Off topic: hobbies and photographers

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It seems that a lot of my other photographically-inclined friends and students share the same few passions – watches/ horology, cars, cigars, food/ wine, travel, and to some extent, hi-fi. It could be because serious photographers tend to be mostly male (no sexism intended, but 90% of my reader demographic and students are male) and these are male pursuits; however, the funny thing is that a good number of the ladies in the 10% share these interests, too. I’m not counting casual or passing fancies here – I’m only including people serious enough to devote a meaningful chunk of time and income towards these hobbies. Even so, the numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of just a few pursuits*.

*My point of view could however be biased by the demographic of my readers; I suppose if I surveyed those who lived in countries with strong anti-smoking laws, expensive car operating costs, and reasonable public transport – sounds like the UK – we’d find that cigars and cars drop off the list.

Several recent discussions with friends and readers got me thinking about why exactly this is the case. Undoubtedly there’s an income/ financial component to it; you have to be reasonably comfortable to play the equipment game (especially Leica and medium format digital), which translates into a certain proportion of disposable income. Then again, this isn’t always the case: there are plenty of other people I knew back in the early days of DSLRs – myself included – who saved up several paychecks in order to be able to buy one. It was 2004 and I’d graduated only a year before; I was an auditor in London and making probably slightly less than minimum wage once you’d factored in the number of hours and complete lack of overtime. The D70 kit I bought represented about four months of disposable income, and a whole after-tax paycheck.

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Best of both worlds.

At the time, though, I was also interested in watches – though I didn’t have the money to do anything but attend collectors’ dinners, drool over the eye candy and make some photographs. Photographs and knowledge were free, however, and that’s how I started down the path of becoming a serious photographer and watch designer. In my case, it was one hobby that catalysed the other: I could see the same thing being true especially for travel, and to a lesser extent, cars.

I suppose the latter two things – and food – are all somewhat related; you could go on a road trip through Europe in a nice car, enjoying scenic routes, winding roads and challenging yourself to see if the curves makes your passenger lose it before the sheer amount of food eaten does; then intersperse that with a few on-food sojourns through interesting towns, camera in hand. Finally, top it off with a cigar and a coffee after lunch in the early afternoon when the light’s too harsh to shoot and the roads are too crowded to make much progress, and you’ve pretty much covered all the bases.

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As we can see, all of these things are related in a way, and one thing leads naturally to another when you’ve got a limited amount of leisure time and want to maximize the epicurean pleasure derived from it. But there’s one other difference: depth. Though everybody has a hobby or passion, some tend to be more obsessively passionate over it than others**. A pursuit of relative mental passiveness, like reading, jogging, collecting [insert object here] or perhaps drinking – all lack the depth to keep your mind occupied for more than a few hours (the exact opposite for drinking), and the routine doesn’t vary much. You’re going to get bored of it. Sooner or later, you’ve found that elusive limited edition widget, you’ve read the entire Times best seller list, or you’re passed out on a floor somewhere. Game over.

**This isn’t always a good thing.

I’m sure I’m generalizing here. But on the surface of it, there’s a degree of depth to photography that isn’t covered by few other casual hobbies – the obvious ones being cookery and painting – for a start, to do it well requires both technical and creative skill, and involvement on the part of the photographer. (You can, of course, point your iPhone at anything random and run it through your favourite app without doing much thinking, but arguably you aren’t really a photographer, either.) The personal satisfaction rewards for getting it right are high, and it’s very obvious if you get it wrong. Yet the beauty of the medium is relativity: you can feel good about an image now, but wonder what on earth you were thinking back then when you see it again two years later. There’s room for various forms of intellectual satisfaction that don’t necessarily come from other pursuits.

I enjoy a good Cuban as much as the next cigar aficionado, and can generally tell the brands apart by taste, but there’s enough variation out of your control – most of these things making for a negative experience, such as poor construction, wrong humidity etc. – that you get the feeling that it doesn’t take a lot of skill to be able to smoke one. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy one without being able to identify the leather and fennel notes, for instance. The overall intellectual involvement is low; intellectual satisfaction derived is minimal.

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Partagas Shorts. Vegetal, earthy with a strong tobacco flavor and some citrus highlights. Or at least that’s what my notes say; at one point I took the time to document what I smoked. I just remember it as being pleasant, but mostly one-dimensional with the same flavor throughout – some cigars evolve.

Though Maslow’s pyramid of needs might be mostly decried as something a consultant (or former, in my case) might use to make a point on slide 67, I’d just like to point out that once you have all the other things – food, shelter, family/ friends, confidence/ self esteem – intellectual fulfilment is at the top. It makes sense, because you generally have to not be worrying about survival if you’re going to have any time and energy left over to devote to mental exercises. We’re also social creatures: you need somebody to share the enthusiasm, celebrate the highs and commiserate the lows with; that’s where friends come in. It’s therefore also quite possible that people who take up one hobby are introduced to the others by friends with whom they have common ground already; I know I’ve passed on the photography bug to fellow cigar smokers, the cigar bug to photographers, and go for weekend drives with people who enjoy both. As for the friends I made early on in the watch community – most of them seem to have taken up photography seriously in one form or another; several are now my students.

Aside from cross-pollination and the common thread of creativity, one thing photography shares in common with the other more mechanically-inclined hobbies is of course the equipment. You can’t drive without a car; the more serious you get, the more serious your car. Mechanical watches increase in quality, tactility, rarity of materials and complications as you go up in price; everybody wants to, because it’s human nature to get bored with the common after a time – and in the world of horology, every brand is competing for the dollar of the collector by bringing out increasingly different products. This is especially true at the high end of the market, where stakes are high, watch prices have six figures and make medium format digital look cheap***.

***I’m not even going to get into hifi – after several expensive detours into headphones (I used to travel a lot in my corporate life, and a static setup would have been wasted) I settled on a pair I’ve yet to find an improvement on – at least not without an order of magnitude more investment. For the curious, they’re first-generation UE Triple.Fi 10 Pros with custom silver cables. The only thing I’d consider to be an upgrade – to my tastes, which run to the analytical and warm – are the Stax Omega IIs, but you also need a very non-portable amp to drive them, impeccable source material and a quiet area because they’re electrostats.

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Personally, I find the specific aspects of each hobby I enjoy are actually relatively similar: the tactility and mechanical-ness of the equipment for watches and cameras; the variety in travel, and the consequential ability to be exposed to and see different things to capture; the feel and methodicality of driving; the escapism of reading a good book. But above all, the satisfaction of getting something right when you’ve had to make a creative investment to produce it takes the cake – it’s the reason I photograph, and the reason I write (not the primary reason I cook though, that’s due to hunger). It’s what keeps me coming back and seeking to repeat the experience – we press the shutter more often than not because we see something compelling in reality and just have to capture it and see how it looks. I suppose it also doesn’t do any harm that some shutter actions are plenty satisfying, too; and it’s an activity that can be done when you have small chunks of free time, unlike say baking, travel, parachuting, or marble sculpture. Doesn’t really have the adrenaline hit of driving fast, though; that said, I can (and frequently do) get in the zone with accompanying rush when I’m covering something relatively fast-paced.

Here’s the parting thought I’m going to end on for you to leave your thoughts on in the comments: I need a new hobby. Now that pretty much all aspects of photography have become my job, I’m looking for something else to do to unwind; it’s not so much no longer enjoying shooting as needing something to give my mind a break. Doing variations on the same thing for effectively all of your waking hours – something that has been the case from the time I turned pro last year until now – is a fast way to losing inspiration and burning out. Variety of mental stimuli helps keep your perspective fresh and your eye keen – I know for example an appreciation for mechanical watches definitely makes me a better photographer of not only watches but other still lifes and mechanical objects; looking at art helps my composition and awareness of light, and smoking cigars…well, gives me something to do while on location and waiting for golden hour. So, suggestions, anybody? MT


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  1. Geez, kids are not for everybody. That is not a hobby. I know I would never be a good father. The best thing some of us can do is NOT have children. The world would be worse off if we did! There are few things more unpleasant than growing up unwanted and unloved which is true for a significant minority of children in the world…probably in the neighborhood of 20 to 25%. And these would be the true troublemakers for the rest of the planet. People who actually grew up wanted and loved refuse to acknowledge that is possible for parents to not love their children. They live in a fantasy land where people cannot be bad deep down. In fact, some parents go out of their way to harm their children. They get a kick out of it and actually take time to plan it.

  2. Elliot Daniel says:

    For some reason, this post struck a chord with me in a way that recent ones have not. I frequently find my hobbies trying to blend with each other, even when they don’t seem particularly compatible. I also went through a long period of trying to justify more and more expensive purchases before I learned to enjoy what I already have, largely as a result of realizing that in photography, as in many other pursuits, there’s little or no limit on how much money can be spent.

    Incidentally, while I have at least a mild interest in most of the pursuits you mentioned at the beginning, I can’t stand cigars. Perhaps it is because my lungs react so negatively to the smell of cigar smoke that my eyes see no appeal in their shape, texture, or color. So it seems my dislikes may blend just as much as my hobbies do.

    • I also think photography happens to be the least one dimensional of all the pursuits, as social or solitary as you like, and perhaps also the most meritocratic – all that gear isn’t going to help you if your skills aren’t up to snuff…

  3. What about pens? Specifically, fountain pens. There’s a great community over at And just like cameras and watches, you can find pens for cheap to the very extravagant.

    • Was actually into that before watches; I had an extensive collection, sold most of them, maintain a few interesting pieces now for the occasional distraction. I also grind my own nibs.

  4. Dare I say it, your ‘hobbies’ are all about consumption – maybe something that isn’t…… some social work, teaching, mentoring, – maybe a ‘natural’ hobby – fishing, birdwatching, gardening, horse riding – maybe a correspondence course – art based, or something else ‘soft’ (not science).
    As for kids….. I would suggest that ‘on the job’ training is the only way.

    • Actually, the enormous amount of time I spend writing and shooting for this site is a) about creating, and b) giving back to the greater photographic community for free, which a lot of people seem to forget…

      • Which we really appreciate Ming. I have learned a lot from your posts and I hope to continue to do so! Thanks.

      • Your point is well made, mine wasn’t – where I was driving was picking something that didn’t really involve stuff you do now.
        At the end of the day, you sound as if you want to enrich your experience with something new – most of us tend to bolt on related subjects, but sometimes it’s worth the risk to try something completely out of our comfort zone. I’ve started to do a little support at a local community arts centre, which supports people recovering from mental illness – if you spoke to anyone who knows me, they’d say it’s a million miles from anything I would get involved in.

  5. Joseph Grunske says:

    Forget kids (for now). Try volunteering for an non-profit organization close to your heart.

  6. Did someone really just suggest you have a kid as a response to “I need a new hobby”?

  7. Russell says:

    Thanks for this blog post. This confirms a point I often reflect on about why I find pleasure in the things that I do (food, photography, travel, hi-fi, gadgets, watches, bicycling, and above all, family).

    Indeed, some level of financial comfort helps a lot but as you pointed out, the seeds of interest in these hobbies were planted way before any amount of significant disposable income was available. For instance, some of the most memorable travels I have done were when I was a penniless student.

    Reflecting at my (and many friends’) preferences, what I notice is that people drawn to these hobbies share a heightened appreciation for sensory stimulation. Good food stimulates the taste buds. Good music is aural stimulation. Capturing the explosion of colors, symmetry or asymmetry, unusual perspectives, etc. during a Holi / Chinese New Year / Christmas / Eid festival etches visual stimulation forever onto a DNG file (or onto film).

    I never really cared much about winning bicycle races but I enjoy riding because it allows me to discover new sights, new smells, and I won’t be surprised if I am addicted to the highs induced by post-ride endorphins. Oh, cycling is one of the best appetisers for a big, fine meal!

    To attain such sensory stimulation, some tools are necessary. This I think is a root of the appreciation for finely crafted, thoughtfully designed, and high performing tools–could be a camera / lens, a fine coffee grinder / espresso machine, a great single-ended triode amplifier, wine / cheese / food crafted by a true artist (could be sweaty chefs in the streets of chinatown!), a steel / titanium / carbon fiber masterpiece of a bicycle, etc.

    Children for me are a great source of self-fulfilment. I find personally that in many of the above-mentioned activities, if you dedicate yourself enough over a reasonable period, you get good results. For example, you stake out a landscape at dawn or dusk to capture the perfect, golden light. Astro-photographers plan and wait for decades! Not being a handy do-it-yourself type, most of the time, I find that saving my pennies dutifully over time nets me some nice tools.

    Children are a serious long-term commitment. You bring them into the world (strictly speaking, my wife did most of that work!), you feed and clothe them as they grow, you educate them, you play with them, you get tough on them (and they get tough on you!), you nurse them when you are sick, and maybe, just maybe, long after you are gone and long after they are gone, a few people would remember your children as folks who have done something worthwhile.

    • Good point on sensory stimulation. Then again, isn’t boredom the absence of sufficient stimuli?

      This might sound odd, but I’m still trying to find a good explanation of exactly what one gets out of having children – it just seems like a lot of work and commitment…

      • Regarding children (since I brought it up), they are a ridiculous
        amount of work, and all the complaints you hear are true. But very
        few people voice the other side — the joyful side of raising them.

        A colleague of mine told me, when his first son was a year old, that
        pre-kid, he had settled into his career (as an experimental physicist)
        and figured that he knew what was in store for him from there on out.
        Then he had his first one, and every week is a new experience. Every
        week is new joys and new frustrations. I thought that was a very
        positive view of parenting.

        Raising kids puts you in a very different mind set. Before my first
        one was born, even though I was in a very long term relationship (16
        years!) in some sense, I was an atomic being — I was (and am)
        committed to my wife, my parents, my siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles,
        etc. But I was an end-point. Having my daughter (I have two kids
        now) put me into the stream of life. I don’t know how else to say
        it. It really changed me to have the responsibility to raise another

        Perhaps you should first try gardening. There is serious intellect
        required to be a good gardener and it literally bears fruits (and

        I’m not sure if anyone else suggested it, but if you’re not ready for
        kids, try a language. A hard one, like Linear A, which is still

        • This might be a silly question but…is there anything one can do to prepare for children? I’m guessing Linear A and gardening probably isn’t it.

          • Prepare for children? Sure there is. Talk to everyone you know who
            has kids. Especially the ones who seem to be doing a good job of it.
            Although, you have to realize, a lot of it is just how the kid is and
            not how the parents raise them. If you have siblings, you know
            there’s a lot of variability even within families.

            I agree, Linear A isn’t good prep. That was an answer to your
            original question. Gardening might be, since you are in charge of
            other living things. Pets are probably better (but children aren’t
            pets). But honestly, the best thing is to find people you identify as
            “good parents” and get an idea of their philosophies & best practices.

            Don’t rush in, but don’t wait too long, either. You won’t be young
            forever, and its easier to get through the early years when you
            youself are not too old!

            • Well, half the people say it’s the best thing that ever happened, half regret it. And everybody agrees it’s a lot of work. That doesn’t sound like a very positive report to me, which I suppose is deeply concerning.

              I figure I’ve got a good five years or so. The wife has less, since she’s a bit older than me and there are biological considerations in play…

  8. P.H. Mao says:

    Text search on all comments above found one instance of “kids” (scott root) and no instances of “children.”

    My suggestion is that you seriously consider moving on to that next stage of life — having kids. Of course, if you already have kids, then I’m very, very impressed with your ability to carry on with so many other activities. If you don’t, then this is not something to step into lightly. It’s roughly a 2 decade commitment (at least!).

    Advantages of kids as a way to fill your time:
    1. They are excellent to photograph! The only drawback is they move really fast, and they will break your stuff.
    2. You understand your parents better after you have kids. All those crazy demands, worries and command-decisions start to make sense.
    3. They put you in touch with your mortality. Sure it’s fun to drive around like in a fast car, but when your existence is *required*, you make different decisions.

    I’m sure there are many others. I’m sure many of your other readers will confirm that having kids is quite possibly the best thing you can do with your time (spare or otherwise).

    • It seems that half of everybody says it’s the best thing, half of them say to avoid it – and the ones who’ve been through it and say avoid are probably most of my close friends. It’s troubling. This is really not something you want to do if there’s even the tiniest shred of doubt remaining.

      • Kids just happen. No one can really plan or be prepared for one. It is all about accepting responsibility and doing what needs to be done for that child. I personally don’t think it is something that you have to remove the ‘tiniest shred of doubt.’ otherwise it’ll never happen.

        Did anyone suggest guns? Seems to have a similar tactility to it. And you can customize it to your tactility. It uses a lot of similar skills and attributes as photography, but distinctly different and separate; nor should they ever be confused with one another – especially the lingo, “I’m going to go shoot some kids.” And it is not really a good idea to think about photography at a gun range; where ‘getting the shot’ often involves standing in front of a barrel of a gun. It’s excellent motivation to leave your camera at home – or your GR in your pocket.

        • That last paragraph made me laugh. I don’t live in a gun-friendly country; licenses are nearly impossible to obtain and even BB guns are illegal.

    • Hi PH, are you honestly suggesting kids should become a hobby? I have children and love them dearly, but I would not want to inflict them on anyone else, unless they had a natural yearning to raise their own offspring. Unlike expensive pieces of equipment (and trust me, children are priceless AND will cost you a fortune!) children answer back, are unpredictable, are prone to unreliability and you never know how they are going to turn out. I suppose these are also the advantages of having children, but do you really want to take the risk?

      Ok, this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, people 🙂

  9. Not sure what the conditions are like near you Ming but if there are good waves then I can thoroughly recommend surfing. Physically immersive (literally!) with an exhilarating kick, technically challenging and with kit to collect (handmade custom boards can be works of art take a look at Empire surfboards) and you get to travel to amazingly beautiful places and meet some great people who are often creative types.

  10. How about a nice game of chess? 🙂

    And to take it one step further, take up woodworking and craft your own chessboard with complete set of pieces. There’s just something very satisfactory about building/making something with your own two hands. And I imagine you could build your own camera with this skill set.
    Or if you don’t like chess, how about Go?
    For something a little more physical and fast paced, how about fencing?

    • Did that, kinda – I made up a set out of Lego with chesspieces that basically look like Pulp Fiction meets the Village People… (don’t ask).

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