On Going With the Flow in Street Photography

Indianapolis, 2014
Indianapolis, 2014

I just finished reading a book titled: “Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity”. It was a fascinating read on the paradox of “wu-wei”– which is a concept in Taoism of “action without action”. This means nature accomplishes everything without effort. Similarly, we should be able to accomplish many things in our life without unnecessary effort. In-fact according to wu-wei, most things in life (especially things we love) should be effortless.

Of course you know in my blog, I like to relate everything I read back to street photography. And I think this idea of “wu-wei” in street photography is quite fascinating.

To sum up, in street photography (according to wu-wei), our best shots should come to us naturally– without making any unnecessary effort.

Now what does this mean on a practical sense? Of course we can’t go out without a camera and simply expect to get good photos. We need to do our due diligence. We need to study the masters, always have a camera with us, and click our shutters.

However, I think the main point I want to stress is we shouldn’t force our photography. We shouldn’t shoot subject matter or work on projects that doesn’t make us happy. We should simply go with the flow, and let the shots come to us.

For example, I often find my best photos are in the most unexpected places, during the most unexpected times. And ironically enough– when I go out with the intent to make good photos, they never come to me.

Indianapolis, 2014
Indianapolis, 2014

When I was in London earlier this year (working on my “Suits” project) I went to the financial district, and frantically roamed the streets looking for interesting guys in suits to photograph. Unfortunately after hours of fast-paced wandering, I couldn’t get any good shots.

Frustrated, I went into a Starbucks, ordered a double-espresso, took out my laptop, and started to blog and answer emails. Suddenly out of nowhere (sitting right across from me) was a marvelous guy in a suit– with his glasses held by his teeth while he was sending an email on his blackberry.

I couldn’t believe my luck. I started shooting frantically at first– then realized I could take my time. I ended up taking around 16 photos of him without him even noticing. I then went back to my espresso and computer. I haven’t got the shot developed yet, but I’m quite certain it is a “keeper”.

I often sit at a crossroads when it comes to this idea of “trying hard” versus “not trying too hard”. I think when you’re starting off, you need to give conscious “deliberate practice” and put in your 10,000 hours of photography to become an “expert” in photography. However you don’t want to be unhappy when you’re out shooting, and feeling like you’re doing it against your will.

Most people I know who shoot street photography do it as a hobby– a passion, something they love.

Life, family, jobs are stressful enough. Why add unnecessary stress to something we’re passionate about? Don’t forget, street photography should be fun (not causing us additional stress or anxiety).

So in that sense, I feel that we should embrace more spontaneity, “going with the flow”, and “wu-wei” in our street photography.

What does this mean in a practical way? Here is what I generally tend to do:

1. Always have your camera with you

Garden Grove, Los Angeles 2013

I make it a point to always have my camera with me, no matter what. I generally always have my Leica MP in my messenger bag or backpack, and if I’m just going to the grocery store, I bring along a point-and-shoot Contax T3. I find that the best shots always showed up whenever I left my camera at home, so I made it a point to never leave home without a camera.

On top of that, some of my best photos have been in really random moments: pumping my gas at a gas station, in a restaurant on the way to the restroom, inside the restroom, inside a super market, and tons of photos in cafés (where I always get my best writing done, like right now).

By always having your camera with you, you will always be able to capture any wonderful spontaneous street photography moment. I recommend carrying around your “main camera”– but even an iPhone or smartphone can be good enough (better than nothing!)

2. Make photography fit into your lifestyle (not vice-versa)

Garden Grove, Los Angeles 2013

One difficulty many of us face is having enough time to go out and shoot. We have busy day jobs, families to attend to, financial matters, and other boring stuff of everyday life.

Not many of us are able to carve out huge blocks of time to go out and shoot, so I recommend trying to find time to shoot in the cracks in-between your daily life.

For example, shoot a little bit on the way to the office. Shoot during your lunch break. Go on a walk or take photos inside a cafe during your coffee break. Go take photos when you’re out with your kids. Take photos if you’re stuck in traffic from inside your car (be careful). Take photos when you’re shopping for groceries. Shoot when you’re in the office or in-between appointments. Take photos at the gym you go to. Take photos at church, temple, or any community center you frequent. Make photography a part of your daily life as a “stream of consciousness”– or a “photographic diary”.

As a practical note, I just try to take at least one shot a day, and don’t try to force it. Anything that slightly catches my attention, I’ll just take a photograph without discrimination. Every photograph I take doesn’t have to be the most interesting photograph.

3. Take your time

Grand Ledge. Michigan 2013

Realize that great photography takes a long time. I think most street photographers I know and admire only admit to taking one good shot a month, and maybe one great shot a year.

Street photography is hard. Damn hard. The hardest type of photography out there. There is so little control we have, and there is so much spontaneity. As David Hurn from Magnum says, we can only control two things in photography: where we stand and when we click the shutter.

Assuming you get one good shot a month, that is 12 good shots a year. 12 shots is a good to make a nice series for your website. If you shoot for 2 years, that is 24 good shots– suitable for a exhibition. If you shoot for 3 years, that is 36 photos– good enough for a medium-sized book.

So don’t try to rush things in your photography. Take your time. Go with the flow– but still try to shoot whenever the opportunity arises.


East Lansing, Michigan 2013

I think ultimately when it comes to photography, life–whatever, we need to exert some effort. We can’t make street photos without leaving our house. We can’t make street photos without a camera in our bag. We won’t know what a good photo is without studying the masters. We can’t make photos without hitting the shutter. We can’t make street photos without getting fast the “fear” barrier and by hesitating. There is a lot of hard work that needs to go in terms of building our photographic knowledge, and by going out and actively shooting.

However if street photography is truly your passion and love– all of this stuff should be effortless. You should be looking at greet photos all the time (not because I encourage it) but because you naturally love doing if. You should be investing in photography books that you are a passionate about (because you’re hungry for great images that touch your soul). You should be out hitting the streets because it is like a fire that burns inside of you– by staying inside home all day you will go insane. You meet other equally passionate photographers because you are naturally drawn to them– you don’t force yourself to meet up with them (just to network). You work on a certain photographic project because it is meaningful to you, and there is an important message you want to convey.

So in this regard, everything we are passionate in life should be effortless. Meaning, your body and mind naturally gravitates towards photography– and becomes obsessive, and puts in the hard work and hours.

Garden Grove, Los Angeles 2013

So if you’re working on a photography project that no longer interests you, or if you’re not passionate bout it– I recommend ditching it. Sometimes this is hard to do because of the “sunk cost bias” (like how we tend to go all-in in a game of poker if we’ve already lost 75% of our chips). Or how we tend to stay in bad relationships if weave already invested 10 years of our life in it. Real winners are the quitters, who know when to quit when something is no longer worth it, or interesting.

If you shoot digital and it no longer makes you happy (and you want to try film), go buy a cheap film camera and go for it. If you shoot film and it no longer makes you happy, invest in a digital camera (or even use your smartphone) and go out and shoot and see if you like it.

Curiosity, passion, and wonderment is a powerful tool we should embrace. Naturally gravitate towards what really turns you on.

If you find it hard to go out and shoot street photography, perhaps it isn’t the right genre of photography for you. Which is totally fine (who says you have to be a “street photographer” anyways?) If you enjoy shooting flowers, go for it! Even Lee Friedlander went through a phase of shooting flowers in-between his urban street photography.

Do what makes you happy. Disregard the expectations that others out on you, and don’t force yourself to do things in photography that don’t make you happy. The most important person to impress is yourself– everything else comes secondary.

If you liked this article, I recommend reading: “The Tao of Street Photography” and “Zen in the Art of Street Photography”.