How to Master the Creative Process in Street Photography

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Downtown LA, 2014

We would all love to be more creative in our street photography. We want to create work that stands out from the crowd. We want to create images that connect emotionally to our viewers. We want our images to inspire our viewers. We want our images to speak from our heart, and communicate messages to our viewers.

How do we find more creativity in street photography? I have written about creativity in the past, but have recently been inspired by a new book– “Creativity, Inc.” by the president of Pixar.

Pixar is one of the most creative studios in the world. In my opinion, they haven’t made a bad movie so far. In addition, all of their films have been wildly successful both artistically and commercially all around the globe.

I wanted to use this article as an opportunity to meditate upon the creative process a bit more–and see how we can apply it in our street photography (and other parts of our life).

1. Seek brutally honest feedback

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Downtown LA, 2014

One of the biggest frustrations I had in my street photography starting off was getting honest feedback on my work. Sure I liked the favorites and likes, but at the end of the day–my main goal was to improve my work. To take my work to the next level.

One of the biggest communities that helped me early on was a street photography critique group on Flickr. I thought I had good work when I joined– but boy was I wrong. The members were brutally honest with you, but not in a mean spirited way. We all wanted to grow together as a community, and we knew that wouldn’t be possible with simple pats on the back.

The rule was for everyone one photo you uploaded, you had to critique all of the images in the pool. The benefit of this approach was twofold: firstly, you got honest and constructive feedback on your work. Secondly, you became a better editor by critiquing the work of others.

It is painful to get brutally honest feedback and critique. But there is a fine line between constructive criticism and just plain mean spirited criticism.

My practical advice is to find a community of like minded street photographers whom you feel comfortable around and respect their feedback. There are several ways you can do this:

A) Start your own private online critique group

If you have a group of street photographers you know, make a private critique group on Flickr or Facebook. I suggest a simple rule: for every one image you upload, you need to give at least 3 critiques to the people who uploaded before you. And in your critique, you need to offer at least 3-4 sentences (stating the positive and negatives of the image).

B) Seek critique in-person

There is nothing better than in-person critique and feedback. Receiving critique in-person feedback allows you to get higher quality feedback. People generally spend more time giving feedback and critique in-person, and are generally more articulate. People can point specifically to parts of your image, and tell you what they like and what you can work on.

If you don’t know any other photographers whom you can get feedback from, I suggest either joining a photography workshop, a meet-up group, or trying to google local street photographers in your area.

C) Some online resources

Here are some online street photography critique groups which I highly recommend:

D) When receiving a critique

When receiving a critique, here are some tips I offer:

  • Give people permission to be brutally honest: Tell them that they won’t hurt your feelings, and you want to improve. This will allow people to really open up and give their opinion.
  • Don’t be defensive: Let people express their full opinion on your photographs. Realize that when you get a critique on your images, people aren’t critiquing you as a human being. They are just critiquing your images. Try to prevent saying things like “but there is nothing else I could do” you can control one big thing, which is to edit the shot out.
  • Ask people to spot out the positive and negative: Sometimes we can be blind to both the good and the negative in our images. For example, for one of my best shots (the guy sleeping on the shore in Marseille) I didn’t think the photograph was good until some friends said they liked the image. Similarly, tell people to articulate on the negatives of your images, and ask for feedback.

E) When offering a critique

When you are giving and offering a critique, some things I would consider:

  • Ask people if it is okay for you to be brutally honest: Not everyone wants to have their photographs brutally critiqued. Some photographers just like pats in the back. So before offering critique, ask for permission to be honest first. If people give you permission, then critique away without limits.
  • Be articulate: Don’t just say “I like the photograph” or “I don’t like the photograph”. Say why you like the photograph and why you don’t like the photograph. Is it because the photographer was too far away from their subject? Is it because the subjects expression is weird? Is it because the background is too cluttered and distracting? Put your fingers on your critique, and be specific.
  • Be constructive: Ultimately critiques are useless if you aren’t constructive. Be as constructive and helpful as you can. The purpose of critique is to help the other person grow and develop as a photographer, not to put them down. So offer your critiques with heart and empathy.

2. Be flexible; think like a child

Lansing, Michigan. 2014
Lansing, Michigan. 2014

I recently listened to a podcast in which they talked about how children are often more creative than adults because their minds are more open, flexible, and receptive to the world. They don’t have dogmas or theories in their mind which hold them down.

In Zen, they call this “Beginner’s mind.” When you start off anything as a beginner, you don’t have any prejudices. There are endless possibilities– and the world is your oyster. Creativity springs from beginners more easily than “experts.”

Also in Taosim, there is a philosophy of letting your mind be like water– to not to try to force things, to let things come to you naturally. Often the more we try to force creativity, the less it comes to us. However when we are relaxed, daydreaming, or taking showers– we generally get spikes of inspiration.

While I am a huge advocate of gaining inspiration from those who came before us– try not to rely too much on their work. It causes your work to become derivative, and cliched. Use their work to inspire you to start your photography, but from then– let your own worldview take control.

A way you can apply flexibility into your photography is in your projects. If you are working on a long-term photography project or series, have an open mind. Try not to go into a project with too many preconceived notions. Rather, start a project with a general idea, and let it become more specific over time naturally.

For example, when I started my “Suits” project, I wasn’t quite sure how I would put together the project. I just got laid off my corporate job, and to me– a “Suit” was a metaphor for the corporate world. I therefore went out to capture anyone who wore “suits” people with neckties, without neckties, people with jackets, without jackets, and both men and women. I also photographed people who wore suits who looked happy, sad, and even strange.

Over the course of 2.5 years, and having taken thousands of photographs of people in suits– I started to become more specific in my project. I specifically wanted my “Suits” project to reflect how I felt working corporate: the sadness, gloom, and depression I felt. So I started to only show people wearing suits who looked sad and miserable. I also started to define a “suit” as someone who wore a full suit-and-tie, and also male (I couldn’t find enough females for the project).

So in my example, I started off really broad and general, and became more specific over time. Don’t start off a project with too specific a theme in mind (an extreme example might be pink dogs doing backflips in the streets– you won’t find much).

Also for those of you who are trying to find your “style” continue to experiment and let your curiosity follow you. Photograph anything that interests you in street photography (urban landscapes, commonly found objects in the streets, portraits of people, candid shots, shots with permission, etc). Also take photographs of things outside of street photography (landscapes, flowers, portraits of friends and family, etc) anything that tickles your fancy.

Over time, you will find your voice through what you enjoy photographing. And over time, your voice will become less general, and more specific.

I’ve been shooting street photography for 8 years, and I feel only within the last year or two I’ve been able to find more of a “voice.” I’m still growing and developing and learning and I want to continue thinking like a child where everything is new, fresh, and exciting.

3. Set limits

Tokyo, 2012
Tokyo, 2012

Ironically enough, being creative is a balance between two things: being flexible but also setting limits. We need the flexibility to grow and develop creatively, but at a certain point– we need to also set limits to prevent our minds from wandering too much and being too random.

An example: Haiku’s in poetry. Haiku is a very specific type of poem in which there is a very rigid structure, with a certain amount of lines, and syllables you can have in each line. However in this restriction, you can become more creative. You fit in words you would normally never use together– and having fewer options forces you to become more creative.

One thing I heard in companies is that the companies with the largest budgets are often the least creative. They simply throw money at their problems, and hope to find a creative solution. That rarely happens. Rather, it is the starving college-graduates who have little to no resources who come up with the creative ideas, and end up creating start-ups that disrupt the market. By having fewer options, we learn to make do with what we have– and think of novel ways of implementing ideas and solutions.

A practical example in street photography is working with a prime lens. With a prime lens, you can’t zoom in and out. I remember when I started shooting street photography with my Canon Rebel XT (350D), I had a Sigma 18-200mm lens. To me, it made the most sense. I wanted to capture every single possible moment, and didn’t want to be restricted by my focal length.

However I found that this “super-zoom” lens made me a very lazy photographer– I rarely “worked the scene”, I zoomed rather than moving my feet, and my images weren’t personal (they looked compressed and distant). I also generally found that the majority of my street photographs from this time were all zoomed in, rather than shot close at a wide focal length.

The biggest change in my street photography was when I started to work with primes: first the 50mm on the Rebel XT (too close, it was around an 80mm lens after the crop). Then I got the 35mm on the Rebel XT (now around a 50mm full-frame equivalent, but still too close). I finally settled with a 24mm f/2.8 lens on the Rebel XT (a ~35mm full-frame equivalent) and I fell in love. Since then, I have been shooting with a 35mm lens exclusively the last 5 or so years.

Shooting with a 35mm lens was first very frustrating. If my subject was too far away, I was frustrated I didn’t have a telephoto lens to capture them. However it forced me to be more creative with my compositions. I thought to myself, “How can I capture this scene and still make it interesting– without zooming?” I started to include more of the background and the scene– rather than just zooming in on the subject. By having a wide-angle prime lens, it also force me to get closer to my subjects– which eventually lead me to building more of my confidence and ability to interact with strangers.

Setting limits also is beneficial to working on projects. Sometimes photography projects drag on and on forever. I think that setting deadlines is beneficial both creatively in photography, writing papers for school, and getting any sort of creative work done. Why is that? Without a deadline, it is hard to actually finish. If we have an arbitrary deadline somewhere in the future, we become lazy and complacent. But if the clock is ticking down, we work hard and hustle to create interesting and meaningful work in the limited time we have.

I have heard that near-death experiences are the best ways to gain focus in your life. Death reminds us that our time in the world is limited– and it reminds us to not squander and waste our precious time while we are on this earth.

As someone once said, “Sometimes to step outside of the box, you must step into the shackles (chains).” Ironically enough, when you impose limits upon yourself, you can expand your creativity.

4. Experiment

NYC, 2012
NYC, 2012

Scientists constantly tinker and experiment. This is the only true way to gain knowledge and wisdom. Experimentation is commonly used not only in science– but also in art, technology, and commerce. How do you solve a problem that you don’t know? You must experiment and try it out. You can’t simply hypothesize all day and expect to find real truth. You need to test out your assumptions, and learn from your experiments.

So in street photography, I also recommend you to experiment with different approaches to become more creative. If you find yourself shooting too much like Henri Cartier-Bresson (nice compositions and waiting for people to step into your frame) perhaps make it more edgy and shoot at a close distance with a flash like Bruce Gilden. If you focus only on single subjects like Diane Arbus, perhaps you should try to add more multiple subjects to your images like Alex Webb. If you shoot only candid photographs, perhaps you can ask for permission (and vice versa).

Ultimately you want to make yourself happy in your street photography. You also want to have fun. The second your work becomes boring is the second you need to switch it up.

For example, I shot street photography exclusively in black and white for 5 years. After a while, I became bored with it. I wanted to try something new. So when I started shooting film, I started to experiment with color film (Kodak Portra 400). And since then, it has helped me see the world in a unique way. Now rather than seeing the world in monochrome, I see it in color. I specifically look for interesting color combinations in the streets, and try to integrate meaning through the colors I capture.

The same thing goes with digital and film. I started off shooting my street photography in digital for around 5 years. It has only been the last 2.5 years that I have switched to primarily film for my personal work. I never knew how shooting film would be like– so I experimented. And I fell in love. Film has taught me discipline, better editing skills, and technical know-how with my camera. It has also brought me a lot more satisfaction than shooting digital.

So the next time you want to experiment with your photography, just try it out. If you want to shoot film, go out and buy a cheap film camera and try it out for a month. If you want to shoot medium-format, try that out as well. If you only black and white and want to shoot color, just go out and do it.

Action is the only thing that advance us forward. Remember Nike’s motto: “Just do it.”

5. Learn how to see

Nashville, 2013
Nashville, 2013

One of the best ways to improve your street photography is to build your visual literacy. How can you build your visual literacy? Many different ways. Start off by going to museums and studying the paintings and art of the masters. Ask yourself: why did they paint their subjects the way they did? How did they arrange their subjects in the frame? How is the light hitting their faces? How do the colors, composition, and framing add to the shot?

I’m also a huge advocate of investing in photography books. When you buy a photography book, don’t just look at the photographs– read them. When I say “read” a photograph, I mean analyze them. Ask yourself: “What makes this a great photograph?” Analyze the contrast in the shot, the framing, how close the photographer is to the subject.

Also by looking at a lot of photography books, you know what kind of work has been done before. So this gives you a starting point in terms of knowing where your work lies. You notice the gap between your work and the work of the masters who came before you. Then you start working hard to bridge the gap between your work and the work of a Magnum photographer.

Some tips to better learn how to “see” when it comes to street photography:

  • Look at the background, not the subject: Sometimes we are too drawn to focusing on our subjects when focusing on them. But while you are photographing your subject, be very conscious about the background. Move your feet to the left, right, or crouch down, to eliminate clutter in the background.
  • Fill the negative space in the frame: When you are photographing your subjects, aim to fill the negative space in the frame. If there is a part of your frame which isn’t being filled, either take a step closer, or wait for another element to enter the scene to fill it. If you want to purposefully add negative space in your shot, do it intentionally.
  • Look at your photographs as small thumbnails: When you import your photographs into Lightroom, look at them as small thumbnails. This will help you better analyze your compositions– whether the backgrounds have a good balance to your subject. Whether there is strong figure-to-ground. Whether the colors add or distract from you.
  • Flip your photographs upside down: This is a trick that a lot of artists do– flip their images upside down. This can be a good trick to better analyze your compositions, as it is a unique view of the scene your mind isn’t used to seeing.
  • Educate yourself: Continue to learn more about the history of street photography from my “Learn from the Masters” series on the right column of the blog. Also you can check out my lessons on street photography composition. Further resources include Adam Marelli for composition, or attending workshops. I offer street photography workshops, as well as In-Public, Magnum, and online courses with my friend Charlie Kirk. Or take a local community college class never stop learning.

6. Travel

Indianapolis, 2014
Indianapolis, 2014

Sometimes we become complacent by staying in one place for too long. To become more creative, sometimes we need to step outside of our comfort zone.

I have found that traveling is the best ways I have kept creative over the years. Once I think that I “figured it out” traveling always challenges my presumptions. Through my travels I have experienced different cultures which challenge the way I think. I also meet individuals who have differing world-views from myself, which also expand my mind.

Not all of us have the time, resources, or opportunity to travel to distant places. But know that travel doesn’t have to be far. You can just go away from your city over the weekend. Drive a few hours to a new town or area.

You can also travel to different places mentally. Experience other places in the world through photographs. Do it through movies and cinema. Do it through books, novels, and poetry.

Know that the way you are used to doing things aren’t the “only way” to do things. Always be willing and accepting to learn things from different places, societies, and cultures– and you will continue to thrive creatively.


Tucson, 2013
Tucson, 2013

Know that ultimately creativity is about having fun. It is about seeing the world from the perspective of a child. Anything is possible, and creativity helps us feel fully alive.

Remember that street photography is ultimately for yourself. First aim to please yourself through your photography, then to please others.

If you feel stagnant in your photography, know that you must continue to hustle and push your limits and boundaries. Stay hungry for knowledge and continued learning. While you want to be flexible with your mind, know that setting constraints can often help you as well.

Now go out and shoot!

Further reading on creativity