The Benefits of Constraints in Street Photography

Dubai, 2014
Dubai, 2014

I always thought to myself: the day I had unlimited money, unlimited time, and unlimited cameras was the day I could truly be creative.

Funny enough, I found out that wasn’t the case. Out of all photographers I’ve met, the ones that are most creative are the ones that are strapped on resources– the ones that have constraints.

For example I met a photographer named Julie Eirich in Berlin a few years ago. When she was in university studying photography, she was dead broke and had a cheap Yaschica TLR and could only afford to take one photograph a day (medium format film). So she would carry around her camera dutifully, and only take one photograph a day when she thought it was really really worth it.

She ended up creating a really strong body of work while in Korea, all from her constraints– both in terms of her finances, and her gear (she only used one camera).

I once read a quite on creativity: “To step out of the box, you must first step into the shackles”. Meaning, to step out of the box and be creative, you must first lock yourself up into shackles (chains).

I have found that it is hard for us to have all the time in the world. Even though I am a “full time photographer”– I still find if hard to make time to shoot. I also sometimes make excuses to myself: I don’t have enough inspiration, not enough cameras, lenses, etc.

However I’m starting to realize more and more that it is constraints which really inspires us to be creative.

There is a saying in Vietnamese I learned: “From hunger, emerges the wise”. This kind of goes in saying with Steve jobs, “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” It also goes with the saying, “Hunger breeds sophistication”.

I think all of these meanings remind us: less is more. Having constraints in our circumstances force us to be more resourceful and creative.

One of my good friends Charlie Kirk used to work as a lawyer in Tokyo and quite hated his job. He worked a lot– but all of his frustration he would channel into his street photography after work. He had limited time, but he ended up creating a very strong body of work in Tokyo of beautiful women and strange people/moments.

Josef Koudelka is another photographer who really inspires me. He literally hasn’t had a “job” the last 50 years of his life. He has simply lived like a vagabond, only working on photography projects he was passionate about. He was constantly broke, borrowing money from friends, even borrowing film and darkroom time. He would crash on the floor of friends, and there are tons of stories of him even crashing on the floor of the magnum offices.

For myself, I also found that adding constraints to my photography has helped me be more creative. For example, I stick with only one focal length (35mm). I remember when I started street photography on my Canon rebel XT, I had a 18-200 sigma zoom lens. I thought to myself: this lens is awesome, because I am able to capture any moment possible. I thought having more options in terms of focal length would make me more creative.

But the opposite was the case. Having too many options in terms of zooming hurt me creatively. I had too many options. My images didn’t look consistent. And my “super zoom” lens made me lazy. I didn’t actually “work the scene” by taking a step closer to my subject. I didn’t shoot different angles (left, to the right).

The biggest change in my photography starting off was when I switched to a prime lens. By having a prime lens, it restricted the other focal lengths. At first I was frustrated by this, but I discovered it forced me to be more creative with my framing. Since then, I have stated consistent with a 35mm lens the last 6 years– and I think it has helped me tremendously. I now know my focal length inside and out. I know what my framing looks me before I take a photo (by lifting my camera up to my eye).

Another good example of constraints helping creativity: I am currently typing this out on an iPad. I find when it try to write on my laptop, I get too distracted. I have too many options of things I can do. The benefit of writing on an iPad is that I am forced to focus on one task at a time. My writing application (iA writer) takes up the full screen. There are few options for formatting or anything else– so once again, I’m forced to type.

I used to think with cameras having more camera made me more creative. But for me, I found it to add unnecessary stress in my life. Before I would go out to shoot — I would ask myself: which camera should I bring today? I would then have to stress over what cameras to bring. Eventually I decided on bringing all of my cameras. And of course this would cause my bag to be super heavy. And when I would actually be out shooting, it caused me to be tired more easily (bag is heavy) and also I would try to switch cameras when out and shooting.

I find the same to be the case when shooting both digital and film. I find it stressful going out with both a digital and a film camera. I’m not sure which to shoot a scene with. So I’ll try to shoot the same scene on both digital and film. But once again, this causes wasted time and more stress. Now what I do is this: I choose to work on a certain project on a certain camera, film, and lens.

For my “Only in America” series, I’m doing it all in color Kodak portra 400 film on my film Leica with my 35mm lens (only lens I own). Same goes for my “suits” project. However for my “Saigon diary” series, I ended up shooting it all on digital on a Fujifilm x100s and in black and white (albeit I made the choice to switch it all to black and white towards the end).

The same goes with traveling. I find having too many places to photograph hurts the photographic process. I end up being a tourist in many different places, rather than getting to know one place really really well. When I see the work of other photographers, I feel the best work is done in one certain location for a very long time. I know it is good to travel to be inspired, but the best photography projects can be done in your own backyard (over many years).

So what I propose with creativity in photography is this: limit yourself. Create artificial constraints. Realize that the more stuff you get rid of, the more you will be creative. Creativity isn’t having more tools, more money, or more opportunities. Creativity is about closing doors, and limiting your options.

So for me, I find myself being more creative owning fewer cameras. I therefore make it a point to sell or give away my cameras when I accumulate too many. I also try to avoid shooting any focal length that isn’t 35mm. Furthermore, I try to limit the amount of photos I include in a project (I try to kill my babies ruthlessly). I’m also trying to travel to fewer places, but spending more time in each place (to get to know it better).