How to Avoid Paralysis by Analysis in Street Photography

1x1.trans How to Avoid Paralysis by Analysis in Street Photography

(“Cut” by Rinzi Ruiz)

I am currently reading Malcom Gladwell’s book: “What the Dog Saw” which is a great collection of his best articles published in The New Yorker.

There is a fascinating section talks about the difference between “choking” and “panicking” which I think plays really well into street photography:

Choking

Gladwell describes choking as when we over-analyze what we do, and go back into explicit-modes of thinking. For example he talks about a famous tennis player who was about to win a game, but suddenly started “choking” and ended up losing the game. What was once fluid strokes turned into amateur-like strokes, serves, and general control.

Panicking

Gladwell describes panicking as when we don’t think enough, and we get tunnel-vision and quite using our common sense. For example often times pilots crash planes because they panick and don’t focus on their instruments which would solve their issues—but become pigeon-holed into one thing they might be reliant on. For example, pilots with little training rely on the horizon to see if they are level. If a pilot is flying in bad weather and cannot see the horizon, they will start panicking and not rely on any of their instruments which would tell them the plane is level. This can sometimes lead to crashes.

Comparing Choking and Panicking in the Context of Street Photography

1x1.trans How to Avoid Paralysis by Analysis in Street Photography

"Deebo" by Brian Day

So why am I talking about choking and panicking when it comes to street photography? When it comes to street photography, I am particularly interested in the sociological, psychological, and biological responses we are influenced by when shooting on the streets. I like to say to people that street photography is 80% balls and 20% skill.

Now am I inferring that street photography doesn’t involve much skill? Not at all. Of course you need a huge amount of skill to be great in street photography. However I would argue that the even bigger difficulty people have is overcoming their fear of shooting street photography before being able to capture effective images. Also as a caveat, not all street photography has to be super-close, but I find that 99% of aspiring street photographers’ images would benefit with a frame that is better filled- which ultimately boils down to getting closer to your images.

Paralysis by Analysis

Have you ever met the friend who had an amazing idea, but never executed upon it because he wanted to make it absolutely perfect? Has it ever happened to you—that you wanted to do something but either a) Never started it or b) Never completed it because it just didn’t work “quite right?”

I like to think that one shouldn’t strive for perfection in anything. When we start aiming for perfection, we think about all the factors necessary and end up doing nothing at all. This is what people like to call “paralysis by analysis” (nice and catchy huh?)

Getting paralysis by analysis when it comes to street photography happens all the time. We can become so over-concerned about what lens to use, how to approach people, what composition to get, whether we shoot landscape or portrait, or what project we are working on that it inhibits the act of actually taking a damn photo

Therefore I suggest the following proposition: Don’t think so much when taking a photo

Can you create a great image in a fraction of a second?

1x1.trans How to Avoid Paralysis by Analysis in Street Photography

"Village People" by Luca Napoli

When I am shooting street photography, I walk at a very fast pace, and I also shoot quickly. If I see someone or something that fascinates me, I will either quickly jog or even pounce on a scene. Due to the fact that I am shooting almost exclusively using zone focusing at f/16 and a fast shutter speed, my photos are always in-focus and not blurry.

People often see me shooting and say that it is quite sloppy. They say, “How can you possibly take a good photo if you are doing it so quickly. You must slow down and think more before you shoot. There is no possible way you can compose a shot well if you are using that ‘ambush’ style”.

I would beg to differ.

Trust your instincts

I have recently finished a book titled: “Blink” (another Malcom Gladwell book—yeah I know that I am absolutely obsessed with this guy) which has the hypothesis that sometimes our subconscious is the most accurate barometer for what is good, accurate, or right. This is because our brain is hard-wired to pick up on small cues that have been engrained in us through countless hours of training

For example, I am able to identify and create a composition in a fraction of a second because of the following reasons:

  1. I have looked at a ton of street photography books and have a general blueprint on what a “great” image is
  2. I have shot with a 35mm almost exclusively for 4 years now. I know exactly how my composition and photo is going to look even before I take the photo, and have a good sense of perception and depth
  3. I am able to time my photos well based on subtle body cues I get from people. For example if I see someone interesting on the street and I get ready to crouch down, I sense in a fraction of a second that they are about to look down at me because their body starts hunching over a bit. Then I click.

As you see you must be very quick.

Bruce Gilden (as many of you know who I draw a ton of inspiration from) has mentioned in several interviews that composition is incredibly important to him. If you also look at his images, he does capture interesting characters but the lines, diagonals, use of empty space, figures, and shapes create a strong composition. How can he do all of this so quickly? Going back to Gladwell’s 10,000 hour principle (I swear I will quit quoting him so much from now on). Gilden has easily shot street photography for 10,000 using the same equipment: his film leica, flash, and 28mm lens. He doesn’t even have to think overtly when shooting on the streets. He trusts his guts—which are hard-wired into his mind through countless hours of shooting and studying his own images.

How you can prevent paralysis by analysis

1x1.trans How to Avoid Paralysis by Analysis in Street Photography

"STREET" by Davies Thom

The easy answer is to say “don’t think so much” when you are out shooting. Of course, easier said than done. Here are some of my simple suggestions:

1.Grab a drink

As they say, alcohol is liquid courage. Street photography takes guts—especially if you get really close to people (using a 28mm lens or even wider) and shooting with a flash (this is the most aggressive style of street photography out there). Two people I know who do this really well is Charlie Kirk and Dirty Harrry. Both have mentioned that drinking alcohol helps them feel more comfortable shooting in the streets.

If you have ever been nervous to talk to a beautiful female/male at a party, you know how much courage having a few drinks in your system can have in inhibiting your thought process. Sure too much alcohol is bad, but noting wrong about having a few beers to break the ice.

2. Take the first photo

Although I would say I have more guts than the average street photographers, there are many days in which I don’t “feel it” or feel scared/intimidated to shoot on the streets. I have found the best remedy to counteract this problem is to just shoot the first photo. Just the act of shooting the shutter is able to lube the wheels.

Just take a photo of a wall, or take a blank shot. Keep clicking until the sound of the shutter sounds natural to you. Then shoot at a mass of people and don’t worry about the composition. Just keep clicking until you feel your juices flowing. Then slowly start getting into the groove of shooting and feel free to get how close/far as you want.

3. Stick with one camera and lens

I have discovered that the more gear I carry with me, the fewer photos I take—and the less certainty I have. When I first started shooting street photography, I had three lenses for my 5D: my 24mm, my 35mm, and my 50mm. Whenever I went out, I would bring all three lenses with me. However I discovered that when I was shooting with either lens, I would always think in the back of my mind: “Shoot if I only had this other lens on my camera, I could get a much better photo.

Less is more. Having more choices frustrates us.

Do you remember the last time you went to the supermarket and wanted a box of cereal? You see 10,000 boxes of cereal, and suddenly the choice becomes incredibly stressful. Then you narrow down to Coco Puffs, but now you are unsure whether you want to get the dark chocolate, white chocolate, double chocolate, no sugar, or double fiber variety. You choose the double chocolate and go home and eat your cereal. You feel frustrated because you keep telling yourself, “The dark chocolate flavor must taste better.”

Compare this with going to In-and-out-burger (for those of you who don’t know, it is the most amazing burger joint in the west-coast of the USA, and you only have 3 choices: hamburger, cheeseburger, or double-cheeseburger). You have fewer choices, you get the burger, and you are happy.

If you have this difficulty yourself I propose the following challenge: stick to only one lens for an entire year.

When I bought my Leica M9 I got a 35mm and suddenly I wanted to get a 28mm. I talked to Charlie Kirk about it and he advised me to just stick with the 35mm for an entire year. I was very comfortable with the 35mm already (having shot with it for so long with my Canon 5D) but shooting with a 35mm on a rangefinder was different. I have been sticking with the 35mm, and have been able to create good images. Sure there are times I still wonder if I want to get another lens, but in the end I always talk myself out of it

Conclusion

Having balls in street photography isn’t everything. To be a great street photographer you don’t need huge balls. However the advantage of having courage when shooting street photography is that it opens you up to more opportunities that you might have missed due to a lack of courage or hesitating. Robert Capa said, “If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” But to quote Simon Garnier, you just need to be “close enough” (and not necessarily in-their-face).

So try your best not to think too much when you are shooting on the streets. Rely on your instincts and intuition and just click away! Spend less time online deciding whether to buy a new lens, body, or trolling photography forums. Go out and just shoot—the streets are waiting.

Do you experience “paralysis by analysis” when you are shooting on the streets? How do you find it debilitates you? Have you discovered any ways to overcome it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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  • Anonymous

    hey eric, i hope you dont end up inspiring people turn alcoholics, what with so much street photography that needs to be done every day. :D
    Interesting take – I have read simons post on ‘Getting close enough’ and i couldnt agree more. Interactions between people often are far more interesting than capturing surprised looking people with bulging eyes.
    PS: are you gonna post the rest of the images from the workshop? Cant wait to see the 2nd batch output which i missed.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Thanks for the comment Mayank. Traveling has been hectic, but will get them up soon! :)

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1255625091 Christos Kapatos

        Love Brian’s approach for jazz in SP. The art of improvization

  • john lizarazo

    What a great article, nicely written. I completely agree with the idea of “the less thinking the better.” There’ve been a countless number of times where I take one shot, redo the composition for another 10 frames, and then realize after uploading my photos that the first shot I took was the most striking.
    Cheers.

  • http://shutterbugged.blogspot.com/ Nimish

    i really like the 1st tip: drink before shooting:)) have never tried it, but it seems to make sense when you take the party analogy into consideration. a very interesting read overall. Sometimes even i used to wonder, how can one make photographs in a fraction of a second. The 10,000 hour concept kinda clears that doubt.

  • Brent,

    Hi Eric,

    Check out Mark Guadagnoli’s book, “Practice to learn, Play to win.” It is one of the best books on how to practice. It is golf based, but the techniques are sound.

    He writes:

    “Without ability, ridding yourself of interference, does little good. Without ability, doubt will creep in and interference will increase.”

    You need to develop your “instincts and intuition,” (i.e. skill and technique – the “ability”), to be avoid “paralysis by analysis,” to not think too much, (the interference).

    To be able to trust your instincts and intuitions you have to do the work to acquire them. I think anyone starting out in street photography and reading this article, might gloss over that point. They should read the section “Trust you instincts” to get an idea on how to acquired that skill and only then your can truly avoid over thinking. Athletes called this getting into the zone and the only way to get there is sound practice and study done over a long period of time. Not as easy as it sounds.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Will check out Brent! :)

  • Brian Day

    Really good article and practical suggestions, E. I love the part about analysis paralysis, and you are right on the money about choking and panicking. I think we’ve all been there.

    One thing I recommend to people starting out is to get completely comfortable with your gear. I think of street photography like jazz – it’s all improvisation. The only way a jazz musician can master improv is to first master his instrument. Once he does that, then he can begin to master the vibe and nuance of a jam session. The great things that happen as a result aren’t just strokes of good fortune, but preparation has laid the foundation for successful shots and trusting ones’ instincts. AND you’re more likely to catch that happy accident (as you did with the dude in the reflective clothing). Street photography is definitely a journey, not a destination…

    Keep writing and inspiring man.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Thanks for the comment B. Love that jazz reference- perhaps you can write an article on it? :)

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  • Mrgubrz

    Wooooooooooo!!! In-n-out reference ftw!!! :D
    Good read eKim!

  • snaptographer

    What are your opinions on cropping to get a good composition? I know certain street photographers sometimes do this like Winogrand

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      I would say try not to do it- but if you are going to, never crop more than 10% of an image

  • Sebastian Schwan

    I like to say to people that street photography is 80% balls and 20% skill.

    for the conditions given by german law
    let met add a (crime) behind that balls….

    • http://twitter.com/sadolan Scott Dolan

      What does this mean?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Shane-Fage/1002682825 Shane Fage

    Too many people are in this genre. It’s become tired.

  • http://the-invisible-cities.com Jerome

    Your last articles are fantastic Eric, serious gold, keep it up. Never thought about the drink option ! Will have to try that, especially with winter coming

  • Hi

    Time to rethink your importance in giving “advice” to anyone Eric.

    Item 1: “Grab a drink”.
    “drinking alcohol helps them feel more comfortable shooting in the streets”.

    If this is your “advice”, it’s time to (with all due respect) shut up.

    • Guest

      You’re a prick.

      • Hi

        You don’t tell people to have a drink to get courage to take a picture.

        It’s called irresponsible.

        • A responsible person

          No it isn’t. Its only irresponsible if you are a person who reads it then goes and gets wasted and causes a problem. I think it is great advice and lots of times when going out taking photos I have gone and had 1-2 beers and continued and I think it has helped with my photography as I am more relaxed and tend to take lots more photos.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Everything in life should be done with moderation. I don’t think drinking a beer or two before you go out (if you are really scared) is a huge problem. But of course, getting trashed and going shooting is probably not advisable.

      Any other advice you would suggest otherwise?

      • Hi

        How about, go out with a friend?

        Really Eric, do you think having a drink, beer let’s say, is actually ever a good idea before you go out shooting in the street? Talk to someone who isn’t pleased about having their picture taken (everyone runs into them) with beer on your breath? You’re setting up nervous people for a whole other issue with someone already unhappy smelling like beer (or something harder).
        Bad idea, bad advice, bad image for street photographers everywhere.

        • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

          Agree with your point of shooting in a group, wrote about it in #3 in my last post: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2011/11/10-things-sociology-has-taught-me-about-street-photography/

          And do agree- not everyone should go out and drink before shooting!

          • Hi

            You’re young Eric, and have a promising future ahead of you…. But.

            You have already a good following, well done, but with success comes added responsibility. As you can see from some of the comments, people take what you say to heart, and there are some ideas that you may want to think twice about before posting.
            You’re doing a wonderful thing to help street photographers with your ideas and enthusiasm, but remember, some people will take things literally, especially shy or nervous shooters.

          • A responsible person

            Seriously if you can’t read an article about photography which suggests a drink to get over nerves without being negatively influenced then you should not be on the internet at all. If you have a problem with alcohol then fair enough but don’t point fingers and try to censor peoples opinions and ruin the internet for people that are capable of making their own decisions and using common sense when it comes to things like alcohol.

          • http://twitter.com/Thomas_Ott Thomas Ott

            This has to be a joke? I can understand both sides of this argument but calling Eric irresponsible for suggesting a drink is a good idea to overcome your fear is a bit of stretch.

            If he joked around and suggested that you become an alcoholic, then I’d have to say it was irresponsible, but he didn’t. Chill out, enjoy the flow of photography. Who cares if you had a beer with friends before hand.

    • Charlie Kirk

      Haha. This is brilliant. What a patronizing comment. You think Eric has a responsibility to people? That people can’t form their own opinions? There is nothing wrong with having a drink and nothing wrong with shooting after a few beers. I would guess that you’re an old school 50mm “invisible photographer” who is currently attending alcoholics anonymous.

      One of the most ridiculous comments I have ever seen on Erics blog. Stop being so puritanical.

      • Paul Donohoe

        now now why devalue your comment by adding an insult? And of course none of us are really “responsible” to other people. But I think what we all forget (me included of course) is that with freedom comes responsibility. I would think Eric would NEVER advocate getting drunk when going out onto the street. On the other hand he has set himself up as a teacher and guide and therefore DOES have some level of responsibility to those who read his blog and help him do what he’s doing. And one more thing. If the person you are answering IS going to AA, why would you think it okay to say something so nasty? Just saying and please don’t try to insult me. I know better than to be worried by such things

    • Anonymous

      I would actually go further than Eric and suggest everyone snorts a few lines of coke before shooting. Much better buzz than alcohol and will give you much more confidence.

      • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

        LOL I just might have to approve this

      • LukeI

        Good point and if you ever get bored of street photography take LSD and become a landscape photographer

      • Paul Donohoe

        haha

    • Dickwad

      I’m not sure if you’re 12 or a closet alcoholic but please just take a step back and relax. The point you mention is a small part of a great article, the author is not proposing you get drunk and then meander the streets.

    • http://twitter.com/sadolan Scott Dolan

      I think you’re wrong about this “Hi”. I value Eric’s advice immeasurably. Please don’t shut up Eric.

    • Tim Topple

      I’d give same advice, as i like to have a drink too. just a push over the boundary of self-consciousness that inhibits street shooting…

    • Nadine Cumilang

      I think it’s up to the readers to determine whether or not Eric’s advice will work for them. People who go read from this blog are photography enthusiasts or pros, not some random teen who while drunk, accidentally finds an SLR on the street and suddenly decides to be a photographer. I’m betting people here understand enough what alcohol could do to them while, say, doing street photography. So, please don’t shoot Eric.

    • Paul Donohoe

      yes

  • Joseph Camosy

    Wonderful article Eric. You’ve come a long way in a very short time. I would like to add one more point to the value of imposing limitations on ones self (ie. single camera and one lens). Digital is great for getting to that mythical 10,000 hours (or 30,000 photographs), but I’ve found that once I have that experience, that moving to film really helps to sharpen one’s attention and efforts to make each shot count. The more that’s at stake the more one is able to get into the “zone” – think mountain climbing, or car racing,etc.. that element of “cost” (risk, danger, financial cost) really forces one into the zone. Shooting with a cost (film) will do more to force one to look for “decisive moments” than freely blasting away at anything that looks remotely interesting.

  • Ted

    Great post, Eric. I like the focus (no pun intended) on keeping it simple. Less gear, more shooting, developing your intuitive skills. Great job, man!

  • Charlie Kirk

    A little bit more on the one lens thing.

    Unless you are taking multi subject shots, street can often be of one person. So using one lens allows you to get familiar with the three types of shot and the distance you need to pre focus at.

    Eg.

    If you shoot at 28mm you will need 70cm for a tight head shot. 120cm approx for a waist up and around 300cm for a full body shot.

    Shooting in this way is quite liberating as you just prefocus and wait for the particular shot to come into view. Eg. Once a full body comes into the frame at 300cm you know the focus will be sharp.

    On top of that, just using one lens allows you to know the picture before you have taken it. That’s why I think primes are best. Not because they are better in terms of quality.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Great point mate. And good to see that you have the measurements about right– would be very useful to those 28mm street shooters!

  • Me

    Eric if you need alcohol to do street photography you have NO BALLS AT ALL.

    This is the most stupid advice I’ve read so far about street photography.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      I don’t personally drink before I go out and shoot, but there have been a few times that I did. Remember, always take everything you read with a grain of salt!

  • Hi

    If you need a drink to give you the courage to take a picture, something’s wrong. Simple.

  • Hi

    If you need a drink to give you courage to take a picture, something’s wrong. Simple.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lauri.saksa Lauri Saksa

    Hey Erik what a fantastic article! It’s exactly as you say: one lens, one body and gut instinct. I love the last line. You couldn’t be more right. It’s funny because I’m also considering a 28 for my M9 but then imagine having to always choose betweeen 28 and 35: what a nightmare!!! They’re so close to each other that there’s no real point in having both. You might as well go for 21mm to get a real wide perspective but then again, how often would one actually use that. Just one lens is the best idea I guess

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Less is always more :)

    • http://www.boliston.co.uk Adrian Boliston

      Definitely agree with “one lens, one body” as it helps develop a unique “signature style” to your photography. Also I think keeping a consistent style and presentation is good as well eg stick with either BW or Colour rather than chopping & changing between them and stick to shooting either “portrait” or “landscape” orientation.

  • Kinoz_k

    A very interesting read indeed, thanks for the article. :D

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  • Christian Mani

    Eric, this is a wonderful article…thank you. Nevermind the nay sayers re having a drink etc….they have their own problems and perspectives. Not your problem, right? I too am a big fan of Gladwells….and may I say he looks nothing like I had imagined him after reading two of his books!
    Anyway, I sold a mass of Nikon and Olympus gear accumulated over the last 20 years to get an M6 and two lenses…a 28 and a 50 and a 10 pack of Ilford HP5 Plus. Now I have to choose ONE…ouch. I understand the jazz metaphor completely….I have played guitar most of my life (I’m 54) and have taken up jazz guitar over the last 4-5 years. I realize I have to give another 10,000 hours to get the idiom/genre/feel of the music right.
    All the best, and I hope to do one of your workshops in LA or SF next year.

  • Cesar

    I only recently discovered your blog and it’s oooooozing with info, thanks a lot man! And I’m not even talking about the youtube movies which are also excellent! A lot of information and of course everyone has his own opinion, it’s just that you help by giving some advice. A drink won’t hurt :-) People who read your blog are adults right?

  • http://www.LeslieDeanBrown.com/ Leslie Dean Brown

    Alcohol just slows my reflexes down too much he he he

  • Gil

    I find that street photography has some commonality with martial arts, especially when it comes to breathing. When you’re tense you forget to breathe.. Taking controlled breaths in through the nose and out of the mouth will decrease your tension. This way you aren’t making your subject tense and triggering a negative reaction. I don’t like the way you flash people in the face I’ll admit. Though you’re not as worse as Gilden! He takes great images for sure, but his method is rather aggressive and invasive. But that’s for another discussion. My point is that by reducing your own tension you are not inducing it in your subject; you are more invisible. Controlled breathing helps. I am about to switch to a 35mm to replace my 50 and get a bit closer. Something I will need to keep in mind..

  • Daniel Ansel Tingcungco

    Hello Eric! I’ve just recently stumbled upon your blog and it’s a really refreshing site. I’m supposed to be doing some stuff right now but reading your articles is just so addicting! I can relate to a lot of things you’ve said and film photography has done me a lot good for these past four years and of course, I’m still learning day by day. Just recently, I came from Hong Kong and shot with film (which I do on my annual overseas trips). I brought 30 rolls for the 6-day trip with friends and the last day, I was actually surprised to only have used 13 rolls! At first I thought, maybe I wasn’t shooting enough, but probably also due to years of shooting, I have become more disciplined in taking a shot. Years ago, I probably would’ve used them all, or buy additional rolls.

    At this point, I will step out now to shoot again!
    Keep this up, Eric! Hope to see you in the future. :)

  • Paul Donohoe

    I have one HUGE objection to this post.
    Advising anyone to drink then go out onto the street is totally stupid and irresponsible. There are enough ego driven macho cowboy idiots who think they are gun slingers out there “doing” SP, without adding drunks to the list. How can you possibly connect with people on a “real” level, how can you connect with TRUE intuition if you put a chemical into your body that alters the chemistry and perception of reality?
    Advice of this sort really devalues any other useful advice that might be here.

  • PauL

    Hi Eric, I’m a friend of you…relax
    BUT, to me, the N.1 (!) is a NO, NO, NO.
    Thanx to all.

    ‘Have a good light’

  • emdub2012

    The amount of criticism and hate on this blogs comments is kinda ridiculous and surprising. It’s just advice…take it or leave it. I don’t agree 100% on everything but I appreciate the advice. If you don’t like the blog why read it. simple.