Celebrating the Simple Happy Heart of Photography

Photos © Paul Cotter Photography

Last month, my brother's granddaughter Chandler emailed me with questions about photography. At age 13, she's developed a passion for the craft and wanted some advice on how to proceed.

Her youthful enthusiasm reminded me of my own start as a photographer. After I got my first serious camera in 1980, I bought this book:

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The title is appropriate, because I believe the essence of photography is joy. It's a demanding discipline, yes, and it's easy to get wrapped up in the technical complexities and the never-ending quest to own the latest gear. Achieving technical mastery is important -- but it's not the reason why we take pictures.

We take pictures because it gives voice to our creative spirit. It brings us joy.

It's the joy of capturing candid moments like this, when my nephews were clowning in the pool and the underwater lights were glowing on their faces.  (This photo was chosen for National Geographic's Daily Dozen.)

It's the magic of standing on a rooftop, watching the sun rise in a glorious procession of colors. My cousin and I shared a pot of coffee on the roof as I photographed this view at dawn in Cotija, Mexico.

It's the wonder you feel when you see natural beauty that takes your breath away.

It's the fun of using your camera to capture those quirky, unexpected moments that make you smile.

It's the joy of looking up and feeling your heart open into something much bigger than you are.

It's the delight of peering down into the shimmering water and seeing the human spirit soar.

It's the pleasure of training your eye to observe beautiful patterns and shapes all around you.

It's the happiness of documenting your travels, and showing that people all over the world are part of the same big family.

And for me, photography brought one more joy: the joy of teaching, which I did for five years.  This group self-portrait shows me with my first photography class -- a wonderful cast of characters I'll never forget.

So my advice to Chandler, the 13-year-old photography enthusiast, is this:

If you're serious about photography -- whether it's as a career or a passionate hobby -- you'll have a lot to learn. You'll want to learn about your camera, the art of composition, the principles of lighting, the history of photography and so much more.

But never forget: at the simple happy heart of it all, photography should bring you joy.

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~ Paul