eric kim street photography hanoi-5

Dear friend,

If I started street photography all over again; this is the advice I would give myself:

1. Equipment

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Regarding equipment, I would tell myself to just buy myself a Ricoh GR II camera.

I am still a huge fan of shooting street photography on a smartphone. It is small, always with you, and low-key.

However I still prefer compact cameras for street photography because they fit in your hand more comfortably. Also, the image quality is better. And, the flash is more powerful.

For example, on the Ricoh GR II, I love the integrated flash. The smartphone flash isn’t strong enough; and is too slow.

I would tell myself not to be distracted by any other cameras. To not shoot street photography with a DSLR (too big and heavy). To not buy a digital Leica (too expensive).

Also, I prefer the Ricoh GR II over any rangefinder or Leica— because I can focus a lot closer. The Ricoh GR II allows me to focus to .2 meters (20 centimeters). The Leica has a minimum focus distance of .7 meters (70 centimeters). This fact alone, I prefer the close-focusing abilities of cameras with smaller sensors.

2. Technical settings

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For settings, while I am a big fan of zone focus (pre-focusing to a certain distance like 1.2 meters, shooting at ISO 1600, and aperture-priority mode), I still think center-point autofocus is easier.

I like the idea of ‘set it and forget it.’ I’ve missed so many good street photography opportunities, because my camera was set incorrectly.

I also prefer “P” (program) mode over aperture-priority or manual. P mode is the epitome of ‘setting it and forgetting it.’ The settings in P mode work 95% of the time well which is good enough for me. And in street photography, the less you think about the settings, the more you can focus on capturing the moment.

In terms of ISO, keep it 1600. It allows you to have a faster shutter speed, so you don’t get any blurry photos in street photography. Even keep it at 1600 during the day.

3. Software

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If I started street photography all over again, I would just tell myself to shoot RAW+JPEG. If the JPEG looks good, don’t bother with RAW. If you’re not happy with JPEG files, use the RAW files, and process them in Lightroom with my free Lightroom presets.

If you don’t want to bother with RAW, just use Apple Photos, or the default photo-browsing software on your laptop.

If you shoot on your smartphone, just use VSCO, Snapseed, and the default photo-management app.

If you shoot in RAW, use Lightroom. Learn the basics of Lightroom. You only need to know how to use 10% of it for 90% for all the features. If you don’t know how to use Lightroom, check out my easy 10-minute tutorial on the basics. And another video on how I import my RAW photos, and apply my free preset on the images.

4. Post-processing

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I would tell myself to stick with presets. It will help me get a consistent look in my photos, and not waste time trying to over-process my photos.

There is a saying:

No matter how much you polish a piece of shit, it is still a piece of shit (even if golden).

I made the wrong mistake of thinking:

“If I just post-process my photos more, maybe this photo will look better. Maybe make it black and white, add more contrast, sharpen it, or add a vignette.”

The truth is, a great photo is like a great steak. A great steak needs only a little bit of salt and pepper. A great photo only needs minor post-processing. Sticking to presets often prevents us from over-processing our photos. And to have visual consistency across our portfolio.

Also another rule of thumb:

When the photo looks 80% ‘good enough’; stop processing it.

I often over-process my digital photos. So like seasoning food; when it tastes 80% good enough, stop seasoning it. Once you add too much salt, you cannot ‘unsalt’ it.

5. Film vs digital

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I have learned a lot shooting film. I think every photographer should try shooting film at least once. To find more appreciation for digital photography.

Yet at the end of the day, I still prefer the convenience of digital photography. For me, I also make photos to find personal meaning in my life, not to make good photos.

So learn how to shoot film (check out my free “Film Street Photography Manual” book). Or see all my free Film photography articles.

6. Overcoming my fear of street photography

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I started shooting street photography like Henri Cartier-Bresson; from a distance, not talking to my subjects. I would look for nice leading lines, and wait for people to enter my frame, then take a photo, and pretend like I was photographing the background.

I was stuck shooting like this for 2 years. I never was able to build my confidence, to photograph with (or without permission) at a close distance.

I would have given myself the ‘5 yes, 5 no’ assignment: approaching a bunch of strangers, and asking them to make their portrait, until I got 5 people to say ‘yes’ and 5 people to say ‘no.’

I would have pushed myself to get outside of my comfort zone.

I would have also encouraged myself not to shoot from the hip. To make photos with the viewfinder or LCD screen. And after making a photo, making eye contact and smiling and saying: “Thank you.”

7. How to improve composition

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In street photography, the biggest issue I had was messy backgrounds, and distracting edges of the frame.

So I would have told myself to be a sculptor street photographer. Meaning, to subtract from the frame (like a sculptor), rather than trying to add.

I would have reminded myself these sayings:

  • Less is more
  • Addition via subtraction
  • Strip the superfluous

I would have told myself; the best compositions are the simple ones. But simplicity is a lot harder than it seems.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci

8. Inspiration

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To find inspiration for my street photography, I would tell myself to buy books, not gear. Also, to study the masters of photography.

Also to not limit myself to just photography. But to study the Renaissance Painters, like Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael.

I would also tell myself to find inspiration for street photography through Stoic and Zen philosophy. That Stoicism would teach me how to build a thick skin. And Zen philosophy would teach me how to be a more minimalist photographer.

9. Social media

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I would tell myself to start my own photography blog, instead of wasting time on social media. To start my own WordPress.org blog, by signing up on Bluehost.com

I would tell myself that while social media is nice, you have no freedom. No freedom to post what you want. No freedom to post nudity, freedom to add text and links, or freedom to cross-post different types of content.

I would tell myself that Social Media is advantageous, because it is free, and you can reach a larger audience. Like branches of a tree.

But I would remind myself: your blog is the trunk of your tree. Don’t focus on watering the branches, focus on building the roots from the trunk.

10. Feedback

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I would tell myself, before you ask what others think of your photos, ask yourself:

“What do I think of my own photos?”

Also to judge my photos like they belonged to someone else.

Also, to not compare my photography with that of others. To find inspiration from others; but to know that I am a different human being, with a unique perspective.

Also, not to worry about definitions in ‘street photography.’ To not even call myself a street photographer— just a curious flaneur on the streets, with a camera.

11. Travel and street photography

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I would also tell myself not to travel too much for street photography. To just shoot in a downtown area, close to my house.

To know that shooting street photography in Paris isn’t as good as photographing as I think it is. To remind myself, that I will not become Henri Cartier-Bresson, just shooting the streets of Paris.

To remind myself, traveling is good for building experiences, for opening your mind to the world, and learning new cultures. But not to become a better photographer.

To become a better photographer— less travel, more studying great art, building my personal confidence, and making more photos.

12. Personal photography

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To also teach myself; personal photography is more important than street photography. To make personal photos of those I love. To know that photographing my loved ones is more important than photographing strangers.

To photograph everyday like it were my last.

13. Taking it to the next level

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To take my street photography to the next level, rather than trying to add layers, and complex compositions— to continue to strip down my images. To find perfect bliss, through subtraction.

To keep subtracting the superfluous, until I am left with the essence and soul of an image.

14. Natural photography

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To also know that although I love photographing the streets, to find inspiration from nature. To photograph more trees, branches, water, and beautiful natural things.

To know that there needs to be a balance between the city and nature. To know that ultimately, mother nature is the most beautiful. And every attempt in photography, is to capture beautiful nature. Beautiful nature of human beings, or of trees, or other animals.

To know that I can make photos of anything. Without limits. Because, I am just a curious person— a photographer.

15. Sharing my experiences

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I would tell myself to keep sharing my experiences in photography with others; with free articles, ebooks, and videos. To know that the more I give, the more I will receive in return.

To know that street photography is good for the soul. To overcome our fears, anxieties, and to become a better human being. To become more connected with strangers, to have more courage to take risks, to appreciate the beauty in the ordinary.

I would tell myself to keep all the information I produce as ‘open source’ — easy to remix, translate, and to share.

To also know that if I keep on hustling, sharing my ideas with others, I will always be fed. To not work on building my own fame and following, but to help uplift and motivate other photographers.

16. On haters

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To know that I will get a lot of haters. But to love my haters. To know that a lot of the ‘haters’ are just sad people on the internet, with unrealized dreams. People who are sick, like rabid dogs. And they can’t help but biting others.

To also know that all ‘haters’ have a heart inside. They were all once children. But somewhere along the line, they lost their way. They might have been abused by their parents, by their teachers, by their classmates, friends, or society.

To also know that all my haters are good people. That they are just doing what feels right to them. That they look at me, and think that I am evil, and saying nonsense. To not hold that against them.

To also remind myself; to make love my mission statement. That wanting to revenge is like drinking poison, and hoping the other person dies.

17. To empower others

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To remind myself that my journey in photography will be a life-long journey.

Also, that photography isn’t about making photos. It is about making meaning in my life.

That photography is my personal philosophy. That street photography is my personal way of finding meaning in the world— by connecting with strangers, by building personal confidence to photograph my fellow human beings, and to do it with heart and soul.

That others can use photography as a tool for self-empowerment. That photography is the most beautiful art form, because anyone can do it. Anyone with a smartphone.

To teach others that they don’t need fancy gear to make street photographs, or to make meaning in their life.

18. Memento Mori

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To remind myself, to always say:

Memento Mori

Remember, I must die. To remember death.

To never waste a single second of my life. To dedicate my life serving others, using photography as the tool.

Conclusion

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Thank you for reading this personal letter.

I truly have a lot of love for you. I want you to become the best photographer you can. I want you to use photography as a tool of self-empowerment.

I want you to not give a shit about what camera you shoot with. I want you to find more happiness, satisfaction, and tranquility in your photography and life.

I want to help you conquer your fears. I want you to never be afraid in the streets, or in life.

I want you to share your wisdom and information with others. To remember: Photography isn’t about making photos, but making meaning in life.

Always,
Eric


Street Photography 101 >

Tokyo, 2012

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