How Einstein, the Dalai Lama, and Abraham Lincoln Quotes Make us Better Photographers

How Einstein, the Dalai Lama, and Abraham Lincoln Quotes Make us Better Photographers

Certain people from history are inherently quotable. Although their quotes were not necessarily aimed at photographers, they apply to us too and can help us improve our photography.

Applying Albert Einstein's Wisdom to Photography

We all want to get better at what we do. One of the cleverest and wisest people of the last century gave us some great clues about how we can do that.

Photographic records show Einstein holding a home movie camera. Although he was regularly the subject of pictures and hounded by the paparazzi, he is not widely recognized for any association with the art. Yet, he dabbled in photography and even patented a camera with auto-exposure using a photoelectric sensor, along with his colleague, the radiologist Gustav Bucky.

Nevertheless, in the following quotes, although Albert Einstein was not speaking about photography more generally about the world, most of his principles can be applied in ways to help us get better in our work.

Look deep into nature, and then, you will understand everything better.

Albert Einstein

It is one thing to take an impromptu photo of wildlife or a raging sea, but understanding a creature’s behavior or the way the tides and meteorological conditions interact will increase your chances of getting a good photograph. If you know the character of the portrait you are about to capture, you will have a much better chance of shooting something compelling. Buildings look different in the morning than at midday or in the evening, because the light changes throughout the day. Skilled photographers know this.

This is a circular effect: all the top photographers of any genre are successful because they have extensive knowledge and understanding of their subjects, and the desire to photograph their chosen subject leads to a need to learn even more about it.

The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know.

Albert Einstein

This is one of Einstein’s most famous sayings and it is true for photography. If you speak to any accomplished photographer, they are always seeking new knowledge because there is always more to discover about the art.

The other side to this is the know-it-all who claims to know everything there is to know about photography and is not open to new ideas or approaches. They are stuck with the delusion that theirs is the only approach or opinion worth bothering with. That leads to my final Einstein quote. 

Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.

Albert Einstein

Success is measured in a multitude of different ways. For some it is a monetary reward, others think it is becoming famous, or having thousands of Instagram followers.

Many photographers measure their success on a picture-by-picture basis. Are this year’s pictures better than last? As someone who teaches photography, one of my measures of success is when others go on to become successful photographers in their own right. That is of enormous value to me and it's that value that motivates me.

As photographers, we must always continue to grow and discover what works and what doesn’t. If we stop doing that, then our art stagnates, and we find ourselves and others getting bored with our photos.

What the Dalai Lama Didn't Say About Photography

Success isn’t achieved by reaching for it. It is a byproduct of our hard work. That is what I read into what the Dalai Lama said:

Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.

The 14th Dalai Lama

Like everything in life, becoming successful in photography isn’t handed to you on a plate. Sitting around and expecting the world to deal you a good hand will deliver the opposite. Success takes a lot of hard work and dedication. That is only achieved by having a deep love for what you do.

The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of all kinds.

The 14th Dalai Lama

Sadly, some photographers try to achieve personal success by putting others down. This invariably backfires on them.

I’m in the most fortunate of positions of being able to help other photographers along the road to their success. However, I always choose carefully. Recently, I was privileged that a piece of my work was chosen to be included in a joint exhibition of fifty artists. Someone complained to me that they had not been invited to take part, and they said some quite unkind things about the organizers and some of the others whose work was on show. That attitude is why they were not chosen.

Some time ago, someone told me that I had to take them on as a second shooter at weddings. That person was clearly rather full of themselves and had a misguided sense of entitlement. They also had a terrible reputation for their vile racist attitude. Like a spoiled child, they complained bitterly on social media that a wedding photographer hadn't taken them on to train them for free.

Do you think any other local wedding photographer took them on and trained them?

Compassion naturally creates a positive atmosphere, and as a result, you feel peaceful and content.

The 14th Dalai Lama

It was those photographers' attitudes that lacked compassion that resulted in them being rejected.

I have interviewed professional photographers here at Fstoppers and it has given them a boost to their profile and their business. Would I bother interviewing someone who is constantly nit-picking or being mean to others?

Those who are great photographers and artists are usually kind to those around them, so they receive that kindness and support in return. It’s one of the basic rules of life that too many people fail to realize. Every culture has a version of the Golden Rule: Do as you would be done by. Even the Ancient Egyptians had a version of this told in a story dating back nearly 4,000 years ago in the story of The Eloquent Peasant.

That was the one rule that the Dalai Lama probably didn’t have in mind when he said the following.

Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.

The 14th Dalai Lama

In photography, there are many rules, but they are rarely prescriptive. As I mentioned in a previous article, some people get annoyed about the rule of thirds because they don’t realize it means “as a rule.” For example, as a rule, you can divide your picture into thirds to get a pleasing result, but you don’t necessarily have to do it that way.

Knowing the rules of composition leads to us being able to and knowingly break them effectively. If you don’t like a particular rule, then perhaps you might take heed of the following quote from Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln's Words Adapted for Photography

I don't like that man. I must get to know him better.

Abraham Lincoln

To make this work for photography, perhaps we should add a comma and change “him” to “it.”

I don’t like that, man. I must get to know it better.

Discovering that my subjective viewpoint is malleable and can be changed through learning is a lesson I learned long ago.

Have you gone out of your way to learn more about a type of photography you don’t like? It’s worth doing. As a child, I neither understood nor appreciated a range of artistic styles that I now absolutely appreciate and enjoy. I once consigned to the bin at the back of my mind Salvador Dali, JMW Turner, and Bob Dylan. Because of my lack of knowledge, I thought Dali was weird, Dylan’s voice grated, and Turner’s paintings were a mess of color.

But then, I read about the surrealist movement after being intrigued by a Magritte painting, and that led me to study and see Dali’s pictures with a different eye.

Then, I saw Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video on the T.V., the one where he is standing in a moodily lit alleyway with scaffolding in the background, and drops the cards with the odd words from the song, while two men chat away in the shadows at the side of the screen. I first recognized its brilliant lighting and how the two extras suddenly became important at the end of the song. I realized this film and the words of the song were surrealism, too. Soon after, I began learning about light and learned that Turner was a true master of it. I studied it, and my tastes changed and it positively affected my other creativity.

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

Abraham Lincoln

The studying was all part of the preparation I do for taking photographs now. Far more time goes into learning and planning than it ever does going on a photoshoot. Lincoln was suggesting as much when he made that quote above. Preparation and planning for a photograph bring far better results than just carrying your camera and hoping for the best.

When we finally do decide to take the photo then Abraham Lincoln had another saying that can equally apply to our art.

Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.

Abraham Lincoln

Like most of the quotes I have used, this one, of course, had a very different metaphorical meaning when he stated it than how I am using it now. Nevertheless, it very much applies literally to the way we take photos. Putting your feet in the right place is one of those early lessons that all photographers worth their salt learn.

Great landscape photographers won’t turn up on location, put their tripods in one place, and start shooting. They scout the area, looking for the perfect spot. Meanwhile, studio portrait photographers will do the same, moving around to find the exact position to capture the images that put across the aspect of their model’s personality they are trying to relate. Likewise, wildlife photographers will seek the best spots for capturing the yellow-bellied sapsucker or migrating geese.

We can heed it in the metaphorical sense too. If you've found a photographic style you like, then don't be dissuaded from that by others who lack the vision to see the world the way you do.

Whose Other Quotes Could I Have Chosen?

Throughout history, thousands of very wise people said incredibly astute and uplifting things. Many we can apply to photography, even if it wasn’t originally meant that way. For this article, I read through lots of words by Doctor Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Confucius, Winston Churchill, and John F Kennedy. It left me feeling motivated, so maybe it’s a good thing to seek out their thoughts. There are plenty of photographers, artists, and especially songwriters and poets who are quotable too.

Everything looks worse in black and white.

Paul Simon

It’s important to remember that the real world isn't black and white. All these people were just human, and like you and me, each person had flaws. Some of the people I mentioned may have very different idealistic beliefs from you, but that is no reason why we cannot learn from them. Just like a photograph is limited in the story it can tell, a quote only shows one small aspect of who they are, but it can be valuable wisdom, nonetheless.

Do you have a particular person whose words inspire you in your photography? It could be someone from history or a person you know. It would be great to hear those in the comments.

Ivor Rackham's picture

A professional photographer, website developer, and writer, Ivor lives in the North East of England. His main work is training others in photography. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being. In 2023 he accepted becoming a brand ambassador for the OM System.

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Oh, that's interesting. Who said it?
Edit: actually, just read it. It was an anonymous woodsman and he used minutes not hours! They should have made him President!
Thanks for pointing that out.

Absolutely, John. Thanks

One of the greatest casualties of the internet is the accuracy of quote attributions. Good thoughts and useful ideas even if some of those were never said by Einstein or Lincoln.

Thanks. I guess You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all of the time. Or as Bob Dylan said, "Half of the people can be part right all of the time, And some of the people can be all right part of the time, But all of the people can't be all right all of the time."

Very funny

An anonymous woodsman said something along the lines of:

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."

Haha! If only wildlife photography were that easy. Lincoln enjoyed a ratio of 2:1 when it came to preparation vs. doing the thing he had prepared for.

When it comes to the wildlife photography I do, the ratio is much closer to 20:1. About 20 hours of research, preparation, and logistics for every hour spent afield with the camera in hand. This ratio, or something close to it, is normal for most of the wildlife photographers that I know personally.

If the layperson knew how many hours and how many dollars and how many hundreds or thousands of miles of travel went into getting a quality photo of a wild critter, they would likely be incredulous.

Ivor Rackham asked,

"Do you have a particular person whose words inspire you in your photography?"

In the movie "The Edge", Anthony Hopkins' character said, repeatedly,

"What one man can do, another can do ..... what one man can do, another can do .... "

He said this when their very lives were on the cusp, and he needed to motivate himself to push forward to save their lives when doing so seemed hopeless.

I use this quote all the time, but in much less dramatic circumstances. When I see wildlife photos that amaze me, and they seem so otherworldly that it feels like I would never be able to create anything so sublime, that is when I think, "what one man (or woman) can do, another can do."

The statement is not terribly accurate, as we all have different abilities and aptitudes for different things that limit or increase our ability to achieve any particular objective, but thinking this way seeds a positive mindset that often spurs me to work a bit harder at photography than I might otherwise.

What a great quote. That's fabulous. Thank you.

"Hey Wang, what's with the pictures? It's a parking lot! Come on, will ya?" - Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack. Instructional/inspirational point: don't just start firing away at everything and anything with your camera. Take your time; be intentional in choosing your subjects.

Excellent. I haven't seen Caddyshack for years.

I think that is Allen Ginsberg in the Dylan video. Adds another layer to the words.

That's interesting. I didn't know that. Something I've learned today. Thanks.