Toshiotoko and Rules for Taking Photos

A man pours new year sake from a golden pot for a shrine visitor.

Photo above – the local shrine. Part of a project I’ve been working on for a few years.

Happy new year. 2022 is the year of the tiger, and yep, I’m a tiger. Toshiotoko (年男) in Japanese. The astute among you will be able to work out hold old I am from that but keep it to yourself if you do.

Looking back at my first post of 2021 has made me realise that nothing has changed. Everything then is as relevant now as it was last January. I’m sure I’m not the only one but it still feels like early 2020 and the rest of 2020/21 didn’t exist at all. Peter Attia’s current synopsis of the current pandemic situation, however, is well worth a listen so maybe I should be more optimistic. Anyway, instead of repeating what I wrote last year I thought I’d share some new rules I’ve made regarding my own photography.

During the winter break I found myself going through my digital photos and deleting any unnecessary clutter. In total around 10,000 images taken between 2019 – 2021 were culled. Some were duplicates, some edits, but most were unnecessary junk on the hard disk, photos that could be considered warm up photos – necessary at the time to ready your eye to possible compositions and moments, but redundant once you’ve got the shot (if, in the unlikely event that you ever get the shot at all). As someone that likes the process of photographing with film but prefers the results from digital it became painfully apparent as I went through my photo catalogues that I could benefit from some new rules for when to press the shutter.

Creating new rules will help me be more intentional, more economical, and possibly get me closer to replicating the experience of photographing with film (the shooting experience, not the end result) but with a digital camera. Maybe a 2gb memory card is what’s really needed (and ISO cranked way up high?) At the very least a new set of rules should result in less time sat behind a computer culling photos when I could be outdoors doing more rewarding things instead.

What baffles me though is why I haven’t thought of them before. They seem obvious now.

Here is what I scribbled down in my notebook.

  • No panoramas – you never like them or do anything with them. Panoramas aren’t particularly creative anyway.
  • Make sure there are three elements to a photograph or don’t bother taking it. John Free talks about this a lot.
  • No cliches or obvious rip offs.
  • Human elements and signs of life are important. Landscapes are fine but make sure human activity is (usually) present otherwise you’ll probably bin the photo.
  • If you are shooting locally it’s fine to shoot multiple exposures. It adds interest to the neighbourhood and helps you see it in a new way. Black and white is fine here, too.
  • Only photograph the little one on the slide at the park once a month.
  • Make more books! Apart from actually taking photos you should be doing this more than anything else.
  • Every photograph should be part of a bigger project. The project can be anything you like (family, the local shrine at new year, the Minami Alps, adoption) but it needs to be part of a more intentional framework, not just a snapshot for the sake of a snapshot.
  • Stop shooting with a telephoto lens. It’s clear from your catalogues that you prefer photos between 24mm – 70mm.
  • It’s fine to stop shooting film. Digital is better (for your needs). Film is fun but mostly redundant in 2022.
  • Never photograph your bicycles unless it tells a story (and even then be very careful). But it’s fine to photograph your hiking shoes on a trail. I don’t know why shoes are fine but bicycles aren’t. And yes, this is a cliche and in clear violation of a rule above.
  • If you don’t remember taking the photo and it fails to evoke an emotional response delete it. You’ll never need it and you’ll never look at it.
  • If anybody in the photo is posing with their mouth open, don’t take it, or delete it immediately.
  • No waterfalls. EVER.
  • No long exposures either.
  • Or trains! (Photos taken from inside the train looking outwards are fine.)
  • Add mystery so that the viewer can fill in the gaps.
  • Photograph moments because that’s what a photograph is and moments are all we have. Be more patient, especially with the light.
  • Stop shooting in black and white. Be more consistent with colour.
  • No digital presets except for your own.
  • Lead a more interesting life. The more variety in life the more opportunities for varied photography.
  • Don’t be so serious. Ideally the experience of taking the photo should be enough, with prints and books an added bonus.

Rules, rules, rules. Just what the world needed more of. Let’s see how long I stick to them.

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One response to “Toshiotoko and Rules for Taking Photos”

  1. […] You only cycle, or hike, or run in the neighbourhood so go out when it’s 0°C and run in the mud. Bump up the contrast and try black and white again (breaking your own rules as you go). […]


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