On Bridging the Gap in Street Photography

1x1.trans On Bridging the Gap in Street Photography1x1.trans On Bridging the Gap in Street Photography
1x1.trans On Bridging the Gap in Street Photography

Tokyo, 2012

I feel one of the most important traits to become a better street photographer is first identifying what makes great street photography. This means having good taste.

A quote from Ira Glass from NPR comes to mind– in terms of having good taste:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.”

‘Glass continues by sharing the importance of persevering:

“A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

So pretty much when it comes to street photography (if you have good taste) you are easily disappointed. Easily disappointed in your photography because you think it sucks. You see the work that came before you (from the masters)– and you ask yourself, “Why can’t my work be that great?”

But know that being disillusioned and disappointed in your photography is a good trait.

Why is that?

Well– if you are disappointed in your street photography, it means that you have a pretty good understanding of what makes a good street photograph. And you are frustrated because you can’t make what you think is a good street photograph– because you compare yourself to the masters.

One of my aspirations is to one day– become a great photographer. I think it is a life-long journey, but I think I am starting to scratch the surface.

For example, this one photograph I took for my “Suits” project I think is one of my best photos so far– and I aspire to make more photographs like it. I showed my “Suits” project to David Alan Harvey in Dubai, and for the photo below, he immediately stopped and said– “That is a great shot.”

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Lansing, 2013

I think what makes it a great shot is that it is unique– I haven’t seen many photos exactly like it. But I have seen many photos similar to it (that is where I got the inspiration).

The story behind the shot is that I was at a restaurant/bar in Lansing, Michigan with Cindy– and needed to go to the bathroom. I always carry my camera with me (even to the restroom)– because I never know when a good street photography opportunity will arise.

I had my film Leica and flash– and I saw this bored couple (one of them wearing a suit). I liked the background and their expressions, so I pre-set my focus to 5 meters, put the flash to full power at f/8 and 1/50th of a second, and just fired off one shot. They looked at me weird after with a “WTF” look– but then I said, “Cool place, huh?” They laughed and said yeah, and I went to the bathroom and they went back to their conversation.

The interesting thing is that when I first saw the scene, I thought of this Martin Parr photo of a bored couple in his book, “The Last Resort“.

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Copyright: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Therefore I am grateful that I had the photographic knowledge of knowing all these great photos that have been taken before me– so I can draw upon it for inspiration. They often call this “visual literacy” being literate and knowledgeable in terms of what makes a great photograph.

I think it can be discouraging to compare yourself to the masters. Of course, there is a huge gap between their work and yours. Their work is amazing, and your work sucks. I constantly remind myself that my work sucks too. I think I have only taken 3 photos that I am quite proud of the last 8 years I’ve shot street photography (my Red Cowboy photo, guy sleeping at the beach, and the suits photo above).

1x1.trans On Bridging the Gap in Street Photography

1x1.trans On Bridging the Gap in Street Photography

But by identifying that gap– you can learn how to bridge the gap. Meaning– slowly inching your work forward to being better, and creating work closer to the work of the masters.

Some traits of master street photographers that I try to emulate:

  • They don’t work on single-images, but work on long-term projects (that will take 5-10 years).
  • They aren’t obsessed about posting their photos on social media and aren’t hungry for likes, favorites, etc.
  • They aren’t satisfied– they are constantly hungry to create work that hasn’t been made before.
  • They are constantly disappointed in their work, and re-think why they shoot photography.
  • They don’t look on social media for photography inspiration– rather at photography books and the work of the masters that have come from before them.
  • The great work taken in history was done on film (to be quite frank– I haven’t seen any new great work shot on digital from the masters that I personally like).

So for my photography, I try to be extremely harsh on myself. I would say I make 1 good photograph every 50 rolls of film that I shoot, and I take 1 shot I am really proud of once a year. Past that, all of my work is garbage. I try to be ruthless when it comes to editing my shots.

So as practical advice– I would say to you, my dear reader, to embrace disappointment in your photography. Don’t let disappointment discourage you from creating great work. Rather, let your disappointment be an affirmation that you have great taste in photography– and it shows that you are knowledgeable and capable of creating great work. Because if you see the gap between your work and the work of the masters, you can strive to bridge that gap– and hopefully become great one day too.

So things I recommend not doing (if you want to become a truly great photographer):

  1. Don’t spend too much time on looking at photos on social media (the best work is done in photography books).
  2. Don’t worry about “likes” and “favorites” on social media (focus on your longer-term photography projects).
  3. Don’t always switch up your camera or focal length (most of the great projects done in history were with one camera, one lens, and one type of film).
  4. Don’t focus on single images (once again, longer-term photography projects).
  5. Don’t take my advice at face-value (rather, experiment and try to do what makes you happy).

So to build some visual literacy, I recommend learning from the masters.

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  • Andy

    And, dare I say it.. one of your best posts yet Eric!

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

      Thanks Andy!

  • Mike

    And remember that the photographs in the books by the ‘masters’ have often taken a lifetime to produce. Work hard.

    Mike.

  • David Amantia

    It has been a while since I am sneaking into your blog and I have to say that it is really good! By the way I totally agree with Andy! It’s so true!!!

  • Dipu Sampang Rai

    I like all the “to do’s list except the one that says film are the best and only film can produce “the great photo,” may be it’s true but there can always be exception and after reading your blog I think I have acquired GAS for film camera which I think I cannot get in the place where I live, its damn hard to get films here(and even if I get one,its very expensive), camera is far distant object. So, please say that digital can make good photos as well :D

  • Rod Taylor

    Very good article. I’m getting there. Social Media is a trap for me. But I do think there is some amazing work online in general. Analyzing others work helps me develop my eye and in turn my taste in photography.

  • Bob Tilton

    Interesting content and point of view. However, I can’t help but wonder since you reference the “masters” who obviously came from a different genre, would they have taken advantage of “social media” had it existed in their time?

  • http://www.simbius26.blogspot.com/ Brian Hinesley

    While i don’t find the “Suit Image” a great image, i do think it’s interesting! I do agree that the other two you posted are strong images indeed. While i generally don’t love your work there are a few images in your portfolio that standout to me!

  • Reg Metcalf

    great consoling advice that i will take to heart…mostly. the one absolute non-starter: working with film. i’m gonna stick with digital. i don’t care how much others like it, dislike it, whatever. i shoot on cards, period. ;-)

  • Vedran Perse

    great post, particularly part where you mention Parr’s photo and how it influenced you in taking your shot. This is what (it think it was Dorothea Lang but not sure) meant under “point of departure” when you build on other people’s work adding something specifically yours

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

      Thanks Vedran for the idea!

  • Ott Gangl

    “I take 1 shot I am really proud of once a year. Past that, all of my work is garbage.”

    If the red cowboy, the beach napper and the couple in the restaurants are your best work, I must agree with you, they are pretty much garbage as street photography goes, but you writing is so much better than the photos you displayed, though advising folks to like all but a shot or two a year is very discouraging.

    Ott Gangl, corrr1.com

    • Paetroz

      I like the beach napper, it’s as though he’s not tanning but washed up on shore from a shipwreck. It’s interesting, well composed and whimsical. I don’t care for the other two shots, but I think Eric’s being super critical of himself and personally I think he’s got a lot better captures in his early Tokyo series, boxing gym project and other shots in the LA in Color work.

      On another note, if shooting film is suppose to help you slow down and get more keepers then that seems at odds with Eric being proud of only one shot a year? If you are wasting that much film maybe a better strategy is to shoot the fast paced street stuff with digital and use film only on the more deliberate, thought out projects, like the gym series, where one can really take the time to slow down and concentrate.

  • yuve

    I must disagree on this one:

    “The great work taken in history was done on film”

    Maybe because film was the only option they had? A good photograph is a good photograph, no matter if its done on a large format or a mobile phone. Digital just makes it easier for average people like us to afford photography and because of this, there are folks who bring out works of art that are comparable if not surpass the “masters”. Majority of the photographers are not too interested with the pictures they see, they are more interested with the gear and the medium that was used (maybe that is the reason why there are no more great work from the masters who switched to digital). It’s just belief bias (You read a lot of books on these subjects). Rangefinder+Film user = amazing photographer, DSLR user = noob. It would be interesting sociology experiment for anyone to do: Take pictures from a DSLR and change exif and tag all your photos as taken from a Leica, see how much more popular your photos will be.

    • Paetroz

      I agree yuve, and might I add that this unflinching devotion to the “masters” is ignorant of the many contemporary talents we have in photography today. I love nostalgia too, but the degree in which I see people lusting for film Leicas and only admiring the so-called “masters” makes me question what it is they are really after, capturing pleasing photos for themselves first or looking the part and trying to please others.

    • stephanie

      hi my sister is home ok but

  • Vine

    Good post, but something that isn’t mentioned is the importance of motivation and how to make sure you stay motivated. (Apols if any of this has been covered already).

    Malcolm Gladwell said ‘talent is the desire to practise’. To ensure that you practise regularly, you need to keep yourself motivated. Some ideas on how to do this:

    1. Social media is a trap, and you should shoot for yourself, sure – but we are humans, and it’s also motivating to have your work ‘liked’. We shouldn’t discount the ability that a good reception to our photos has on us to keep us focused and driven to succeed at our craft (even though it shouldn’t!). We can certainly look at other ways to get exposure and ‘likes’ offline, e.g. publishing our work in books, putting up posters publicly, etc… but social media still has the lowest barrier to entry and zero cost.

    2. Put yourself in shooting situations that hit the sweet spot between reaping photos you want to shoot/be known for and allowing you to EASILY GET GOOD PHOTOS. For me, this means football celebrations (now is a great time for that- World Cup!), street protests and marches, bars close to drinking-up time, etc. Put yourself in a situation where you would have to be a zombie not to get at least one passable shot. Do this every week.

    3. Shoot digital, and shoot a lot. In each session described above, shoot 500 photos! Don’t shoot from the hip and run-and-gun like that dork in the London video last year, but at the same time, be realistic: it’s a fiction that paid photojournos, NatGeo etc are all about The Decisive Moment – nowadays they set their SLRs on burst mode, whip a thousand shots into Photo Mechanic and whack on a post-processing preset in time for their deadline. Alex Webb’s hairdresser shot, anyone? See also Magnum’s book of contact prints, as Eric has covered. There is no guilt in shooting a load and choosing the best, because we have the tech to do so, and even those who came before us did it.

    This last point brings me to film, ‘slowing down’, etc. I understand the merits of film, but for the average advanced amateur, it’s over-rated. If you have a recent camera and understand the basics of processing, the difference between film and digital output is negligible, and the gap closes with every new camera release (don’t let ‘film has that certain something’ fool you – it smacks of post-purchase justification and artistic snobbery). And for the reasons above, for the rest of us it’s the best way to get good.

  • http://www.HofmanPhotos.com JH

    I always cringe when I read absolute “rules” in a creative field. I’m OK with tips, tricks, etc. – but lists of recommendations to “become truly great” smacks of cookbook creativity.

    Can you imagine Picasso reading an article on recommendations to become a great cubist?

    Greatness develops through a modicum of raw talent + an evolutionary process + passion. It seems if you lack any of the three you will fail. Telling someone to use only one lens may be telling them to use someone else’s style rather than their own. Not cool.

    I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious. [Albert Einstein]

  • http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com/ Gonzalo

    Whatever works as fuel to your own motivation and inspiration is welcome, be it disappointment or excitement. I guess each one needs different energy to keep going, but it’s good to always keep a positive attitude, knowing that our work will only get better if we keep trying.

  • http://www.thisisethan.com Ethan Chiang

    Good read Eric. I think I am going through the stage at my street photography that I am consistently being disappointed by my own work. It feels like there’s an invisible ceiling, which I just could’t break through, my shots are so similar and cliche. Hope I could get through this stage and get to the next level. Cheers

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  • Cygni

    I do not think that’s what camera you have or the lens attached to the camera that makes the picture.

    Most of the photos I am pleased with is taken with a compact camera (Olympus TG1). It is a bit dull on the shutter, but it means you have to be one step ahead all the time. And you have to be more focused.

    I constantly chasing after taking better pictures and I love to show them up on social media. I think the pictures are for display, and the social media is the only thing I can afford at the moment.

    If there had been the same opportunities for 50 -70 years ago, I am sure that everyone had made ​​use of that opportunity. How many Vivian Maier are out there. It is not just the “the masters” that takes good pictures.