The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Personal Photography

Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject

Dear friend,

Have you ever felt frustrated with your photography?

Have you ever looked at other photographers, and felt jealous or envious of their success, social media followers, gear, or their talents? Do you ever compare your images with other photographers? Do you ever feel like your photography isn’t “good enough”?

What is ‘personal photography’?

Marseille, 2015
Marseille, 2015

If so, I propose “personal photography” to you — a new way of thinking about photography (that has been around for a long time).

The basic concept is simple: don’t photograph what is external. Photograph what is internal. Make photos that bring you personal satisfaction. Don’t worry about social media and what others think about your photos. Ask yourself, “Do I like my own photos?”

Personal photography is exactly that — personal. When you make personal photos, there are no “rights” and “wrongs”. This is incredibly liberating.

You no longer listen to the ‘rules’ of other photographers, or the ‘rules’ of any genres of photography. A personal photographer isn’t the prisoner of a genre. Rather, “personal photography” is an “un-genre” of photography. Let us not even call it “personal photography” — let us just call it photography.

An overview of ‘personal photography’

Berlin, 2015 #cindyproject
Berlin, 2015 #cindyproject

In this guide, I want to share all the insights I got (so far) about personal photography. I want this guide to be autobiographical — for me to share my frustrations, upsides, downsides, and stories about my photography. My past petty desires with ‘fame’, social media, gear, and traveling. And where I am now — in a much better mental state with my photography, with less stress, anxiety, frustration, and more zen, tranquility, and personal-satisfaction.

What is the best camera for ‘personal photography’?

The first question we want to tackle is the infamous “I’m starting off in photography, what camera should I buy?”

Very simple. Use the simplest camera possible, that leaves the less distance between you and what you want to photograph.

That might be a simple compact camera, a smartphone, or even a bigger camera. Any camera that has the least amount of friction (when making images) is the most desirable.

I know that personally, the bigger the camera, the less likely I am to carry it with me everywhere I go, and the less likely I am to make images, and the less likely I am to make photos that are personally-meaningful. And the less likely I am to document personally-meaningful “decisive moments.”

What are the best technical settings for ‘personal photography’?

Berlin, 2015 #cindyproject
Berlin, 2015 #cindyproject

Once again, try to use the simplest technical settings possible.

If you are un-technical, that might mean shooting fully-automatic mode.

If you are a little more advanced, perhaps do what I do — just shoot in “P” (program) mode, where your camera automatically chooses aperture, shutter-speed, but you manually set the ISO (I usually use 800-1600) to have a fast shutter speed. And I set the autofocus to center. So I have fewer technical settings to worry about, and I focus on just shooting.

But then again, you might prefer aperture-priority, or shooting fully-manual. Anything that works for you.

Essentially what you want to eliminate is thinking when you’re shooting. You want to photograph with your eyes, emotions, and soul. You don’t want to think about aperture and shutter-speed when clicking. You want to fully-integrate yourself in the moment, in the scene, and with your entire being.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what technical settings you use to capture a certain moment. What matters the most is if you had the simplest settings possible, to capture the most personally-meaningful moments in your day.

Treat each day as a sacred day

Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject

Another thing about personal photography — you’re not always going to have the luxury of traveling around the world, seeing exotic places, or getting out of your own town.

The reality is, the people who are the most dissatisfied are those constantly traveling. They are constantly seeking novelty and ‘new’ experiences. They learn to despise home and staying in one place. But they are endlessly trying to escape themselves. True happiness is being able to stay in one place, enjoying the place for what it offers, and treating each day as a unique day.

For personal photography, the ordinary photos you make are the most meaningful. The photos you make during your morning routine. The photos you make of your family members and loved ones. The photos you shoot during your lunch break and after work. The photos you make during the evenings and dinners. The photos you make on the weekends, while you’re pursuing your hobbies.

Photograph your own life

Kettleman city, 2015 #cindyproject
Kettleman city, 2015 #cindyproject

Personal photography is about relishing and cherishing your day-to-day life. It isn’t about photographing extraordinary things. It is about photographing ordinary things— and showing the inherent value and beauty in it.

Personal photography is about realizing that you have a perfect life. And you need nothing else. And relishing what is personally-meaningful to you. Whether that is your close friends and family, the strangers you meet on the street, or the things you see or places you visit.

But know with personal photography, you already have enough subject-matter to photograph. Don’t think you need to shoot a certain genre of photography, and you will be limitless.

Don’t try to stay focused on ‘street photography’ if you live in the countryside or the woods. Don’t try to shoot ‘landscape photography’ if you live in a big metropolitan city. Just live your daily life, and take your camera along, and photograph whatever you find interesting.

No boundaries. No limits. Only unlimited creativity.

What should I photograph?

Marseille, 2015
Marseille, 2015

With personal photography, your options for subject-matter is unlimited.

The rule is simple: photograph whatever you find interesting, and is personally-meaningful to you.

That can mean photographing strangers, photographing your kids, family members, friends, trees, cats, dogs, buildings, cars, flowers, or sunsets.

Don’t discriminate. Don’t worry whether you think a certain photograph will be ‘artistic’ or not. If you like to photograph your food or cappuccinos, go for it. Just do what feels right to you— and what excites you.

Why do you need the approval of others?

Vancouver, 2015 (photo by Cindy Nguyen)
Vancouver, 2015 (photo by Cindy Nguyen)

The biggest mistake we can make in personal photography is to look at others for approval. We shouldn’t share our photos with other people, expecting some sort of affirmation that our photos are ‘interesting’ or not. Rather, judge your photos by yourself and your own conscience.

And don’t think whether you photos are ‘good’ or not — ask to yourself: “Are my photos personal or not? Am I the only person who could have photographed this? What do my photos say about me, how I see the world, and how I interpret the world?”

The camera is just a tool for you to document what is personally-relevant in your life. Whatever you decide to photograph matters less.

How should I process my photos?

Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject

It doesn’t matter if you shoot RAW, JPEG, color, black and white, digital, film, or whatever. Just use a certain aesthetic which suits your personality, how you see the world, and the certain emotion you want to evoke.

And simply put — make your photos look the way you want them to look.

That might mean using certain filters, presets, or post-processing methods to achieve a certain aesthetic that you crave.

If you look at your own photos, and feel impressed with your own images— you are on the right track.

Aesthetic consistency?

Berlin, 2015 #cindyproject
Berlin, 2015 #cindyproject

I know for myself, I prefer to have a consistent aesthetic or ‘look’ to my photos. Therefore when I post-process my photos, I try to generally stick to the same preset or filter. Or when I shoot film, I try to stick to the same film. When photographing certain things, I also try to either stick to color or black and white — depending on my mood or feelings for the year.

I try to stay consistent with how my photos look because that is what gives me inner-peace, calm, and serenity. I feel better about my own photos when they look similar. But I try to vary the subject-matter, to keep things interesting for me.

And this is just for me. You need to figure out what works for you (once again, an important tenant in personal photography — there are no ‘right’ and ‘wrongs’. Only what works and what doesn’t work for you).

Single images, projects, or sets?

Marseille, 2015
Marseille, 2015

I remember when I was starting off in photography, I had no concept of ‘projects’, series, or sets in photography. I simply photographed whatever I found interesting. And I would arrange them based on how I liked. And that was that.

The more experienced we get in photography, the more complicated it gets. If we want to be taken as ‘serious’ photographers, we feel obliged to start working on projects or sets (because that is what ‘real’ photographers do). If we just take snapshots of whatever we find interesting, the art world generally looks down at us.

After all, if you want to become an ‘artist’ photographer — you need to have a grand vision, a pretentious artist statement, and some deep philosophical under-pinnings in terms of why you photograph what you photograph.

Shoot what works for you

Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject

I say, stay simple. Always stay a beginner or a child in photography. Just work in a way that fits your personality.

If you are a conceptual photographer, and you prefer to work on sets and series that fit a certain idea, go for it. But if you feel that is all bullshit and it doesn’t make sense to you — photograph naturally. Photograph freely. Don’t judge your photos whether they will win some photo contest, whether you will have your own solo exhibition at some fancy gallery, or whether you will get a book deal.

Photograph for yourself.

That might mean just taking random snapshots as single-images, and keeping them separate. Or that might mean taking a bunch of random photos, and creating a series out of them afterwards. Or that might mean coming up with an idea, rule, theme, or concept before shooting — and using that as a guide for yourself.

Shoot the way that suits your personality.

Why shoot personal photography?

Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject

A good question to ask yourself— why should you pursue ‘personal photography’?

If you’ve ever felt frustrated with your photography, and felt like you were always comparing yourself with other photographers. If you are tired of the social media ‘rat race’ of getting tons of likes, comments, or followers— and you are feeling constantly inadequate and frustrated. If you want to gain more recognition for your photography, but you feel like you aren’t getting it.

The goal of personal photography isn’t to become world famous. The goal of personal photography is to find inner-peace, calm, tranquility, and personal-satisfaction.

The great thing about personal photography is that you have all the control. You can control what to photograph, and what not to photograph. Furthermore, you can control whether you get personal happiness and meaning from your photos. You don’t let anybody else dictate that.

How do I know if my photos are good or not?

Hanoi, 2016
Hanoi, 2016

Pursuing personal photography means making photos which are ‘good’ in your eyes. It doesn’t mean needing others to nod their heads in approval, or getting a bunch of ‘likes’ on your photo.

However I don’t think as personal photographers we should lock ourselves in a cage. While photography is a personal pursuit — we should also collaborate with others, and get the feedback from others. But I recommend generally getting this feedback in-personal, and with those you trust.

Don’t worry whether your photos are ‘good’ or not — ask yourself, “Do my photos strike an emotional chord with the viewer?”

1. Aim to please yourself

For me, I first aim to make photos that please myself, that encourage and uplift myself, and help me understand the world. I photograph what I love, and try to put my heart and soul into my images.

2. Will your photos help empower others?

Secondly, I aim to share images that will also encourage and uplift others. I try to make photos that serve a social purpose — to empower others. This is the main reason I am pursuing my personal photography — to show others, you don’t need ‘exotic’ subject-matter to make meaningful photos. And also to remind other photographers, photograph what is inside you, rather than what is outside of you. To embed your photos with your soul.

It doesn’t matter how many people you share your photos with. I generally think it is better to have photos that stir the hearts of a few (deeply), than to share your photos with millions that feel luke-warm or so-so about your photos.

3. Do your photos empower you?

Ultimately, if you even have an audience of 1— that is enough. Try to aim to just make a personal image, that will help motivate, uplift, encourage, or touch another human being. Then you have done your job as a photographer.

And even if that isn’t possible, make photos that will help yourself. If you end up pleasing yourself at the end of the day, photography has served you well.

Social media and personal photography

London, 2015
London, 2015

Social media is great in many ways. It has helped us connect with billions across the world. It has empowered us to publish our images for “free” — whereas in the past, sharing our images was difficult and expensive.

But with every upside comes a downside.

Now I see that most photographers are miserable from social media. They are always striving for more followers, more likes, more comments. They forget that they need to make photos that bring them personal satisfaction, rather than make photos that will please a crowd.

If you try to please a lot of people with your photography, you will end up pleasing nobody. And you certainly will no longer please yourself.

Taking a break from social media

Tuyen Quang, 2016
Tuyen Quang, 2016

I know for myself personally — I got addicted to the ‘likes’, comments, and followers. I knew what types of images would get more likes, so I would start photographing more of those types of images. And not only that, I started to betray my own personal vision. Because once again, I (subconsciously and consciously) aimed to please my audience, before myself.

Social media all comes down to your personality. If you are addicted to likes and external affirmation, I recommend taking a brief break from social media. Try to experiment— uninstall all social-media apps from your phone, and don’t upload any new images for a single day. Then extend that to two days. Three days. Four days. A week. A month, and maybe even a year.

For myself personally when I did this — I first felt ‘withdrawn’ symptoms (very much like going a few days without having coffee or caffeine, you get headaches and feel like shit). Or with social media withdrawals it might be worse — like having heroin withdrawal symptoms.

But for me, after about 2 weeks — you get over the hump. And it soon feels refreshing. Rather than worrying in your mind, “What photo am I going to upload today?” and stressing out about it — you focus on your photography. And once you realize you can’t always share your images, you start wondering to yourself— “Am I really photographing for myself, or for others?”

Lansing, 2014
Lansing, 2014

I’ve found that the less time I spend on social media, the more time I spend photographing for myself. And the more happy I am with my images. Many of these photographs also ultimately appeal more to others as well — because they are personal. People can see me “behind the scenes.” I make photos that only I can make— and my audience has ended up relating with my personal photos more, rather than my street photos of strangers.

Here is the interesting thing: the more you end up taking photos for yourself, the more others will end up liking your photos more.

You get a win-win scenario. You focus on making photos that are more personally-meaningful to you. And then your audience ends up liking your photos even more.

Compare this with trying to figure out what your audience likes, and making photos that cater to them (while making yourself miserable in the process). This is almost like prostituting yourself as a photographer.

Tuyen Quang, 2016 (Photo by Cindy)
Tuyen Quang, 2016 (Photo by Cindy)

So to re-iterate, try to experiment spending less time on social media, and focusing on your own photos for yourself. Rather than wondering, “Are others going to like my photos?” ask yourself: “Do I like my own photos?”

And when you feel like you have some more peace and tranquility in your photography for yourself, then slowly re-introduce social media into your diet.

As with everything in life— social media is best when used in moderation. All-you-can-eat buffets (while good in theory) are horrible — you over-eat, get indigestion, feel bloated, and get stomach pains afterwards. All-you-can-eat social media is the same — you consume too many random images online, you check your phone constantly, and you feel less personal meaning in your photos.

I still haven’t figured out what the ideal amount of social media is. And I never will. But the key is to just experiment— and figure out how you can derive the maximum benefit from your social media experience, with the least amount of envy, jealousy, and frustration on social media.

Never stop shooting for yourself

Tuyen Quang, 2016
Tuyen Quang, 2016

The last thing I want to leave you with is to never stop shooting. Never stop documenting your personal life experiences which are personally-meaningful to you.

Technology will always change. The cameras you shoot with will change. The world will change. You will change.

But remember, photography is an inner-journey for you to discover yourself. To discover the world around you. To discover your unique point-of-view.

Keep your photography personal. Embed your soul into your images. Photograph for yourself before others. Still get feedback from other photographers you trust, and share your photos with those you care for.

But escape the rat race of social media stardom — it is empty and will never give you true meaning.

Make photos that uplift you. That excite you about the world. That bring you personal satisfaction, and that you hope will empower others.

Keep it personal,

Learn more: Personal Photography >