start off by opening up yourself— share your secrets, and make yourself naked. Then they will open up to you deeper, and then reveal parts of their soul which you can capture in your photos.

16. Creative constraints

I know my biggest deterrent in my photography is that I made too many excuses. My gear wasn’t good enough. My city wasn’t interesting enough. I didn’t have enough free time.

In reality, it is our constraints which help us be more creative.

If we are constrained in terms of our free-time; we don’t waste our free time.

If we are constrained in terms of our gear; we learn how to make the best out of our camera, which pushes us to innovate.

If we are constrained in terms of our city; we learn how to make the most interesting photos in a boring place.

The more I think about it — innovation is bred from necessity. Hunger is what drives us to move. Necessity is what pushes us to become more resourceful. Often the best entrepreneurs are born from refugee, immigrant, or poor families. Why? Because they were born hungry, and had to learn how to be resourceful.

Think about it— who is more creative: a kid who was born with an iPad, or a kid who has to make their own toys out of cardboard boxes?

17. Consistency and variety

In the art of photography; the two things you are trying to balance between is consistency and variety.

With consistency, you need to make your photos look consistent to build a certain style. That means, shoot all your photos in black and white, or color. Or only shoot in one city or area. Or only shoot one kind of subject-matter.

Yet if you did the same exact thing everyday for the rest of your life, you would want to die. Therefore, we need variety.

How can we integrate variety with consistency? We can integrate variety by blending it with consistency.

For example, you can have variety in terms of the different photo projects you have. When you start a new photo project, decide how you will be consistent within that project. So for one photo project, you can shoot it all in black and white film. The next photo project, you shoot it all in color with a digital camera.

Or let’s say you want to photograph a photo-project on men wearing suits. You can be consistent by photographing only men in suits, but you can have variety by photographing them in different areas, situations, and with different compositions.

Or perhaps you can be consistent in terms of where you photograph (let’s say one square block in your city). The variety can be that you shoot any type of subject matter you find interesting (buildings, trees, people, stuff you find on the ground, etc).

Or, you can be consistently inconsistent. Meaning, if you work on a photo project, you can intentionally alternate between color and black and white photos. You show a pattern through your inconsistency.

18. Pattern recognition

As humans, we are pattern-recognition machines. It is a mental shortcut for us to understand the world around us.

Therefore if your style is too random and all-over-the-place; nobody will pay attention to you. Because you have no consistency.

As Seneca said: strive to be the same person from the beginning of the play until the end of the play. But perhaps if you start a new play in your life, you can take on a different role.

A practical suggestion: stick with one camera, one lens, and only black and white for an entire year. And perhaps you can focus on only shooting street portraits for a year. I believe in concrete, focused goals in order to make progress.

Then the next year, you can experiment shooting color photography — and pursue some other project.

19. When to be flexible

In photography, you also want to be flexible. My suggestion: think of yourself like a captain of a ship. You know your general destination, but you need to adjust the direction of your ship based on the weather. Your goal as a captain is to reach a certain point on the map, but you’re going to have to change course depending on whether there is a storm, whether your boat has a leak in it, or whether some other interruptions occur.

Similarly, trees are born pliant, flexible, and soft when they’re small and first born. When trees die, they are brittle, and hard.

I also like the analogy of bamboo— bamboo is strong, yet flexible.

Therefore be strong in your vision, but flexible with your details in your photography, and photo-projects.

20. How to train your eyes

If you want to become a great photographer, you need to train your eyes. You need to train your eyes, like you train your muscles.

The photographer Jay Maisel calls it ‘visual push-ups.’ You can do a visual push-up by looking at great art. Looking at great photos from the masters of photography, or by looking at other visual artists. I know for myself, I gain the biggest inspiration from studying master photographers from the past, Renaissance painters, ancient sculptors, interior decorators, fashion designers, and by mother nature herself.

You are also what you eat. If you constantly consume McDonalds and Coca Cola, you will become obese, contract diabetes, and perhaps die. If you want to become strong and fit, you want to abstain from sugar, simple carbohydrates, and processed foods.

The same is with your visual health. You will ruin your visual health if you spend too much time looking at things on social media, advertisements, and crap.

As bountiful physical health comes from a variety of food sources, a strong visual health will come from a variety of visual inspirational sources.

Only consume the best.

21. Time either improves or extinguishes

In photography, time is your best counselor.

For example, there are certain photos I like more as time goes on. There are also certain photos I start to hate more as time goes on.

The photos that improve with time are your good photos, and should be kept. The photos that disintegrate with time are your bad photos, and should be deleted.

I like to call this process “marination.” The idea is that with good steaks, the longer you let your meat marinate, the better it will taste. Of course, there is a limit to this in the food analogy.

Another analogy is letting things ferment. The longer you let Kimchi marinate (up to a certain point), the better it will taste. The same goes with beer, wine, and other fermented-goods.

So if you’re not sure whether your photo is good or not, just sit on your photos. Don’t be eager to upload a photograph too quickly to social media. It is like serving a half-cooked steak to your guest. Or it is like picking a fruit before it is ripe.

22. All killer, no filler

Less is more. More is less.

The fewer photos you share with others, the better. You only want to share the ‘creme de la crop’ — the best of the best.

You are only as good as your weakest photograph. Just like a chain is only as strong as the weakest link.

I’ve often looked at photo projects which have 19 incredible images, but 1 really bad photo. That 1 bad photo ruins the entire project. It is like how one rotten egg can spoil the bunch.

When you’re working on a photo series, focus on which photos to subtract— rather than what to add. Start off with 50 images or so, and then edit it down to 40 images, then 30 images, then 20 images, and perhaps only 10 images.

If you think about our entire lives as photographers, we will be lucky if we’re remembered for just 1 photo, or 1 photo project. But if you achieve that goal— you’ve done your job as a photographer.

Leonardo Da Vinci is only remembered for the Mona Lisa. The photographer Nick Ut is remembered for ‘Napalm girl.’ Henri Cartier-Bresson is remembered for the guy jumping over the puddle. Every great artist in history has their own ‘Magnum Opus’ (great work) that they are remembered for. But it is rarely only 1 which is remembered (except perhaps Homer, who is remembered for both the Illiad and the Odyssey).

23. Shoot if today were your last

In the art of photography, death is our best motivator. If you shoot each day as if it were your last, you will never have any regrets in your photography.

There is no better time for you to be a photographer than now.

So why hesitate and delay? What guarantee do you have that you will live to see tomorrow? Who knows if you will get hit by a drunk driver, whether you shall get some rare form of cancer, whether you have a heart attack in your sleep, or whether you slip on the streets and crack open your skull?

Don’t delay being a photographer. Don’t wait until you go on that traveling trip next year. Don’t wait until you retire. Don’t wait until you move to a different city.

Photograph your surroundings. Photograph your own life. Photograph yourself.

An easy photo project you can do is a ‘day in the life’ (of your life). Photograph your morning routine. Start off by going to bed with your camera on your bedside. Wake up, grab your camera, and photograph your ceiling, or your loved one on your side. Then photograph the view from your window. Photograph your morning coffee, photograph during your commute to work, photograph at your job, photograph your lunch break, photograph on your commute back home, and photograph your evening with your loved one. And if you have nobody else to photograph, photograph yourself— in the mirror, your shadow, or just shoot a selfie.

The only way to be a better photographer is to increase the sensitivity of your eyes. To realize that each moment is a potentially beautiful and precious moment. To not take anything for granted.

The greatest photographer can make an ordinary scene extraordinary. Poor photographers make ordinary photos of extraordinary things.

24. How to steel your courage in photography

One of the most important things in photography is to build a steel spine.

Courage is your backbone in your photography. Courage is what will help you have the guts to take the photo. Courage is what will give you the self-confidence to share your work with others. Courage is what will help you take risks in your photography, in your journey of self-greatness.

To steel your spine in photography, know that you have nothing to fear but death itself. All of our irrational human fears stem from death, and the fear of pain. For example, we are afraid of shooting street photography because we are afraid of pissing people off, having them physically assault us, or to have strangers (possibly) kill us.

We are afraid of ‘putting ourselves out there’ in terms of sharing our photos, because we are afraid of begin negatively judged. We are afraid of being negatively judged, because we fear being ostracized by our peers, getting fired from our jobs, becoming homeless, and dying on the streets.

But the best antidote is to imagine the worst, and to not fear death. Don’t fear becoming homeless, don’t fear pain, and don’t fear dying. If you take a photo of a stranger, they will not kill you. If you share a photo online, the worst that will happen is that nobody will respond or ‘like’ your photo. If you want to pursue being a full-time photographer, the worst that will happen is that you will have to get a barista job to pay the bills (which actually isn’t a horrible back-up plan).

Another tip — expect to be criticized, and judged negatively. If anything, this is the only way you can measure your personal ‘success.’ The more people who hate your work, the more successful you have become. For example, if you are a nobody— nobody will criticize your work. William Eggleston first gained renown when he exhibited his color photos at the NY MOMA — and everyone hated his work. Daido Moriyama made a name for himself once people started to criticize his high-contrast, gritty, out-of-focus photos. Millions have called The Beatles ‘overrated.’

Also to have more confidence in your photography, know that photography is your duty. You were born to put out beautiful and inspirational images. You’re not just shooting for yourself— you’re photographing for others.

If it weren’t for you, who would have a document of your local town? If it weren’t for you, who would have a document of your family and loved ones? If it weren’t for you — who would appreciate the beauty of everyday life?

By knowing that photography is your duty, you elevate yourself. Your photography isn’t a selfish act— it is for the greater good.

25. Beginner’s mind / Child’s mind

One of the best ways to stay creative for your entire life is to embrace ‘beginner’s mind’ or ‘child’s mind.’

A child is born as a beginner. A beginner has no concepts, theories, or ideas about art. Yet each child is born as an artist.

When we are kids, we take the paper and throw colors onto it. We create art with our soul, without any self-censorship. We don’t do it for the sake of making money, for gaining fame, or notoriety. We create art because it is fun.

I used to take my photography too seriously; which was a serious impediment to my progress. When I started off as a beginner, I just photographed for fun. This is when I was the most creative, and this is when I had the most motivation. I photographed for myself, and to share my photos with a few friends.

26. Create for yourself

Don’t shoot for an audience; shoot for yourself.

It is impossible to know what kind of photographers others would like. But it is easy to know what kind of photos that you like.

I used to be addicted to social media— worrying whether my photos would get a lot of likes. I would ‘crowd-source my self esteem’ by counting the success of my photos based on how many likes I got. But I started to realize that I became a slave to the opinion of others. I no longer shot for myself; I shot for others.

I therefore took a break from social media. I stopped uploading my photos online, and started to only focus on myself. I would make photos, and then look at them and ask myself:

“Do I like this photo?”

Without worrying about what others might think.

Ultimately, you are the most difficult person to please. And you are the most important person to please.

What if you had a photo that got a million likes, but you hated the photo? Would it be worth it? Or consider the photo that you love, but nobody else likes. I still think your own opinion is more important than the opinion of the masses.

I still think it is good to get honest feedback and critique from others, just to understand how others see your photos. But at the same time, take their opinions into consideration— but don’t listen to their opinion blindly. Listen to your own conscience before the opinions of others.

A practical tip to judge your own photos — if you saw your own photo in the social media stream of someone else — would you ‘like’ the photo, or share it with someone else?

27. You are not your photos

A lot of us falter in our photography because we over-commit ourselves to photography. We take our photos too personally. We think we are our photos.

Therefore when people criticize our photos, we feel like they’re criticizing us as human beings. Just because someone doesn’t like your photos, doesn’t mean that they don’t like you.

For example, if someone calls your photo “shit” — they aren’t calling you a shitty person. You are separate from your photos.

Therefore after you take a photo, remember: it no longer belongs to you.

Not only that, but don’t refer to your photos as “your” photos. Rather, call them “the” photos. This will help distance yourself from your own work— and judge them more objectively.

When you judge your own photos; imagine like you’re judging someone else’s photos. Be your own best self-critic.

28. Avoid boredom

A child stops playing if they’re bored. The same should be in our photography — don’t shoot if you’re bored. You want to have fun, or else it becomes a job.

How to avoid boredom in your photography? Pursue a different photo project. Choose a different medium for making images (switch to shooting film, to your smartphone, or switch to black-and-white). Perhaps shoot a different part of town, or start shooting a different subject-matter.

Excitement and curiosity should drive your forward progress in your photography. You should never ‘force’ your photography — it should be effortless. Only shoot when you feel like it, or else your photos will have no enthusiasm or soul.

29. Should I shoot everyday?

It depends.

Some people are motivated when they do something everyday. Some of us don’t feel the same way.

For example, I don’t write everyday. But I have been able to stay quite prolific throughout the last decade. The same in my photography — I generally shoot everyday, but there have been times I haven’t shot everyday. And I’ve still made a handful of photos I’m proud of.

Constant toil will kill us. We all need rest, in order to recover.

If you feed a plant too much water, it will die. If soil has too much nutrients, your crops won’t grow. If you exercise the same muscle everyday, your muscles will never have a chance to recover, and grow stronger.

Sometimes we need creative breaks from our photography, in order to re-inspire our photography. If you’re lacking inspiration in your photography, don’t force yourself to go out and start shooting again. Pick up another art. Pick up poetry, pick up painting, singing, dancing, or sculpture.

I know for me, my biggest inspirations from photography come from outside of photography. I gain inspiration from hip hop music, through ancient Stoic philosophy, from Zen Buddhism, and powerlifting. Like a bee, I skip from flower to flower, collecting different pollen — and eventually, I create my own honey which is comprised of different sources.

You know yourself better than anybody else. So shoot everyday if it suits your personality; and don’t shoot everyday if it doesn’t suit your personality.

30. How to make good habits in your photography

If you indeed want to take more photos, perhaps on a daily basis— know that you are your habits.

What is the first thing you do when you wake up? Check your cell phone, or your email, or your social media?

What do you do when you’re eating? Do you check your phone, or actually eat your food?

What websites do you check on a daily basis? What foods are you accustomed to eating? What albums do you regularly listen to?

Habits probably make up more than 80% of our day. We are like grooves in a record player. Time creates grooves, and once we create these grooves, it is hard to carve new grooves.

Or another analogy — when a tree starts to grow in a certain direction, it is hard to change the direction. But the good thing is, you can change the direction where a tree grows (by creating support, by binding the branches, or by changing the light source).

The same is in our photography. We should strive to build good habits in our photography, based on our goals.

For example, if your goal is indeed to shoot more photos, figure out how you can make a habit of having your camera ready as often as possible. Perhaps your habit can be to always have your camera in your front pocket, or better yet, in your hand.

Or let’s say you want to make it a habit to study more great photography. Perhaps keep a photo book on your breakfast table, and you will always look at a few photos when you’re having your morning coffee. Or keeping a photo book by your bedside, so you can go to sleep looking at great photos, before sleeping.

If you want to make it a habit to not always check social media, uninstall social media apps from your phone, and only check it on your laptop.

We all know what our bad habits are. Therefore, we need to learn how to change our environment to change our habits.

For me, I am easily distracted by blogs and websites that prevent me from writing. Therefore, I ‘tie myself to the mast’ like Ulysses, through pre-commitment. I know that I am lured by distracting websites (like the Sirens), therefore I install website blocker plugins on my browser, and block distracting websites. I can only focus by removing distractions.

If you find it hard to have time to make photos, figure out how you can change your daily routine. Perhaps you can leave to work 15 minutes earlier, and use that time to snap a few photos. Perhaps you can stop having lunch at your computer desk in your office, and use those 30 minutes to walk around and snap some photos. Perhaps you can take a different route home from work everyday, and you can use that to inspire yourself to make photos. Perhaps you can take photos on your subway or bus commute to work or back home. Or if you’re stuck in a car, take photos (carefully) when you’re stuck in traffic.

If you have a hard time staying inspired in your photography, perhaps you can start listening to photography podcasts when you’re heading to work. When you’re bored at work, don’t waste time looking at social media or distracting websites, use that time to study the work of the master photographers.

Become the photographer you want by changing your habits. And there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ habits in your photography. Just change your environment to become the photographer you want to become.

31. Light in photography

Photography means ‘painting with light.’ Without light, photography wouldn’t be possible.

To start off, there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ light in photography. There are different qualities of light — harsh, soft, or directional. There is also natural light and artificial light. You can shoot without a flash, or with a flash.

It doesn’t matter what kind of light you use. What matters is what kind of emotion and mood you’re trying to evoke in your photos.

If you want darker, more mysterious photos, under-expose your photos, and emphasize the darks and shadows in your photos. If you want softer, more intimate photos, photograph your subjects by a window — to give them softer natural light.

If you want more edgy photos, photograph your subjects with a flash (either on-camera, or external).

Whoever says that natural light is the best light is talking silly talk. I like to control my light, not to be the slave of the light.

The biggest liberation I got in my photography when I started to shoot with a flash. Because this allowed me to shoot whenever I wanted. Before hand, I could only shoot when the light was ‘good’ (golden hour, when the sun rises, and when the sun sets).

Once again, there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ light — there are just different types of light.

But you still want to be aware of the light. You want to be aware where the light is coming from. Or if you use a flash, you need to know the correct technical settings to create the type of images you want.

The biggest suggestion I would give you regarding light is to just experiment. Learn how to see the light, by photographing at different times in the day. Learn the temperature of the light, by photographing at sunrise, by photographing under fluorescent lighting, by photographing your subjects next to a window, and by photographing at sunset, and once the sun goes down.

32. Perspective

In photography, you want to control your perspective to create a different type of mood in your photos.

For example, you can photograph your subjects from a low-perspective, by crouching down, by lying on your back, or keeping your camera on the ground. This will make your subjects look ‘larger than life’ — or as they call it, the ‘superman effect.’ By photographing people from a lower angle, you make them look bigger, stronger, and more grand.

If you photograph your subjects from a high perspective, you make your subjects smaller. Imagine the ultimate perspective— photographing from a tall building, looking down, making your subjects look like tiny ants.

We often don’t know what the best perspective is when we’re shooting, so the practical tip is this: switch up your perspectives.

For example, if you’re photographing a subject, take many photos from different angles. Shoot crouching. Shoot by taking a step to the left, or the right. Ask your subject to move. Or stand on top of a chair, and photograph them looking down.

33. Focal lengths

The focal length you use in photography will change how your photos look.

For example, if you photograph with a wide-angle lens (generally 28mm-35mm), whatever is on the edges of your frame will become stretched out, distorted, and seem longer than they are in real life.

The longer your lens (50mm-200mm) the more you “compress” the scene. You lose depth in your photos. All of the elements in your photo look like they are on the same visual plane.

Generally the wider your lens, the more intimate your photos feel. It gives a wider field-of-view, which makes your viewer feel like they’re part of the scene. This is why in street photography, I generally recommend using a 35mm lens, or a lens wider than 35mm. This puts the viewer in your shoes.

However traditionally in model or portrait photography, they use longer lenses (85mm-200mm+), because it makes their faces look smaller, and doesn’t stretch out their facial features. Many individuals think this looks more ‘flattering.’

But ultimately, there is no ‘best’ lens for photography. You just need to think of what kind of effect or mood you’re trying to create in your photos.

For example, I shoot much of my portraits at 28mm mode, sometimes from 20cm away. This exaggerates their facial features; but I am trying to create a surreal-looking face. Therefore the 28mm lens works well for me.

If you want to shoot a landscape, and make the sun, mountains, and foreground look like they’re all part of the same focal plane, you might want to use a 200-300mm lens.

But the ultimate suggestion I will give you to become a great photographer is this: stick with one focal length for a long time. This will allow you to truly internalize, and understand a lens.

For example, I shot with only a 35mm lens from when I was 18 years old until I was 28 years old. This allowed me to know how a photograph looked before I even brought up my camera to my eye. I could quickly compose on the go.

Using one camera, one lens is a good example of a ‘creative constraint.’ You force yourself to become resourceful and innovative based on the limitations of your equipment. Zoom lenses tend to make us lazy.

For 90% of photographers, I recommend a 35mm ‘full-frame equivalent’ focal length. Because it is the ultimate versatile lens. If you’re too far away, take a step closer and use ‘foot zoom.’ If your subject is too close, just take a few steps back. apparently the human eye is around a 40mm focal length. So 35mm (gives you a little more room) is generally ideal to give you more flexibility.

But once again, that is just my opinion. Experiment with different lenses, and figure out what best suits your eye.

34. Never stop painting

The last point I want to leave with you is this — the art of photography is baring your soul to your audience. It means to inspire yourself with the very marrow of life.

It means to never take anything for granted. It means to never stop creating, and never to stop capturing the beauty of the world around you.

Never stop painting with your camera. Treat yourself like a child with a camera, and you will never lack inspiration.


Hanoi, 2017