The Zen of Street Photography

Cindy diagonal Dutch angle. Saigon, 2017

Why do I love street photography? For me — street photography is applied zen philosophy.

May 2-5: KYOTO-UJI / Zen Creative Photography Experience

Kyoto, 2015

To find more zen in your street photography and life, join my upcoming Kyoto-Uji Zen Creative Photography Retreat (May 2-5, 2018).

How it feels to be in a zen street photography zone

Walking woman with umbrella. Seoul. 2009

For example, when I’m shooting street photography, I walk slower. I appreciate more of reality around myself.

I empty my mind. No more worries or stresses about life, family, finances. I get into a zen zone, and just shoot my immediate surroundings.

I disappear. My ego vanishes. I just become one with the camera. I keep my camera in program mode (p mode), “set it and forget it”. And in a sense, when I shoot street photography, I forget myself.

Kyoto Zen temple, 2017

To me, I am the happiest when I am in a happy zen zone — in a creative spirit, empty, full of eager anticipation to create.

Like they say in Taoism,

The usefulness of a bowl is based on the empty space inside.


The usefulness of a house is based on the empty space inside.

I think,

In photography, your creative ability is based on how much you are able to empty your mind — and allow the photos to enter your consciousness.

Shoot in airplane mode

Zen aesthetics. Kyoto, 2017

Practical tip: to empty your mind, shoot the streets with your phone off, or in airplane mode. Nothing to distract you in your street photography zen zone.

Shoot to music (or without music)

A tip:


For some folks I know, they feel more zen when shooting to music. Others prefer no music.

Personally, I don’t like listening to music when shooting, because I like to hear the ambient sounds of my urban environment, and let my mind think. The less I listen to music, the more I can think. But of course, this is different to everybody.

Kyoto, 2016

I find a lot of zen and creative calm when photographing architecture. To me, there is something sublime about clean aesthetics in buildings.

To zen out in street photography, don’t just photograph people — photograph buildings. Look up.

Find humanity in man-made objects

Lone parking meter. Berkeley, 2015

I often find more humanity in man-made objects than (some) people.

Look for objects with character. Like a bent parking meter. Faces in objects.

Face. Kyoto abstract, 2017

Or, look for eyes:

Red eyes. Kyoto, 2017

Photograph things inside the house

Brown towel hanging in living room. Airbnb of Kyoto

You might not always have the opportunity to shoot in the streets. Instead, just photograph ordinary things at home, to keep your visual muscles strong. To do your daily visual pushups.


The purpose:

There are good photo opportunities anywhere you look (even at home).

Consider all the painters of the past who did ‘still life’ paintings of just stuff– like bowls of fruit at their dining room table.

Keep it ordinary and simple.

Shoot at night

Texture. Kyoto, 2017

I think cities come alive at night. Go for a walk in the evening, before or after dinner — or just go out for dinner. Keep your camera around your neck (HENRI NECK STRAP) or on your wrist (HENRI WRIST STRAP).

See photo opportunities anywhere and everywhere.

I personally use a RICOH GR II, and use the integrated pop-up flash. I love doing this, because it draws out interesting textures, reflections, and effects. Also, try to intentionally blur your camera and lens, to add more emotion and movement to your pictures.

Cindy walking at night, on the streets of Kyoto, 2017
Cindy at work at cafe, with red light. Kyoto, 2017

Kyoto Silhouette, 2017.
Kyoto. Cindy, 2017

Don’t miss your chance to invest in an unforgettable experience:

Photograph sunsets

Kyoto sunset, 2017

I know, I know — we are all bored of cheesy sunsets we see on Instagram. But still — I think there is something calming, zen, and therapeutic from shooting sunsets, and fading light.

Uji sunset, 2017. Red, yellow, blue.

Slice of red light at sunset. Kyoto, 2017, from the balcony of our AirBnB. Nexus 6P. Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Magenta and pastel pink sunset in Kyoto. Nexus 6P with HDR+. Processed with VSCO with preset

Photography is simply ‘painting with light’. The more you can paint with different colors and hues with your camera, the better.

Simplify shapes and forms

Porsche. Kyoto, 2017

To have a zen street photography experience, keep subtracting from the frame. Focus on capturing less and less, until only the essential shapes and forms remain:

Kyoto wood. Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Lines and texture. Kyoto, 2017

Kyoto, 2017. Google Nexus 6P and HDR+. Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Kyoto, 2017. Google Nexus 6P and HDR+. Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Kyoto, 2017. Google Nexus 6P and HDR+. Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Kyoto, 2017. Google Nexus 6P and HDR+. Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Kyoto, 2017. Google Nexus 6P and HDR+. Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Kyoto, 2017. Google Nexus 6P and HDR+. Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Kyoto, 2017. Google Nexus 6P and HDR+. Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Stitched texture. Kyoto, 2017

Photograph your loved ones, while walking from place to place

Cindy, 2017.

By photographing your friends, family, or loved ones while moving around — you can get good practice for your street photography compositions, and framings. Especially, practice photographing your family members head-on, to practice layers in your street photography.

Then also, when you practice photographing your family members, you can easily get warmed up, and then start photographing strangers on the streets:

Tokyo, 2017
Low perspective. Man with black eyes, Tokyo 2016
Man with red hat. Tokyo, 2017

Tokyo, 2017 #cindyproject

Man with hand over face. Tokyo, 2017

Bookend technique with a flash, note how the figure on the far left and the far right frame the subject in the center of the frame. Tokyo, 2017
Eyes cut out. Akira Kurosawa film poster. Tokyo, 2017
Woman walking past blue background. Tokyo, 2017

Woman on the far left as a bookend, with her hand gesture leading to the right. Dynamic 3, multiple subject street photograph. Tokyo, 2017

SAIGON SATCHEL: The Perfect Street Photography Bag

SAIGON SATCHEL: One of 18 in Existence.

Shoot street photos in fancy hotels

Kyoto, 2014. Portra 400

Another fun tip — take photos inside hotel lobbies. This is a good way to practice shooting street photography, especially when people are relaxed inside, and aren’t really paying attention.

Kyoto, 2014. Portra 400

The good thing about photographing in hotel lobbies: you just look like a tourist, and nobody will pay you any attention, or care.

A Suit in front of a hotel lobby. NYC, 2014 // ERIC KIM
Hotel lobby. Istanbul, 2014
He owned the hotel. San Diego, 2014

Conclusion: Street photography is a way of life

Off-center self portrait in red. Tokyo, 2017
Tokyo urban landscape sunset, 2017
My hand and umbrella, yellow lines, and white zebra crossing lines. Tokyo, 2017

The more I think about it, street photography is a way of life. The way we live our lives, the way we release stress, anxiety, and frustrations in our life, and learn how to live in the present moment. To shoot in the present moment.

To find beauty in the mundane and ordinary of everyday life.

Walk slowly my friend, and enjoy the journey.



It is a pleasure to share my new book “Zen Photography” with you.

Free Download

Download PDF (3.2MB)

Download iBooks (28MB / to read on iPhone, iPad, Mac)

Download text (.txt)

Download iBooks Author File (78MB/ to edit, remix, and translate)


Less is better:

Philosophy >