How photography made me a better designer

Teo, Choong Ching
Design + Sketch
Published in
6 min readDec 21, 2017

5 reasons why photography is the best hobby for designers

If you are a full-time designer like myself, you’d be surprised at what you can do with photography, and how it can help you in improving your design skills. I personally know that there are a lot of designers use photography as their side hobby and some even offer freelance services to make a side income. I also learned a huge amount of lessons and experiences from this hobby.

The objective of this post is to share some key takeaways that, hopefully, will be valuable to other fellow designers out there. (This post will not be covering the technical side of taking photos.)

1. Build empathy

I love to capture stories of people going about their daily lives. When I’m photographing people and their environment, I would often try to spend some time with the subject before clicking the shutter button. In many cases, I’ll try to have normal conversations with them and also listen to their stories. By spending more time building the rapport, I’m able to better connect with the subject and in return make them feel valued and respected. By allowing myself to immerse in this whole process, it helps put my own life in perspective and make me a more compassionate individual, something that is important in the world we live in today.

Without the participation of intuition, sensibility, and understanding, photography is nothing. All these faculties must be closely harnessed, and it is then that the capture of a rare picture becomes a real physical delight. — Henri Cartier-Bresson

2. Deep observation

One of the most important interpersonal skills being a designer is deep observation. Designers are naturally curious people. We are the type who is constantly fuelled by the desire to know. In design, I’m not just talking about having an eye for UI details and spacing, but also being inquisitive about our end users and their behaviours. Dig deeper into their needs to try to uncover all the ‘why’s.

Deep observation demands not just the eyes but all the senses, and with photography, it gives me the opportunity to practice this skill on the highest level.

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” — Albert Einstein

3. Embrace the Beginner’s mindset

The beginner’s mindset refers to maintaining an attitude of openness, eagerness without thinking about achieving anything. I’ve learned that in order to be good in photography (or anything), I need an exceptional amount of deliberate practice. Don’t be ashamed of failures, it’s okay if the result didn’t turn out well as long as you are eager to learn and grow.

Most of us have these bunch of assumptions in our head that keep us from seeing new opportunities.This expert blindness symptoms is the death of creativity. Henri Cartier Bresson was great because he spent a tremendous amount of time consciously perfecting his crafts.

“In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki

4. It’s the process, not the tools

For my photography setup, I’m using with the ‘one lens, one camera’ approach. The popular belief that “more lenses and gears = more creative, better picture” is a myth. Acquiring a lot of equipment in terms of lenses and accessories won’t necessarily improve your photography,

If we are always thinking of which lens to put on before taking a picture, we will never be able to truly enjoy the whole shooting experience. And worse it’s that they tend to confuse you and can slow down your workflow.

Most designers always wanted to stay up to date on the latest design-related tools. Take prototyping tools as an example, there are so many different tools out there like Principle App, Figma, and many more.

I think that it’s good to try bits of everything. However, always ask yourself,
1. “Will this XYZ tool helps me in improving my current design workflow?
2. “Will this XYZ tool enables me to achieve better results (deliverables and time)?

Pick a tool that will take less time and effort to complete a task, like using Keynote for rapid-prototyping. Having to know more tools will not make you a better designer. What’s important is knowing which set of design processes to use within the given context and timeline.

“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson

Notebook: Some sketches that I made BEFORE the shooting. Sketching helps you to have a clearer mind of what you are actually going to face at the scene. Of course, I don’t shoot photos based on these sketches only, I will also let the ‘moments’ to come to me naturally.

5. Simplicity

The ultimate goal of photography conveys a message to your viewers. Hence, to achieve that goal, a photo needs to have good composition, colours, subject matter, and lighting. When I’m taking pictures, I will try to see which elements in the scene that I can leave out to make the overall message stronger. Random objects and glaring elements in a photo can distract your viewers to focus on the main subject and its story.

This is very true with design, too. The design that we create must be able to address specific pain points and at the same time, support the business objectives. There is no room for fancy and clueless UIs that ended up looking ‘nice’ but unusable.

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” — Ansel Adams

Final notes…

Lastly, my journey to become a better photographer have been a steep learning curve, I am very grateful for all the feedback from peers and professionals. The more I shoot, the more I learn as there’s always new ways to approach things not just in photography, but also in design.

Photography shouldn’t be reserved for selfies. Every shot captures a unique moment to tell a story. There is something about the story of an image that opens up for interesting conversation and discussion. Well, the same goes for design, we should not design ‘nice’ things for the sake of attention, instead, we should focus purely on solving real user problems.


1. Build empathy
2. Deep observation
3. Embrace the Beginner’s mindset
4. It’s the process, not the tools
5. Simplicity (Keep in simple)

Here are some visual stories that I would like to share while doing my photography for the past years.

In recent years, India has made remarkable strides at reducing poverty. Yet, 22%of the population or 270 million people are lives below the poverty line. This photo was taken in Pushkar, India.
The Azadi Square, Tehran’s most iconic landmark and symbol of Tehran. It is the biggest in Tehran and probably in all of Iran. If you go for a stroll, especially on a Friday evening, you will see a lot of locals around, young guys hanging out, young couples and families having a picnic or tea. Tehran. Iran. 2017.
Posters of the former president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, can be seen pasted on a window panel of a local grocery shop in Chitral, a rural town in Khyber Pathtunkwa. The posters was about the Pakistan’s 2013 election. That year, Pervez contested for the election and won in Chitral.
On sustainability: Uyghur workers are busy trimming fat-tailed sheep at the Kashgar, Sunday Livestock Market, Xinjiang, China. From my observations, animals are an essential part of everyday life to the Uyghur people. The fat from fat-tailed sheep is called tail fat and is used in foods, candies, soaps. The wool from fat-tailed breeds is usually coarse and frequently has coloured fibres.
The Sunday Livestock market opens every Sunday. It is situated about 10km outside of Kashgar city, Xinjiang, China.
On craftsmanships: Meet the painters, these are not your typical brush and paper painters, in fact, their canvases are the walls and the ceilings. They need a least 5 years to completely paint a whole shrine hall. That’s a pretty long timeline for a project. They usually work in a group consists of six or seven, each one of them will be assigned to paint a particular section. Some does the sketches, while others mix the colors. Their dedication to this traditional wall painting is highly respected and appreciated. Currently, they are based in the southern part of Nepal called Lumbini.
A Tibetan refugee, Tensin Yangcheh pushed the door open with her left hand and ran outside of her house. “Let’s go!” she shouted. The school is located nearby their settlement. This photo is part of my photo project about Tibetan diaspora in Nepal.
For the exiled Tibetans in Kathmandu, the best way to continue to preserve their heritage and culture is through education. They have volunteer teachers come in and teach their mother tongue subject at school. In the photo above, a Tibetan language teacher is using stencils to teach the basic alphabets to a group of students. The word is ‘sa’, it means eat.
On food: Roast Whole Lamb is a traditional dish with local flavor for the minorities in Xinjiang, especially for Uyghur nationality. Reputed as the most featured course, it is recognised to be an indispensable dish for visitors. Kashgar, Xinjiang. China.
On transportation: Buses account for the bulk of the spending on travel in India. Though most people in both urban and rural areas primarily rely on buses for travel, other kinds of vehicles, like two-wheelers and cars, have come to overwhelmingly dominate the transportation scene over the years.
On the road: The treacherous trails along the Hindukush mountain ranges in Northern Pakistan. If you encounter a vehicle driving the other way, one of you needs to back up and find a little space to let the other pass. One of the common driving behaviors is the art of giving signals to the opposite drivers. They will not use the signal lights, instead they will switch on-and-off their vehicle’s spotlight a couple of times to each other to make an agreement of who should cross first.
Nepal Earthquake 2015 — Following the quake, many Indian nationals rushed to the Tribhuvan International Airport to try to leave the country. A day later, India government immediately dispatched a rescue plane (Boeing C-17 Globemaster III), many were happy and relief to see the aircraft arrived at the runway after camped out at the airport for a night. Before the earthquake, the plane had pulled off its biggest civilian rescue feat — airlifting thousands of Indians and foreign nationals from war torn Yemen in Operation Rahat. April 26, 2015. Kathmandu. Nepal.
On inspiration: This is Puan Sajuti, she is the head of Radmila Children’s Home in Batam Island, Indonesia. She setup this institution in 2012 with the mission to help young children that are suffering from dysfunctional family backgrounds, domestic violence and other social problems. “As a mother of 5 kids, I can truly feel their suffering and this is one way for me to help the kids and the society”. She is also the ‘therapist’ for these children. “I’ll spend time to have a 1-on-1 session with everyone of them. For me, this is really help them feel heard, validated and understood”. For me, her selfless giving and commitment to help these children is a profound inspiration to many others.
Radmila’s Home currently house around 80 children, They range from the age of 4–16 years old. Here, the children get the chance to learn essential social skills like cooking and agriculture.
Nepal’s average annual per capita electricity consumption is about 161 kWh, which is one of the lowest consumption in South Asia. Despite its vast hydropower potential, this country still suffers from a severe electricity supply crisis. While at a mountainous village of Jharkot, I spotted this local by a frozen tap. Apparently she was trying to collect some fresh water back to her house. Later, me and my friends found out that in the such regions, it is a common sight. Due to severe cold conditions, villagers have to burn woods to melt the ice for daily water consumption.
Simple living: People tend to think living a life that requires constant fulfillment through shopping, gossiping, status or other forms of drama.
(Left) Ervand Hovsipyan, is an Iranian living in New Jofal, Esfahan. New Jolfa is the Armenian quarter of Esfahan established in 1606 by Shah Abbas I during the Safavid era. During that tremulous period, the Armenians were fleeing the Ottoman Empire’s persecution and because Iran and Armenia had a long history of close relations, Shah Abbas relocated 500,000 Armenians to Persia. Ervand Hovsipyan said he is the 9th generation of Armenian born and raise in Esfahan. (Right): This is Zarmasgul and she is a Kalasha. The Kalash, an ancient ethnic group living high in the remote mountains of Pakistan’s HinduKush. For centuries these pagan people have claimed to be the long-lost descendants of Alexander the Great’s armies, which invaded this region in the 4th century B.C. In fact, many experts, scientists and authors agree that Kalash tribes show all signs, rite, history and possibly the DNA of the Ancient Greeks. Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” (published in 1888) is purported to be in the Kalash Valleys. Long ago, these valleys were known as Kafiristan (Land of the infidels) and extended to several valleys in present-day Afghanistan.

Thank you for spending your time to read this post. Have a great day ahead.
Teo Choong Ching.



Teo, Choong Ching
Design + Sketch

Product designer. Currently @ Trustana (seeded by Temasek). Formerly @ Saleswhale (YC S16) ❤ topics on enterprise design.