The 5 Elements of Effective Street Photography

Stockholm, 2014
Stockholm, 2014

My friend Todd Hatakeyama recently gave me a superbly refreshing book titled: “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking”. It is a basic primer on how to think more effectively when solving problems– and can help students, teachers, and anyone trying to learn or improve their skills.

Like always, I took away a lot from the book– and thought about the principles and how we could apply them to street photography. Here are some of the ideas I learned from the book:

 

Introduction

Why thinking is important (in photography)

Thinking is something that is definitely underrated in street photography. We need to “think” effectively– in order to make better decisions when we are out on the streets.

There are tons of decisions to make in street photography: we need to decide when to go out and shoot, we need to decide when to click the shutter, we need to decide when (not) to click the shutter, we need to decide how many times we need to click the shutter, we need to decide how to talk to people and interact when them (when necessary), we need to decide how to interact with people when they get upset, we need to decide how to better edit our photos and sequence them, we need to decide how to present and publish our work– decisions, decisions, decisions.

On learning

I also feel that in order to become better in any sort of artistic (or creative pursuit) – it is so important to constantly grow, learn, and evolve. I know that personally when I quit learning, I start dying.

I don’t think there is anything such as “talent” in photography. Nobody jumps out of the womb and suddenly has a “skill” to shoot photographs. And definitely nobody has some sort of “skill” to shoot street photography (in terms of having some sort of special “street photography” gene).

We need to cultivate our skills through learning, practice, and persistence. Here is a nice quote from Albert Einstein:

“I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent. Curiosity, obsession, and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas” – Albert Einsten

So let us jump into the thick of things– how to be a more effective thinker in your photography.

Principle 1: Understand deeply

So in order to become a better photographer, you need to understand simple ideas deeply, you need to be brutally honest about what you know and what you don’t know, you need to let go of bias, preconceived notions, and you need to have a rock-solid understanding of the fundamentals.

a) Master the basics

Before you can become Henri Cartier-Bresson, it is essential to master the basics. What are some basic fundamentals you could work on in street photography?

Technical settings:

Generally when I teach introductory street photography workshops, I recommend people to shoot in “P” mode and not worry too much about the technical aspects of the camera. This is because the focus of the workshop is primarily overcoming your fear of shooting street photography– not learning how to master your camera.

But I do think that if you are comfortable shooting in the streets and really want to master street photography– you need to master the fundamentals of the technical settings of your camera and use it in a way which works for you.

For example, you want to have a strong understanding of aperture, shutter-speed, and ISO.

For aperture, you need to know the importance of having a small aperture (f8-f16) if you want to have maximum depth-of-field (which is preferable in street photography)

For shutter-speed, you need to know that you generally want a shutter-speed of at least 1/250th of a second when you’re shooting (if you don’t want blurry photos). Even better it is ideal to have the fastest shutter speed possible (if you want really sharp and non-blurry images). Therefore if possible, try to keep your shutter speed at 1/1000th of a second or faster during the day.

For ISO, you want to keep it high (I recommend ISO 800–1600, even during the day). This allows you to have a small aperture (f8) and a fast shutter speed (1/250–1000th of a second).

Regarding whether you should shoot fully-manual, aperture-priority, or even “P” mode is personal preference. You just need to know how your camera works and “thinks”.

If you really don’t have a strong fundamental of technical settings in photography– I recommend trying to shoot for a month-straight in fully-manual mode. Really get a sense of how all 3 variables (aperture, shutter-speed, and ISO) relate.

When I first got a film Leica, I was surprised to realize how little I actually knew about the technical aspects of photography. At the time, I had a Canon 5D (original) and mostly shot in aperture-priority or “P” mode. This prevented me from building a strong understanding of light, exposure, and technical settings.

Therefore every time I wanted to take a photograph on my film Leica, I was frightened whether the photograph would come out properly or not. But after training with my film Leica for several months, I started to get a rock-solid fundamental of my technical exposures. I kept my ISO locked to 400, my aperture locked to f/8, and the only variable I would change is my shutter-speed.

This also helped me start to really judge light. I was able to better tell (from my eyes) the intensity of the light, so I would know what settings to use on my camera before shooting. I would also better understand the color of the light, and know when the light was good (which would be a good time to shoot).

Once again, you don’t have to shoot fully-manual if shooting in aperture-priority or “P” mode works for you. For example, I knew that for my Canon 5D, I needed to shoot with an exposure-compensation of –2/3 when shooting in the bright sun, and had to shoot with +1 exposure compensation when shooting in the shade. Every camera performs differently, just make sure to master the fundamentals of your own camera to make it do what you want it to do.

For manual-focusing– mastering the fundamentals is also critical. If you shoot with a rangefinder or manual mode on your camera, you want to get really good at sensing your distances. Do you know how far 1, 5, and 10 meters is? Can you quickly pre-focus to your subject in the background without bringing your camera to your eye?

If you shoot with auto-focus, do you how know how your camera behaves? Do you know how good your camera is regards to photographing subjects that are moving? Do you know how good your camera is photographing in the night? Do you have to use center-point autofocus?

Composition

When it comes to making great photographs, how solid are your fundamentals of composition? Do you know how to fill a frame? Do you know how close you have to be to your subjects to make an interesting or engaging image? Do you know how to better incorporate diagonals, curves, and how to create strong figure-to-ground (contrast) in your images? If not, I highly recommend you to read my articles on composition (or watch my YouTube lecture on composition).

Emotions

Another fundamental in street photography is emotion. Before you go off and try to create very complex images, I recommend starting off to simply capture emotions. As a theme next time when you’re out shooting– look for emotions in your subjects. Look for feelings of happiness, angst, pain, suffering, and sorrow in your subjects.

How do you best capture emotions in your subjects? Look for hand gestures and body language.

Single-subjects

To make better photographs is to simplify. When you’re starting off in street photography, before you can make a super-complex and multi-layered photograph like Alex Webb, you want to focus on the fundamentals of single-subjects.

So when you’re out shooting on the streets, just try to focus on one subject at a time. Then as you feel more comfortable with that, branch out and try to photograph 2 subjects, then 3 subjects. Then see how you can add more depth to your images, by figuring out what other elements you can add to your frame to make it more complex.

So when in doubt with your photography, take things back to the fundamentals and basics. If you find your backgrounds in street photography are cluttered, simplify by just photographing people against simple black or white walls.

b) Ask: What do you know?

Another way to continue to grow and evolve as photographers is to step outside your comfort zone– and ask yourself, “What do I not know about street photography, or photography in general?”

Identify photographers you might have heard of, but actually don’t know the work of– and try to learn more about them.

In my “Learn from the Masters” series– I started it because I never had an art school education, and didn’t know anything about these famous photographers. I would hear names like “William Eggleston”, “Lee Friedlander”, and “Walker Evans” and had no idea who these guys were. However like a dunce, I would nod along my head (pretending like I knew who they were), then I would rush home and try to research them.

So whenever someone mentions a name of a photographer I don’t know that well– I try to learn more about them. I go on Google and roughly see their images on Google images, I try to find their website, I try to learn about their personal history, I buy their photography books, I try to see who they were influenced by, and I try to fill in the gaps of my knowledge and understanding.

So rather than falling into complacency– constantly push yourself in your photography to keep learning things that you don’t know. Follow your curiosity.

For example, I am not just fascinated by street photographers– but I am also fascinated by portrait and fashion photographers (like Richard Avedon and Dan Winters). I don’t know much about portraiture or fashion photography, but studying their work, life, and philosophies have given me a deeper understanding of things that I didn’t already know.

So constantly seek out things that you don’t know in photography. Seek novelty, challenge, and adventure. See my “Learn from the Masters” series– and learn more about some photographers that you don’t know about (but are curious about). Seek out other fields outside of photography to augment your creativity.

Don’t just stay inside your comfort zone– break out of the bubble.

c) Sweat the small stuff

I also think if you want to become a really great photographer, you need to “sweat the small stuff” – in terms of the details in your photograph.

For example, you might have one element of your frame which is a bit distracting or kills the mood of the photograph. You might think, “Yeah, I know there is that distracting element– but I still like the photograph.” While that is okay if you just want to be an average photographer, you have to really become obsessive about the small details (if you want to become a truly great photographer).

You want every corner and edge of your frame to contain interesting or pertinent information.

One big tip I have when you’re shooting street photography is focus on the edges. The general mistake many of us make in photography is that when we’re shooting, we just try to find the most interesting subject and stick them dead-center in the frame, without any consideration of what is happening in the background or the edges of the frame.

Remember, it is often the small details or the “cherry on top” which makes a great photograph.

Sweat the small stuff. If you have a pole sticking out of a guy’s head, you might want to ditch the shot. If you have a distracting background, you might want to ditch the shot. If the expression of your subject isn’t good, you might want to ditch the shot.

The more you decide to sweat the small stuff, the stronger images you will make.

d) Focus on the essential

I also feel that when you’re out shooting street photography– you should focus on working on one element of your work at a time.

For example, when you’re out practicing, don’t try to learn your technical settings, try to capture decisive moments, try to simplify the background, and also capture emotions at the same time.

Rather, focus on the essential thing you want to work on.

For example, one day you might want to focus on getting more skilled at shooting manual-focusing.

Another day, you might want to focus on capturing emotions and hand-gestures.

Another day, you might want to focus on just improving seeing colors on the streets.

Also when you are working on a photography project– try to just focus on one main theme (and disregard the rest).

For example, if you’re doing a photography project on “America” – try to focus on one element or theme. Perhaps your theme can be “prosperity” – then only focus on including images that fit your theme. If you are focusing on “decay” – you only want photos that fit into that theme. Don’t try to have too many sub-themes within a project, or else you will confuse or disorient your viewer.

e) Say it like you see it

Another way to better analyze and edit your photos is to “say it like you see it.”

Which means this: eliminate any sort of memory or recollection you have of a certain photograph.

For example, let’s say you took a portrait of a guy on the streets. He might have told you his entire life story– how he hitchhiked around America, how he used to be in the military, and how he decided to change his life for the better.

You might take a portrait of him and become fooled into thinking that it is a good photograph– and that his entire life story shows through the photograph.

But that isn’t the reality– it is just a photograph of a guy.

So try to divorce yourself from the memory of the photos you take. Sometimes we are fooled into thinking a certain photograph is good – because we are too emotionally invested in the back-story of the photograph.

What I try to do is this: I let my photos “marinate” for a long time before I look at them. I currently shoot most of my work on film, and I just recently got 164 rolls of film processed (after a year). When I finally get my film processed and scanned to a CD (and I look at them for the first time after about a year)– I totally forget having taken half the photos. This allows me to be a lot more objective when it comes to editing and “killing my babies”.

So to get back to the topic at hand– when you are analyzing your photographs, “say it like you see it.” What is actually going on in your photograph?

So rather than looking at a photograph and saying: “This is a man in angst and sorrow”, you might rather say, “This is a photo of a man in black and white, who is hunched over in a park bench, and has his hands covering his face.”

Instead of saying a photograph shows “the meaning of life” – you might say that photograph is literally of a man and baby holding hands and walking to the sunset.

So essentially what I am trying to say is this: don’t interpret your photos based on some meaning that you have in your head. See the details of your photograph, what is going on, and let your viewers come up with their own interpretation of the image.

f) Try on an alternative perspective

Another way to be a better judge of your images is to “try on alternatives” – meaning, take on another view.

So if you have a photograph you really really love, pretend for a second to be a critic. Assume the mindset that it is actually a really bad photograph– and critique your own photograph. This technique will help you find the flaws in your image.

When looking at your street photographs, perhaps imagine seeing your images from a perspective of a landscape photographer. How could you analyze your street photograph in terms of the foreground, middle ground, background, and the light of your photograph?

Or perhaps you can judge your photograph from the perspective of a painter. How would a painter critique and judge your photograph?

One of the best ways to get an alternative view of your photography is to have your work critiqued by others. When you are getting critiqued from others, don’t feel the need to defend yourself. Rather, be open to the view of others in a non-judgemental way.

g) Look for what is missing

I think in street photography we should always strive to make better photographs. What I am personally aiming for is “perfection” in my street photos– in which these is no part of the frame which is wasted, in which there is strong emotion, and in which the photograph will last the test of time.

Of course there is no objective way to achieve “perfection” in any photograph (especially in street photography, when reality is quite messy).

However if you want to make better street photographs, try to find what is missing.

Which means– always tell yourself, “What else can I add to my photos which will make them better?”

I mentioned the idea of a “cherry on top” in photography. If you want to fight complacency in your work, think about what is missing from your photos – and how you can make your photos better.

For example, let’s say you took a photo of a guy walking by you. What is missing? Perhaps we’re missing a hand gesture. Perhaps we’re missing an interesting facial expression. Perhaps we’re missing an interesting background.

Always look for what is missing in your photos.

Summary of Principle #1: “Understanding deeply”

If you want to really improve your street photography, you need to master the fundamentals. Without a strong base, you can never build up a castle. Could you build up a castle on a base of sand? No– you want to build your fundamentals like a stone foundation.

Furthermore, you want to not become prejudiced to your own work. We all look at our photos as being perfect– as our babies. But if we really want to improve, we have to “say it how it is” – and try to work hard to uncover the hidden weaknesses of our photos. Not only that, but we should strive to uncover what is missing– in order to make our photos even stronger.

As the authors say in the book:

“Clear away the distractions, see what’s actually there, and make the invisible visible.”

Principle #2: Fail to succeed

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm” – William Churchill

Alex Webb once said something like, “Street photography is 99% failure”. Street photography is one of the most difficult forms of photography– and there is so much hard work, chance, and luck involved.

Street photography is full of failure. We need to fail a lot in order to make a couple of memorable images. We have so little control– we can’t control what people look like, the background, the light, and other variables. We can only control how to position ourselves, and when to click the shutter.

So don’t become discouraged from failure in street photography. Everytime you make a photograph and you fail– try your best to “fail forward” – meaning, every failed photo you make is a step closer to a success.

I talk about the importance of “working the scene” in street photography– meaning, if you see a good scene, try to shoot 10, 15, or even 20 photos of the same scene. You sometimes need to “fail” 20 times in order to make at least one good photograph.

a) Fail 9 times

One strategy the authors mention in the book is to purposefully try to fail 9 times (before you get 1 success).

So you can do this many ways in street photography.

If you want to build your confidence in street photography, you can try this assignment: approach a bunch of strangers and ask for permission to take their portrait. But the catch is this: you need to try to get rejected 9 times in a course of a day.

This will therefore push you outside of your comfort zone. If you get 9 “no’s” and “failed attempts” – you are bound to get 1 person to say “yes” and therefore gain a “success”.

Sometimes our fear of failure is worse than the fear itself. I know this is a fear that many of us have (who are perfectionists). But know that even the greatest fail.

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed” – Michael Jordan

Know that even the greatest artists and athletes fail all the time in order to get a few successes. In academia, getting a 60% on a test is a failing grade. But if you were a baseball player and hit the ball with 60% accuracy, you would be an elite athlete.

So in street photography, know that you will need a lot of failed attempts to make a couple of good shots.

The next time you see an interesting scene, think to yourself, “I need to fail 9 times and make 9 bad photos before I take at least 1 interesting photo of this scene.”

b) Let errors be your guide

Trial-and-error is one of the best ways to gain knowledge and insights about the world. Whenever you make a mistake or an error, don’t be discouraged. Every error you make is just another step forward. Because with every error, you learn one way that something doesn’t work.

Thomas Edison once said (when inventing the lightbulb), “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

So in street photography, embrace your errors and use it a way to learn. When you’re out shooting for an entire day, you can write a little journal at the end of the day. Write some errors and mistakes you made (used wrong technical settings, photos are out-of-focus, and blurry, or the light isn’t good). Then based on that information, you can figure out what not to do next time.

So if your photos are blurry and out-of-focus, perhaps next time you can shoot with a higher-ISO (3200) and use manual focusing (at f/8) and use a fast shutter-speed. Learn from your mistakes.

“A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.” – James Joyce

Writers know the secret to writing great books is to write a lot of shitty first-drafts. Sometimes writers fall into “writer’s block” – because they have unrealistic expectations that their first draft should be perfect. But rather focusing on making a lot of bad drafts, and constantly revising, you will make enough mistakes and errors that lead you in the right direction. You just need to make sure not to make the same error twice.

Sometimes it is hard for us to identify what makes a great street photograph, but we are pretty good at identifying what makes bad photographs. So a good way to improve your photography is to look at the work of others, and see what you don’t like about their work. Then simply try to not make the errors they make.

When you are trying to come up with photography project ideas, don’t try to make a list of amazing ideas. Rather, make a list of 20 really bad photography ideas, and just try to continue writing that list. Once you get into the flow of writing ideas (even bad ideas) – eventually some good ideas will pop into your head.

The more you go out and shoot “bad street photographs” – the more likely you are to make a few good photographs.

Sometimes failure can be a bit discouraging– especially if you shoot digital and you look at your photos at the end of everyday and think to yourself, “Oh man, all the photos I took today are shit.”

But to not become discouraged by your errors– look at your failed photographs and ask yourself, “I’ve failed in this photograph. It is a bad photograph. But what have I learned from this experience– that I can make a better photograph next time?”

“A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” – Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

Let us not be afraid of failures in street photography. Rather, let us embrace them. All of the great innovations and breakthroughs have been through failure. In silicon valley, there is a saying: “Fail often, and fail fast.” The more you fail, the quicker you fail, the more you learn.

Summary for Principle #2: Fail to succeed

The key thing is this: you want to learn from your errors, mistakes, and failures. Sometimes we learn more from our mistakes than our successes.

Failure is progress.

Principle #3: Question yourself

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates

I think one of the best ways to learn anything is to always be curious– and always be asking questions.

So when you’re having your photos critiqued, don’t simply ask if people like your shot or don’t like your shot. Ask them questions. Ask them why they like your shot, or why they don’t like your shot. Ask them to be specific, and to be brutally honest.

Another way you can question yourself, “What works in this photo, and what doesn’t work in this photo?” Pretend like you’re talking to yourself as an outside observer. Also when you’re critiquing your own work, pretend that you’re critiquing the work of somebody else.

By constantly questioning your work and challenging yourself, you avoid self-bias, identify weak-points in your images, and also consider an alternative perspective.

a) “What if” questions

One good way to delve deeper into questions is by asking yourself, “What if?”

So when you’re looking at your shots– you can ask yourself some of these questions:

  • What if the subject was more interesting?
  • What if the light was better?
  • What if the subject wasn’t looking at me?
  • What if the subject was looking at me?
  • What if I shot this photo in black and white?
  • What if I wasn’t too afraid to get closer?

b) On “stupid” questions

Whenever you’re interacting with other photographers, don’t be afraid to ask “stupid” questions.

For example, if a photographer brings up the name of another photographer (you might not know of) – don’t worry about looking stupid. Rather, be honest and tell them you don’t know.

If you’re at a photography talk and you want the photographer to answer a basic question, don’t be afraid of asking a basic or a “stupid” question. Because in reality, there might be a lot of other photographers who might be thinking the same question (but are too worried about being judged in a negative way).

For example, a basic question you can ask a photographer you admire is, “Why do you photograph?” It is a very basic question– but it actually a very complex question that challenges people to challenge their own intentions in photography.

Another example is this: if you look at a famous photograph and you don’t understand why it is a good photograph, you can simply ask: “Why do you think this is a good photograph?” Asking these fundamental questions helps build your understanding, and will continue to help you grow and mature as a photographer.

c) Overcoming your own self-bias

Sometimes we think we already know everything. But challenge your own thinking with questions.

You can ask yourself the question, “Do I really know?” to challenge your assumptions.

Don’t accept your own views of the world blindly. Constantly question yourself– everybody, your teachers, and things you read on the internet (challenge this article).

Don’t be intimidated– ask questions you might need to overcome your blind spots.

d) Teach to learn

Another good way to learn photography better is to teach it. No matter how inexperienced you as a photographer, there is always someone out there who is eager to learn photography (and less experienced than you).

I have personally found that when I am forced to teach something, I better understand and comprehend it.

So you can do this as an exercise: bring a bunch of photographs that you think are great photographs to your student, and ask them, “Why do you think these photos are great?” By challenging them to answer– you make them much more engaged, which fosters learning. Don’t simply tell them the answer– ask questions to make your students come up with the answers themselves.

e) Questions as curiosity

I think one of the best ways to thrive creatively is to always be curious. And to be curious is to have lots of questions about the world.

For example when I started street photography, I had a ton of questions: How can I overcome my fear of shooting street photography? What makes a great photograph? What can I learn from the masters?

I always start with these questions– which lead me down interesting paths. And I never fully get to a final conclusion or a final answer. The learning process is the most valuable thing, which can only be pursued by asking the right questions.

f) Ask questions when looking at photos

Another tip is to always ask questions when looking at photos. I do this when I look through photography books. Some questions I ask:

  • Why did this photographer choose this image as a leading image?
  • Why did the photographer sequence the book the way he did?
  • Why did this photographer think this image was a good one (when I don’t). Is there something I am missing?
  • Why did the photographer print the book this size?

Also when you’re looking at individual images, ask yourself what makes the photograph great. Ask yourself the following questions for single-images:

  • What works in terms of the composition?
  • What is happening in the background?
  • Is the subject interesting?
  • Does this photograph work as a color (or black and white) image– why and why not?
  • What are the emotions of this photograph?
  • How could this photograph be better?

g) Why do you photograph?

An important question to ask yourself is why you photograph.

Sometimes people spend their entire lives as photographers asking the wrong questions. Some of the wrong questions might be:

  • How do I become more famous as a photographer?
  • How do I earn more money as a photographer?
  • How do I get exhibited in prestigious galleries?
  • How can I gain more social media followers, likes, and favorites?

Perhaps some of the better questions you can ask are:

  • How can I make my photographs more emotional?
  • How can I help other photographers more?
  • How does photography make me happy in life?
  • How does photography help me grow and mature as a person?
  • How can I improve my photography?

If you want to become a “successful” photographer– you might have to ask yourself the question to define “success” for yourself. Does success mean making a lot of money? Does success mean being personally fulfilled with your work? Does success mean helping inspire other people? You need to define “success” for yourself if you want to strive towards it.

h) On asking specific questions

If you want to become a better photographer, you shouldn’t ask yourself vague questions. You might want to ask yourself more specific questions.

For example, rather than saying “How do I become a better photographer” – you might ask: “How can I find another hour everyday to go out and shoot?”

Instead of saying, “How can I become a famous photographer?”– you might ask yourself, “How can I make 12 strong photos this year and have an exhibition at a local cafe?”

Summary for Principle #3: Question yourself

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” – Peter Drucker

Many of us walk throughout life without a clear goal or a purpose. Sometimes this happens because we blindly follow certain paths others say we should.

But to fall out of that trap, always be questioning. Sometimes asking the right questions helps you uncover clarity in your life. Ask yourself the right questions as a photographer– and try to define what makes you personally happy.

Principle #4: Go with the flow

“To improve the golden moment of opportunity, and catch the good that is within our reach, is the great art of life.” – Samuel Johnson

As a street photographer, you also want to embrace this idea of “going with the flow”. When you’re out shooting in the streets, you should imagine yourself as a jazz musician– constantly improvising, switching things up, and not falling into rigidity or pre-arranged performances.

Going with the flow in street photography means making small and gradual improvements (positive iterations). Rather than thinking you need to make huge jumps and leaps in your photography– imagine your photography as a stream. You just need to slowly flow as a stream, and with enough years, you can wear down even the toughest rocks.

“I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else.” – Pablo Picasso

When you’re working on photography projects, be flexible with the direction you want to take it. Don’t make your idea too rigid. Sometimes ideas change and flow in different ways. Keep an open-mind and “go with the flow.”

a) Keep moving forward

When you’re “going with the flow” – you should always try to move forward. Don’t just constantly repeat yourself– see how you can continue to build upon your strengths, and how you can continue to grow and evolve.

A stream (the further it goes down-stream) often picks up speed, gets bigger, and becomes stronger. A tiny little stream at the top of the mountain can turn into a thundering river towards the very end.

So constantly challenge yourself and your assumptions about photography and work. While your photography right now could be good– ask yourself, “How can I make my work even better?”

Challenge your limits– as there are no limits to your creativity and abilities.

b) What’s next?

I think that goals are good ways to keep moving forward creatively. Some goals can include:

  • Having an exhibition
  • Printing a book (or e-book)
  • Publishing a series for your website

But at the same time, once you complete a goal– sometimes it is a bit depressing. Once we finish our goals, we might ask ourself, “Now what?”

I know that personally after I finish projects, I feel a little dead inside. I feel no more ambition to move forward.

So once you finish a project, you can ask yourself, “What’s next?” By always having something to look forward to down-stream, you can stay inspired, motivated, and excited.

c) Everything is a work-in-progress

Think of your life as a photographer as a constant work-in-progress. Remember the saying, “The journey is the reward.” Or the other saying, “The good traveler is not intent on arriving.”

Enjoy the process of your life as a photographer and a human being. Know that you will never become 100% perfect or adept at what you do. There is always room for improvement. And having this ability to look forward to improve yourself is what makes you feel alive and excited.

Summary of Principle #4: Go with the flow

If you’re not constantly growing, you’re dying. I know that personally in my photography, I try to always grow in terms of my knowledge of photography, I try to make more challenging images, and I try to avoid complacency.

While I know I have a lot of flaws as a photographer, it is the challenge of photography which keeps me going.

So keep going with the flow, and trust the creative process.

Principle #5: Transform yourself

“I shall be telling this with a sigh. Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” – From “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

The last chapter we will focus on being a more “effective” street photographer is being able to change. I personally think learning about photography is useless unless we somehow apply the lessons we’ve learned in a pragmatic and practical way.

This is why I try to share “lessons” from all the master street photographers I have studied. I feel that learning things for the sake of it is a waste of time. We need “actionable” take-away points which help evolve our thinking– and change our behavior.

So whenever you are studying the work of a photographer, think how you can apply their philosophy and work to influence and affect your own photography. Think about their work habits, their perseverance, the subject-matter they shoot, and how they see black and white or color. Use these insights to help you grow and mature as a photographer.

a) Definition of insanity: Doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome

If you want to become a better photographer, simply doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is crazy. By constantly questioning yourself, thinking of ways you can improve, and changing your behavior is the only real way to grow.

So when you’re out shooting in the streets, think of how you can shoot street photography a bit differently to make better photographs. Perhaps you can choose a different time of day to go out and shoot (golden hour instead of when the light is really harsh). Perhaps you can shoot at f/8 instead of trying to shoot wide-open at f/1.4 all the time. If you are interested in color (but shoot mostly black and white) – try to see the world in color instead and shoot only in color.

b) What do the experts do differently from me?

Another good way to improve your behavior as a photographer is to think about what the master street photographers do (which is different from what I do).

For example, I have found that master street photographers are much more obsessive than I am – they go out more, they shoot more, and they are much more brutal self-editors than I am.

Master street photographers also think long-term. They don’t worry about single-images that are funny. They try to work on long-term projects which have depth and soul, which can often take 5–10 years.

They also build up a large photography book collection, and don’t just look at images online. They only look at great work, and constantly strive to become better with their own work– and don’t fall into boredom or complacency.

c) The 10,000 hour rule

Realize that if you want to really become an “expert” of anything– you need to put in at least 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” (according to Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers”).

10,000 hours is a long period of time. Applied to photography, that can be 10,000 hours shooting on the streets combined with time looking through photography books, editing your work, getting feedback and critique on your work (as well as giving it), in addition to taking photography workshops or classes.

“Practice makes perfect” is a phrase that is used so frequently that when we hear it, our eyes simply glaze over. But it is true. There is no working around it– to get better in our street photography, to build our confidence, to edit tighter, and make better images–we need to put in the hours and effort.

I think the biggest take-away about the 10,000 hour rule is that we don’t need to rush things. Sometimes we want our results to happen so quickly.

But remember, it is okay to take your time. Take your time when it comes to shooting– don’t feel like you have to run around all day. Walk at a pace which is comfortable to you, and rather than chasing down your shots–let the shots come to you.

Take your time when it comes to editing your work. If it takes you up to a full year if you figure out whether your shots are good or not, so be it. The longer you take to edit your shots, the more “objective” you can be when judging your images.

In terms of building a huge body of work– also take your time. I think really great photography projects should be measured in terms of years, not weeks or months.

d) Become the best possible “you”

Ultimately the last take-away point we have for this article is to be an “effective” photographer is just become the best possible photographer you can become.

We all have different backgrounds, responsibilities in life. Not all of us have the opportunity to quit our jobs and just travel the world and shoot. We have “real” responsibilities like earning money, paying the rent, taking care of our significant others and kids.

But to be an “effective” photographer is to try your hardest to become the best photographer based on your restrictions and abilities. Perhaps you only have once a week (or worse, a month) to shoot. But make that time count. If you’re stuck in an office all day, perhaps you can use some free-time you have to give critiques on the photos of others– and also get your photos critiqued. Perhaps you can also use that time to look at great photos (on the Magnumphotos website) or learn more about street photography from this blog.

Conclusion

Remember, life isn’t a competition. There is no objective way you can become the “best” photographer in the world. And with a genre as small as street photography– it is something you do and pursue because you love it. You don’t do it because you want to earn millions of dollars. You do it because you need to. You do it because you love exploring the world. You do it because you love the challenge.

So continue to expand your thinking, shooting, and philosophy about street photography. Become the best possible street photographer you can. You got this! :)

11 thoughts on “The 5 Elements of Effective Street Photography”

  1. Brandon Feinberg

    Thank you so much for writing this. It was perfect timing for me because I have decided to be much more intentional with my photography and try to push myself further than I imagine possible. I got some great nuggets of information out of this. Thank you.

  2. Eric,

    I’ve been immersed in your site over the past week reading as many posts as possible. If it wasn’t for spending a lot of time on Adam Marellis site (because of you), I might have read all your posts. You have great honest content. You’re breaking down walls. Keep up the good stuff. Your voice is being heard in two languages.

  3. great post, you are changing the rules of getting educated in a creative field. Muchas gracias and hope you visit South America one day, specially Colombia.

  4. Good post, E. I like to consider the fact in support of the notion of mastering the technical aspects of a camera, that it’s the best way to get the device out of the way. A lot of Leica propaganda references the tool as becoming “an extension of the eye”. This can be true of any camera, even a DSLR, if you know it well enough to compensate for its quirks, and stay focused on the art of observation. In fact, it’s true of all serious photography, not just street.

    Keep up the good work, bro.

  5. Mmm, okay. You had a Canon 5D and used it in A mode and did not understand anything about exposure. Then you got a film Leica and loaded it with ISO400 film and, like you said, locked the ISO to 400 and aperture to f/8. And suddenly you started to understand exposure. Why not fix the ISO at 400 in the 5D and the aperture at f/8 and then use either A or M mode? What is the difference? Only difference is that with the 5D you can see the image and histogram after exposure and could really judge your exposure, shadows and highlights. Instead of trying to figure it out a week later from a negative and machine made, more or less corrected prints.

  6. Pingback: The Myth of Talent - Ugo Cei Photography

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