3 Concepts from Cognitive Science That Can Help You Become a Better Street Photographer

What makes a photograph memorable? What makes a photograph so powerful and so magical that it burns itself into our memories? Why do certain photographs withstand the history of time? Why do certain shots that are perfectly composed and framed are easily forgotten or dismissed? What makes a great photograph? How much of it is subjective vs objective? Is there a “science” behind making a memorable photograph?

These are many questions and thoughts that constantly revolve in my mind. Although there are no definite answers to any of these questions, many things I have been learning in sociology, psychology, and cognitive science have been giving me some clues.

While there is no certain “magical checklist” in what makes a certain photograph memorable, I will apply some studies to a hypothesis which could help you create more meaningful and memorable images from some thoughts from cognitive science.

Curious? Read on.


“Sneeze”, Downtown LA 2011

We as humans have been around for a very long time. According to some scientists, they say we have been around the earth for around 50,000-100,000 years ago (source).

Nowadays we like to think that we are much more sophisticated and well-equipped mentally and rationally than our fore-fathers. Although we have made tremendous leaps and bounds in technology, many evolutionary biologists argue that our genetic framework isn’t much different from our brothers and sisters from thousands of years ago.

Humans aren’t rational. Sometimes we are, but mostly we are irrational. We are deeply emotional beings that favor social bonds and relationships over logic and solid math or science. Why do we eat chocolate before bedtime even though we know it will make us fat? Why do we buy cars and houses we can’t afford? Why do we generally buy what others order at restaurants? Some of the answers lie from sociology that we generally “follow the herd”, want acceptance from our peers, and are highly influenced by the decisions of others.

There are a few concepts I have learned from psychology and cognitive science which have helped me better understand how our brain generally works (that I have applied to my street photography). A few ideas:

  1. We communicate with stories
  2. We seek patterns
  3. We look into the future

How can we use some of these concepts to better ourselves in street photography? Here are some insights:

1. We communicate with stories

“Whisper”, Mumbai 2011

Some of the earliest recorded forms of human communication were based on stories. If you look at ancient cave paintings, you can see crude images of animals being hunted. If you go further in time, you see many images of religion painted on the walls, that go forth in story form (think about Egyptian walls). Ever since we are children, we love hearing bedtime stories and fairy tales. Even nowadays as adults we love to hear stories of how common people are able to face adversity, how people are able to become rich (stories of get-rich quick stories), or imaginary novels (think Harry Potter).

In our street photographs, we should strive to tell stories as they are generally more sticky. We generally process things better in our minds which have a story format, as they are generally easier to understand and follow.

So how can we apply this to street photography?

Well to start off, the majority of street photographers I have met say that what they love about street photography is the ability to create a story. When we are out shooting, we look for certain moments and try to capture “the decisive moment” when all the actors in the scene act a certain way, have a certain look, and have certain positioning. When we are able to correctly position everything in the frame in the right way (and have some sort of dramatic happening going on in the frame) our brain tries to make sense of it by telling a story.

Garry Winogrand famously said that photographs have no narrative content and Light are just reflections of light off a surface. He is right to a certain extent, as photographs mostly tell lies (although some photographs lie better then others) because no matter how wide the lens is, we cannot fully understand the context of an image being taken. If a person is smiling for the camera, how do we know if that person is truly smiling because they are happy versus the idea that they are giving a fake show for us?

However at the same time, our brain wants to tell stories through photographs, and we should strive to create images that do so (if we want our photographs to be more memorable).

How can we better tell stories in photographs? Here are several ways:

1. Context in the background

“Flight” – taken in front of the Centre De Pompidou in Paris, 2011

First of all, you need context in an image. If you take a photograph of a subject against a blank wall, it is hard to tell where the photograph was taken and what the “background story” is. Was the photograph taken in Chicago? Tokyo? Ireland? Los Angeles? Africa? The background is the first thing that we must note.

2. Body gestures

From my “Dark Skies Over Tokyo” project, 2011

Photographs are a great medium of communication but also very limiting. In photographs we cannot hear, see, or press “play” to see exactly what is going on.

Therefore capturing body gestures can give us a better sense of what is going on in a photograph and what we may be trying to convey through the image.

When I am on the streets, I look primarily for hand gestures. Hand gestures can communicate much more than words. If you have a friend that communicates with their hands (or you do yourself) you know what I am talking about.

Look for people sneezing, people picking their nose, people scratching their head, people brushing away the hair of the face of their love, people giving you the middle finger, telling you to go away, and so forth.

Also look how people position their hands to see what they are trying to convey to you (or the outside world). Are their arms crossed? It probably means they feel closed off. Are their fingers pressed against their forehead? Something is probably bothering them and on their mind. Do they have their hands squeezed in between their thighs? They probably feel anxious.

Some examples in this photograph above are people reacting to my camera. I generally try to shoot quickly so I could capture people’s gestures before they notice me, but it isn’t always the case (as sometimes I am too slow). In the photograph I took in Tokyo, the man saw I was taking a shot, and tried to avoid being in my shot. In these cases, I find people’s reactions to me to actually make more interesting photographs.

3. Interactions

From my “Dark Skies Over Tokyo” project, 2011

Another way to better tell stories through photographs is to involve multiple subjects interacting with one another.

Are the subjects in your photographs laughing and embracing one another? It may show they are having a good time with another and are friends. Is one person waving his finger in their air, eyes bulged, and making eye contact with the other person? That person is probably pissed off at the other person. Is there an old man looking at a beautiful woman walking by? He might be thinking about his youthful past.

Of course photographs don’t show objective reality nor do the “stories” they tell are necessarily true. However when our eyes look at images, our brain tries to profess and make sense of image. So try to create images that connect the dots for the viewer (or even create mystery to give the viewer more questions than answers).

2. We seek patterns

“Three Men”, Los Angeles 2011

Humans are pattern seeking machines. We want to find coherence in this crazy world that we live in.

Our ancestors relied heavily on pattern seeking and predictability in life. For example when our ancestors were planting a harvest, they wanted the harvest to be predictable. They wanted to get the most bountiful harvest, which depends on when they planted the crops, how much water they added, what time of the year and day they started, as well as other factors. If they were able to find a predictable “formula”– then they would remember it and repeat it.

When our ancestors saw that the clouds started turning dark, they would predict that an ominous storm would be coming and that they would have to prepare for a disaster (based on their past experiences).

In photography I think that pattern-seeking behavior also applies. For example, we generally associate certain “styles” with certain photographers, whether it be the subject matter they capture (Robert Doisneau and children in Paris), whether they shoot black and white or color (think about Daido Moriyama and gritty black and whites or Martin Parr and color), or what camera and equipment they used (Henri Cartier-Bresson and a Leica or Ansel Adams and a large-format camera).

Although I highly encourage experimentation in street photography, I think that consistency is important if you want to be better recognized and known for your work. If you do plan on experimenting with different camera, focal lengths, films, post-processing styles, etc– I recommend just keeping them in different projects.

To be consistent first of all I recommend sticking with the same equipment. Shooting street photography with a Leica vs a Hasselblad or a point and shoot are different ways of working and therefore result in different images. Shooting with a Leica you will probably shoot the majority of your shots at eye level, with the Hasselblad operating the camera is much slower and will probably cause you to shoot more stationary subjects, while the point and shoot will cause you to shoot more from a lower angle (as you use the LCD screen to compose) and also allow you to take more shots where cameras are generally forbidden. Therefore I recommend sticking with one camera for the majority of your work.

Furthermore the focal length you decide to use also affects how your photos look and are perceived. I know lots of street photographers who use all different focal lengths (21mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm) and so forth. There is nothing wrong about using different focal lengths in street photography, but personally (when looking at other peoples work) it is frustrating to look at.

If you see someone’s portfolio shot mostly with a 28mm and you get used to the perspective of the images and field of view and then you suddenly see a shot at around 85mm, the 85mm suddenly sticks out like a sore thumb. Not only that, but in my experience sticking with one focal length and really understanding the field of view and framing of the lens helps you better compose and understand how far you need to be from our subjects when shooting with them.

Although I have experimented with lots of focal lengths over the years, I have shot primarily with a 35mm the last 5 years (from my Canon 5D and now my Leica) and I know the focal length inside and out.

Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand, Daido Moriyama, and Bruce Gilden shot mostly with a 28mm their entire careers and you are used to the field of view of their shots. Alex Webb has shot with a 35mm for the majority of his work and you get used to that field of view, and we are also very familiar with the 50mm view of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Also I recommend separating your black and white and color work. If you want to shoot both, just keep them in different sets.

When I was judging for the International London Street Photography Contest in 2011, one of the things that caused people to not advance was mixing black and whites and color work in their submission of 5 images. It lacked a sense of coherence, and the images had different messages they conveyed to the viewer.

And if you want to be inconsistent in your work (on purpose), my suggestion is to be consistently inconsistent.

3. We look into the future

From my “Dark Skies Over Tokyo” project, 2011

Humans are also biologically wired to think into the future. If you see the human brain compared with different apes, what differentiates us is the development of our frontal lobe, which scientists believe is used for predicting the future. We are better than other animals at planning for the future (most animals can’t think more than a few hours into the future).

I believe this is one of the reasons why it is so scary to shoot street photography. When we see someone we want to take a photograph of, we are scared and look into the future and predict that we will get punched in the face for taking someone’s photo. We try to stereotype and make mental shortcuts of how people will react, depending on their ethnicity, gender, age, height, weight, etc. Stereotyping is an awful thing that us as humans do, but it is a cognitive shortcut to help us better “predict” on how others will react to us.

If we think about our past, we were hard-wired to avoid conflict with others in our tribe. If we pissed someone off, there would be a possibility that either you would get kicked out of the tribe and would starve to death, or even worse– get killed by the other person.

Of course nowadays times and society has changed, but our cognitive thinking remains very similar.

I’ve never heard off anyone getting punched in the face for shooting street photography, nor people becoming seriously hospitalized (or killed). In my experience if someone doesn’t want you to take their photograph, they generally yell at you first and ask you to delete their photograph. That is generally the worst that ever happens.

So my recommendation is when you are shooting on the streets, try to censor that voice inside your head that says “if you took a photograph of that person, they will kick your ass”. Because in all honesty, that most likely will not happen.

But at the same time use your common sense. I don’t recommend shooting in a rough neighborhood late at night when you are by yourself. And if you are ever in doubt how people might react, it never hurts to ask.


From my “Dark Skies Over Tokyo” project, 2011

This article is not as well-researched as I would like (hopefully I can write something more in-depth in the future) in terms of linking cognitive science and the psychology of shooting street photography.

However it is my first attempt at trying to better understand what makes memorable images, how to better overcome our fear of shooting street photography, and some practical steps that us as street photographers can make to better connect with our viewers.

Books on Cognitive Science

If you are interested in learning more about cognitive science (or how to better understand your brain), here are some books I recommend:

  1. Thinking Fast and Slow
  2. A Whole New Mind
  3. What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite
  4. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
  5. Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger
  6. This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking

What do you think makes a memorable street photograph? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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