5 Things I Don’t Do in Street Photography

Click to read more

Hong Kong, 2012

Some of the photos included in this post are from my on-going “Colors” project.

I am an ardent believer in the idea of “subtractive knowledge” and “via negative” meaning that we learn most from learning what not to do. For example, when I played tennis the maxims I was taught by my amazing coach Greg Lowe was the following:

  • Don’t be tight
  • Don’t miss a day of practice
  • Don’t try to show off
  • Don’t try to muscle your shots
  • Don’t worry about losing
  • Don’t worry about the racket (tennis players have the worst Gear Acquisition Syndrome [GAS])

Through this negative principle, I was able to excel in tennis– going from not making the tennis team my first year as a freshman in High School, to making the #1 doubles team by my Senior year in Varsity.

I feel that the same can be applied in street photography too.

I know that we all hate being told what not to do. After all, we should do what we enjoy, right?

I totally agree with that mentality as well– but I believe it is restrictions that can help develop our creativity.

Think about the haiku. You are restricted to a certain amount of syllables and words in each line– which forces you to be creative with your poem structure.

One of the best quotes I read on creativity says something like:

“In order to step outside of the box, you must step into the shackles.”

Therefore I believe we should embrace limitations and restrictions, and force ourselves to be more free. So I will share what I personally try not to do in street photography which has been the best teacher yet.

And of course as always– take this all with a grain of salt, and simply cherry pick the points which resonate with you. You can leave the rest.

1. I don’t look at my photos at least a month after I shot them

Sydney, 2012

Sydney, 2012

Last year in April 2012, I wrote an article: “Why Digital is Dead For Me in Street Photography.” I pretty much sold off all of my digital cameras (except my smartphone) which included my Leica M9. I then made the full transition to shooting 100% in film with my Leica MP and Contax T3 on Portra 400 for my personal projects (I have shot digital for commercial work).

One of the biggest benefits of shooting film is that it forces me not to chimp when shooting street photography (when on the streets). When I shot digital, I would always spend too much time looking at my LCD screen, and miss other great photo opportunities that would pass me by.

Now that I shoot film, I physically cannot chimp (funny story– when I first started shooting film I would instinctively chimp at the back of my film Leica).

Nowadays because of my busy travel and workshop schedule, I generally don’t develop any of my photos for at least 1 month. Generally it goes from 3-4 months.

The benefit of not seeing my photos for so long is that I forget the photos that I took–and therefore become less emotionally attached to them. I also become incredibly critical with myself, because it is like I am judging somebody else’s photo.

Recently I got a free Ricoh GRD V from Ricoh and have been messing around with it for the last month or so. Although I love all the features and the convenience of it– I find what I hate most about it is how quickly I see my images. Alex Webb who shot his street photography on Kodachrome Slide Film his entire life (which gave his images incredible colors and saturation) has recently made the switch back to digital– and laments how he misses the distance he got from his photos with film.

I was toying with the idea of shooting some personal work with the Ricoh GRD V, but as of now have thrown the idea mostly out of the window. I now reserve the camera mostly for Go-Pro POV videos, video snapshots, and macro photos of what I am eating for breakfast.

2. I don’t take photos of street performers/homeless people

Seoul, 2012

Seoul, 2012

When I first started to shoot street photography, the obvious “targets” were street performers and homeless people. After all, they were on the streets– looked different from “normal” people and I thought naively would make interesting photos.

That was about 7 years ago. Now I make it a point not to take photos of street performers and homeless people (except for rare occasions).

Why not?

Let’s start with street performers. First of all, they make their living performing in the streets, and they are easy subjects in the sense that they are always photographed. It is too easy to photograph them, and rarely does it make an interesting photo. In my opinion, it is better to make an extraordinary photo of an ordinary person–rather than make an ordinary photo of an extraordinary person (let’s say a street performer). I don’t think I have ever seen a street photograph of a street performer I found interesting or memorable.

Moving onto homeless people. I am not saying that you should never take photos of homeless people. After all, if nobody documented them– there would be less public awareness about the horrible conditions in which they live in– and they are part of our social fabric.

However I feel that we should leave that job to the photojournalists and documentary photographers– who actually spend more time to get to know these homeless people in the street, live with them, and support them.

As street photographers we can do the same thing– but generally we see things or people in the street, and just snap, and move on. Therefore I feel that as a street photographer, I could not do that person justice by just snapping a photo and moving on.

There are cases in which I did talk to homeless people (because I am curious in their life story) and ended up snapping some photos after while giving them some money. Now I don’t give them money in exchange for a photograph. Rather, I generally am able to build up the rapport with the homeless person connect with them on a human level, and simply give them money because I want to help them out in every little way possible. But I have never taken a photo of a homeless person that is interesting.

When I talk to most street photographers they agree with the idea of not taking photos of street performers (that they are generally boring) but when it comes to taking photos of the homeless– it is much more grey.

So once again, I personally make it a point to not take photos of homeless people. But I still try to acknowledge them and help out whenever I can. As for you, follow your heart. If you genuinely are interested in people on the street and want to help out through your photography– I encourage you by all means. But don’t just take a photo of a homeless person because you think that it will make a “gritty” and “raw” and interesting street photograph.

3. I don’t spend a lot of time looking at photos online

Melbourne, 2012

Melbourne, 2012

I used to spend 100% of my time looking at photos online, and now I have gone almost opposite– spending 90% of my time looking at photos of the masters and greats in photo-books, and only 10% of my time looking at photos online.


There are many talented street photographers I have met online and discovered their work via social media. However the problem that I encounter is that I have to sift through 1000 mediocre photographers to find one really stand-out photographer.

When it comes to photo books and looking at the work of the greats– their work has stood the test of time. If a photographer’s work has been around for 50 years, I can safely assume their work will be around for another 50 years. All of the mediocre photographers in history have faded into oblivion because either their work wasn’t good enough, accepted by the photo community, or just plain bad luck of not catching their ‘big break’ (this sucks, but it is true).

The masters didn’t rely on gimmicky tricks in terms of technical settings, post-processing, or the sharpness of their lenses to make memorable photos. They worked with very basic cameras, ranging from the nimble Leica to the more cumbersome medium-format or large-format cameras. Many of them early on were shooting with film less than 50 ISO (and many of us complain about our cameras being noisy at ISO 3200 and up).

What the masters did rely on is strong form and content. Photos that have a beautiful sense of harmony and balance in terms of framing– as well as the emotion which seeps through the corners of the frame. Photos that burn and embed themselves into your memory– that haunt you (in a good way, or a bad way) that change how you see the world.

So if you want to really learn what is a great photo, I recommend buying a few street photography books or going to the local library and consuming all of the work of the masters.

If writers, video producers, and athletes learn from the philosophies and experiences of the classics and greats– why shouldn’t we as photographers?

4. I don’t photograph busy backgrounds


Sydney, 2012

If I look back at my older photos, the biggest problem I saw myself making is having busy backgrounds. In-fact, this is the biggest problem I see many street photographers starting off make.

For example, we will see an interesting person on the streets, and totally disregard the background and just take a quick photo.

What results is that although we photographed an interesting person, our background is absolute crap. We have random telephone wires, trees, cars, and heads sticking out from our subject’s body. There isn’t enough “figure-to-ground” (or contrast/separation) between the subject and the background.

Therefore instead of first looking for the subject (and crossing my fingers and hoping that the background is good) I now try to do the opposite: I first focus on the background, then try to add my subject in.

The benefit of this is that I am 100% certain that I will have a simple or interesting background in my shot. Then the hard part comes: being patient for the right person to enter the scene, or convincing someone closely to enter the background I want to photograph.

I often do this when shooting portraits on the street of strangers. I will try to find generally interesting or colorful backgrounds, and then ask people standing close-by if I mind taking their photo. Then I will ask them to move a few steps to have a simple background.

5. I don’t shoot with more than one focal length

Mumbai, 2013

Mumbai, 2013

I have shot with a 35mm focal length for more or less the last 6 years. I have experimented a bit with the 28mm, 24mm, and even the 21mm but found that the 35mm suits me the best.

I used to have major GAS back in the day– and I owned a plethora of lenses: A 24mm, a 35mm, a 50mm, a 105mm, a 18-200mm zoom, and a 70-200 zoom lens. What I thought was a benefit (having a lot of lenses and focal lengths) actually ended up being a detriment to my photography.

Why? When I was out shooting on the streets, I worried more about my gear and the “ideal” focal length to use when shooting on the streets–rather than focusing on just taking photos.

For example, I’d see an interesting person (I’d have my 35mm on me) then I would see someone across the street (and then screw on my 50mm). Then suddenly the streets would get really narrow, and I would waste time to screw on my 24mm. This constant switching gave me headaches and was a serious pain in the ass– and once again, kept me from focusing on shooting.

When I sold off all my lenses and stuck with a 35mm, it was pure bliss. I no longer worried about having the “ideal” lens for the scene. After all, the challenge of street photography is that we never have ideal situations in terms of our subject matter, background, light, or equipment. And that is the challenge which makes street photography so rewarding.

So now that I only stick with my 35mm focal length (it is the only lens I own for my Leica, and my pocket camera Contax T3 is also a 35mm focal length) I see the world in 35mm. I know exactly what my frame is before I shoot it, and I know exactly how far I have to stand away from my subject to frame him/her a certain way.

I have to admit, every now and then I get tempted by getting wider lenses (sometimes I feel the 35mm is too tight) but I remind myself that mastering one focal length is better than half-assing two focal lengths.

I read a saying by Publius Syrus (a Roman philosopher and former slave) who said something like: “If you run after two birds, you will catch neither.

So consider the two birds two focal lengths. Master one focal length– and focus on your photography (not your lenses or gear).


Chicago, 2012

Chicago, 2012

The five points mentioned in this article are just a few of the things in which I don’t do in street photography.

Once again, you don’t have to abide by the rules which I mentioned above. Rather, use them as a blueprint to form your own rule-sheet in things which you don’t do.

And of course–life is unpredictable and there are times in which we must bend the rules. But I still feel having a general guideline and framework in how you approach and shoot street photography is something beneficial to you– and will liberate you (rather than holding you back).

What are some restrictions you set in your street photography? What are things you don’t do, or things you don’t photograph? Share them in the comments below.

Don’t Miss Out on Free Updates!

If you want to stay in the loop with my travels, upcoming workshops, free e-books and presets, join my street photography newsletter below:

  • sef

    One thing i often do, is not to take the photographs i’d love to do…

  • Tristan Parker

    Really great read man. And the shot of the urinal is freaking cool. Creative use of things around you and I like it a lot. The dress on the street is great as well!

  • Nisha Mittal

    Hey guys,
    I just came to know that Fujifilm India is conducting a workshop on Street
    photography by
    Shivkumar L Narayan on 27
    Oct, 2013 in Koramangala, Bangalore from 9:30am to 5:00pm. Don’t miss it guys. Register here: https://www.facebook.com/fujifilmindia/app_462101110571253

  • briscophoto

    Good advice. The best is (kinda) number 3. The advice I give is to know what a good street photo is and then go shoot (and shoot your own style). The best way to determine what makes a good street photo is by looking at books, but lets not ignore some good photographers online.

  • JH

    Rule #6 – Don’t follow rules and restrictions or you will look like every other photographer.

    • jms

      Rule #7 – Don’t worry about how you look.

    • hyungsup Kim

      It seems to my eyes and heard from facts that both Alex Webb and Koudelka shot Leicas at some point of their lives and both shot the same focal length… Strange…

    • hyungsup Kim

      I think I misunderstood your point, but it just seems that there’s a bunch of retards around… And definitely you are not one of them

  • REARless

    4,5,2,1,3 (IMHO)

  • Bush Jung

    Hey Eric. in my personal view, The first photo you captioned on this post seems easily seen South Korea rolling door on street . I never seen that in Hong Kong since I came to Hong Kong 7 years ago. ” I love your comment ” Do not miss a day of practice. Any plan for work shop in Hong Kong.

    Thanks for article.

  • David Sierra

    Follow rules to be a follower, find out what it is about the Streets that you like and shoot away. at the end of the day your photos will be no worse than pics of mattresses and urinals shot by a “famous” photographer because sometimes that king aint wearin’ no clothes.

  • Michael Meinhardt

    Well said. I think the background rule is the most important one. Fixing this will have the strongest impact on your street pictures.

  • K Ho

    I try not to beat myself up for missing a great photo opportunity. Move on and look out for the next shot.

  • Duck

    “4. I don’t photograph busy backgrounds”
    Look at 10,000 photographs with clean backgrounds and then tell me what you feel.

  • fiddler

    most impotant restriction i place on myself as a street photographer is that I never take seriously advice or priciples put forward by bloggers who spend more time blogging and teaching workshops that the do on the street shooting. 😜

  • ttissot

    Really great articles and advises Eric!

  • Stephen_BRAY

    Fabulous post Eric. I especially like the rule about photographing homeless people. I came across this set today on My Modern Met, all made years ago. There’s not a tramp, or mad-looking person in sight, indeed everyone looks dignified and as if they’re having fun. The images are packed with impact, fun and vibrant energy. http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/paul-almasy-paris

  • Ali Alhasani

    What makes me stand out as a street photographer is that i follow my own rules. I give a crap about any rules and this is why a lot of people like what my photographs.

  • Jeremy Nix

    I take my camera everywhere and I strive to get better everyday. I don’t get hung up on rules and I do it for myself and no one else. It’s a little depressing sometimes but I do the best I can.

  • Leo Martínez

    Hi Eric! What do you think about the Mexican street photographers? For example Hector Garcia Cobo and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. You should do a review or something!

  • http://framexxiii.li/ Rogério Salgado-Martins

    Excellent, Eric. Maybe I’d think of something else personally, but I follow those rules myself and they’re definitively the most important ones. I could be more diligent though with the time I let my rolls in the fridge before sending them to the lab. Cheers!

    (note to trollers: why do you guys keep coming? I just don’t get it…)

    • One of the trollers

      “erickimphotography” shows up in google search if we look for anything related to street photography. Suppose, i search for “Joseph Koudelka”, the list starts with “10 things Koudelka taught me about Street Photography”
      This is not Eric’s fault, this is not our fault; this is google’s fault. They should list sites according to quality of content, not popularity.

      • Pedro

        Hmmm, and who is it decide what “quality” the content is? Especially if it’s a blog where someone shares their knowledge, thoughts and opinions? Do you want Google to police the net for some notion of ideal quality? Popularity isn’t always for everyone, but it’s a good indicator of what interests people at the moment, and if Eric uses SEO to rank high in a Google search kudos to him. The real test is to keep those first time visitors coming back, and I think he had done that well.

      • hyungsup Kim

        I didn’t read it all but sort of, and it seems that at least the points he has are great. I like it, does it make it a great article with quality content? To me it is.

        • One of the trollers

          Some of the points from that article –
          Experiment with other types of photography
          Let your photos do the talking
          Let your photos marinate for a long time
          Photograph for yourself
          Don’t think so much when you shoot
          Spend a lot of time shooting

          Now if you have common sense, you should have understood someone who searched “Joseph Koudelka” was not looking for this stuff. I did not search “Eric Kim” and stumble upon Koudelka.

          Gain some common sense before making idiotic comments on the net.

          • hyungsup Kim

            I would be delighted to have my insight in photography expanded by someone who knows about photography. And does, in fact, say facts about Koudelka, which people looking for Koudelka would like, and interprets them in his style and in his way of thinking. You should learn to respect personal tastes. Or maybe not, but… I personally think that if you are an artist or at least want to do art should work on it. ;)

          • One of the trollers

            My remark about your comment as idiotic has nothing to do with whether you like the article or not. In fact i have not said any thing about liking or disliking of the article by others.
            Your telling me that you find the article great is what i think idiotic in the context of what i have said.

          • hyungsup Kim

            let me explain this whole situation in case you didn’t understand. You wrote that google should rank stuff with quality not content, which makes me feel that you don’t like the article, so I wrote what I wrote expressing that I actually quite like the article, which in my way of thinking makes complete logical sense and creates logical progression (I don’t know how you think but apparently made no logical sense making my comment idiotic). Then you were idiotically offended by my first comment, so I answered with some common sense. Then you were idiotically offended by my second comment and stated that my first comment supposedly has no logical correlation to the first comment you posted in this mini thread in the comments section. I hope that this starts to make sense and please do not get offended with me because the only person you should be mad to is yourself for being… um… Idiotic in this case. A fact to reinforce the fact that you don’t like Eric Kim and think that his blog has no quality and is just popular just due to SEO (search engine optimization)(which would make the logic of my first comment stronger due to the fact that it would make even more logical sense and logical progression after this point being noticed), would be the fact that the first comment in this thread is written by someone who likes Eric Kim and follows the “sort of rules” Eric Kim ‘personally thinks’ would be good to do, which include things that ‘I personally don’t think it’s necessary’. In this comment he clearly states why would a troller keep coming and commenting (sort of), it would make logical sense to describe a troller as a hater because I’ve seen so many people with out common sense writing a bunch of nonsensical bullshit and because it would make logical sense to assume that the comment writer knows about people like that because it seems that it’s so common in this blog. Then you appeared with a user name describing exactly what you are writing the comments that you would write, doing what you do, which is apparently called “trolling”. I hope you are seeing the whole picture and understand the context in which we are. OMG, It would be great if someone had some common sense… please god, seriously

          • One of the trollers

            Now i realize your comment was not just idiotic….you are an idiot.

          • hyungsup Kim

            You probably said Too long didn’t read

          • hyungsup Kim

            a classic 14-year-old-kid-who-doesn’t-want-to lose-but-already-did-from-the-very-beginning comment

  • raphaels

    you absolutely do not have the same opinion/philosophy on your work you had two years ago (probably when you first started)

    so do us all a favor and realize that you do not know what you think you know.

    street photography cannot be grasped and caged so you can teach this package in another workshop of yours…to have concepts change months to years from now.

    • David

      It would be a sad world if we were haunted by phrases, opinions or attitudes that, once uttered, could never be revisited or rejected. If Eric has changed his opinion then does that not demonstrate growth and development?

      I am learning about photography each time I shoot. I doubt I will ever be a “master”, but that does not stop me having an opinion.

      • raphaels

        yeah but he’s making bank on things he barely knows. Eric started off into “street photography” just not that long ago. he’s still learning himself, and claiming to be a pro about it.

        several years ago, he would be seen using his entry level DSLR, going on the street and trying to pose people. now, he goes on the street with his M6 (because his M9 is not street enough) and….still poses people.

        yes….true street.

    • Stuart

      So why have you spent 2 years reading Erics site then?

      • raphaels

        is this supposed to prove something?

  • Rod

    about point 3, something that i’ve been thinking lately is the concept of “editing” your photos, you know, only choosing the best of the batch to show, you can apply that to social media, and photo sites: check and follow photographers online, but only follow just small number of great people. these people probably are editing his own work for showing it at their tumblr, blog too.

  • Kyerion Printup

    Very nice practical advice. Funny thing is probably all of the trolls that comment make these common mistakes with their compositions and contribute to the obscene amount of mediocre “street” photography (e.g. people walking on a sidewalk) out there. I think that an understanding of composition is one thing that most “street” photographers lack. Keep up the good work man. You provide a valuable service to your audience.

  • Jonathan van Smit

    breaking Rule 4: google Osamu Kanemura images :)

    • REARless

      Wow. I ascribe to Rule 4 but these are some great images. I don’t have his eye, wish I did.

      • kkk

        Are you a man or a woman? Only men can FULLY enjoy his images ;)

  • Ilkka

    If you have strict rules and you follow them, then what an earth is stopping you from making a rule that you don’t chimp? I don’t have the GRDV but I have four previous GRDs. All of them have a button in the back that turns off the LCD. You can use the optical viewfinder and never look at the LCD, not before and not after making the exposure. Some Olympus DSLRs had a foldable screen that could be turned so that it is not visible at all. Or you could just tape over the whole screen if you don’t have enough mental strength to just decide not to chimp. Same with reviewing the photos right after downloading them to a PC. I think this is a silly excuse to say that film is better. Most of us have decided that we don’t drink and drive and we are pretty good at sticking to it. If we go and buy a sixpack of beer for a weekend barbecue we don’t somehow have to pop the first can right after checkout and the second in the first traffic light.
    You have good rules. It just takes a bit of mental strength to follow them. No need to go back in time and buy a horse and carriage just to stop drink driving.

  • Pedro

    Someone once said “A man’s got to know his limitations”, I think it’s from a work of fiction but it’s helpful sometimes none-the-less. Limits and restrictions, narrowing choices, I agree these things can force you to be more resourceful and creative.

    Once again, the people that are piling on Eric, he made it clear that these are HIS rules for HIMSELF. If i’m not mistaken he is just sharing what works for him and suggesting the reader, you, come up with your own guiding principles, and perhaps some of Eric’s suggestions will work for you as well.

    I don’t agree or ascribe to everything here but I’m glad Eric is sharing his thoughts on street photography because we can all learn something from each other.

    • Ilkka

      It was Callahan (Clint Eastwood) in one of the Dirty Harry movies, Magnum Force if I remember correctly. At least that made it famous.
      Raphaels made a good point on changing opinions. Two years ago Mr Kim wrote a glowing report of GRD3 saying it is the best camera for street photography. I suppose largely for that reason Ricoh gave him a free GRDV this year, and now he basically says it is useless because it is possible to see the image right after it has been recorded.

      • Pedro

        Well, he didn’t say it’s “useless”. He just doesn’t like his habit of chimping. I agree with you on just simple self control. I am shooting with a X100S at the moment and simply don’t review the images I shoot. I will change out the memory card when full and might not look at those shots until a week or more later. Even then I give them a really quick glance as I weed out and immediately delete bad shots. Then I won’t look at them again for weeks sometimes.

        It’s not hard to do. But that’s me, maybe it’s too much a temptation for others.

    • hyungsup Kim

      oh my god, seems like someone has some common sense here… thanks god, seriously

  • Vibhor Gupta

    Awesome article.

  • blackroel

    find out my rules on http://www.streetfoto.ch

    • buzz

      Sane rules :) Thanks for sharing

  • Pingback: 5 Interesting Reads | Photo Life()

  • Marlio

    Erik is a very smart guy with a great capacity of learning and teaching and he is also very famous and very easily found in internet. He is trying to be a good photographer studying great photographers and passing his knowledge further through his workshops and blog. I just think the great mistake, and that’s because maybe he is still young, is trying to sum up rules from the masters and apply to himself as it was the way to go. I think this is just the way to became a good student and never a good photographer. The best he will do is just to copy the master the best way he can, as we can see by his pictures, they miss authenticity, they are good, but they are something like you’ve seen before. Maybe this is a way to become a great photographer, but then still have to wait like 10 years +.
    It is good that he shares, but I don’t think it is a good idea to follow, only if you want to become another pasteurized photographer. The first mistake of all in his photography is trying to do “street photography”. It is cool, but it is just a cool internet trend, like HDR or any other.
    IMO, the only rule is that —-there is no rule—-.

    Be yourself and express what you are, what is your position in this society, what you wanna say, what is your statement and forget all trends and fucking rules. (Sorry for my English, not a native).

  • Bewar3them00n

    Not using the Ricoh GR, just because it’s digital, and you can see your images instantly, if you so wish… IF you so wish!!!, sounds to my ears, like someone trying to convince themselves film is best, you don’t need to press the > button to show yourself what you’ve shot! you can just snap away! and look later! at a preferred time! use a viewfinder! and you won’t even know what the shot looks like.
    The GR is the most fun I’ve had with a camera since… Since, I can’t recall ever enjoying a camera so much!.
    I have no rules when shooting, if I find it interesting, it’s all game, I Shoot on instinct, a tacit understanding , having the GR has taken that annoying buffer of waiting, waiting for my old LX3 to turn on, then focus etc.. and made it almost disappear, I feel liberated now….

  • http://www.eriklaurikulo.se/ Erik Lauri Kulo

    People, people, there’s only one rule you need:
    Rule #1: Is there a feeling in your gut that you HAVE to photograph? Then do it.

    You don’t need labels like “street photographer” or rules like “no busy background”. Just photograph, and do it a lot. Then take a look now and then at your pictures and look up photo books and exhibition – you don’t have to like anything. You don’t have to like Jacob Aue Sobol, Daido Moriyama or even Nick Brandt. But look it up, see where photography is at and what can be done. But be sure to follow rule #1 all the way. If you lose that feeling of having to photograph, then why bother? Because it’s cool? Because a camera is fashion now a days? Photography should, like any art, be a need, an obsession.

  • Pingback: My Top 10 Street Photography Lists for 2013 — Eric Kim Street Photography()