This will be your personal guide on how you can master photography– for yourself, regardless of your skill level. Regardless if you’re a total beginner/newbie, or a more intermediate/advanced photographer– this course will give you the skills and tools to take your photography to the next level, and become your own master photographer.
I. Why make photos?
As with every journey or quest– you must ask yourself why photography appeals to you.
1. Why do you want to make photos?
Why do you want to make photos? For whom do you shoot? What are your personal goals in photography?
Are you a passionate amateur who just wants to make better pictures to share with friends and family? Or are you an intermediate/advanced photographer who is looking to advance their skills to perhaps monetize, become a photography entrepreneur, and make either a part-side side hustle from photography, or make a full-time living?
For me, I make pictures in life to make more meaning out of my life. For me, photography is the elixir of life. Photography keeps me nimble, curious, and more adventurous in my real life.
Why do you make photos?
Do you make photos to document your personal life experiences? Do you make photos as an artistic outlet?
Do you make photos as ‘proof’ that you traveled somewhere? Do you make photos to impress others, or yourself?
Start off by asking yourself these questions.
2. Start off with what is personal to you
For me, the ultimate project I want to be remembered for is the ‘Cindy Project‘ — because I have discovered that photography is ultimately personal. You must photograph what is personal to you — your personal loved ones, your personal perspective of the world, and what you find beautiful and meaningful in the world.
So write down a list of what is personal to you.
Who are your loved ones that you want to document? Don’t forget– you are the most personal person to yourself, so ‘honor thy selfie‘ (and do self-portraits of yourself as well).
Photograph your own home. Photograph your own neighborhood. Photograph your own city. Don’t become ‘suckered by the exotic’ (as my teacher Constantine Manos taught me) and think that you can only make interesting pictures by traveling to faraway and exotic places.
The best pictures you can make are close to home. Your loved ones (friends, family, kids, partner), your own local community, or your everyday activities.
So rather than thinking to yourself:
How can I make better pictures?
Think to yourself:
How can I live a more personally meaningful life, and how can I photograph what I already find meaningful and purposeful in my life?
For example, let’s say you’re really active in your local religious circle or group. Be the photographer, and document that.
Or let’s say you really like people-watching and analyzing strangers — become a street photographer.
3. What is a photographer?
Another thing we must touch upon — what exactly is a ‘photographer’?
A photographer is an individual who makes photographs.
Therefore, anyone who takes pictures is a photographer. Your mom/dad with their iPhone is a photographer. You don’t need a fancy high-end digital camera to be a photographer. You don’t need to make a full-time living or have photography be your profession.
What is most important as a photographer: enthusiasm, courage, and curiosity to explore the visual world.
So start off by knowing in your heart and soul:
I am a photographer.
Never let anyone talk down on you. Even if you ‘only’ have an iPhone — yes, you are a photographer.
II. How to make better photographs
What is a photograph vs picture vs image? How can I learn to make more interesting, dynamic, and compelling photographs?”
1. Photograph vs picture vs image
A photograph is made by a camera.
A picture can be made with a camera, a paintbrush, a crayon, pen, or any other illustrative tool (digital or analogue).
An image is a mental picture you get in your mind.
You must first of all know how to differentiate between all these things.
As a photographer, you don’t only make photographs — you do more than that. You also make pictures (all photographs are pictures), and you also make images (your photographs will create your viewer to create an image in their head).
Ultimately as a photographer, you are an image-maker.
2. What makes a compelling image?
A compelling image strikes you in the heart. A compelling image has a dynamic composition — leading lines, curves, bold colors (study color theory).
Furthermore, your photograph needs emotion. It needs soul. Your photos need to show your personal perspective of the world.
Ask yourself the question:
Why am I the only person in the world who can make this image?
For myself– good images are opinionated. Which means, your photos must show your opinion of the world.
Do you see the world as a beautiful, uplifting, and positive place? Or do you see the world in a more gloomy, and pessimistic way?
Personally, I think a great photographer is a life-affirmer. A life-affirmer is someone who says:
The world is beautiful, and my camera proves it.
Use your images to inspire, motivate, and uplift the hearts and souls of your viewer.
How to make stronger compositions in your photography.
a. Negative space
Create negative space for your subject– give your subject in your photograph some negative space to ‘breathe.’
By making your subject intentionally small and giving them negative space to move, you allow your viewer to engage their eyes. Any picture that encourages your viewer to look more is a good thing.
A basic compositional technique is ‘figure to ground‘ — to create separation between your subject and the background. You want a dark subject against a bright background, or a bright subject against a dark background.
For example, if we apply the ‘Gaussian Blur’ filter in Photoshop, you can still see the silhouette of the woman pop out of the frame.
If we make an abstract image, this is what we see in terms of the composition:
Pro-Tip: When you’re starting off in photography — to improve your composition, only shoot high-contrast black and white JPEG. This will allow you to visualize the world in terms of relationships between shadows and light. This will force you to simplify your scenes.
c. Diagonal lines
In the modern world, we have many diagonal lines from architecture and buildings.
To make stronger compositions, integrate diagonals into your pictures.
Pro-tip: Find an interesting background or scene with lots of leading lines and diagonals, and then wait for your subject to enter your frame (the fishing technique).
4. Color theory
To make stronger photographs, integrate color-theory into your photos.
The best way to study color is to study abstract painters, like Piet Mondrian.
The benefit of studying color painting– painters have more control over their pictures (when compared to us photographers).
As a practical tip, when you’re shooting photos in color — LOOK FOR VIBRANT COLORS.
The mistake we make as photographers is that we go out and take a bunch of pictures, and don’t even think about color.
The more you think about color while you’re out shooting pictures, you will build your ‘visual acuity’ and start to SEE colors more vividly.
Also as a tip — use Photoshop, or the iPad + ProCreate app to analyze your pictures after you shoot them, to see the colors better:
Some examples of color photographs of mine that I abstracted, to better understand the colors I was shooting:
5. How do I know what my best pictures are?
The art of choosing your best pictures (image-selection) is the most difficult thing in photography.
Practical suggestions to know how to choose your best picture:
- Wait at least a week before choosing your pictures: This will help you forget the memory of shooting the picture– therefore it will allow you to be more ‘objective’ when judging your pictures.
- Look at your photos as small thumbnails: By judging your pictures as small thumbnails, you can better determine whether your pictures ‘pop out’ at you– and you can also judge your compositions better as small thumbnails. Therefore, don’t look at all your pictures full-resolution or full-screen. By judging your pictures as small thumbnails, you will save time, and better see what your best pictures are. As a tip, If your pictures work as small thumbnails, they are good pictures.
- Follow your gut: Do your pictures punch you in the gut, or do they give you a luke-warm “meh” response? Only choose your pictures that really excite you, and pictures you are really enthusiastic about.
Here are some of my ‘contact sheets‘, for you to better understand how I choose my favorite pictures.
You can also see the benefit of shooting many pictures– the more pictures you shoot, the more likely you are to get a good one.
As a practical tip:
When in doubt, shoot 25% more pictures than you think you should.
By pushing yourself to shoot more, you are more likely to evoke an interesting reaction in your subject, or help your subject relax. Also, in photography, we often give up too easily. Push yourself past your comfort zone, to make truly great pictures:
Conclusion: ‘Good’ pictures is a matter of taste
Whatever pictures you deem as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ will be a matter of your personal taste.
There is no objectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’ pictures out there. What matters is whether you think the picture is good or not.
If the picture hits you in the gut, and reverberates in your heart, and embeds itself into your mind’s eye– it is a good photograph.
III. Exposure and Technical Settings
What is the best camera to shoot with? What are the best settings to use? When should I use a flash vs natural light? How to adjust exposure?
Set it and forget it
Personally, I’ve mastered shooting fully manual, and to be frank, it is overrated.
Most of my shooting now is just in P (program) mode, where your camera automatically chooses your aperture and shutter speed. All you do is manually select the ISO.
Why program mode?
It allows you to think less about the technical settings of photography, and more focus on making compositionally dynamic pictures, with good exposure, emotion, and soul.
Exposure is how bright or dark your photos are.
My suggestion is to use “exposure compensation” on your camera and use the LCD screen to judge your exposure. Just make the exposure to look however you want the pictures to look like. Avoid nerdy stuff like “histograms” or other technical ways to judge exposure in your pictures.
Plus + Exposure compensation
Try to experiment taking pictures at +1 to +3 exposure compensation, and analyze how that affects your pictures. I generally recommend using plus exposure compensation when photographing bright lights behind your subject, or when photographing your subject in the shade.
Minus – exposure compensation
Try to experiment photographing your subjects in bright sunlight, but by using -1 to -3 exposure compensation.
This will cause the dark parts of the frame, or the shadows to turn black. This will create a more dramatic contrast on the face of your subject, without “blowing them out” (not ruining the skin tones of your subject).
Also experiment using minus exposure compensation when shooting sunsets, for more dramatic colors:
I recommend you to use “evaluative” metering mode.
Exposure triangle: Aperture, shutter speed, ISO
Exposure is dictated by a balance between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
The confusing thing about aperture is that two terms are used to refer to aperture:
They are the same thing.
- Aperture: how much light enters the lens. By “opening up” the aperture, you let in more light. By “stopping down” the aperture, you let in less light.
- F-stop: refers to how open or closed the aperture is. For example, the smaller the f-stop number (like f1.8) means a larger aperture (more light entering). However, the larger the f-stop number (like f16), the smaller the aperture (less light entering the lens).
If you want your pictures to be brighter (assuming you’re shooting fully manual) you must decrease your f-stop number (go from f16->f1.8). You can also “increase/open up” your aperture. It makes sense — if you’re stumbling around in the dark at night, you must open up your eyes larger, to let more light enter your pupils.
If you want your pictures to be darker, you must increase your f-stop number (f1.8->f16) or decrease/stop down your aperture. Imagine if you’re staring straight into the sun and don’t want the light to blind you, you must close and squint your eyes.
Imagine shutter speed as blinking your eye.
- If you blink your eye very fast, you will let in very little light.
- If you blink your eyes slowly, you will let more light hit your pupils.
- If you want a brighter photo, use a slower shutter speed (1/30th of a second)
- If you want a darker photo, use a faster shutter speed (1/1000th of a second)
For sharpness or blueness:
- If you want a sharper photo, use a faster shutter speed.
- If you want a blurrier photo, use a slower shutter speed.
The ISO is the sensitivity of the sensor. The higher the ISO, the faster the shutter speed, and the brighter the photo. The lower the ISO, the slower the shutter speed, and thus the darker the photo.
The way to imagine ISO: imagine the sensitivity of your eyes to ambient light. If you’re stuck in a pitch black/dark room for 10 hours and suddenly see a smartphone screen, you will be blinded (high ISO light sensitivity of your eyes). But if you’re outdoors all day in the bright light, a smartphone screen won’t blind you (your eyes have less sensitivity to the sun).
With digital, the higher the ISO, the more noise or grain the picture has. But personally, I think grit and grain is beautiful.
In practical terms: when you’re shooting pictures, if your photos are too blurry, increase the ISO of your camera.
Part 4. CREATIVE CONFIDENCE
Part 4: How to gain creative confidence in yourself as a photographer.
The difference between good and great photographers: having confidence in yourself.
1. Don’t care what others think of your photos
The first thing to ask yourself to gain creative confidence:
Do I like my own photos?
2. Don’t take photography too seriously
The more I play around, and don’t take my photography seriously, the more fun I have, and the more creative I am.
3. Photography is experimentation
You never know when you’re going to get a good shot, so always experiment with your camera and tools, and treat yourself like a mad scientist with a camera.
Try strange angles. Shoot from very low, tilt your camera, try the Dutch angle.
A lot of photographers put too much pressure on themselves to always make good photos. In reality, you must treat every time you click the shutter as a mini experiment.
You might have 1,000 failed photos and attempts. If you just get one good experiment and result, you’ve done your job as a good scientist.
Remember: your First Million photos are your worst.
4. Shoot yourself
The more I shoot myself, the more confidence I build to shoot others.
Shoot Yourself in the mirror, the bathroom, shoot your own shadow, and experiment with the exposure compensation.
Shoot pictures with -1 exposure compensation:
Shoot pictures with +1 exposure compensation:
Always have your camera around your neck, or ready to shoot:
Even as a fun thing, give your camera to someone else, or even a kid to shoot you.
Or just play fun jokes on yourself, like kisses in the mirror:
And remember, you will have to make a lot of photos, to get even one decent shot:
5. Can you dance?
I think the most confident artists are the ones who have the confidence to dance.
We are all born dancers. We like to wiggle to the rhythm of the music. Yet, as we get older, we lose this ability — because we fear what others think of us. We focus on “looking cool” than just having fun.
Why dance? It is the ultimate way to just get lost in the flow of music, and making art with your body.
Treat photography as dancing with your camera. Get lost in the drunken Dionysian dance of making images, painting with light, and using your gut and intuition to lead your photo making process.
The more you shoot, the more confidence you will have.
Also practical tip: post less to social media, and post more to your own website or blog.
Make your own photography blog, and you will have more freedom and flexibility to experiment, while caring less of what others think of your work.
And if you’re really crazy (like me), don’t bother getting an Instagram. Or better yet, delete your Instagram— the ultimate form of creative confidence (owning your own platform).
CHAPTER 5. HOW TO EDIT AND POST PROCESS YOUR PHOTOS
What is the best way to edit and process your photos?
Editing isn’t post processing
- Editing: the art of choosing your best photos.
- Post Processing: applying a filter, adjusting contrast and converting to black and white, cropping, anything that is done “post processing”.
The problem, most photographers say “editing” and actually mean “post processing”.
The art of editing
Editing: CHOOSING and SELECTING your best photos. A photo editor for a magazine isn’t sitting behind Lightroom or Photoshop all day, processing pictures. No, they choose the layout, and choose the best photos to include.
Also an editor for writing decides what text to remove, or cut away, or edit out.
Therefore as a photographer, when you are “editing” your photos, you decide which photos to keep, and which photos to ditch.
How do I know which photos to keep?
For me, I choose photos which punch me in the gut. If I don’t have a gut reaction to my photos, and I don’t feel any emotion, I ditch it.
More specifically, I generally judge my photos on:
- Composition: Is the composition dynamic and clean? Do I see diagonals, triangles, curves, and is there good separation and figure to ground in the picture?
- Emotion: Do I feel anger, sadness, joy, or frustration when looking at the photo? A photo without emotion is dead.
- Soul: Your photos must reveal a part of your soul, show your inner mind, and what your perspective of the world is. Photography is all about your personal perspective on the world. In short words, “Do I see myself in my own photos?” And, “Why am I the only one who can shoot these photos?”
How to post process your photos
RAW vs JPEG
- RAW: the raw file and image. Allows more flexibility for you to post process the photos afterwards. RAW files are much bigger than JPEG images.
- JPEG: JPEG offers less flexibility than RAW, but “straight out of camera”, the pictures look better and require minimal processing.
Why shoot RAW?
If you want ultimate control over how to adjust the colors, contrast, or any other adjustments, use RAW.
The biggest problem with RAW: too many options.
To keep it simple, if you shoot RAW, just use filters or presets. Download my free ERIC KIM LIGHTROOM PRESETS.
I like using presets, because it is like shooting film. You get a consistent look over a long period of time, and it is less stress and hassle.
Why shoot JPEG?
Personally if I shoot color, I prefer the colors from JPEG. Why? In my experience, getting colors to look good in RAW and digital is very difficult. Camera companies spend millions of dollars on their JPEG in-camera processing algorithms and processes. Therefore, if you want good and vibrant colors straight out of camera, with less hassle, just shoot JPEG.
Editing and Processing tools for photography
Okay, there are so many options for editing and post processing. Practical ideas:
– VSCO: best presets for mobile cameras (I like A6 for color)
– Adobe Lightroom CC: their new presets work very well
– Apple Photos: to select and organize your pictures
– Adobe Lightroom (either the new CC version, or the classic desktop version)
Mobile vs desktop?
So, how do you know whether to use mobile or desktop?
- Mobile: for photos shot on your iPhone or Android phone, or if you shoot JPEG on your digital camera.
- Desktop: for more heavy-duty post processing for RAW files. Or, if you have tons of photos to look through and edit.
I generally recommend the steps:
- Look through all your photos, and “pick” or “flag” or “favorite” a picture when you like it.
- Do all your post processing or applying filters at the very end.
- Export your favorite photos as JPEG files and backup in Dropbox, your hard drive, Google Drive.
With workflow, KISS — keep it simple.
The mistake a lot of photographers make:
They post process while choosing their best photos.
This will slow down your workflow. Quickly select all your photos, and then at the very end — post process them.
What filters or presets should I use?
Aesthetics and post processing and filters — it is all a matter of your personal taste.
Treat post processing like salting your food. Not too much, because overly salty food tastes horrible. Just enough.
And we all have different tastes. Some of us like saltier food, some of us like salty foods, some of us love cumin and paprika, some of us prefer cinnamon and cilantro.
Do you prefer vanilla or chocolate ice cream?
Do you prefer color or black and white? Just shoot whatever you like.
Your friend might prefer chocolate, you might prefer vanilla. Or you might prefer pistachio ice cream.
Generally, I find black and white is good because if helps us simplify our photos. If you’re a beginner, I recommend black and white, to better understand exposure, composition, and framing. Also to keep it simple, when you’re starting off, just shoot high contrast black and white JPEG.
Color photography is more difficult, because with colors, there are more variables. More color is more complexity. But with color, I prefer the vibrancy, the upbeat mood, and the challenge of color photography.
Conclusion: Editing is more important than post processing
The art of choosing your best photos is far more difficult than post processing your photos and using filters.
Spend 99% of your time and focus editing (choosing your best photos), and only 1% of your time post processing your photos (applying presets, filters, adjusting contrast).
And ultimately, the most important part of your photos — it isn’t whether your photo is “pretty” or whether you will get a lot of likes on Facebook or Instagram.
The ultimate judge of whether your photo is good or not:
Do I like my own photo?