How to Embrace “Stream-of-Consciousness” in Street Photography

Berkeley, 2015
Berkeley, 2015

One of the best pieces of advice I got on writing is the importance of writing without editing. Which means, turn off the inner-censor in your mind and write freely.

What or who is the “inner censor”? Well, the inner-censor is the little voice in your head which tells you “Oh don’t do that, that’s stupid. That sounds stupid. That looks stupid.” It is that inner-voice that prevents you from writing in a stream-of-consciousness flow.

When I was in middle school and high school– I would always write and edit at the same time. Meaning, I would write a sentence or two– think it sounded stupid, and delete it– and try to re-write it again.

What I learned in college from my writing professor was that you should just write down all your thoughts onto the paper. To bleed onto the paper. To vomit your thoughts upon the paper. Then of course, afterwards– clean it up in the editing phase.

That piece of advice has stuck with me for a long time. Even today, I still write in this “stream-of-consciousness” type of way. I generally have a general concept or an idea of what I want to write about when I start off. But then, I simply let the thoughts flow from my head and unto my fingers, which are typing away at this keyboard right now.

I think the same applies in our street photography. Often when we are out shooting on the streets, we have an “inner-censor.” That little voice which says, “Oh no, don’t take that photo. It looks boring.” Or it might say, “Oh don’t take that photo, that person might get upset.” This inner-censor prevents us from taking a ton of photos– photos that we end up regretting not taking.

Rather, I think we should shoot street photography the way we write. Which is to simply go out and shoot freely, aimlessly, and in a flow– then decide to edit afterwards. Anders Petersen, a famous Swedish photographer said something along the lines of: “Shoot from the gut, edit with your brain.

He alongside photographers such as JH Engstrom and Daido Moriyama (and many other Japanese photographers) shoot in a “stream-of-consciousness” type of way. They don’t have too much of a pre-conceived notion in their head when they’re out shooting. Rather, they shoot whatever interests them at the moment, and decide how to edit, sequence, and lay-out their books afterwards.

I think when you work on a street photography project there are two main ways you can go about it:

a) Have a broad and general concept for a photography project and go out and shoot it. And then over time, edit your images down into a more specific narrative or concept.

b) Start off with no project in mind, and simply go out and shoot whatever interests you. Then after a long time of shooting, take a look at your images, and figure out reoccurring themes in your work. Then from there, edit down your images to a certain theme– and continue pursuing it.

I don’t think there is a “right” or “wrong” way to work on a project. I think rather, it is about finding the approach and style which fits your personal vision. It is about figuring out what approach works best for you.

So how are some ways we can better apply “stream-of-consciousness” street photography to our work? Here are some ideas on things not to do:

  1. Don’t hesitate when taking photographs. If you see a photograph even mildly interesting, just take a shot of it. You can always edit it out later.
  2. Don’t only take one photograph. Work the scene and take many different photographs at different angles and perspectives. For example if you look at “Magnum Contact Sheets“– you see that the great photographers rarely took only one shot of a scene. Similarly in Daido Moriyama’s “Labyrinth” (his book of contact sheets) you can see how he works the scenes which he photographs. He brackets his shots (shoots one at 0 exposure compensation, one shot at +1 compensation, one shot at -1 compensation) and also shoots the same subject (once with a flash, and once without a flash).
  3. Don’t delete photos. Don’t delete photos while you’re out shooting. This simply kills the “flow” when you’re out on the streets. Do all of the editing and deleting of photographs later, when you are at home on your computer.
  4. Don’t chimp. “Chimping” is checking your LCD screen after taking a photograph. Unless you are a total newbie who doesn’t know how to use your camera– there is no reason for you to chimp. Don’t worry so much about the exposure (if you’re shooting RAW you can always fix the exposure afterwards). Also rather than chomping to check your composition, simply take a lot of photos of the same scene from different angles (you will have more images to choose from, and one image will be the ‘best’ composition).
  5. Don’t aim for perfection. You will never find a “perfect” moment when you’re out on the streets. Rather, you will simply find fragments of interesting moments– at certain phases of the day and depending where you are. Don’t go out shooting to seek the perfect “decisive moment.” Once again, photograph anything that remotely interests you– and do the editing afterwards.
  6. Don’t go a day without shooting. I think consistency is the most important trait to become great in any art or practice. For example, the best advice for writers is to write everyday. The best exercise advice is to exercise everyday. The best way to show love and gratitude is to be grateful everyday and give hugs and kisses to your loved ones. Everyday doesn’t have to be the best shooting day– but at least you took a photograph everyday and kept your trigger finger warm. When Ray Bradburry was asked advice for aspiring writers, this is what he shared: “Write a short story every week. It is hard to make 52 bad short stories in a row.” Know that it is your small improvements and progress in your photography which will stack up and snowball over time.


Know that nobody becomes great overnight. To become a great photographer isn’t to make one great image and retire. It is about having the determination and tenacity to keep going out and shooting– even when you’re not inspired. And picture-by-picture, you will build up your body of work. From there, you will eventually create a series, a book, or an exhibition which you will be proud of.

Never stop shooting.

Further reading

To learn more about the “stream of consciousness” type of photography– I recommend checking out the work of Anders Petersen, Daido Moriyama, Jacob Aue Sobol, and investing in the book “Labyrinth” by Daido Moriyama.