5 Essentialist Tips in Street Photography

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Pittsburgh, 2013

Photos in this article are part of my on-going “Somewhere in America” Urban Landscape series.

I recently finished a book titled: “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less”, which made me think a lot about my life, the blog, and street photography. To sum up the book, the author praises the “less is more” ethos, and encourages us to do “less, but better”.

I got inspired to write this article on how being an “essentialist” can help us in our street photography. Below are some ideas you can apply to your work and approach:

1. Almost everything is noise, focus on the essential

Garden Grove, 2013
Garden Grove, Los Angeles. 2013

Dieter Rams is one of the most famous designers, well known for his minimalist and functional designs. His philosophy of design was that almost everything is noise and distraction, and the most important thing was to focus on the essential. He is the grandfather of: “Less, But Better“.

Dieter Ram's T3 Minimalist Transistor Radio, made in 1958. Note the striking similarity with the original iPod
Dieter Ram’s T3 Minimalist Transistor Radio, made in 1958. Note the striking similarity with the original iPod

The biggest problem I see in most street photographers work is that there is too much clutter and “noise” in their photography. In street photography, we want to remove clutter and noise in our images. We want to cut out distractions in the background and inessential elements.

Rather, we should focus on the “signal” or the essential parts of a photograph, and try to eliminate everything else. You can do this by focusing on a single person, a single gesture, or expression or mood.

If you are into layers and multiple subjects, you can still create more complex frames (without making them “complicated”). I would say the difference between a “complex” frame and a “complicated” frame is the following:

  • Complex photos: have multiple layers, multiple interesting points of emotion, and little overlap and distracting figures.
  • Complicated photos: have too much clutter in the photos, poor figure-to-ground (separation of subjects from the background), and too much noise an distractions.

So when you’re out shooting, focus on the essential parts of the photo. What you decide not to include in the frame is more important than what you decide to include in the frame.

2. Only show photos that are damn good

Nashville, 2013
Nashville, 2013

Another tip I learned from the book is when making decisions, you should only make decisions that make you go “hell yeah” (or else it should be no). So for example, if you get a potential job offer and you are on the fence about taking the job, don’t take the job. It is better not to settle for mediocre opportunities. Your excitement for a new job should be a “hell yes”. Only follow opportunities that you are “damn certain” about.

We can also apply this methodology to editing photos (choosing which photos to keep and which photos to ditch). I often have difficulty judging my own shots and I get a lot of “maybe” photos. But based on my experiences, when I get really excited about a photo and think it is “damn good”– it is generally quite strong. Photos that are in my “maybe” folder rarely make the final cut.

Of course it is still helpful to get second opinions from other photographers or curators you trust. So when you are having them review your work, ask them to be brutal. Take note when they are either surprised, impressed, or stare at one of your photos. Ask them which photos are your “damn good” photos, and ask them to help you kill the rest.

3. Have fun

Indianapolis, 2013
Indianapolis, 2013

According to the author, the life of the “essentialist” is to follow what he or she enjoys. What feels like play, not work.

99.9% of us our there shoot for fun as a hobby, not as a way of making a living. Even myself– I don’t shoot for a living. I teach for a living.

We have enough stress from our jobs, our families, and everyday lives. We shouldn’t have more stress from street photography. We should only be shooting subject matter or projects which we enjoy. We should have fun. If we’re not having fun, we won’t have the energy, inertia, or passion to continue.

So the second you aren’t enjoying your street photography, consider switching it up. Perhaps shoot in a new neighborhood, go travel somewhere, go on a road trip, pursue a new project, try out digital or film, try out a new format. Continue to keep fresh with your creativity and let curiosity and fun lead the way.

4. Find focus in your work

Detroit, 2013
Detroit, 2013

An “essentialist” doesn’t try to pursue too many things at once. He or she focuses on one thing at a time– and aims to do it well.

Many of us photographers have “photography A.D.D.”. We try to shoot too many different types of photography (landscape, macro, street, portrait, wedding, etc) and we try to shoot with too many different cameras and focal lengths. Rather, by finding focus can we truly become great photographers.

If you are reading this and you are just dabbling in street photography– ask yourself the question: do you want to become a great street photographer? If the question is yes, I’d recommend you to cut out the other types of photography you are pursuing to just focus on your street photography. Life is short, and according to Malcom Gladwell in his book: “Outliers“, we need to dedicate at least 10,000 hours to our craft to become an expert and master. If you split your time between street, landscape, macro, etc– you will never become great at one.

The same thing goes with cameras and gear. If you shoot with too many different cameras and focal lengths, you will never really master one camera and approach. For a certain project, focus on sticking either to black and white or color, with one camera, and one prime lens. By eliminating other options, these constraints will force you to be more creative– and also create a more consistent artistic vision.

5. Prioritize your photography

Somewhere in America, 2013
Somewhere in America, 2013

There is a saying I got from the book: “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will for you.” There are so many obligations we have in our life, and it can be hard to prioritize our photography. But if we don’t prioritize our photography, our passion will simply get swept under the rug.

Don’t be the guy who dies and has the gravestone: “This person had a lot of money, cars, and houses, and answered all his emails.” What do you really want out of your life? If photography is your true passion and makes you feel fully alive, make it a priority in your life. Disregard money, fame, and power. This will cause you to become a workaholic and not have any time for your photography.

Make it clear to others how important your photography is to you, and set boundaries. Have alone time to go out and shoot with yourself or with friends. If you don’t prioritize your street photography, you will never have enough time to go out and actually take photos.


East Lansing, Michigan. 2013
East Lansing, Michigan. 2013

If you want to live a life with more purpose and focus, I highly recommend the “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less”. I think that by applying these ideas of essentialism we will find more purpose, meaning, and happiness through our street photography.

Rebel against the culture of trying to do more. Try to do less by cutting out unimportant schedules, events, and people out of your life. Focus on what makes you happy and what you enjoy– your photography. Carve out time to shoot, and don’t compromise.

Integrate photography as a part of your life, be laser focused in your work, and with enough patience, sweat, and time– you will become a great photographer.

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