Life is Like a Camera?

In Life Is Short, Pep Talks, The Craft, The Life Creative by David72 Comments

“Life is like a camera. Just focus on what’s important and capture the good times, develop from the negatives, and if things don’t work out, just take another shot.” – Ziad K. Abdelnour

Respectfully, life is not like a camera. To assert otherwise is glib and cheesy and only shows a lack of experience in both life and photography. Life is so much more complex, and if you’ve lived a rich and deep life, you’ve probably also had your share of sorrows and times so dark, so entirely absent of light that you couldn’t possibly make a photograph even if you were inclined to pick the camera up in the first place. If life were like a camera, I’d have traded mine in many times over the years for a better model, you know what I mean? I’d also have asked for a bigger…lens. 😂

No, life isn’t like a camera, but there’s an idea in that quote that resonates; I believe the notion that the skills it takes to become a mindful photographer are among the skills that make for a good life.

It takes an awareness of moments (not just in the big strokes but in the subtleties hardly noticed by others), the small details that give those moments their complexity and nuance. If it’s true that how we live our moments is how we live our lives, then the person who has learned to experience those moments more fully will experience life more fully. We can’t control how long we live (though we can probably lengthen our lives a little if we stop doing stupid shit), but we can choose to live with greater depth. And the camera is a gift of grace if it helps us hone our sensitivity to the quality of passing time, even slowing it, giving us the space to wonder and to remember moments that might otherwise have been forgotten or even unnoticed in the first place.

With time, photographers learn that nearly everything within the frame looks different with a change of perspective. A move to the left or right, up or down, controls how elements in the frame relate to each other. The story changes, often dramatically, when we alter the angle from which we view it. A different lens, a different filter, and it changes again. The photographer with some experience understands that vision is not only what we see but how we see, and that’s as true with the camera in our hands as it is without it. In that way, life is not at all like a camera. Life is the subject.

How we see and experience life is very much a question of where we choose to place the camera and the perspective we choose to embrace. Understanding that goes a long way to the making of an interesting photograph, not to mention an interesting life.

I’ve had a camera in my hand for so long that I don’t remember what it was like to be without it. I don’t know that the 13-year-old version of me ever looked out at the world as I am this morning, the fog dropping down from the hills behind my home, and experienced wonder at the light as the sun struggles to break through. Thirteen-year-olds often have their minds elsewhere. But the camera has persistently nudged me since then to notice. “Look at the light,” it implores us.

A photographer begins by paying attention to how much light is there and slowly gains a sensitivity to its other qualities: is it warm or cool, is it hard or soft, from what angle does it paint a subject, having come 147 million kilometres to do so? With time, a photographer learns to value the shadows, to see them not as the absence of light but as a source of mystery, and to include them as important parts of a composition. In a photograph, mood and real feeling are often created with less light (even colours become more saturated and intense) when underexposed.

It seems to me that a life well-lived is one in which we find light in unexpected places and look long enough into the shadows that we find mystery, not fear.

The photographer works in light, space, and time. Those are the raw materials, and you need a camera to make a photograph from them. But once learned, the greater gift is found beyond the camera: experiencing more fully what’s before our eyes and perceiving it with greater creativity. Being more aware of time and the moments our lives are made of, perhaps not to conjure more of them but to experience more deeply the moments we have. Becoming more sensitive to light, seeing the full spectrum, and finding something redeemable (if not downright beautiful) in the shadows.

What photography does not do and cannot do is encourage us to take another shot “if things don’t work out.” A sensitivity to time (and to the unique quality of moments that will never repeat themselves) does the opposite. It urges us to do it now. While we can. To press the shutter, to seize the moment. It’s true; you might miss it. And you might even get another crack at it. But as I turn 51 in a few days, I’m more aware than ever that there are fewer moments ahead of me than have passed me by. This doesn’t dissuade me from taking risks but the opposite. The time is now.

Moments are seldom repeatable. Not the moment the moon rises like a silver sliver under a blanket of heavy cloud over Hernandez, New Mexico (Ansel Adams, 1941), not the moment a man in a hat jumps a puddle behind the Gare Saint-Lasazre in Paris (Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1930), and not the moment you inhabit now.

To be more sensitive to time is to be more mindful of its passing. Maybe we get another chance to say “I love you”; maybe we don’t.

Maybe we get many more years to photograph the family together, put away the old tensions that have kept us distant, or make time for each other. Maybe we don’t. But we do have now, and more urgently: we might only have now. You can make a photograph in almost any light, and you can choose one of many different perspectives; what you cannot do is make a photograph of a moment that has passed. I suppose I might not have needed a camera to teach me that had my life gone in a different direction, but it has helped.

Life is not like a camera. It’s so much more. But the camera has given me a richer life, and for that, I am most grateful.

Among the many gifts it has imparted is you. And before the moment passes, I want to tell you how grateful I am for you. I make the photographs I create and write what I do not only for me but for you. I do it in the hopes of making a difference, of making your life a little fuller in some way. I couldn’t do that if you didn’t read what I write or care about what I photograph. You give me purpose and a place to put my love for this craft and those who practice it, and I am incredibly grateful. Thank you.

Cynthia joins me in wishing you a holiday filled with light, and for those of you for whom those lights cast more of a shadow this year than they did last year, we wish you love and courage.

For the Love of the Photograph,


PS – Want more like this? I send these articles out every two weeks to photographers around the world who want to improve their craft and explore their creativity and I’d love to include you. Tell me where to send it and I’ll send you a copy of my best-selling eBook Make Better Photographs, as well bi-weekly articles, first-glimpse monographs of my new work, and very occasional news of resources to help you keep moving forward in this craft we love.

“Each and every one of your emails inspire and motivate me to want to jump right out of my chair away from my computer and shoot for the love of it . Thank you David.” – Millie Brown


  1. Pingback: Do not let yourself run out of subjects – When Food is Political

  2. Thats my quote .. I had written this quote on my facebook account like 10 years ago.

    1. Author

      Maybe, but the internet, to the best I can find, attributes this to Ziad K. Abdelnour

  3. May we all be the shining light for someone……

    All the best to you and Cynthia!

  4. Holiday Greetings,

    I wanted to share with you the experience I had when I shared this post with a fellow photographer. Unbeknown to me, his wife was in hospice care. He spoke of how your message hit home and talked of going forward. David, thank you for helping many who you will never know.

    Be well,

    1. Hi Da vid

      I first was introduced to you through a zoom presentation you made earlier in the year to the Wanganui Camera Club down here in New Zealand.

      Since then I regularly follow your blogs and have a couple of your books.

      Thank you so much for your work. It is always thoughtful and often inspiring. Much appreciated

      Glen Innes

      Wellington. NZ

    2. Hi Da vid

      I first was introduced to you through a zoom presentation you made earlier in the year to the Wanganui Camera Club down here in New Zealand.

      Since then I regularly follow your blogs and have a couple of your books.

      Thank you so much for your work. It is always thoughtful and often inspiring. Much appreciated

      Glen Innes

      Wellington. NZ

  5. Only when I am in a quiet place do I gift myself the opportunity to read your messages. Thank you for the light and kindness you share.
    I wish you and Cynthia the Best in the New Year.
    Felice Navidad from Mexico.

  6. Good Morning David…we have 4 inches of snow in Sequim this morning. Can’t wait to get the camera out as the sun comes up. Thank you for all the inspiring messages you send. It keeps a shinning light on life even when things are not going well. Also, gives me great ideas for photography. Just got back from South Carolina where my grandson graduated from Army Basic Trailing. So we have the entire family home now.

    Thanks again for meeting with Jo & I. We really appreciate it. Can’t wait to go on one of your photo trips. Wishing you and Cynthia a wonderful Christmas and a magical New Year. Cheers !! Jim & Jo

  7. David,
    I see how much thoughtful effort you put into conceptualizing , writing, editing and posting your essays, and it always seems wrong just to casually read and move on without expressing appreciation for your hard work. You are an inspiring professional on so many levels.

    Yesterday at my photo group meeting, I was privileged to meet 95 year old lifetime photographer and honored teacher (University of Montana, Bozeman) Rudy Dietrich.

    After a lifetime lived in photography, at age 95, what is important to Rudy to see and to show are the details of his everyday life. He has close-ups of his own pale hands, sometimes expressively clenched, as he says, to express his frustration, anger or grief. He dwells on the sinuous details of his favorite flower, the amaryllis. Light through a window throws shadows of kitchen utensils against a wall; a wandering bison emerges from the trees by his house.

    Rudy spoke simply but eloquently about how important everyday objects are to him. His compositions are casual and spot on—he says he no longer thinks about such things; he’s been doing photography for so long that getting it right the first time is second nature to him.

    I have a lot of respect for our elder artists and their deep knowledge of what is still worth seeing. I find it inspiring to be reminded that photography isn’t all big landscapes and magical macros; it is also this stopping to really see and experience the quotidian moment.

    I feel your thoughts in their own way echoed and complemented Rudy’s.

    At the end of this very expensive (drat you, PhotoMan! LOL) year, my life is so much the richer and deeper for having literally spent every month with you as I worked my way through two classes and as many or more of your books. Your profoundly humanistic, personable and practical teaching has brought me substantially nearer to my own goals.

    I think you are a very special human being, and I honor having you in my life and art.

    Sandy Brown Jensen

    1. Author

      Thank you so very much for this, Sandy. Means more to me than you might know. Next year looks to be a very challenging one and walking into it with this kind of encouragement helps immensely. Best to you, and hugs from afar.

  8. Dear David,
    I can’t add anything essential to your questions today. But I want to thank you so much for always sending me a motivational boost for my photographic journey. I really appreciate it and it helps me to do my monthly 12 photo series on IG, even if sometimes I don’t feel like it.
    For me, it feels like every year my photos become more compelling and I get to embrace my vision (mostly to capture wonderful, ordinary, candid moments on my daily commute to work or hanging out with family/friends).
    I wish you and your family a wonderful holiday season, recharge your batteries and have a great start into the new year.
    Greetings from the Palatinate (which you should put on your bucket list),

    1. Author

      Thank you, Michael. Nice to hear from you, as always. Thank you for reading for so many years! Have a great holiday!

    2. I just turned 80 this year you’re 51 sounds amazingly young and it is ! Iagree with your comments and welcome them I have that plaque hanging in my office that you described it still contains some wisdom but you’re right life is not like a camera it’s more the other way around I would say to you live it fully day by day minute by minute because life is also short. Enjoy every image the real ones and the digital ones.

  9. Well said, David. Our perspective at a given time does indeed depend on the angle/position we were in and could change over time, or when looking from a different angle.

    Wishing you and family a very happy Christmas and great year ahead.

  10. Bonjour David. Merci pour votre beau texte. Ce que vous dites est tellement vrai. L’art approfondit la vie comme le dit le philosophe et poète Kenneth White.
    Je vous connais par les formations de Laurent Breillat en France, je revois “Révélez votre âme de photographe”, achetée en 2020 pendant le confinement et je suis en ce moment aussi “Construisez vos images”.
    J’ai 71 ans et je n’ai jamais fini d’apprendre.
    Je vous souhaite une bonne fin d’année !

    I try to translate, sorry for the mistakes.

    Hello David. Thank you for this beautiful text. What you are saying is so true. Art deepens life as says the poet and philosopher Kenneth White.
    I know you with Laurent Breillat’s training courses. I’m looking again “Reveal your photographic soul”, bought in 2020 during the lock down and I’m currently taking the course “Built your images”.
    I’m 71 years old and I’m never finish learning.
    I wish you a very good end of the year!

    I’m always learning English too, with an American woman at the moment. To read your texts is a very good practice for me.


    1. Author

      Merci beaucoup. Quel privilège pour moi d’avoir des lecteurs du monde entier. Je vous souhaite un très joyeux Noël, Mireille.

  11. I pretty well always enjoy the philosophy as well as practical ideas in your posts. But this last one really grabbed me and left me feeling in a better place. I guess I owe my cameras more than I had realised – and also your thoughts as much as ever. Have a great Christmas and New Year and keep the philosophy flowing.

  12. The holidays will be as usal that is to say nothing. I will be alone as it has been since the pandemic. I went photographing yesterday because we had a snow storm. I wanted to have fun. But now it is much more difficult than before because I am getting older. I cannot run and play like some years ago. I loved so much taking photos , painting and drawing. But I am learning that with old age a moment comes when the body does not follow anymore. What are we supposed to do in this case? Stop it? I would like a new body like we buy a new camera when the one we used for so many time breaks. But life doen’t work like this.

    1. Author

      I don’t know what to say, Suzanne. Life can indeed be hard, and the holidays make them seem harder, especially I imagine for those that are alone. Wishing you courage and light.

  13. Thank you, David. Your post is a beautiful expression of photography and life itself.

  14. Hey David,

    Wow, you hit the nail on the head about mindful photography capturing a moment to appreciate. I used photography to capture moments I was unable to fully appreciate when in deep melancholia. I would review the photo later and be able to really appreciate the moment from memory, with all my senses. Depression is the mental illness of “not being there then”. Photography has been my anchor to allow me to appreciate life, even if delayed.
    Aloha nui,
    ps: I’m much better now, due in no small part to photography

    1. Author

      That makes me so happy, Scott. For a craft that is so often reduced to buttons and dials and the insistence on rules, it’s amazing how life-giving it can be. Have a wonderful holiday.

  15. Hi David, I love your books. Only bought 4 so far. I prefer the print ones…with age it is better to read just a chapter at the time …ah..ah. I still have so much to learn…. and probably the most difficult one is …patience…. Thanks for your Xmas wishes. Hope you enjoy the holidays too and keep on sending tips and sharing your wisdom. best. Gerard in South Florida

    1. Author

      Thanks so much, Gerard. That you find something of value in my books is all an author could hope for. That it might be something like wisdom is even better. Have a wonderful holiday.

  16. Thanks again for sharing your wisdom, David. I’m putting the finishing touches on a grade twelve photography course, and bits of this piece will certainly appear in the final lesson and assure me that I have taught my students something more important than photography, important as that is. This is a much better sermon than the one I heard this morning, where the pastor faulted Della and Jim in “The Gift of the Magi” for falling into the traps of materialism and commercialization and getting hoodwinked into the whole gift-exchanging racket, while losing their prized possessions in the process. The internet is flooded with photographers telling people what to do, but you, sir, are a magus among photographers. You are the wisest. Merry Christmas.

    1. Author

      Todd. If I had a million fingers I could count on one hand the number of sermons that just miss the heart of the matter so wildly. Many of them have been mine. I like to think I’ve learned and mellowed and become more graceful and less critical. That anyone would mistake me for a magus is high praise indeed – thank you for the kind words. Best to you and yours.

    1. Author

      You are welcome to share my words anytime, Francoise. Your own words resonate powerfully, and much more succinctly than my own: “Photography can teach us how to face life just as much as it can show us how we faced life.” Brava!

  17. One of the best things I’ve read in a long time! You are one of the best! I’ve loved all the books I’ve bought and look forward to more! Merry Christmas and New Year!

  18. Excellent point, David. I would put it in terms of one’s spiritual life: what photographing can help one do is to get one’s ego out of the way, to become more fully aware of one’s world and less self focused. Key to most spiritual paths.

    1. Author

      You hit the nail on the head, Robert. Or as Bono sings “Get out of your own way.” The enlightened always seem to come around to that, don’t they?

  19. Great post, David. Thank you. I strive to really look and see even when I do not have my camera with me. Sometimes I actually manage to do it.
    Happy Holidays to you too.

    1. Thank you so much, David, for these reflections. Best wishes to you and your family for a Christmas full of beauty and light.

      1. Author

        You’re most welcome, Susan. Thank you for being part of what I do and letting me be part of what you do. It’s an honour. Merry Christmas.

  20. Seasons Greetings. Hope the New Year brings good things

    My camera is an aid which makes me pay more attention to my surroundings. That has spilled into day to day life. For which I am grateful.
    My intention in photography is no more sophisticated than my six year old self who found a pretty feather, leaf or rock and wanted to show it off, saying”look a this cool of thing I found”. I hope never to advance beyond that. Just need to learn the best way to show off what I see. Which is seemingly a journey that never ends

    1. Author

      You hit the nail on the head, Trevor. Most of my favourite photographs are little more than an attempt to say, “OMG, look at that!” Perhaps the “that” becomes a little more complex, maybe even a little more numinous in a way I’d have missed as a 6-year old. But maybe not. The trick seems to be getting better at expressing that without losing the innocence. Wishing you wonder.

  21. Thank you for your insight. I, too, am turning 51 in a few days and I have finally convinced my husband that we cannot keep putting things off that we want to do but to take action and live for today.
    Thank you, again, for all your teachings.
    Merry Christmas to you and your family.

    1. Author

      Happy Birthday, Shelly. No more putting things off! Do it now. There is no later guaranteed and if there is it’s a pretty good bet that we won’t be in the shape we are in now. Do it now. 🙂 And a merry Christmas to you and yours. (see how I split the “happy birthday” and the “merry Christmas” so they weren’t too close together? We Christmas kids know the trauma, don’t we? LOL)

  22. Thank you for your insight, your sharing, your constant encouragement. Reading your emails is a pleasure I look forward to.

    Wishing you and yours Christmas wonder and joy, and a healthy, happy, positive and productive 2023.

    1. Author

      Thank you so much, Debra. 2023 promises to be a challenging one. I’ll take all the wonder, joy, health and positivity I can get! 😉 Merry Christmas.

  23. David, I have been reading your posts for years and don’t plan to give up until the very end. In the beginning, I read them to help me be a better photographer. Now, I read them to help me face life. Sadly my photography days are over; but you offer profound inspiration for finding what joy there there might be in the life that is left me. Thank you for continuing with this passion to share. You, and your gift, are a blessing. May you continue to enjoy life to its fullest. Thank you.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Anita. There are so many ways to live a full life, through the lens of a camera is only one of them. Means the world to me to know you still read what I write. I hope it continues to light a spark for you. Merry Christmas.

  24. Merry Christmas! May you and Cynthia enjoy the blessing of another year encouraging/loving/challenging each other and being encouraged by the One who came to bring encouragement and hope.

  25. David I don’t know why I feel that I need to write this letter but , . It started in 1942 after we were forced to leave the the San Fernando Valley, ( we are from Germany ) and move to Big Bear Lake and it started when my Dad Had me carry 8 x 10 plates up to the top of the mountain above the dam and then to see the results , selling thousands of postcards. That lit my fire, I knew then what I wanted to do. I got tired of the drunken beatings and joined the Navy to go to photography school, never made it, instead they sent me to the Presidential Guard in Washington DC but on the base they had a hobby center with a darkroom and there is where I learned a little of the darkroom. From there they sent me to Korea for three years and it was then that my camera and misc. were stolen. After discharge I stated to buy cameras and. Then I made a bad choice and got married. Good Buy Cameras. Divorced after 3 years. Again buying Camera equipment and shooting for several years. Then another big mistake , got married again and she had three children that I had to take care of , good buy photography . Then a long period of being single so I did a lot of photography and went to the Art Center in L A and started doing weddings. After 9 years I found a good woman BUT ,she had three children that I had to support and the send to college so ,to help with the cost of the children and school, good buy camera equipment ( darkroom, Studio, and cameras ) AND NOW 22 years later I am doing what I love more than anything on earth, Photography and a lot of that is and has been because of your articles and writings have given me the inspiration to do what I love more than anything on earth. So finally at the age of 92 I AM DOING WHAT I WANT TO DO. Thank You for the inspiration and all of your writings as they have been very helpful. KEEP THE GOOD WORK. Don

    1. Author

      That’s just about one of the best blog comments ever, Don. Thank you for being so candid. You’ve had a rather circuitous journey back to the craft, but you finally got here. I’m always amazed that people with almost twice the life experience than I’ve had still somehow find something valuable in my ramblings. Thank you for not writing me off as the young punk I still thought I was until recently. LOL. It means the world to me to have readers like you, even more to hear your story. Wishing you and yours all the best of the holiday.

  26. “It seems to me that a life well-lived is one in which we find light in unexpected places and look long enough into the shadows that we find mystery, not fear.”

    Photography helps me do this. I wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas.

  27. Thank you, David, for all you do for us! Wishing you and yours all the light, love and happiness for the holidays and in the new year.

  28. What a beautiful article. You’ve very eloquently expressed many of my personal thoughts regarding photography along with new ideas to ponder. Thank you for taking the time to share.

    Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and your family.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Tea. It’s so nice to see your name here. You’ve been reading this blog for so long. I feel like you should be getting an award for your patience. 😁 Have a wonderful holiday and new year!

    1. Your words resonate with me and affirm why I enjoy photography so much. Thanks for being willing to share your journey and not just technical advice.

  29. i enjoy receiving your emails in my inbox. most all of them, with their quiet unassuming philosophy, resonate with me. quite often i get a good chuckle. may you have a wonderful holiday season with many sublime moments of existence frozen with that time machine called a camera.

    all the best to you and your family

    1. Author

      Thank you so much for that, Clint. I think the best a writer can hope for is to resonate with others. A good chuckle is icing on the cake. 🙂 Happy Holidays.

  30. “The photographer works in light, space, and time.” Great quote, and we all do so, all the time… we exist, here, now, in “light, space and time.” Great post, David.

    Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays & wishing you and all of us a better New Year.

    1. Author

      And to you, Tom. Thanks so much for being along for this ride for so very long. Best to you in Portugal.

      1. Thank you for putting your work out into the world. It definitely makes the world a better place.

        Photography has definitely shaped the way I think about life and your work has been an important part of that journey as well.

        Kyle Reynolds

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.