The Best Photography Advice I Ever Got

In News & Stuff, Resources, The Craft, The Life Creative, Thoughts & Theory by David23 Comments

As far as photographic advice goes, this one is a favourite: don’t shoot what it looks like; shoot what it feels like.

It sounds like something I would say, doesn’t it? It’s not my original quote, but it is very poetic. I don’t even remember when I first heard it, but it sure struck a chord. I had found my mantra. I remember thinking it was the. best. advice. ever.

And then I picked up my camera and realized I had no idea how.

Like so many aphorisms, “shoot what it feels like” would take some deciphering. There was no emotion-priority mode on my camera, and when I was learning, there was no Google to ask and no YouTube to consult. But I knew it was possible because so many photographs I saw were so good they made my heart ache. They resonated on an emotional frequency I couldn’t ignore.

One of the first images I remember feeling this power from was Steve McCurry’s portrait of Sharbat Gula, the so-called Afghan Girl. I had such an emotional connection to the image, but at the time, I couldn’t have told you why. I couldn’t for the life of me told you it was partly her defiant gaze and partly the softness of the light contrasting with the harshness of her life. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that Steve’s chosen point of view and his choice of lens were crucial or that the colour harmonies in the image were so much a part of the reason I felt the way I did. I just knew I liked it. A lot.

So it turns out “shoot what it feels like” wasn’t the least helpful advice ever, but it sure required a lot of work to figure out! It’s taken me years to get my head around it, and even longer to be able to put it into words.

But I’m now enormously pleased when I’m told my work is, in part, known and appreciated for my relentless pursuit of mood, of emotional resonance. It makes my day when someone tells me one of my photographs makes them feel a certain way. That’s one of the reasons my humanitarian clients hired me while I was still doing that work: I was committed to the feeling of the image. Impact was always more important to me than information. My photographs don’t always carry that emotional weight, but I strive for it. I long for it.

And I spent the last year focused on articulating it so I could teach it to you. It took a little longer than I’d hoped. But on Sunday, I can finally introduce you to my new course, Shoot What It Feels Like.

This is the course I should have started with—the one that should have preceded all my others, if not because the order matters, then because I think this one has the power to move the needle the furthest if you’re looking to make photographs people care about. Images you feel strongly about. Images that matter to others (and to you) because of the emotions they stir, whether that’s the kind of ache I felt seeing McCurry’s Afghan Girl—or it’s wonder, amusement, anger, or one of the other many feelings with which we respond to life.

On Sunday, May 26, Shoot What It Feels Like will be available for the first time. Like all my courses, enrollment will be open for only a week. And like all my courses, I’ll be offering it to you for a lower introductory price as a way to reward those of you who read every book when it comes out and take my courses the moment they’re offered. If you sign up for the course this week, you’ll save $50. The introductory price is $149.

Shoot What It Feels Like is an 11-episode video course. Each episode focuses on the emotional hooks available to us as photographers, the elements and decisions that are our emotional toolbox. Using many, many tangible examples (I discuss more photographs in this course than any other—probably more than all my other courses combined), we explore together how we can make photographs that are more than just visual, but visceral. Photographs we can feel.

I am heavily invested in your creative journey; it matters deeply to me, which is one reason this course took so long to get to you. Because I want it to be the best training resource I can make, I ran the final result past 20 of my students, asking for their feedback, and asking for them to confirm the value before I offered it to you. Here’s what a couple of them said:

“Oh my gosh, this course was excellent! Hands down my favourite so far!  You know when you’re reading a textbook and you highlight the key points? If this course were in writing, I’d have highlighted every sentence!! David has taken concepts we’re all familiar with, but approached them in a way that I’ve never considered before. He’s flipped my thinking on its head. This is the missing ingredient I’ve been looking for but didn’t know it. If I could give this 10 stars out of 5 I would! I am telling all of my friends to sign up!”

– Geri Porteous

“It’s about time that someone offered insight into the central concern for any photographer, namely, how to create and express mood.  I loved doing this course.  It’s divided up into accessible modules that are easy to absorb and refer back to.  While David doesn’t shy away from offering technical advice, it is his insights into what separates nice pictures from truly meaningful ones that excites and inspires me.  If you are planning on doing one photography course this year, make it this one. Thank you, David!”

– Kerry Gordon 

Shoot What It Feels Like is almost ready. We’re almost done testing it all. On Sunday morning, I’ll send you an email to let you know the course is finally open. Until then, maybe give some thought to what makes you feel the way you do about a really powerful photograph. The timing won’t be right for everyone to take advantage of this new series, but none of us can afford not to do our own thinking about what this looks like in our own work.

For the Love of the Photograph,


  1. I did it! I enrolled! I have no idea when I will find time to watch the videos but I love every one that David has put out so I couldn’t pass it up. Mood and story telling is what I struggle with so really looking forward to this. I also super hope I win the one on one (just putting it out there to the universe!

    1. I love the idea of shooting what it feels like, if my images give me pleasure I hope I’ve done just that. If someone else likes them then that’s ok with me too.

      I read your blogs as they come up and forget to comment, but this one struck a chord as I’ve been trying to find my mojo whilst juggling ill health and I’m definitely coming back 😁

  2. Hello David,

    first things first: I signed up. Count that as an achievement, because I absolutely hate video courses. Books is what gets me going, and boy do I like yours. I just love to sit on my sofa in the evening, reading some chapter, and imagining spots and situations where (and how) to apply your recommendations. The Visual Toolbox is one of those gems. So, even though I have access to the videos, I do hope that you’ll eventually expand this into a full book. But now please excuse me, because I have to watch some videos I just got access to.

    Best regards,

  3. Hello David, I am looking forward to the “Shoot What It Feels Like” journey. I have also come across this article, “Images with harder-to-reconstruct visual representations leave stronger memory traces”, published in the Nature Human Behavior Journal. Thought you might be interested. How do I send a PDF of the article to you.

  4. bonjour David, I’m leaving next Monday to Tanzania. ALONE for on month. Sergengeti, Ngorogoro, Migration, Massaï and Zanzibar. I am very happy and at the same time anxious to go to the other side of the world to meet the genesis of our humanity. I have à schedule but not a plan for my photographie. I know that I am going to photograph wild animals but also very… how to say… curious about what this trip has in store for me as a surprise and adventure. One thing is for sure and for which I am convinced, I feel it. Africa will mark me for the rest of my life. friendly greetings from Quebec, Pascal.

  5. I love Deborah’s comment above; I AM READY. It is Sunday and I am signed up. I have watched the first lesson, downloaded the workbook, chuckled at the “show them this paragraph and say please” and I’m super excited to get started on the homework. My brain is buzzing with thoughts and questions. Interestingly, my brain will not let go of seeing a photo I took many years ago. I had dismissed it at the time because I was somewhere else on my journey, but I delete NOTHING (well…except for the inadvertent photos of the pavement or my shoes). For the last year-ish, and out of curiosity, I have been revisiting a lot of my older photography and found some absolute gems that fit where I am today. I think that means that back then I was working on something subconsciously but didn’t have the right frame of mind, the right words and I hadn’t given myself the freedom to just do what I want yet. I realized that in the moments of the past, I reacted instinctively and got lucky. I AM READY to make the magic happen intentionally instead of just getting lucky!

    P.S. My friend signed up too, and I’m not borrowing her books anymore. I bought my own! :=)

    1. Author

      That’s so great, Denice! Thank you! I’d love to hear how it goes for you. Everything changes when we get intentional about the emotion in our images!

  6. Hi David.
    How long are the video classes?
    Can we have a short example as well?
    What if I do not like the course?
    Is there a return policy that I can change my mind?

    1. Author

      Hi Inna. I hope by now you’ve received the email telling you more. The details are all at but briefly: the episodes are about 20 minutes long, there’s a couple good videos on the site I just linked you to, and absolutely! If you try the course and it’s really not for you, just let me know within 30 days and we’ll happily refund you. 🙂

  7. David;

    Class sounds great, sign me up!!!
    My question is; I’m president of our small (10+) member photo club in The Columbia River Gorge. I’m interested in how to access the club program, is the program available to all the members individually, or do I acquire it for presentation, then do I/we keep it?

    Sounds like a great dinner and presentation set up for us.


    David Mack

  8. First course I’m even considering. I have been discussing with the tiny wannabe artist inside my head. and meditated how I could make my own feelings visible to myself, perhaps some day to others too. That(others) is not so important. I’m trying to find that artist…
    The thought of making powerful images that make people feel something strongly is also something that causes shivers. Almost on a brink of skillful propaganda images that caused people feel strongly and deeply and march behind the flags… (Soviet Union , Third reich and some others ) Trained artists manipulated feelings. powerful images. but…
    Of course this course is hopefully something else., but something to do with feeling. Anyways, the world is full of therapists who exploit the word feeling. I hope you have also something to say about the moral aspects.
    I remember how that “Afghan Girl” picture. was exceptional. It was very good strangely strong image, but there was also some exploitation involved ( or it made me feel so) – the girl looks at the photographer in a very special way. Sometimes people who are also quite mad can cause a special feeling. Is it OK to take the photograph ?

  9. I would have loved to have been one of those 20 students that tested it.

  10. Hi Dave,

    Am interested in taking your course. The only camera I have is a Lumix 1000 so no interchangeable lenses. Do you have suggestions of what type of equipment is best in terms of camera, filters etc.

    Thank you.

  11. Would this course be applicable for nature and landscape photographers? More specifically, in this course, do you provide examples of “feeling” that use nature and/or landscape photographs?

    1. Hi John – Absolutely. It’s not exclusive to landscape/nature/wildlife but as so much of my current work focuses on those kinds of images, there are many examples from those genres. I think you’re going to love this one! Thanks for asking!

  12. Many thanks, David, for coming up again with an unusual and relevant course, the course we all should do to differenciate our pictures from the thousands and thousand of images we see every month. I’m longing for it!

  13. The timing could not be more perfect. My next project is all about making images that are not the thing, but feel like the thing. I’m busy journaling about this.

    I cannot wait to get the email that the course is ready. Because I AM READY.

    1. That’s great news, Deborah. I think you’re going to love this one. I had 20 students test it out and recommend improvements etc and many of them said they thought it was my best course so far.

  14. David: The Afghan Girl certainly had universal emotional resonance. But the picture also spawned some cynical humor inside the Nat Geo community. According to Sam Abell, the years-long search to find her was actually the “search for the Afghan Girl’s model release.” As you know, McCurdy eventually found her. The contrast of emotions in the two pictures was tragic and maybe best left unrevealed.

    1. Yeah, the Sharbat Gula story is the gift that keeps on giving, that’s for sure. Your word for it sums it up: tragic. But the original portrait remains powerful, just has an added layer of emotional complication now. “The search for the Afghan Girl’s model release,” – now that’s funny.

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