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:


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.


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

"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?

[village people]
"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

"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


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.