Guest post by Eric Kim
Inspired by a recent blog post I did on living life (and taking photos) without regrets, I wanted to share some personal regrets I have about my work. Therefore I dedicate this post to my past self— or anyone else starting off street photography (who wants to learn from my mistakes).
1. Don’t worry so much about the gear
I remember when I first started photography, I didn’t care about gear. This is because I simply didn’t know any better.
For example, I started off with a little Canon point-and-shoot I got for my high school graduation present. It was perfect. It fit in my pocket, I carried with it with me wherever I went, and I loved the freedom it gave me.
However like every other photographer out there, I succumbed to G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). I started off innocently enough with a Rebel XT (Canon 350D) and a 50mm f/1.8 (to get that nice “bokeh" everyone on the web talked about). It soon ballooned out of control with me purchasing a Canon 5D (original), Canon 70-200 f/4 L, Sigma 105mm Macro, Canon 24mm f/2.8, Canon 35mm f/2, Battery grip (to look more professional). Note this was all taken out with student loans as a broke college student.
I then remember spending inordinate amounts of time on gear forums, lusting after the new camera and lenses. I subconsciously told myself that my lack of “professional" gear was holding me back creatively. I thought my lens weren’t sharp enough, didn’t produce “creamy enough bokeh", and I didn’t have enough focal lengths.
If I could step into a time zone, I would slap my 20-year old self. I would tell him that what I had was sufficient at the point when I still had my Canon Rebel XT.
I probably wasted around $5,000 (with borrowed student loans) to buy all this equipment I didn’t really need. I wasn’t a professional photographer who needed uber-amazing High-ISO capabilities. Why did I need a “full-frame" camera? I didn’t shoot portraits for a living, so why did I need all of these focal lengths? I was just a hobbyist. The Rebel XT and the 24mm f/2.8 would have been sufficient for 99% of my needs in street photography (having that 35mm equivalent). I would have rather invested that money into something more worthwhile—which is onto point 2.
2. Spend more money on books
The first expensive photography book I bought was Magnum Contact Sheets. I was recommended it by my friend Adam Marelli but I was shocked to see that it was around $100. I never spent so much money on a photo-book in my life before. However trusting his judgement, I bit the bullet and purchased it on pre-order. When I received it, it changed the way I saw photography and revolutionized everything I knew.
Now that I think about it, it makes no sense that it was so difficult for me to purchase a $100 (when comparing it to camera equipment). $100 can barely buy you anything camera-related (perhaps the nifty Canon 50mm f/1.8). However $100 could buy you a damn fine photo book, which will do more for your photography than any $100 piece of camera equipment.
Let’s take this a bit further. I would say the average (good) camera lens will cost you at least $500. And while that lens might be nice to have, investing that $500 into books or a workshop will really take your photography to new heights.
The average photo-book out there is around $50. So that $500 could buy you 10 top-notch photography books will help you deepen your understanding of photographic composition, storytelling, and inspire you with great images. These books can include instructional how-to books or even better, photo books by the masters.
I am ashamed to say that I didn’t buy my first photography book until I graduated college, whereas I spent thousands of dollars on camera equipment. However nobody on the internet, or any other photography enthusiasts I knew recommended investing in photography books.
I would have pounded it into my past self, "Buy books, not gear."
3. Disregard online popularity
I remember when I started photography, to simply get someone to look at my photo or leave a comment was the most incredible feeling in the world. However it soon became a drug. I would reload my Flickr, Facebook, and forum threads to see if anyone would leave a comment on my image or “favorite" or “like" it.
After a while, my photography was more about pleasing others— instead of myself. If I uploaded a shot which I thought was great, and I didn’t get a lot of favorites or comments, I would always second-guess myself. However there were photos I uploaded which I didn’t think were so great, which other people loved. Although people did give valuable feedback every now and then— it was my hunger for affirmation through social media which drove me.
I soon had to realize to check into rehab— and cut the chord like an addict. My good friend [Charlie Kirk] (twocuteblogs.tumblr.com) gave me a challenge to go a year without uploading any images to social media. While I thought it to be impossible, I grudgingly accepted. I soon experienced the best experience in terms of restriction via the online world.
It gave me more time to think more critically about my images, and not worry too much about affirmation from others— and the rat race of social media popularity. I then started focusing more on photography projects, rather than single images—which often took more time to work on.
Nowadays I upload very rarely (perhaps a photo every 2 weeks or so)— but the benefit is that every image I share is a reasonably strong one. Compare this to when I would upload everyday (for the sake of it) and the overall quality would go down.
Quality over quantity is now my motto. I also constantly try to remind myself the importance of shooting for myself—and pleasing myself above everyone else.
4. Spend more time editing
When I say editing, I mean choosing your best images—not post-processing them.
I think the problem that every photographer starting off (myself included) is that we show too much of our work.
I would think that every photo I took was amazing and had to be shared with the world. But once again, uploading too much would cause too many bad photos to enter the online realm.
What I used to do is go out for a shoot, immediately download my photos to Lightroom when I got home, spend some time post-processing them, and uploading them the same day. I would then realize that I sometimes mistook the emotion I had when taking the photo as thinking it was good. In other words, I wasn’t objective enough with myself.
Now before uploading an image, I will wait for several months before posting it online. I try to get as much in-person feedback from people I trust as possible, and challenge them to find flaws and holes in my work—rather than just wanting affirmation.
I would tell myself this: Wait at least a week before downloading your photos to your computer, wait at least a month before sharing it on social media, and wait at least a year before uploading it to my portfolio website.
5. Focus more on projects, not single images
I love powerful single images in photography— but I think working in that manner lead to a lot of frustration in my work.
After around 5 years of shooting street photography in the “single image" mode (trying to have each photo get lots of “likes" on social media) I have spent the last 2 years working on projects.
The benefit I found is that working on projects helps me stay focused— and create bodies of work that have more substance and power. The single image approach was a bit too scatter-brained, and I felt it inhibited me from taking my work to the next level.
There are many other regrets I have when it comes to my photography and more specifically—street photography. However I value all of the lessons I have learned through my mistakes and wouldn’t have done it any other way.
But for you who is reading this, take a lesson from my mistakes. I truly believe that the wise are those who can learn from the mistakes of others (without having to make the mistakes themselves).
So remember, don’t worry so much about the equipment, invest in education, and shoot for yourself and be happy.
What regrets do you have when it comes to your photography? Share them in the comments below!