Photography Wisdom from the east: 3 Japanese concepts to know

I always loved Japan growing up. My exposure to the Japanese culture came in the form of Dragonball and Pokemon but as I grew older and more wise (my wife says THAT part is debatable) I came to love Japanese philosophy. During my various readings I found a few concepts that might be of interest for photographers.

So without further adieu, here's 3 broad Japanese concepts for your photography:






Have you ever looked at the stars one day, or even a warm sunset and get an indescribable feeling overtake you? A sense of depth, mystery, a deep awareness of the universe? That is Yugen. The mystery, a sense of beauty of the universe…'s quite the ineffable emotion.


In photography there is of course the usual suspects than can conjure up the Yugen: The amazing sunset, the dramatic landscape, etc. I think everyone would agree that Ansel Adam's work was full of Yugen. Here's my try at Yugen:




I used a 28mm for the dramatic cloud effect. It's the obvious Yugen, simply show the majesty of the created world around us and it's hard not to be mesmerized, where we live is pretty majestic!


But I think there's a more subtle Yugen that can be conjured in more general situations. It won't have the dramatic impact but a more subtle one. It all has to do with the mystery of the photograph. Bad horror movies show you everything, good horror movies don't show anything, they leave it up to the imagination. It pays to withhold all the information from a photograph to get the same effect. That's what I did with this shot:




That lady has elegance to her. Nice dress, nice bad, cool hat. Her neck and a bit is revealed but not too much. It's teasing the viewer. I have a few shots of her but I like this one the best because it is concealed.


So the next time you photograph, it might be good to remember Yugen, try to evoke mystery and emotions beyond words, i think it's that X factor that makes you come back for more.




Haven't you heard the news? The internetz is going crazy. No, a cure fore cancer wasn't discovered, but images of Beyonce without here makeup have been leaked online. Zits. Bumps. Imperfections galore!


You know, we humans are a funny bunch, we make ourselves ideals to strive towards, but these ideals we can never physically achieved. Photoshop can make you have a very sexy shape but a doctor cannot do the same because you have a rib cage. It's sad because we believe our own lies.




But opposite such aesthetics of perfection, stands Wabi-sabi. It is the beauty in imperfection. That is why beauty catalogs are in my opinion boring, everyone looks perfect! Concretely for photographers, it forces you to ask questions: Does a photo being slightly out of focus really ruin it? Or does it actually make it better? Does this little detail really make the photo unsusccessful or is it fine? There are many small elements in a photograph that we think ruins it but once you try to fix it you realize it was part of the photograph after all.


While Wabi-Sabi is more of an aesthetic philosophy, a good deal can be said about letting go of perfection in general. Perfection makes you stress more because you need to perform while the truth of the matter is, you will perform better while relaxed. So next time you are annoyed by every single element in your images not being perfect, breathe in, breath out…..wabi-sabi.






Kaizen is a process of continuous improvement. Usually used for commerce, translated to photography, it's pretty simple: Never stop improving. Kaizen is the opposite of complacency, and it allows the photographer security in knowing that eventually they will reach their photographic potential.


Practicaly, the Kaizen question for photographers is What can you do everyday to develop your photography? Ideally you would go out and shoot everyday but that might not be possible because of weather or kids.


But there are other things to do to stimulate your art, from reading one interview in a photography mag, spending 30 mins to edit some images, listening to a podcast, etc. The key is not to focus on the end goal but on the little you can do every day. I wake up at 5am and when everyone else is waking up, I've done everything from exercise to read my books.




Kaizen is not automatic. If you do not make time for your progress there will be no progress. So wake up earlier and get your kaizen going, once others are up they will take all of your time.


To be in a Kaizen state one must be teachable, so you must resolve to be a lifelong learner. This is where young shooters tend to be at a disadvantage because most think they know everything, older shooters know how much they don't.


Being teachable helps the brain be alert on new things, new ways to see the world. After the initial stages of learning everyone tends to plateau because subconsciously they've arrived at a level they are comfortable with.




Unless we continually put ourselves out of our comfort zones, we will always be stuck on that plateau. That is why photographic maturity has nothing to do with actual age maturity. Some people at some point stop developing their photography having reached a plateau they find they are ok with. It's fine to be happy at an ok level, but for those who want to be the best photographer they can be, kaizen is the surest path.




Japanese philosophy is a bit hard. Don't believe me? Here's a Zen koan -riddle- for you: What is the sound of one hand clapping? So while there are many concepts other than the three I have presented above, I don't even know if I understand them fully. But whatever the case, these 3 of Yugen (mystery, awe), Wabi-Sabi (Beauty in imperfection), Kaizen (Continuous improvement) have brought me far in my work. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting….がんばって ! (Do your best!)


Article originally published Feb 20th, 2015. Updated and revised


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23 thoughts on “Photography Wisdom from the east: 3 Japanese concepts to know”

  1. Great article, I thought that age brought me to arise early, actually It was my search for Yugen. But, your absolutely right, once the “others” awake, your day is lost in activity not usually your choice. Just wish there was a bit more light at 5 am.
    Thank you for a great article, again
    Pat Gordon

  2. Thank you for this one, Olivier.
    As an older shooter I definitly know I’ve got loads to learn yet but, as you suggest, I tend to go kaizen.
    Everyday is a new ride and a new discovery. One day they will all come together and I’ll be one step further… till the next one.
    Thanks, it comfort me in my way of doing things.

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  4. i was familiar with Wabi-Sabi, but not the others. Japanese culture seems to take the long view – patience and persistence being key ingredients – regrettably not evident in the immediacy of social media and instaneous communication and gratification.

  5. I loved this! It brought me back to the presence and reminded me to keep it simple. Also I love how you work a little each day on your art. It is so easy to get distracted and let time slip away…
    All the best!

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  8. Olivier, this is the best article I have read online not just on photography, but in general, in quite a while. Beautifully written and thought-inspiring. You’re an excellent guide/teacher. Thank you!

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