All photographs copyrighted by Todd Hido.
You can read part 2 here: “Lessons Todd Hido Has Taught Me About Street Photography (Part 2)“. You can also download the entire article free via .docx, PDF, and Google Doc.
I have really been loving the “Photography Workshop Series” that Aperture has been publishing. They recently did a book with Alex Webb on Street Photography, and also another book with Larry Fink on Composition.
The other day I was browsing Amazon, and Todd’s Hido’s new book (published by Aperture) titled: “Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude” popped up. I had heard about Todd Hido from a few good friends, loved his work (landscapes and portraits), his use of colors, and the down-to-earth nature he had in his interviews on YouTube.
I instinctively ordered the book (it is very affordable at only around $20)— and have been absolutely blown away by the book. It is quite possibly one of the most educational, helpful, and inspiring photography books I have ever invested in. I can easily say that it is probably one of my 3 favorite “photography-educational” books, alongside Magnum Contact Sheets and Dan Winter’s “Road to Seeing.”
I learned a lot from the book and highly recommend everyone purchase a copy. The printing quality is incredible (color photographs pop out with so much emotion), the feeling and texture of the book, the size, and also the information inside.
Even though Todd Hido isn’t a street photographer— I have learned a lot of lessons from him that I personally have applied to my street photography. Let’s delve in and see what we can learn together:
1. Make your photos “All killer; no filler”
In the introduction of “Todd Hido: on Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude” Gregory Halpern (a former student of Todd Hido) shares how surprised he was that Todd’s books were quite short. He asked Todd about his editing process, and he shares this story below:
“[Todd’s] second book, ‘Outskirts,’ had just come out, and I spent a lot of time looking at it, as well as his first book, ‘House Hunting.’ Those books were both short, and I wondered how they felt so complete and powerful with so few images. I wanted to know how he edited and asked him about his process one day. He smiled and said without missing a beat, ‘All killer; no filler.’ I still hear those words whenever I edit.”
I think in photography in general— we show too many images. Our edits tend to be too wide— we need to include more “killer” images— and edit out the “filler” images.
I remember when I used to watch TV shows and there would be all of these “filler” episodes to be there for the sake of being there. The episodes weren’t interesting, they didn’t advance the storyline, and actually took away from the entire series.
I think when you are editing your own photography— only show your killer photos.
Don’t just upload photos to social media for the sake of it. I think that many of us (myself included) have the fear of being forgotten or becoming irrelevant— so we constantly pump out images to just be seen.
I know that I personally have this fear when it comes to blogging— I feel that if I don’t blog every single day, people will stop visiting my blog, and then stop signing up for my workshops, and then I will become homeless, and then die on the streets.
I think most of us have the privilege of having stable jobs— and street photography is just a creative outlet for us— a passion. Very few of us make a living from photography, so don’t feel any pressure to upload “filler” images to the internet.
You are only as good as your weakest photo. Only show your best work on the internet.
I make it a practice that every few months I go back to my Flickr (and website portfolio) and edit out my weaker shots. I have been on Flickr for around 5+ years, and have fewer than 100 images on it.
I used to have 8+ projects on my website portfolio, but I recently edited down my projects to just 3 (my most meaningful and my strongest work).
So think of how you can go back and edit down your own work. Perhaps go to your Flickr account and for the weaker photos, either delete them or mark them to private. Also when you plan on uploading photos online you can ask yourself, “Is this photograph killer, or is it just filler?”
Also when you’re putting together an exhibition, book, or series— don’t just put in filler images to make it bigger than it needs to be. Make sure that every image contributes to the series as a whole— but can also stand on its own as a single image.
2. Work hard
In the introduction of the book, Gregory Halpern also talks about Todd Hido’s epic work ethic:
“[Todd’s] work ethic was legendary. He never said ‘work harder.’ I just always saw him working, so I worked harder. The best was if you could manager to print in the color (analog) darkroom on the days when Todd printed. He often did so late, and sometimes we would be there into the wee hours. Once, when he was leaving the darkroom, and I was proud to be printing still, he said, ‘Don’t print ’til 4:00am. Stop at midnight and get soem sleep. I’m going home now so I’ll have more energy to come back and print tomorrow.”
I have wrote many articles on the masters of street photography (and studied a lot of “successful” people). One of the common traits which appear is having a strong work ethic. No matter how talented or gifted you are, if you don’t put in the work— you won’t make any great work. There are no shortcuts around working hard.
However there is a difference between working hard (the sake of working hard) versus “working smart.”
For example Todd Hido told Gregory Halpern to work hard at printing, but to end early so he could have enough energy to print the next day (and continue being productive).
When you’re out shooting street photography— I don’t advise walking around for 12 hours a day, mindlessly taking images. Work hard, but shoot smart.
Alex Webb only shoots two times during the day: at sunrise and sunset. During the in-between times he will rest, scout for other locations, and perhaps take a nap. He only shoots when the light is good during “golden hour” — so he doesn’t waste his time, energy, or effort when the light isn’t good.
Joel Meyerowitz also shared in an interview that after prowling the streets of NYC like a hunter (looking for “decisive moments) he learned a better strategy: finding a good street corner, and waiting for people to come to you. By staking out a street corner (with good light and action), he was able to conserve his energy. He also ended up making much more interesting street photos that were much more complex and multi-faceted.
So work hard in the streets, but also work smart. If you want to capture interesting scenes and people, go to where the people are. If you want good light in your photographs, only shoot when the light is good.
When you’ve walked an entire day and feel tired or burnt out, take a break. Sit down at a cafe, and have a coffee, and relax. You can’t keep pushing yourself to shoot if you’re tired.
But if you want to become a truly great photographer, you will need to put in the hours of “deliberate” practice. Malcom Gladwell shared the idea in his book “Outliers” that we need to contribute at least 10,000 hours to become a master in whatever we do.
In street photography, if you want to build up your courage — you just need to click more and interact with more people. If you want to make better street photos, you need to spend more time out on the streets making photographs. Create your own luck in the streets by working hard, always being prepared, and of course— always having your camera with you.
3. Don’t hide your secrets
I have taken an “open source” approach to my photography and my blog in allowing people to download full-resolution images of mine for free on Flickr, for people to read all the content (and re-mix it as they like) on my blog, and by sharing all the information and ideas I know. I have all my e-books available for free downloads, and also distribute my street photography presets on Lightroom 5 for free.
Personally being open and free has helped me be more “successful” than simply hiding my secrets. Gregory Halpern also shared how Todd Hido’s radical openness with his knowledge has lead to his success:
“I am struck that someone as successful as Todd can also be as generous. Artists can guard their secrets, but Todd doesn’t hoard his. He really wants all of us to succeed. Much of that spirit and that advice is here in this book.”
If you want to be a more successful photographer or artist, be more helpful. Don’t hide your serets— be generous. The more generous you are with your time, information, and knowledge— the more people will trust you, the more people will respect you, and the more opportunities will open up for you.
If people are curious how you post-process your photos— share your techniques openly with them. Perhaps give away your presets for free.
If you don’t make a living from photography, consider giving away your photos online for free (allowing free full-resolution downloads on Flickr).
If you want to become more “famous” and have more people follow you online— perhaps you can create your own blog and share your tips, tricks, and advice to other street photographers starting off.
The more open, generous, and free you are— the most “successful” you will be.
4. Have a reason to press the shutter
We all shoot street photography because we have a reason. Some of us have to click because it is an urge within us. Some of us click because it is a way for us to unwind after a long day of work. Some of us click because we need to share certain stories— and because we need to share our experiences.
It doesn’t matter what reason we have to click the shutter. But we all need a reason to click the shutter. We shouldn’t make photographs for the sake of it.
Todd Hido shares the impetus which drives his photography:
“I’m not a person who can just go and photograph anything. I’ve never been a street or documentary photographer, where the whole world is out there to be discovered and photographed. That’s never compelled me. There has to be something that pulls me in; I have to have a reason to press the shutter. I don’t take pictures just to take pictures. There has to be something about a place or a person that I recognize, that I need to record or remember or think about again.”
I think it is incredibly important for you to photograph first for yourself (and then for others).
By focusing on photographing for yourself— you follow your heart. This allows you to create images that are much more genuine and personal (rather than just mimicking other photographers).
I feel that as photographers, we all have something to say. We all have unique perspectives of the world— as we all have different backgrounds, life experiences, and cultures in which we grew up in.
As a street photographer, you have something valuable to contribute to the rest of the world. You see the world in a way which is unique than anybody else out there.
I think it is important to explicate why you make photographs. Do you make photos to record your memories? Do you make photos because it helps you step outside of your comfort zone? Do you make photos because you want to make a statement about society? Do you make photos because you would go insane if you didn’t?
Write down the reasons why you take photographs— and perhaps put it as a sticky note on your desk, your laptop, or on the back of your camera. It will be a constant reminder why you make photos, and continue to help you stay inspired to keep clicking.
5. Harness your past
I think in photography, every photograph is a self-portrait. When we are shooting on the streets, we photograph what emotionally touches us.
For example, if you’re feeling a bit down and depressed– you’re more likely to see lonely and isolated people on the streets. If you’re in a more upbeat mood, you might photograph more happy street scenes. Of course, this could be the exact opposite as well (when you’re in a shitty mood, you might photograph happy scenes and vice-versa).
I think as street photographers we should empathize with our subjects– and connect with them on an emotional level. Also what we could do is harness our past experiences when making photographs.
For example, Todd Hido photographs places which remind him of his personal past:
“The primary thing that draws me in is where I see something that reminds me of places that I’ve been before, that remind me of where I grew up in Ohio. Since I left home after high school, I’ve always been trying to find it again in some way. I looked at a map of my old neighborhood one day, just to look again in where I came from, and realized that almost everything on the map appeared in my work in some way.”
Furthermore, Todd searches his own past experiences and memories when it comes to making images:
“Sometimes, it’s important to explore the world that’s right in front of you, but at other times, you need to travel and get away from your life in order to recognize it. For me, I keep finding and exploring the same place no matter where I go. I draw from within, from my own history, as the basis of my work. All of the memories and experiences from my past come together subconsciously and form a kind of fragmented narrative.”
A great assignment as a street photographer is to go back to your old neighborhood and photograph it. It will undoubtedly be nostalgic and personal– and the photographs you make will be much more emotional.
I also think a great assignment is to photograph your own neighborhood. But when you’re so used to your own environment, it is hard to find what is unique and interesting about your own backyard. Therefore in those circumstances, it is sometimes good to travel away from home for a while– and go back home with fresh new eyes.
6. Measure twice, cut once
One of the best pieces of advice from Todd came from the beginning of the book: “Measure twice, cut once.” Todd elaborates below:
“I’ll give you my best advice here up-front: Measure twice, cut once. And if you ever pass something that you think you might want to photograph and say to yourself, ‘I’ll go back later and get that,’ stop now and photograph it, because you’ll never get back there, or if you do, it won’t be the same. You’ve got to take the photograph right away, when the impulse is there. Use whatever camera that you have with you, even if it’s only your phone.”
I found this to be one of the best pieces of advice in photography in general– as there are a lot of times that I pass something (either when walking or in my car) when I think it might make an interesting photograph, but am too lazy to stop (or pull over) and photograph it.
I think as photographers we should try to live a life without regret. So when you see a great scene, harness that initial impulse and photograph it.
Especially in street photography– I’m sure you had many instances in which you saw a great street photograph, but hesitated or felt nervous to photograph it. In those circumstances, live without regrets. Take the photograph, and perhaps deal with the repercussions later.
Todd also encourages us to work hard to make a great photograph, encouraging us to try to get our photographs right “in-camera”:
“This doesn’t mean don’t work to get a good picture. A lot of people think, ‘I’ll fix it in Photoshop, or I’ll fix it in post.’ You’ll be ten times better as a photographer if you don’t rely on those things. It’s nice and handy that these tools exist, and it’s true that you could fix the picture in Photoshop. However, I believe that we should all strive to get it right in the camera.”
I think this happens to us street photographers a lot– when we think to ourselves, “Oh– I’ll just crop the photograph later.” (when we are really far away from our subjects). Not to be anal, but I think cropping our street photographs too much causes us to get sloppy with our compositions.
Not only that, but be careful when framing your backgrounds. Try to eliminate distractions from your backgrounds when you’re shooting on the streets (rather than thinking you can crop things out or even worse– “photoshop stuff out” later).
Jeff Bezos lives his life by what he calls a “regret minimization framework.” The concept is simple when making decisions: if you were 80 years old and on your deathbed, would you regret not having done certain actions?
I have missed hundreds (if not thousands) of potential great street photographs because I was either too lazy to pull over my car and make a photograph, or too nervous or scared to click the shutter.
So let us live without regrets and shoot anything that tickles our fancy– or anything that we find interesting. No matter how “boring” it may be.
Also try your best to get the photograph right “in-camera”. If you want to improve your compositions and framing, try shooting street photography a year without cropping.
7. Make it emotional
A lot of photographers try to make interesting photographs with fancy compositions, intense lighting techniques, or with lots of bokeh.
However no matter how fancy our compositions or camera techniques are, our photographs will lack soul if they don’t have any emotion in them.
Todd Hido emphasizes the importance of finding emotion in our work:
“In the first days of graduate school, we were presenting our work, and I remember how Larry Sultan noticed the picture [of a boy hanging off a tree] immediately. He was touched by the strain in the hands. He recognized something there and said, ‘That picture’s about the human condition and not about somebody in a tree. It’s emotional.’ That’s one of the most important things I learned from Larry; he made it okay to make pictures that were emotional, and it was really important for me to open that door.”
When it comes to your street photography, look for emotions. Look for subjects that you can empathize with. If you see a lonely old man in a cafe, reading a newspaper alone with a cup of coffee – perhaps you can think of how lonely you are in your life, and your concern of dying alone.
If you see a guy in a business suit rushing around, with a look of panic in his eyes, and with a Starbucks cup in one hand (and his smartphone in his other hand)– perhaps you can relate with his emotion of being rushed, overwhelmed and busy.
If you see a guy relaxing on the beach, passed out on the shore– perhaps you can feel the emotion of relaxation, happiness, and joy.
Try to find more emotions when shooting in the streets– and you will make more meaningful and memorable photographs.
8. Assume an “alter ego” of another photographer
I think there is a culture of “being original” in Western societies. We look down on people who are just “copy-cats”– and plagiarism is also looked down in schools.
However one of the best ways to get inspired in photography is to mimic your idols. This is how most painters, photographers, and artists get their own start.
Todd Hido shares his personal experience of how he entered art school not to continue to do what he has always done– but to try to do something different:
“Some people go to graduate school to get themselves organized and to professionalize their practice. I wanted to use the time in grad school to change up my work, to see what else I could do, to make different pictures than I had in the past.“
Todd shares how he was given an “alter ego” assignment which encouraged him to mimic another photographer. This assignment helped him greatly, as he was able to try out many new unique ideas (which helped him find his unique voice/vision in his photography):
“One of our first assignments was the ‘alter ego’ assignment, where you have to become another artist and make his or her work instead of your own. This is a great assignment since it frees you to try on different ideas. It is a chance to do or be anything you want, to recognize that you’re not married to your past or the path you’re on. Night photography, for me, evolved out of this assignment.”
Before doing this assignment, Todd Hido never thought of even trying out to take photos at night. However through the assignment – he has now incorporated this night photography approach to his series in which he photographed houses at night.
If you are a photographer starting off (or even more advanced) – one of the great ways to learn and grow is to step outside of your comfort zone, and to try something new and fresh.
If you are a street photographer who likes to stay hidden and candid (like Cartier-Bresson), perhaps you can try to be more aggressive in your shooting (like Bruce Gilden). If you photograph mostly people, perhaps you can switch it up and shoot more urban landscapes (like Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander).
If you go to an exhibition or see a certain photography book that you like– try to mimic that photographer. Assume an “alter ego” and see how it can help inform your own vision and help you grow and evolve.
9. Be minimalist
I think the trend in street photography is to make images more complicated and complex (like Alex Webb). However some of the best street photography is very simple and minimalist (like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, Martine Franck).
One of the strengths of making minimalist images is that it helps you focus and isolate your subjects. Todd shares how he applies minimalism to his own work:
“You might not notice this about my work at first, but I’m a minimalist. I like for the frame to be neat and organized. At night, most of the frame is black, and that just works for me aesthetically. All of that darkness and negative space helps to focus and isolate the subject. It brings me (and the viewer) right to the subject.”
If you have a hard time identifying a single subject in your photograph (or the main subject)– you are in trouble. You want to make images that don’t make it too difficult for your viewers to identify the main subjects.
Figure out also how to add more negative space to add more positive space to your subject. If you have too much in your frame– too much going on (too many subjects, elements, compositional forms) it will be hard for your viewer to identify what they should be looking at.
K.I.S.S.: (keep it simple stupid).
10. Focus on psychology and relationships
One of the best compositional techniques in street photography is “juxtaposition” (putting together two unrelated yet related objects/elements together in a frame). For example having a street photograph of a fat guy next to a skinny guy can be a juxtaposition. Having someone wearing all red step into a green background can be a good juxtaposition of colors. Having a frame full of all women and having one man in the center can also be a juxtaposition.
What makes juxtapositions so effective in street photography? It is simple: juxtapositions focus on relationships. The best juxtaposing scenes also dig into psychology as well.
Todd Hido shares how in his “house hunting” series he used the lights of windows as a metaphor for human relationships:
“Most of the time, I am interested in a certain light in a window— that’s what catches my attention. When you’re looking at a house at night with its lights on, you can’t help but imagine the people inside. The inside literally seeps into the outside through that light. Perhaps because I had a traumatic childhood, I’ve always looked at people’s houses and wondered what goes on in there. Is it like what happened at my house? In a strange way, I’m making a picture of a place that’s actually about people. Almost as soon as I made my first picture of a house with a lit-up window, I recognized this was not about the house. This was about psychology and relationships.”
Street photography is about human beings, about society, and about relationships. If you want to make a strong street photograph (full of emotion)– think of how you can add certain people or elements that juxtapose one another.
If you have more than one subject in a frame, ask yourself, “What relationship do these people have with one another? Are they interacting in a way which suggest some sort of story?”
Also think about the psychology of the scene. How does the photograph make you feel? Does the photograph make you feel happy, tense, scared, afraid, timid, excited, engaged, or enraged?
If you want to learn more, definitely pick up a copy of “Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude.”
You can read part 2 here: “Lessons Todd Hido Has Taught Me About Street Photography (Part 2)”
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