How to Find Zen in Street Photography

Whisper , Mumbai, India 2011

(“Whisper”. Mumbai, 2011)

When it comes to street photography, it is easy to get caught-up in the hype of new cameras, spending too much time on blogs, and not enough time out shooting. I think one of the most difficult things in street photography is to find enough time to shoot and being able to also relax when out on the streets.

I suffer lack of focus, obsession about gear, and also not enough time out shooting on the streets. It is a battle I constantly fight with myself to change. If you ever felt that you have had difficulty finding focus in street photography, hopefully this advice I will share will help you. Also included in the article is some of my unpublished work from 2011, hope you enjoy!

1) One camera, one lens

Downtown LA, 2011
Downtown LA, 2011

I don’t own one camera and one lens. I currently a Leica MP and a 35mm f/2 Summicron for my street photography, a Leica M6 as a backup, a Hasselblad 501cm and 80mm I just got from my buddy Jeroen Helmink for teaching a workshop in Amsterdam, an old Contax IIIa and a 50mm I inherited from my grandfather, an Olympus Pen Mini that I use for my workshop snapshots, and the camera on back of my new iPad.

I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing to own a lot of cameras and lenses. After all, a chef also has many knives and equipment to make different dishes.

However the danger arises when having too much gear is a burden and prevents you from actually going out and shooting street photography.

About 4 years ago when I used to shoot with my Canon 5D, I had a 24mm f/2.8, a 35mm f/2, and a 50mm f/1.8. I remember whenever I was out shooting on the streets, it would always be a burden to carry more than one lens with me. Not only did it add to the weight of my bag, but also it prevented me from focusing when shooting street photography.

I would be shooting with my 35mm and be fine, then suddenly I would see someone across the street. I would then switch to my 50mm. I would then enter a crowded area and then switch on my 24mm. I would then again enter a less crowded area and screw back on my 35mm.

It was stressful to always be changing my lenses and concerning myself to always use the “ideal” focal length for a given situation.

One day I read the philosophy of “one camera and one prime lens” when out shooting street photography. I thought it was complete bunk. What would I do if my subject was too far, too close, or somewhere in-between?

Although I thought it was crazy, I thought about giving it a shot. I first had to figure out what focal length I preferred the most, and went to my Lightroom library and tried to figure out what lens I was using the most. Although I used all my 24mm, 35mm, and 50mm, I found out I was using my 35mm primarily around 90% of the time.

From that moment forward, I decided to dedicate myself to shooting exclusively with my 35mm and I haven’t looked back.

At first it was a bit difficult to get used to the idea of one focal length, after all what if your subject was too far or too close?

I found it was simpler than I thought. Simply move your feet and use “foot zoom”.

I found my photographs became more creative as I put the constraint on myself of using one focal length. As I discovered in a book on creativity titled: “Imagine: How Creativity Works” is that “In order to break out of the box, you must put yourself into shackles”. The author used the analogy that many poets who use artificial constraints (like haikus where the word and syllable structure are very rigid), it causes the poet to be more creative.

Furthermore, I was a lot less stressed when shooting on the street, as I would focus on actually taking photographs, rather than worrying about using a different lens or actually wasting time to screw on a new lens.

Even when I changed my camera from a Canon DSLR to a Leica, I still shoot with a 35mm (and it is the only lens I own with my Leica). Now that I have shot with a 35mm exclusively for around 4 years, I know the frame inside out. For example:

  • 35mm @ 1.2 Meters: Shot vertically, generally the top of someone’s head to their torso. Shot horizontally, the top of someone’s head to the middle of their ribcage.
  • 35mm @ 2 Meters: Shot vertically, generally full-body shot (from their head to the bottom of their feet)
  • 35mm @ 3 Meters: Generally the distance of an average-sized sidewalk (from one side to the other). Shot horizontally, generally a full-body shot of someone (from top of the head to the bottom of feet).
  • 35mm @ 5-7 Meters: Generally the distance between one side of the street to the other side of the street

Carrying less gear with me when I went out shooting was also a lot easier on my back, which also helped me enjoy the actual experience of shooting on the streets much more enjoyable.

2) Simplify your photos and approach

“Nails” – Downtown LA, 2011

It is hard to take a street photograph that isn’t busy in the background. 99% of the street photographs I take are generally very distracting, as there are always random heads, hands, legs, people, or cars that distract in the background.

Therefore I always try to simplify my photographs by using the saying, “less is more”.

Nowadays the trend is to try to create overly complex frames, similar to that of Alex Webb. Although there are some people out there who do it well, it is often ridiculously difficult and is about 99.9% failure. I don’t discourage shooting in this manner, but realize that editing is going to be much more crucial.

I say go opposite and make your photos simpler, and less complex.

Rather than trying to get too many people in the frame, single into one subject. If you find an interesting subject, also consider the background. Once again, the majority of my shots don’t work because the background is too distracting, and I have found the work of many others to not work because of a bad background (no matter how interesting the subject is – after all a good photograph should have a strong subject and background).

One thing I learned from my friend Charlie Kirk is if you are walking on the sidewalk, don’t shoot toward the street (you will get distracting cars, don’t shoot down the street (you will get distracting people in the b/g), but rather shoot toward storefronts (as the background is generally cleaner and less busy).

Therefore if you are in a city where cars drive on the right side of the road, walk on the left side of the sidewalk and shoot toward the right. If the cars in your country drive on the left side of the road, walk on the right side of the sidewalk and shoot toward the left.

If you want to shoot multiple subjects, I recommend starting off with 3 subjects in a frame (generally odd-numbered people in a frame work the best – 1, 3, 5, people etc.). Either try to get a primary subject central in the frame, and two other people accompanying them on the left and right side of the frame. If you want to do multiple subjects (5 or more), try to section them off in the frame with equal space in-between their heads, and to fill the frame.

Try to keep the photograph balanced, and not too many subjects on the right side of the frame or on the right side of the frame.

One tip I have when it comes to judging your own images (to see if they are balanced) is to imagine putting your photograph on a balancing beam. If you were to put the photograph on a balancing beam, would it lean to the left? To the right? Or would it stay balanced in-between?

I think one of the fallacies I fall into is “trying to be too clever”. Considering that the majority of the people on the Internet only have a short attention span, you need to have a strong image that is immediately apparent what is going on in the frame. If there is a small detail in the bottom left of the frame that you think, “makes the shot” – it will generally get lost.

Start off by trying to create a simple street photograph that immediately grabs your viewer’s attention, and try to capture little details around the frame that are interesting to the viewer as well. If you get a photograph of a man eating an ice cream cone, is there another kid in the background also eating an ice cream cone? Or a sign in the background that says “fat free?” Or a little chubby kid that could add to the message about obesity?

It is very difficult to capture simple street photographs that are powerful. As mentioned earlier, 99.9% of the photographs I take are often too busy, but I try to only show my best photographs (that are simple) through the editing process (choosing my best images).

Try to subtract from the frame, not add to the frame. After all, that is what sculptors do; start off with a solid slab of stone and constantly chip away at it to uncover the hidden & beautiful statue beneath.

3) Get lost in the moment

“Haze” – Downtown LA, 2011

What I love most about street photography is that it is an escape from the stresses of everyday life. One of the things that Zen Buddhism states is to “live in the moment”.

Therefore when you are out shooting street photography, turn off all distractions (your music, your phone, etc.) and focus shooting on the streets. If you are going to be shooting with friends, enjoy your time with them. If you are going to be shooting with yourself, focus on shooting and not stressing out about the bills you have to pay, the fight you just got in with your loved one, or the presentation you are working on at work.

One thing I also suggest is not chimp when shooting street photography. Why? It disrupts the flow of shooting street photography, as there is always an abrupt break when you have to check your LCD screen after taking a shot. It also disconnects you from your environment. An analogy I can think of is that it is like checking a text message for a second when having dinner with a friend. You suddenly freeze, stop eating and talking with your friend, and check your phone. Sure you can still talk, but you will not give it your full attention.

I used to be addicted to chimping, and even when I tried to stop, the urge persisted. However it is like trying to stop smoking. Checking your LCD screen is like getting a hit of nicotine. I never smoked (so I don’t know how difficult it is to quit) but from my friends who have quit smoking they gave me two strategies:

a) To stop cold turkey:

Some smokers say that by quitting smoking cold-turkey (and not making any exceptions for smoking – even at parties) they generally stay off of it.

Therefore to stop chimping, tell yourself that you will never check it (not just once in a while or else the habit will persist).

b) Get external help:

Some smokers I know use those nicotine patches or e-cigarettes that help them ease off smoking, and then stop all together.

When I was shooting street photography digitally, I was pretty good at not chimping the majority of the time, but the other percent of the time I would lose my willpower and of course check too often. It caused me to miss more decisive moments than I would care to talk about.

Switching to film helped me stop chimping all together. After all, you physically cannot chimp no matter how bad you try!

Chimping in itself isn’t something bad. You will need to chimp if you are trying something new (new shutter speeds, new apertures, zone-focusing, new camera, new focal length, using a flash, etc.). However once you get used to your settings, chimping will cause you to lose your sense with the street, and miss “decisive moments”.

Remember that street photography (and life) isn’t just about the end result. Life is about the journey, not the destination.

Street photography is about the journey and experience of shooting the streets. Hearing the conversations of people chatting about the drama of their lives, the vibration of your shoes hitting the rock-hard asphalt, or the feeling of your finger hitting the shutter.

Street photography is about the journey, not just the final picture.


Downtown LA, 2011
Downtown LA, 2011

Practice the tenants of minimalism and Zen when it comes to your street photography. Constantly strive to simplify your approach, your equipment, as well as your images. Subtraction is often more difficult than addition, especially in the jam-packed cities we live in.

Don’t always pre-occupy yourself with the final image, and experience the journey of shooting street photography. The process of shooting street photography is often as rewarding (if not more rewarding) than the pictures.

Nobody is perfect, and neither am I. I fall victim to all of the distractions mentioned earlier in the article. However I constantly remind myself to try harder and stay focused, in which I get support from my fellow street photographers all around the world – and from you, the one reading this article and being a part of this street photography community.

If you can’t remember anything from this article, just remember to pucker your lips when in the streets and tell yourself, “K.I.S.S.” Keep it simple stupid.

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