On Patience and Street Photography

Garden Grove, 2014
Garden Grove, 2014

I am often frustrated with my photography. Sometimes I will prowl the streets for hours, without getting any decent shots. Sometimes I ask myself, “what is the point of all of this”– does it all really matter?

One of the biggest inspirations in my photography is Josef Koudelka. He is the type of photographer who takes 10 years to publish one book, and the book is damn good. He takes his time with his photography, and the only person he has to impress is himself.

I think as a photographer, you should only strive to make one really solid body of work in your entire lifetime. As long as you have made one strong body of work, you have done your work as a photographer.

A strong body of work generally takes 5–10 years (based on my research on the masters). Of course it can longer or shorter, but I find that to be a good blueprint for a strong body of work.

So why are we so obsessed with rushing through our photography– just to upload it to Facebook, flickr, Instagram to get lots of “likes” and favorites”? Will these little hearts and purple stars keep us warm at night? Will they really matter in 100 years? What will still exist when we pass on?

Our body of work will exist after we pass. And publishing them in a book (print) is one of the most secure ways. Will our flickr, website, blog, or Instagram be around 100 years from now? I highly doubt it. I can’t even open up files from floppy disks when I was a kid. Sure we have cloud storage and all that jazz, but do you remember Iomega Zip drives? Where are they now?

10 years for one project seems like a long time. However, think about how quickly the last 10 years of your life quickly passed. And just like that the next 10 years of your life will whizz on past.

Most street photographers I know make at least 1 good photo a month, and 1 great photograph a year. That’s around 12 good shots a year.

If your photo book is going to be around 40 images (which I think is a good number for a photo book), that means you can make a pretty decent book in about 3–4 years. If you are epic enough and spend 5–10 years, it will be damn good.

What do you want to be remembered for at the end of your life? Do you want to be remembered for a bunch of mediocre photos that had tons of favorites on social media? Or do you want a solid body of work that will be remembered and cherished for generations to come?

It’s hard. I get tempted all the time to just publish photos for the likes and favs. It’s like a drug. Once I get a hit of those little pink stars and red hearts, I feel validation. I feel acknowledged. I feel good about myself.

But then social media is often a distraction for me. It prevents me from working on serious long term projects. Rather, I get distracted by the short term gratification of social media affirmation.

I think I liken social media to junk food. Sure it feels great in the short term (drinking tons of beer, fried chicken, and chips)– but your health suffers in the long run.

I liken working on long-term projects like being conscious about your heath. You don’t see the benefits quickly and you feel like you’re “missing out” – but it pays huge dividends in the long-run.

So I guess my ultimate take-away point is this: take your time in your street photography. Don’t rush things. Take your time. Approach the Vivian Maier, Garry Winogrand, and Saul Leiter approach and build up a body of work and mostly shoot for yourself (then share and publish with others). Life is crazy and hectic enough with work, family, and the stresses of everyday life. Why not slow down when it comes to your personal photography, which should make you happy, relaxed, and satisfied?

Some practical tips to become more patient in your street photography and take your time on long term projects:

1. Fast from social media

Many studies show that fasting from food and drink for periods of time is good for your health. I think the same applies to your photography fasting from social media is also good for your work (and sanity).

Decide how long you want to go without uploading any images to social media. It can be a week, a month, 6 months, or even a year (or longer).

The longest I personally have gone without uploading any work online was 8 months, and it was the best experience ever. I focused on my personal work, had more time to let my photos marinate, and got more critique and feedback from friends. Funny enough, I was also a lot less anxious and stressed out (of what others thought about my work)– which helped me focus on how I felt about my work.

2. Shoot film

I haven’t professed 150 rolls of kodak portra 400 which I’ve shot over the last 8 months. I’m trying to copy Garry Winogrand who would often go a year without processing any his films.

The reason I am purposefully waiting (around a year) before professing my films is this: I want to create emotional distance from my photographs, and purposefully forget haven taken many of the shots. Very often my memory of having taken some shots confuses me. Sometimes the back story of taking a photograph affects how I judge a photograph. I become too emotionally attached to my bad photos.

So letting my photos sit or “marinate” for a long period of time allows me to gain emotional distance from my photographs– so I can brutally edit my photos down, in a more “objective” way.

Furthermore, when I forget having taken some photos, I am a lot more critical of my work. It’s almost like judging someone else’s photos (than my own). I often become very defensive of my photos (they’re like my babies) when I get critique or feedback on my work.

Remember, you must “kill your babies” in photography.

So I find shooting film helps me not be in such a rush to see my photos. When I shoot digital, I have no patience. I chimp like crazy, and want to quickly download my photos to Lightroom. I don’t get enough emotional distance.

Film forces me not to chimp– and knowing that I cannot control myself (when shooting digital), I choose to shoot film.

If you shoot digital, you can just take a different approach: don’t look at your photos until a month or so after shooting your images. Turn off your LCD auto review, or tape up your LCD screen – whatever works for you.

3. Embrace “JOMO”

I have talked about “FOMO” in the past, which is “fear of missing out”. I recently was talking with a workshop student in Sydney named Thien who said he actually likes to miss out on purpose. He likes “JOMO”– the joy of missing out.

What are the joys of missing out? You feel less stressed out from having to constantly upload images, and helps you be more present and focused on your photography.

Who cares if you miss out on likes and favorites. Fuck the little pink stars and hearts.


Take your time in your photography. Like Saul Leiter, “take your time”. Be patient. Be present. Enjoy the act of photographing. Who cares what others think of your work. Make yourself happy. Find that zen and inner peace.

Slow, down. And don’t forget to have fun.

Make a great body of work, it will take time– but damn, will it be worth it.