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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.

Why?

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

Colors-20
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).

Conclusion

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.