All I Need to Know I Learned from Photography


As any photo enthusiast will tell you (sometimes without you even asking), the benefits of photography go far beyond the ability to capture a moment or immortalize an expression. It goes beyond a mere understanding of color, or composition, or the ability to see the extraordinary hiding inside of an ordinary scene.

For those of us lucky enough to stumble into this all-consuming hobby, everything about the way we look at the world has changed.

Dorothea Lange said it simply: “A camera teaches you how to see without a camera.”

But today I want to go a step further. Looking back over the almost-decade that I’ve spent taking pictures and writing about people who take pictures and working for the people who make the cameras that other people use to take pictures, I realize that photography has taught me far more than “how to see.” From the cliché to the mildly profound, for better or worse, some life lessons make the most sense to me—in fact, they only make sense to me—when translated into the language of exposure, composition, and form.

So I sat down one day not long ago on an empty red eye from Atlanta to Seattle to try and get a few of these lessons down on paper. The list went something like this:

1. A person’s eyes will tell you far more than their words, and faster.

2. The lens through which you see the world is equally capable of revealing and distorting reality.

3. Shift your point of view often. The same exact situation can look drastically different with even the slightest change in perspective.

4. There’s a world of difference between looking and seeing.

5. Pay attention: some of the most spectacular moments come and go in the blink of an eye.

6. Sometimes the best you can do is find the right place and wait around for the right time. This is a great excuse to spend countless hours in beautiful places.

7. Keep your life (and compositions) uncluttered.

8. It’s our imperfections that make us human. Remove or conceal too many of them and you’ll fall into the uncanny valley.

9. Every success is the result of countless hours of trial-and-error. You’ll be a much happier person if you learn to expect 1,000 failed attempts for every keeper.

10. Even the most uninspiring circumstances can yield stunning results if you know where, and how, to look. When in doubt, get closer.

11. There are two types of people in the world: those who argue endlessly about the “right” way to do something, and those who are actually doing that thing. Try to be the second type.

12. The most creative people are also the most insecure; they doubt, question, and challenge themselves constantly. More often than not, over-confidence is synonymous with a lack of self-awareness.

13. Raw reality usually needs a little bit of editing before it makes sense. But never forget that you control the sliders.

14. You’ll be amazed how quickly your life can improve when you put in the effort to “get out of Auto.”

15. The whole point of a negative is to turn it into a positive.

That’s what I came up with. I’d love to hear what you guys—especially those with many more years under their belt—would want to add.

As I see it, the value in any hobby, profession, or passion isn’t limited to the results you produce or the accolades you accumulate. In fact, I’d argue that these things make up the minority. The real gift of picking up a camera comes in the form of people you’ll meet, experiences you’ll sign up for, perspectives you’ll earn, and, yes, maybe even a few life lessons you’ll learn along the way.

Once in a while—though certainly not often enough–I try my best to remember that.


All credit for this idea goes to Robert Fulghum, whose 1986 essay and book “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” remains one of the most life-affirming bits of simple wisdom this writer has ever read.


About the author: DL Cade is an art, science and technology writer, and the former Editor in Chief of PetaPixel. When he’s not writing essays like this one or reviewing the latest tech for creatives, you’ll find him working in Vision Sciences at the University of Washington, publishing the weekly Triple Point newsletter, or sharing personal essays on Medium.


Image credits: Header photo by Eddie Junior, CC0.





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