7 Principles Elon Musk Can Teach You About Photography

Elon Musk is my hero, and has taught me far more about photography and life than any other photographer who lived.

I often get the biggest inspiration in my photography and life from non-photographers. Why? I feel that photography is such a tiny field of art, and we can learn so much from outside fields. As photographers, I think we are often constricted. I think to really self-realize your talents, skills, and visions in photography — you should seek outside inspiration.

One of my biggest mentors and guides at the moment is Elon Musk. Not because he is a billionaire, but from his work ethic and passion to help humanity. I almost see him as a more self-realized Steve Jobs, who has revolutionized (even more) fields than Jobs himself.

What are some lessons we can learn from Elon Musk, and apply it to our photography? Here are some things that he has taught me:

1. Create what is useful to others

Lansing, 2014
Lansing, 2014

I once read something like, “To make a billion dollars, figure out how you can help a billion people.”

Many people get confused. They think that to become “rich” or “successful” is to have great marketing tactics, to have really good connections, and to squeeze people for all their money.

However the way to really become “successful” is to create massive value for other people. To create something that will inspire, uplift, and empower others. To create things that are very useful.

Elon Musk taught me to think about the “utility delta” of something— to compare the usefulness of something versus what already exists.

For example, if you see something in the world that you think sucks — think of how you can make it 10x better. You don’t want to seek a subtle change or improvement; you want to create something radically more useful.

Furthermore, Elon Musk has challenged me to think about how to best help humanity. While Elon Musk is trying to save the world through sustainable energy and inter-planetary travel, I have more humble endeavors — to help empower as many photographers as I can.

One of the big mistakes that many people and companies make is that they get distracted. They don’t know what to focus on. Elon Musk encourages us to focus on “signal over noise” — the concept that we need to focus on what is truly important (signal), and we need to ignore distractions and trivial things (noise):

“Focus on signal over noise. A lot of companies get confused. They spend a lot of money on things that don’t actually make the product better. So, for example, at Tesla, we’ve never spent any money on advertising. We’ve put all the money into R and D and manufacturing and design to try and make the car as good as possible.” – Elon Musk

For Elon Musk, what he did differently from other car companies is they aim to make the best car possible, rather than making new versions for the sakes of sales. While other big car companies are pouring in tons of money into marketing and advertising, Tesla is using that money to improve their cars.

So for Elon Musk, the “signal” is making a better product. The “noise” is advertising and marketing.

Elon Musk expands on this idea:

“And, I think that’s the way to go. For any given company, keep thinking about, “Are, these efforts that people are expending, are they resulting in a better product or service?” And if they’re not, stop those efforts.”

Takeaway points

For me, I get distracted by “noise” as well. For me, noise is social media. I get too caught up in worrying about likes, comments, and followers. I forget what my “signal” is (creating great photos and great blog posts).

So for us as photographers, here are some other forms of “noise” which distract us:

  • Wanting to buy a new camera or lens
  • Wasting time on gear-review sites, tech blogs, camera rumor sites
  • Wasting too much time on social media, seeking to get more likes, followers, comments

However if we actually want to create value, we need to focus on “signal” — which can include the following:

  • Creating great photos
  • Creating great photo-related content (blog posts, videos, books)
  • Creating a community of like-minded photographers, that will empower one another

The key word as photographers we need to always think of is: “value.” How do we create value for others?

If you’re a commercial photographer, you create value by delivering images that bring happiness and joy to your clients.

If you’re a photo blogger, you create value by delivering blog posts that empower and inspire your readers.

If you’re a photographer, you create value by delivering images that excite, entertain, and empower your viewers.

I also think of social media this way: “Is this photo I’m about to upload going to deliver value to my viewer? Does the world really care that I’m drinking a cappuccino? Is this image really going to empower someone?”

Always think of creating value for others.

2. Don’t seek incremental improvements, go for ‘radical innovation’

Paris, 2014
Paris, 2014

The problem in society is that we reason by analogy. Rather than creating radically-new ideas, we always think of slight improvements.

For example in cars, there are always tiny improvements. Each year, cars have slightly different headlights, wheels, and design. With smartphones, there are tiny improvements to the display, speed, and camera. With digital cameras, there are tiny improvements to ISO, image quality, and handling.

But what if we aimed for “radical innovation” which were like moon-shots? Rather than incremental improvements, we seek 10x improvement. We seek radically-new ideas that have never been done before, or ideas that are 10x better than what currently exists.

Takeaway points

For me, whenever I blog, I try to either write about something that nobody else has written about. Or I try to write something that is 10x better than what I’ve read before.

For example, when I started the “Learn From the Masters of Photography” series, I couldn’t find any information online about practical tips/guides from the masters of photography. Therefore I embarked on a quest of self-learning, and shared my findings.

Furthermore, whenever I read photo-guides online, a lot of them feel lacking in terms of information, practically, and soul. Therefore I try to write information which I perceive to be 10x better than what I’ve read before.

In your photography, how can you apply this idea of “radical innovation”?

Perhaps that means to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing.

For example, if everyone is lusting after more expensive digital cameras with more megapixels— go opposite. Seek cameras that are smaller, or have fewer megapixels. Maybe while everyone else is seeking medium-format digital cameras, you stick with shooting on an iPhone.

Another idea— try to make photos that are 10x better than you’ve created in the past. Perhaps your photos can be 10x more emotional, 10x more simple, or 10x more elegant in terms of composition.

Or it means making photos that you’ve never seen before. What kind of photo-project have you never seen before, but would like to see? I think one of the best ways to be creative is to create what you would like to see.

Another tip I got from Elon Musk is to not follow trends. Don’t copy what others are doing. Follow your own intuition, gut, and soul.

3. Work like crazy and be tenacious

London, 2012
London, 2012

I was listening to an interview with Elon Musk and he said something like: “If you need inspirational words, you probably shouldn’t do it.” Another interview he wrote that starting a business and being an entrepreneur was like eating shards of glass and staring into the abyss.

Elon Musk is infamous for being a work-a-holic. But he isn’t working for working sake. He is working his ass off because he is trying to help humanity as much as possible. He has a deep fervor for his work, and a passion to help others.

The harder you work, and the more tenacious you are, the more likely you are to succeed.

For example, the only real way to improve your photography is to shoot. A lot. To constantly push your boundaries, to not settle for “good-enough”, and seek personal greatness.

If you want to become stronger, you cannot keep lifting the same weight at the gym. You need to progressively increase the weight at the gym. For example, it took me 5-6 years to increase my deadlift from 135 lbs to 405 lbs. But the progress was surprisingly easy- I just added 5 pounds a week. And those gains were steady, but ultimately compounded massively.

Also when it comes to blogging, I’ve been able to be successful because I write a lot. I’ve written over 2,000+ blog posts in the last 5-6 years here. Now Google sees that I’ve written for a long time, give in-depth information, and am consistent. Therefore they rank me high in Google search rankings.

Takeaway points:

How can you apply these working ethics to your own photography?

You gotta work your ass off. Photograph as much as possible, given your lifestyle. Try to shoot as much everyday as you can— whether that be during your commute to work, during your lunch break, or your journey back home. Shoot in the subway, in the bus, or in your car. Obsess over photography. When you’re bored at work, don’t look at gear reviews. Go to the MagnumPhotos.com website and look at the work of the masters. Invest your money in photo books, education and travel.

Look at your photos every year and see how you can improve. Seek honest feedback and critique from peers you respect. Don’t settle for second-best.

Seek constant improvement, and know that you also want to work “smart” in your photography. Know the best times to shoot photography for you, and maximize your energy and effort.

If your passion is color street photography, try to only shoot during the hours of the day when the light is good (sunrise or sunset). If you are a commercial photographer, try to work on expanding your portfolio with your highest-paying clients. If you’re just a photo hobbyist, seek to make photos that bring you personal satisfaction, and which are better than you’ve shot in the past.

Seek to improve the composition, emotion, and soul in your photos. Perhaps that means adding complexity to your work. Or that means simplifying your images.

Whatever it is, put in the hours and the hard work. There are no shortcuts.

4. Take risks; do something bold

Tokyo, 2012
Tokyo, 2012

Elon Musk has a pretty high threshold for pain, stress, and risk. Yet he is still afraid, just like any other human being.

For example, when he started SpaceX, several times he was close to bankruptcy. He risked his own money, reputation, and effort throughout his career.

But he knew that for personal greatness and to help humanity, he had to take these risks. He needed to take bold steps. He didn’t want incremental improvements, he wanted to revolutionize several industries and the world.

When Elon Musk started Tesla, it had been close to a century that a new successful car company was created. And electric cars weren’t commercially successful. There were issues with infrastructure (where to charge your car). There were millions of skeptical people out there.

With SpaceX, he knew that NASA wouldn’t make any improvements to their space exploration. So he knew he needed to create something by himself.

With SolarCity, Musk knew that he needed infrastructure to help Tesla as well as with climate change. He’s constantly investing money into solar technologies, to reduce the carbon footprint of the Earth, and also to power the industries of the future.

The thing to note is that Elon Musk isn’t taking stupid risks. They are calculated risks. Even when he decided to start Tesla and SpaceX, he calculated his chance of success at only 20-30%. But he was willing to make this risk to help humanity.

Life is short. Why aim to be average? Don’t you want to help the world and make a “dent in the universe” as Steve Jobs once said?

Takeaway points:

Elon Musk is changing the world with industries that might change the course of humanity.

Of course as photographers, our ambitions are a lot more modest. We are in the business of making images, inspiring others, and finding personal happiness through photography.

But at the same time, now is the time for you to take more risks and be more bold in your photography.

You can take more risks in your photography by trying to take on more commercial clients. To charge money. To explore to a part of town that you’ve never been to in order to make photos. You can take risks by clicking the shutter more often, even when you’re not sure whether it will be a good photo or not. You can take a risk by taking a street photo that might get you into trouble.

Be bold in your photography. Aim to create even greater images. Don’t let negative self-talk (or the haters) hold you back. Have confidence in yourself, and know that you were destined for great things.

5. Don’t compromise your ideals

London, 2015
London, 2015

Everyone has a different moral compass, and a set of ideals.

For Elon Musk, that is helping humanity. It is preventing humanity from killing ourselves. This is why Elon Musk is dedicating his entire soul and being into fixing transportation, sustainable energy, and interplanetary travel.

It is easy to compromise in the world to simply please everyone. But if you compromise your ideals; you will no longer have anything to stand for. You will lose your zest for life and for living.

For me, one of my ideals is “open source” photography and information. I know that my purpose in the world is to empower as many people as I can through this blog. And once I start putting paywalls and “no trespassing” signs on the content on this site, I know that I’ve compromised and not stuck to my ideals.

Takeaway points:

How can you ‘not compromise’ or stick to your ideals in photography?

Perhaps that means sticking to your ethics in photography. Your ethics might be to take photos only with permission. Or your ethics might tell you to only take photos candidly.

Your ideals might to be to deliver only the best photos you’ve created, and not settle for “good enough.” Perhaps you ideals are for perfection.

Whatever your ideals are, stick to them. Don’t compromise.

6. Reason from ‘first principles’ (not by analogy)

Downtown LA, 2015
Downtown LA, 2015

In physics, there is a concept of ‘first principles.’ What that means is to start with fundamental truths about reality, and work your way up.

“First principle” thinking means to not reason by analogy. It means not to say that something “is like this.” It means to start from a blank slate, and to create more novel and creative ideas.

First principle thinking means to not iterate from different ideas. But mentally, it is easier to reason from analogy. It takes less brain-power.

But we need to think about the “fundamental truths” of something, and then work up from there. We need to figure out what is true, and what is false.

In the example of Elon Musk, an example is when it comes to battery technology.

His critics always said, “You can never make a successful electric car because battery packs are too expensive.”

But Elon Musk did ‘first principles’ thinking by thinking to himself, “Why are battery packs expensive?” rather than thinking, “Battery packs are expensive, and therefore they will always be expensive, and it isn’t worth pursuing.”

First-principle thinking means to challenge traditional ideas and theories. It means to disregard popular sentiment, and ask ourselves, “Is this really true?”

For example, when I was a beginner in photography people always told me, “If you want to make better photos, you need a more expensive camera, a full-frame camera, with more megapixels.” But why is that the case? If your photos have better image quality, does that mean you will really make better photos?

Another way I’ve applied “first principles” thinking to photography is challenging other beliefs:

  • Do we really need to shoot with a proper “digital camera” — wy not just shoot with an iPhone or a smartphone?
  • Do we really need to print and exhibit our works if we want to be taken as a “serious” photographer?
  • Do we really need to upload our photos to social media to become “successful”?
  • Is it really good advice to always upload photos everyday? Or might we be better off sharing fewer photos?

Elon Musk continue to give us great advice about not following the trend, and more thoughts about first-principles thinking:

Don’t just follow the trend. You may have heard me say that it’s good to thinking terms of the physics approach, the first principles. With is, rather than reasoning by analogy, you boil things down to the most fundamental truths you can imagine, and then you reason up from there.”

Elon Musk re-states, it is really hard to think about first-principles thinking:

This is a good way to figure out if something really makes sense, or is it just what everybody else is doing. It’s hard to think that way, you can’t think that way about everything. It takes a lot of effort. But if you’re trying to do something new, it’s the best way to thing. And that framework was developed by physicists to figure out counter intuitive things, like quantum mechanics. It’s really a powerful, powerful method.”

Takeaway point:

One of the best pieces of advice I can give photographers is to ignore conventional wisdom, and try to discover everything by yourself. It means to always have a “beginner’s mind” and to always ask, “Why?” whenever someone tells you something.

I also think it means to distance yourself from “experts” or middle-age people. Experts and the middle-aged become too fossilized in their thinking.

For me, I like to talk more with beginner photographers, or very young photographers. They are the source of innovation, because they don’t let the weight of the past hold them down. They are willing to take risks, ask why?, and try something radically new.

Some ideas which are counter-intuitive in photography, but can help stimulate you:

  • Instead of selling your photos, give them away for free (allow your viewers to download full-resolution images of your portoflio)
  • Instead of sharing your photos on social media, print them out and share them that way
  • Instead of posting to social media everyday, post only once a week
  • Instead of buying a bigger camera for photography, shoot with only a smartphone
  • If you see everyone shooting color, shoot black and white. If everyone is shooting black and white, shoot color.
  • When everyone is shooting digital, shoot film.
  • When everyone is seeking to travel for their photography, try to spend more time photographing at home.
  • Instead of seeking for more likes on social media, seek fewer likes on social media.
  • Instead of charging a “medium-amount” of money for your photography, only do it for free or charge a ton of money.
  • When everyone else is addicted to social media, don’t use it at all.
  • When everyone else is shooting wide-angle, shoot with a telephoto. And vice-versa.

Try to be a non-conformist, and do what feels right to you. All progress comes to the photographer that is unreasonable, and lets the world adapt to them (rather than adapting to the world) — forgot where this quote came from but it is very powerful.

7. Constantly seek negative criticism

Tokyo, 2011
Tokyo, 2011

Generally human beings hate negative criticism. We want to be praised, patted on the back, and told we’re doing a great job.

What differentiates Elon Musk from others is that he constantly seeks negative criticism. He suggests that the best place to ask for negative criticism is from your friends, as they often know what is wrong, but don’t tell you the truth because they don’t want to hurt you.

Another tip Elon Musk gives us is this: assume you’re wrong. Rather than thinking you’re always right.

And our mission is this: to be less wrong.

You might have a lot of crazy ideas. Bounce the idea off your friends, or those colleagues who you trust. Ask them for critical and negative feedback. This is the only way you can discover the holes in your thinking.

Takeaway point:

When it comes to my photography, I get too married to my bad photos. I have a hard time “killing my babies.”

But what I do to my friends in photography: I show them a series of photos and tell them, “Help me kill my babies. Be brutally honest with me.” And they will tell me how it is.

It is important who you ask for feedback. Only ask those who you trust. And just because someone gives you negative feedback, it doesn’t mean that you have to do what they tell you. It means having an open mind, letting in their suggestions, then deciding by yourself whether you want to take their advice or not.

You can take this concept further in your photography. If you have crazy ideas for a photo project, a business, or any other venture— ask those you trust for negative feedback. And ask them to give you “constructive criticism” — to give you practical advice, not to just shoot down your idea for the sake of it.

This will help you find the holes in your thinking, and edit out your bad ideas, and keep the good ideas.


Garden Grove, 2016 #cindyproject
Garden Grove, 2016 #cindyproject

Elon Musk is certainly one of my heroes. And the hero of many.

We have a lot of great lessons we can learn from him, but realize at the end of the day— we are not him. Our life experiences are different, our ambitions are different, and our lifestyles are different.

What I would rather say is to find inspiration and motivation from him. And whenever we have an idea or a hope, think to ourselves: “What would Elon Musk say or do?”

Seek inspiration from anybody. You can get equally-useful information from Elon Musk as much as your grandmother, or a stranger on the streets. Understand that anybody, no matter how successful or humble, can inform and guide you.

It means killing our ego, and knowing that our purpose as human beings is to help serve others.

I’ve learned that personally, my goal isn’t to become rich, accrue 100 Leicas, and take over the world. Rather, my job is to be a servant to the internet, to continue to write these articles which I hope uplift others, and the only “reward” I get is coffee and the opportunity to write and share.

So what is the purpose of your life? What is the vigor which drives your photography? Are you shooting for yourself or for others? Are you creative massive value from others? Are you steering clear from cliches in photography and trying something new? Or are you just following the herd?

Follow your heart in photography, and aim for personal greatness in your photography and life.


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