9 Lessons I Have Learned About Street Photography (and Life) From 2012

Marseille, France 2012
Marseille, France 2012

Written: 1/31/2013

Today I turn 25 years old. The last year has been one hell of an adventure. This year, I have been on the road at least 2-3 weeks out of every month – and I have been to 18 cities internationally, in 15 different countries.

Everyday when I wake up, it still feels surreal that I am pursuing my passsion — street photography for a living. When I got laid off my job nearly two years ago, I was scared, nervous, and uncertain about the future. I had credit card debt to pay off, oustanding student loans, and of course bills and rent to pay on top of all of it.

Fortunately with your endless encouragement I have been able to fully concentrate my efforts on street photography and not get distracted by anything else.

I have so many people to thank who helped me go this far. There is no way any of this would be possible without those giving me a place to stay during my travels and acting as warm hosts, to those attending my workshops, and especially to you — my dear reader for supporting this blog.

One of the problems I have is reflecting on the past. I am very present-oriented (which is a good thing in many regards), but I often forget to dwell on my rich past experiences. That and looking toward the future.

Here are some lessons I have learned about street photography and life in 2012:

1. Family/friends/loved ones come first

With some of my fellow LA Streettogs eating Korean BBQ! Good times.
With some of my fellow LA Streettogs eating Korean BBQ!

As much as I love traveling and meeting new people, I spent too much time away from those I care about in 2012. Although it is great to experience new places, at the end of the day I crave being around those who I love.

Don’t get me wrong, I am so lucky to be able to travel the world, shoot interesting places, and meet passionate people from all around the world. But after a while, traveling has been rough on me– physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In 2012 I spent a ridiculous amount of time jetlagged, perpetually wired on caffeine, and away from my own bed.

This year, I plan to spend more time at home and do less traveling. I plan on focusing my workshops mostly in the states, so I can spend more time with Cindy, my family, friends, and loved ones.

2. Letting my photos marinate

Marseille, France 2012

About a year ago I started shooting my personal street photography exlusively in film. I wasn’t 100% sure what I was getting myself in at the time, but it was one of the best decisions I have made for my photography.

It really taught me discipline in letting my photos “marinate” — letting them sit for a long time before looking at them. Kind of like letting a good steak marinate for a while in rich juices and sauces before cooking it.

I generally didn’t see my photos until at least a month or two after I shot them, which caused me to forget half the shots that I took. I think this was a good thing, as it taught me to be much more objective when editing and judging my own images.

There are still around 60 rolls of film I haven’t got around to developing yet (from the past 3 months) but I no longer feel in a rush. It is an incredible feeling of zen.

3. The importance of focusing on projects

A photo from my “Suits” project. New York City, 2012

I have taken a hiatus from uploading my photos to social media (Facebook, Flickr, Google+, etc) in order to focus on my projects. This has been another great idea that was first suggested to me by Charlie Kirk about a year ago – to focus on my photography for a year without uploading any images. Last year I caved around 8 months in, but this year I hope to continue working on my projects for a long time without uploading my images.

Why? I have been able to be more diligent working on projects without getting distracted on how many favorites or likes I get on social media. I won’t lie, I love the attention and affirmation from those little pink stars and blue-thumbs ups- but at the end of the day they don’t help me become a better photographer.

I have worked on several projects, none of which I think is good enough to get published at the time. To give you an update, here is some of the projects I have been working on:


New York City, 2012

This is the main project I am focusing on at the moment. Below is a description of the project idea when I started:


This project is a very personal project. It revolves around when I used to work as a “Suit” at my old job.

Although I had great friends and a boss that looked out for me, I was unhappy. I was stuck in a cubicle 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, doing a job that didn’t fulfill me. The longer I stayed cooped up, the less creative I felt- and the work would suck the soul out of me.

I would work harder and harder, trying to get that next raise or promotion. $40,000 a year wasn’t enough for me, I wanted $60,000 a year. And after that, I wanted $80,000 then $100,000 and hopefully one day $200,000.

I wanted a nice car. A new BMW, Mercedes, or Porsche like all of the bigshots at work. I needed to show others how successful I was, which had to be symbolized through my material possessions.

After I got laid off my job and now am pursuing my street photography, I feel that I have finally “found the light”. But still, whenever I see others in suits I can feel their pain- their struggle – their loss of identity. I can sympathize with them having jobs that they hate, just to pay the bills, support the family, and hopefully one day be considered “successful”.

I would say I currently have around 12-15 photos from this project that I am proud of. But I still got a long way to go if I want to build a strong body of work.


Downtown LA, 2012

This project is a series of colorful “still life” photographs. This one I have been enjoying working on, and is very different from anything else I have worked on before (as most of the shots don’t even have people in them).

“Stuff on the ground”

Sydney, 2012

Another fun series of photos I worked on, simply titled: “Stuff on the ground.” Pretty self-explanatory, this doesn’t have a deep sociological theory or concept behind it. But I do find it fascinating what people leave behind (or simply throw away on the ground).

“Kids with Guns”

Marseille, 2012

I think this project has promise, but I only have around 5 images worth looking at. Probably need to expand this to at least 10-12 before even considering sharing them. Biggest problem, it is hard to find kids with guns! Another long-term project I plan on concentrating on.

4. Fighting the allure of “GAS”

Portra 400, my anti-gas for the year
Portra 400, has prevented me from digital GAS – might have started another type?

I am still a sucker for GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). Whenever I see a new camera or toy, my eyes go big and of course I would love to have it. Case-in-point, the new Leica Monochrom, the new Sony RX-1, and the up-and-coming Leica M.

The new Sony RX-1. Sure it is a sexy camera (I have my eyes on it) but do we really need it?

However one of the things I love most about switching to film is that it has helped stop (mostly) my allure of GAS. My workhorse camera is currently the Leica MP, arguably the “best” 35mm film camera still in production. There will never be a “better” 35mm film camera (I think) and it will never be outdated because it is already outdated. I like to use the analogy of buying a classic Ford Mustang versus a new BMW. The classic mustang will always be a classic, but buying a new BMW will simply get outdated the next year.

I also have a Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH lens. Yes, it cost me a crapload of money- but I will never need another lens for my Leica again. 35mm is my favorite focal length (have been using it for around 5 years), it is the perfect size and weight (had the 35mm Summilux before and it was too heavy for street photography), and it is the only lens I own for my Leica (I never have to worry about having another lens).

Ricoh GR1s. Photograph by Japan Camera Hunter
Ricoh GR1s. Photograph by Japan Camera Hunter

One experience I wanted to share was my experience with film compact cameras from this year. I went through a lot of film compacts this year, going from a Ricoh GR1s to trading it in for a Ricoh GR1v, then picking up a Contax T3 in Tokyo. The reason I wanted to get the Contax T3 was beause it has a 35mm focal length (same as my Leica) while the Ricoh GR1v had a 28mm focal length (the images didn’t look consistent). The T3 is also a lovely camera to slip into my pocket- and frankly speaking, at the end of the day I prefer to use the T3 over my Leica.

Why? The T3 is pocketable, it has a flash, and it is easy to use. Even the Leica can be cumbersome sometimes (attaching the flash, adjusting the settings, etc) but it is invaluable when I need to shoot quickly and efficiently (during festivals, in crowded areas, and when I need speed).

If you are thinking of getting into film for your street photography, I would highly recommend starting off with a film Ricoh GR1s or a Contax T3. And of course if you want to buy any film camera, contact Bellamy Hunt at  Japan Camera Hunter (I get all my gear off him).

contax t3
Contax T3. Photograph by Japan Camera Hunter

I will keep shooting film until either it becomes too difficult to get it processed for a cheap price (I love you Costco) or until the film becomes too expensive or difficult to obtain (Portra 400 in the states is still a reasonable price with good availability).

GAS is something that will always afflict us photographers – but it is always important for us to be grateful for what we have. Shooting film has definitely helped stop my GAS for digital cameras, but beware — there is also film GAS (think of the endless amount of film rangefinders, medium-formats, large-formats, etc).

5. Spending more time in fewer places

Downtown LA, 2012
Downtown LA, 2012

One of the things I learned about traveling is that it is better to stay in fewer places, but staying there longer. To give you a sense of how many places I traveled to (I think too many places, here is a breakdown):


  1. Seoul
  2. Singapore
  3. Hong Kong
  4. Kuala Lumpur
  5. Tokyo
  6. Kyoto
  7. Calcutta


  1. Downtown LA
  2. New York City


  1. Toronto


  1. London
  2. Berlin
  3. Amsterdam
  4. Stockholm
  5. Paris
  6. Venice/Verona


  1. Melbourne
  2. Sydney

I have found that having at least 2-3 weeks is necessary to really get to “know a place”. A week is a bit too short, as by the time I get settled in and over my jet lag (around 2-3 days) I just start getting acquainted to a place. And by then, I am off to the next place.

The last month I spent in Manila, and it was far more enjoyable. Not only did I get to know the people there much better, I was able to experiene things at a much more leisurely pace, which didn’t cause me to be so rushed. I saw more places within the Phillippines, including Boracay (beautiful beach resort), some of the provinces (the air there is so clean, and my hosts were awesome), and the various neighborhoods in Manila (from the uber-rich to the humble).

So I suggest if you plan on going on a trip, spend more time in fewer places and enjoy yourself.

6. The beauty of minimalism/packing light

Image credit: Love & Adventure 

When I first started my world tours, I was like the typical Korean tourist– carrying way too much stuff. My luggage was a pain to lug around, and checking in my bags often caused delays (the airlines would lose my stuff) and waiting in line to pick up my stuff was a pain.

I also found that after every trip, I didn’t even use half the stuff that I brought.

So over the course of a year, I have been able to trim down my belongings and stuff that I bring with me on my trip. I now am proud to say that I am much more nimble when I travel. This is what I brought on my last trip to Manila (note that you can bring fewer stuff to warmer countries).


Having a good pair of shoes, probably the most important "equipment" in street photography
Having a good pair of shoes, probably the most important “equipment” in street photography. Pictured above: Nike Free Run 2.
  • 2 t-shirts (ExOfficio V-Neck Shirt).
    • After every day, I would wash my dirty t-shirt with shampoo in the shower and hang it up to dry. By the next morning, it was dry. Having two black shirts is also nice, as they are generic and consistent.
  • 3 socks (mostly polyster).
    • Another thing I learned is never wear clothes that have cotton in them when traveling. Cotton takes forever to dry and soaks up too much moisture. All of my clothes are mostly made out of polyster (if not all synthetic materials) which dry ridiculously quickly.
  • 1 pair of shorts
    • UNIQLO quick-dry.
    • If you are traveling to cold countries, just bring a pair of jeans.
  • Nike Free Run 2
    • My favorite warm-weather shoes for traveling. Super light, breatheable, and comfortable.


In my opinion, it is easier to carry your things in a backpack while traveling (compared to traditional luggage bags)
In my opinion, it is easier to carry your things in a backpack while traveling (compared to traditional luggage bags). Pictured above: North Face Recon Backpack


Leica MP / 35mm Summicron / SF 20 Flash
My main camera: Leica MP / 35mm Summicron / SF 20 Flash
  • Leica MP + Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron
    • Main camera while shooting street photography.
  • Contax T3
    • A great backup/snapshot camera with my Leica MP. Small, compact, and fits into my pocket. Also the 35mm Zeiss lens is nearly as sharp as my Leica Summicron. And both have a 35mm lens. Find more about the T3 here.
  • 25 rolls of Kodak Portra 400
    • I find that for a month of traveling, I shoot from around 25-50 rolls of Kodak Portra 400 film. The more I shoot, I notice I am more selective and shoot less. I usually shoot 1-2 rolls a day while traveling.


11'' Macbook Air, the perfect travel companion
11” Macbook Air, the perfect travel companion
  • Macbook Air 11 inch (2012)
    • Found it to be more than sufficient for blogging, email, even photo/video-editing.
  • Western Digital 1TB Portable Drive + Western Digital Nomad Case
    • Macbook Air’s internal drive is really small. Important to carry an external drive. This houses my GoPro interviews, photos, movies, and other files. And the nomad case is good insurance to protect against bumps and drops when traveling.
  • GoPro Hero 2
    • I use this and an external mic for my video interviews. But nowadays I’m thinking of doing more voice-based interviews and transcribing it afterwards.
  • iPad 3 (Wifi, 32gb)
    • Great for sharing my portfolio with others, and getting editing/sequencing advice.
  • Bose Quietcomfort 15 Headphones
    • Really expensive, but if you spend a lot of time on a plane they are invaluable. I always fly coach, and these kill a lot of noise from the plane (which lets me sleep).
  • Samsung Galaxy S3
    • Great for snapshots, calling home on Skype, checking email/social media on-the-go.

I now travel with only my camera bag and backpack, and life is so much easier. I am much more nimble moving around the airport, in and out of cities, and never have to check in luggage anymore. It has definitely made my traveling much more enjoyable. I still think I can cut down in terms of my equipment (I can leave my iPad and GoPro at home) but I am almost down to my essentials!

7. Investing in photo-books

Magnum Contact Sheets, my favorite photography book

One of the popular blog posts I wrote: “Buy Books, Not Gear” was focused on the importance of focusing on photographic education (through books and other mediums) over simply buying more photography-related gear/equipment.

I took my own advice, and invested in over 50 photography books. Even though I spent a lot of money on them, I have no regrets. They have taught me so much about photography, are an absolute joy to look at, and I reckon they will hold their value pretty well (probably a better investment than stocks!).

Some of the top books I purchased last year which I whole-heartedly recommend:

  1. Magnum Contact Sheets
  2. Josef Koudelka: Gypsies
  3. William Eggleston: Chromes
  4. Bruce Davidson: Subway
  5. Zoe Strauss: America
  6. The Americans: Looking In
  7. Henri Cartier-Bresson: Scrapbook
  8. Arlene Gottfried: Bacalaitos and Fireworks
  9. Garry Winogrand: Figments from the real world
  10. Alex Webb: The Suffering Of Light

8. Quality over quantity

One of the big inspirations in my life: Steve Jobs
One of the big inspirations in my life: Steve Jobs

One thing I have also been trying to embrace in 2012 was the concept of “quality over quantity“.

I know the trend in blogging is “publish or perish” (a saying academic professors know quite well). Of course blogging is much more fast-paced. I think most bloggers are expected to publish at least a post a day. Some of the more popular blogs even post several times a day.

Last year was quite stressful for me, as I felt the need to publish at least once a day while maintaining a busy travel schedule, workshop schedule, and of course having enough personal time for me to shoot, eat, talk to friends and family, read books, etc.

I also tried to publish an article on street photography at least once a week (every Monday was the norm). But this became quite a burden, and I often felt the posts were rushed (I could have spent more time editing it, letting the thoughts marinate, etc).

So I tried to switch to favoring quality over quantity – focusing on much longer, in-depth, and better-edited posts. Some posts I have been quite proud from this year:

  1. 15 Lessons Bruce Davidson Can Teach You About Street Photography
  2. 10 Things Street Photographers Can Learn From Magnum Contact Sheets
  3. Timeless Lessons Street Photographers Can Learn from Robert Frank’s “The Americans”

I know one of the most difficult things on the internet is to get valuable/high-quality education. Most of the stuff I read on the internet is fluff–similar to information junk-food.

I wish to reverse that trend. Unfortunately this means I will publish a lot less, but I will try my upmost to provide you with more quality articles that are helpful.

9. The importance of breadth of knowledge

One epic library
One epic library

Some of my most personally insightful break-throughs in terms of my philosophy of photography haven’t been through photography books. Rather, they have been from sociology, psychology, cognitive science, philosophy, history, and business books.

On one of the books I read on creativity, it links creativity as being able to make hidden connections between two dissimilar things – creating a synethsis of a “new” idea.

I have been trying to incorporate my various interests (especially that of sociology) to bring you some of these posts:

  1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Street Photographers
  2. 10 Tips How to Unleash Your Creativity in Street Photography
  3. How You Can Apply Sociology to Your Street Photography Projects

If you want an interesting list of books to read on various fields, here are some of my favorite books from 2012:

  1. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
    • (one of my new favorite books. A good introduction to the roman philosophy of Stoicism (being undisturbed by external events). I also plan to write a blog post on this soon.
  2. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
    • Helped me build strong habits when it comes to blogging, working on my photography habits, and getting rid of my bad habits.
  3. Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder
    • (what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger. One of the most influential books which dictates much of my life philosophies).
  4. Flash Foresight: How to See the Invisible and Do the Impossible
    • (going against the grain, book on how to be innovative. Helped me understand that quality is a better than quantity when it comes to blogging, in life, etc).
  5. The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance
    • (former chess prodigy becomes a martial-arts master. Great insights into how important “depth over breadth” is in learning mastery of a subject. (still debate on this myself a little bit though).
  6. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
    • (a great book on creativity, a fun and easy read)
  7. Wait: The Art and Science of Delay
    • (a nice book to read on the importance of waiting before making snap-decisions which is the norm. Helped me realize the importance of letting my blog posts marinate, and to take longer to make decisions)
  8. Thinking, Fast and Slow
    • (one of the most thorough books I have read about how to improve your decision-making abilities)
  9. Imagine: How Creativity Works
    • Taught me the importance of relaxing when it comes to creativity. And the importance of studying various fields. Controversial book though, as many anecdotes from the book have been discovered to be made up. But still an interesting read.
  10. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
    • (taught me how important it is to be “get in the zone” to be creative).

Favorite Blog Posts of 2012

Timeless Lessons Street Photographers Can Learn from Robert Frank’s “The Americans”

Below is a list of my favorite blog posts from 2012, listed in no particular order:

  1. Timeless Lessons Street Photographers Can Learn from Robert Frank’s “The Americans”
  2. 15 Lessons Bruce Davidson Can Teach You About Street Photography
  3. 10 Things Street Photographers Can Learn From Magnum Contact Sheets
  4. 10 Things Garry Winogrand Can Teach You About Street Photography
  5. 10 Things Alex Webb Can Teach You About Street Photography
  6. 75+ Inspirational Street Photography Books You Gotta Own
  7. Buy Books, Not Gear
  8. 10 Things David Hurn Can Teach You About Street Photography
  9. 10 Things Alex Webb Can Teach You About Street Photography

Most Popular Blog Posts of 2012

10 Things Henri Cartier-Bresson Can Teach You About Street Photography

Below is a list on the most popular blog posts of 2012, based on pageviews:

  1. 10 Things Henri Cartier-Bresson Can Teach You About Street Photography
  2. 10 Famous Street Photography Quotes You Must Know
  3. The BEST Camera for Street Photography
  4. 5 Things Stephen Shore Can Teach You About Street Photography
  5. The 10 Best Street Photography Blogs on the Web (and more)
  6. 35 Magnum Photographers Give Their Advice to Aspiring Photographers
  7. Why Digital Is Dead For Me In Street Photography
  8. 102 Things I Have Learned About Street Photography
  9. 75+ Inspirational Street Photography Books You Gotta Own
  10. 10 Things Garry Winogrand Can Teach You About Street Photography

Focus for 2013

Thanks to Julian Reid for the epic birthday portrait he photoshopped for me
Thanks to Julian Reid for the epic birthday portrait. This is probably how I will look like in 5 years or so.

These are not goals for 2013, but things I would like to focus on in 2013:

  1. Continue to focus on quality, not quantity when it comes to my photography/blogging.
  2. Travel less, spend more time with friends/family back home
  3. Read more books on photography/philosophy

Once again, thank you so much for all of the help and support from 2013. Special thanks to those who have helped house me during my travels, to those who encouraged me when I doubted myself, to those who attended my workshops, and of course to you, my dear reader.