The Art of Learning Street Photography

San Mateo, 2014

San Mateo, 2014

I just re-read an excellent book titled: “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin. If you’ve ever watched the film “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (the movie about the kid chess prodigy)— that movie was based on Josh Waitzkin’s life.

The Art of Learning” is a rare book in the sense that he became world champion not only in chess, but also later in competitive Tai Chi “push hands”. In the book, Josh breaks down how he was able to learn at an incredible pace, how he was able to push his own creative boundaries, and how he achieved excellence at a master-level.

For this article I want to break down some lessons that I’ve personally learned— which can help you in your street photography or life in general. Let’s go:

1. The search for excellence

Istanbul, 2014

Istanbul, 2014

One of the big topics that Josh talks about in the book is how the whole “art of learning” is about searching for excellence and happiness. He states from the get-go that although he did become world famous, he found that fame was a quite hollow thing.

The only thing that brought him true joy was dedicating his life to artistic growth. Through his artistic pursuits, he also wanted to seek inner-tranquility.

I think this is a common theme we can apply to our own photography. Rather than trying to seek to become the most famous photographer and to achieve fame, glory, and become rich— we should seek to constantly growing as photographers.

We should seek to become the best possible photographer we can— to “self-actualize” ourselves creatively and artistically. Not only that, but to be content with our progress and to seek an inner-peace and tranquility.

2. Growth is barrier-less

Istanbul, 2014

Istanbul, 2014

In his chess studies and later in his Tai Chi studies, Josh is always trying to push his own barriers, and to see how far he is able to take himself.

I found this incredibly inspirational, because we often think that we have limits to our abilities and our learning.

However the truth is that there are no limits for human excellence. At the end of the day, nobody has really figured out the limits of the human mind or the body. Every year in memory championships, the competitors are able to memorize more digits in their head. Every year in sprinting competitions, there is always a new world-record. There was a long time in which people thought that a 4-minute mile was almost impossible to achieve. Now there are high schoolers who are able to easily achieve a 4-minute mile.

What are your limits as a photographer? How good can you get? There really are no limits— so try to keep pushing yourself to see how good you can truly become. Growth is barrier-less.

3. Love the process

Hong Kong, 2014

Hong Kong, 2014

One of the secrets about the art of learning— and it is this: don’t become too attached to outcomes. Focus on enjoying the process.

So for example, we can control the amount of effort we put in the street photography process. We can control whether we want to shoot for 8 hours in a day, whether we want to be focused, and how often we go out and shoot. However what we can’t control is whether we will get a good shot or not (the outcome).

So if you are a photographer who wants to keep learning more about photography and to become the best possible version of yourself, you have to take the long-view. Know that if you get too attached to the results of your photography, it is easy to become unmotivated.

However if you love the process of shooting street photography, you will lead a long and happy life as a photographer. Loving the process is this: loving putting on your shoes and wandering the city, loving interacting with strangers on the streets, loving the thrill you get when you click the shutter, loving the nice coffee or tea you are able to enjoy in-between shooting sessions, loving getting feedback & critique on your work (and also giving it), loving meeting other passionate photographers.

There is a common saying in art circles which is: “trust the process.”

I think as street photographers, we should also learn to trust and enjoy the process of shooting street photography.

For me, although I do love making images that make my heart stir, I am actually more interested in the interactions that I have with people on the streets (than the photos).

Of course this is different for everyone. Some photographers I know only care about the final image.

While this isn’t a “wrong” approach, I think focusing too much on the outcome leads to burnout, depression, and dissatisfaction.

I know some great street photographers who go for months upon months without making images they are happy or proud of. If they are too attached to the outcome of making a great image, they will end up losing all motivation to going out and shooting. But if they love the process and are detached from the result, they will continue to hustle and push their creative boundaries.

Counter-point:

Of course you don’t only want to be 100% focused on the process and 0% on the outcome. I think if you really want to be the best photographer you possibly can, you need to try to also make good outcomes in your photography.

It is very inspirational to see progress in your own photography, and to get feedback & critique which confirms that.

So also when you get feedback & critique on your work— don’t seek a pat-on-the-back. Rather, ask people: “Kill my babies. Tell me what doesn’t work with my images, and how I can get better. For the photos I took that did work out, please explain why you think they are strong images. I need you to be honest & critical for me to learn, develop, and grow.”

4. Have an “incremental” (growth) mindset

Seoul, 2014

Seoul, 2014

One of the key distinctions that Josh makes between performers is that they generally have two mindsets: the “entity” (fixed) mindset and the “incremental” (growth mindset).

What is the difference between these two mindsets?

  1. Entity”: You think your skills are innate and therefore are fixed.
  2. Incremental”: You think your skills can grow based on the amount of effort you put in.

Josh talks about the biggest mistakes parents make with their children. The mistake is this: they tell their kids that they are naturally talented and “smart”.

What is the problem with this? If you tell a kid that he/she is “smart” and “talented” — they get stuck in an “entity” (fixed) mindset. They think that all of their abilities are innate, and that they are special. That is good as a motivational boost, but if they ever fail a test or do poorly in a sports game, they suddenly think they are failures and regardless of how much effort they put in, they can never improve.

The opposite approach is this: rather than congratulating a child for being “smart” or “talented”— commend them on the effort they put into their work. So if a kid does well on a test, tell the kid: “Wow, you put in so much effort into the test and therefore ended up doing well. Keep working hard and you will keep doing great!”

True masters in every field generally have an “entity” mindset— that their innate abilities are not fixed. Rather, they can become great if they just put in the necessary effort and “deliberate practice.”

Takeaway point:

So how can you use this information of the “entity” (fixed) and “incremental” (growth) intelligence to your photography?

Well first of all you can dispel the myth that people are naturally “talented” at art, creative pursuits, or anything else out there.

Nobody is born from the womb and suddenly has a magical skill to click a shutter on a camera, to frame well, and to make great photographs.

To become a great photographer, it takes a lot of effort, time, and energy. To become a great photographer, you need to look at millions of great photographs, you need to invest thousands of hours of shooting in the streets, you need to get thousands of honest & direct feedback that help push you forward, and you need to be passionate & obsessed. There are no shortcuts for greatness.

So how can you put in more effort in your street photography? Can you dedicate more time to go out and shoot? If you’re busy at work, can you spend more time looking at the work of the maters of street photography to be inspired? Instead of using your money on that new fancy digital camera, perhaps you can invest that money into educational experiences: traveling, photography books, workshops— anything that will help elevate your work and take your street photography to the next level.

5. Don’t live in static, safe, mediocrity

Berkeley, 2014

Berkeley, 2014

Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond?

This is of course a personal question and there is no “right” or “wrong” response.

But if you really want to pursue excellence and push your limits, you will want to be a small fish in a big pond.

You always need to be challenged to grow. If you want to grow your muscles, you can’t keep lifting a 1-pound dumbbell and expect results. You need to put on a heavier weight, and push your body to grow.

The same goes in photography. Don’t fall for mediocrity for your street photography. You don’t want to keep making the same types of images you’ve always made for your entire life. You want to constantly push your work forward— to add more complexity to your work, to work on long-term projects (rather than single-images), and to be more critical with your editing.

This is a great quote that Josh shares in “The Art of Learning”:

“Successful people shoot for the stars, put their heart on the line on every battle. The lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence is more than the immediate trophies & glory.”

In the long run, the greatest achievers are able to consistently have a healthy attitude over the long-term, and to draw wisdom from every experience (good or bad).

6. Study the ending first

Kyoto, 2014

Kyoto, 2014

An interesting insight that Josh shared in the book was that when studying chess, rather than studying opening moves, he would do the opposite— study the ending first, and then move backwards.

I thought this as a hugely insightful idea— as this is a concept we can apply in life and our photography.

Imagine yourself 90 years old, and at the end of your life as a photographer. What would you want to have accomplished? Would you have wanted to travel the world and photograph in all these places you’ve dreamed of? Would you want to publish books of your work? Would you want to have exhibitions of your work in galleries and museums? Would you want to just be content photographing in your own city, and making images that make you happy?

Start off with your endgame in photography, and work your way backwards. This can give you a greater insight in terms of what you need to do today in order to achieve your goals in the future.

So if your goal in life is to travel more as a photographer, perhaps start saving up right now to go on a trip. If your goal is to make a photography book, you should think of working on a long-term photography project you can publish as a book. If you want to have your work featured in galleries and exhibitions, you should start networking and getting to know curators and art dealers. If you want to just be happy and content with your progress and growth as a photographer in the long-term, start your learning process today.

7. Learning as self-exploration

Kyoto, 2014

Kyoto, 2014

What is the point of learning? Do we just learn to become the best in the world in our craft and art— or for something else?

For Josh, learning is all about self-exploration. By learning, he learns more of who he is as a human being, what his limits are, and it is a process that makes him happy and excited.

So how do you find street photography as a form of self-exploration? What have you learned about yourself as a human being through photographing strangers in the streets?

Well for me, I have personally found that street photography helps me step outside of my comfort zone, and helps me better empathize with strangers and the rest of humanity.

What does street photography do for you? Has it helped you become a more extroverted person? Has it helped relieve stress in your life? Has it helped you exercise your creative muscles? Has it helped you be more adventurous and daring? Has it helped you make new friends and join a community you’re happy to be part of?

8. Lose yourself

Sydney, 2014

Sydney, 2014

When Josh was performing at high-stakes chess matches or in intense Tai Chi competitions, he would “lose himself”. He describes that in these intense moments, he would lose the concept of “I” and his ego, he would be full of “blissful engagement”, “pure persistence”, and “absolute flow.”

He sees his art of learning and performance as a way to achieve a “higher state of consciousness”.

I would say that I share some of these experiences often when I’m writing or shooting on the streets. When I am in “the flow” of writing, I don’t actually feel myself consciously writing. I feel that the words are writing themselves.

Similarly in the streets, when I get in the “flow” (or “zone”)— I totally lose a sense of myself, and I feel like my body just becomes integrated with the rest of the city. I just flow naturally with other people on the streets, I lose my ego, and I suddenly feel that the camera is taking photos by itself.

Josh calls this feeling of intense and blissful concentration: “The Soft Zone”. When we are engaged in “The Soft Zone”, we are quietly and intensely focused, relaxed, and in a state of flow. The analogy he uses is imagining a blade of grass that can sway without uprooting in the midst of a hurricane.

So how can we achieve this “Soft Zone” in which we become totally enraptured by shooting street photography?

One of the biggest tips he has is avoid distractions. Meaning, when you’re out shooting on the streets, empty your mind, turn off your smartphone, and forget about everything else that is bothering your life. If you’re able to tune out and avoid things that might distract you, it helps you really become fully present and in the “zone” of shooting street photography.

Whenever I start shooting street photography and I feel my engine is cold, I feel awkward, out-of-place, self-conscious, and fearful. But as I start to walk more, the blood starts to flow, and I start clicking more, I feel that I start to slowly lose myself and find this sense of flow. I can then walk the streets for hours on end, without even knowing that time has passed.

So when you’re out shooting on the streets, try to “lose yourself” and not to be too analytical. Shoot from the gut, heart, and soul— and forget about everything else.

9. Be “mellow in the mundane”

Kyoto, 2014

Kyoto, 2014

As human beings, we seek novelty, newness, and excitement. However this can stab us in the back— because we constantly seek out novel experiences which means we are no longer able to appreciate the small moments.

This is why when it comes to street photography, we are constantly seeking new and interesting things or places to photograph. As a result, our neighborhood and city becomes boring and mundane. I have friends who live in Tokyo and New York City who are bored of the city (even though many might think that it is an “objectively interesting” city).

So how can you be at peace with the mundane and boringness of your everyday— and how can you channel those experiences into photographs that fulfill you?

I think it comes down to having a profound appreciation for the boring and mundane. When you are walking down a street in your neighborhood, try to be hyper-aware. Notice the cracks in the sidewalk. The weeds poking through the cracks. The lines of the poles in the street.

If you seek to photograph people, go to where the people are. Regardless of how boring your city or town might be, there are always places where people congregate.

For example, you might visit the local mall and shoot some “mall street photography” (check out “iDubai” by Joel Sternfeld). Or perhaps you might do some street photography in the local Costco or your neighborhood grocery store (look at the work of Martin Parr, or how Jack Simon has done street photography in Costco).

Also realize that your photography doesn’t have to be “street photography”. Perhaps you can try something a little different— like documentary photography. Go to a certain neighborhood, community organization, club, or gathering and document the lives of people with your camera. Get to know them intimately, and use your camera as a vehicle to connect with these people on a deeper level.

Remember, no matter how “boring” where you live is— there are always photo opportunities. So don’t waste your opportunities, or your life.

10. Avoid the “downward spiral”

Amsterdam, 2014

Amsterdam, 2014

We’ve all experienced the “downward spiral” before. If you play sports, perhaps you miss a few opportunities to score. If you play basketball, you miss a few baskets, and then suddenly you lose all confidence. While you are normally a pretty good player, you fall into a “downward spiral” and start to fall into self-pity, depression, and therefore your performance falters.

This “downward spiral” can often happen to us in photography as well. There are always moments when we feel moments of despair and “uncreativity”. We look at our work and feel disappointed with our progress in the last year. We don’t see improvement in our work. We think our best work is behind us.

But having self-pity and falling into the “downward spiral” is one of the worst things we can do for our creativity. We need to do the opposite— be able to be creative, inspired, and able to photograph regardless of our environment.

When we have moments of self-doubt, we need to have clarity of thought and purpose with our photography.

One strategy Josh Waitzkin recommends is “resetting your frame” — which is snapping out of these “downward spirals”.

So for example, when he was a master chess player and playing an intense game he would take breaks whenever he committed an error. When he would make a mistake during an intense game, he would go to the bathroom, wash his face with cold water, or perhaps sprint outside really quickly. He would do this to reset his frame of mind, rather than beating himself up for making a mistake.

So how are ways we can “reset our frame” in street photography? Perhaps someone yells at you in the street, is physically aggressive, or calls you a creep. This might put you into a negative mood, and cause you to go into a “downward spiral”. However instead — you can perhaps “reset your frame” by going to a cafe and having a coffee, by approaching a stranger and giving them a nice compliment, or perhaps taking a break from shooting from the day and start the next day with a refreshed mind.

Know that these negative experiences are often our best growth experiences. Muscles don’t grow without stress, wear, and tear. We can’t grow emotional resilience and courage without having negative experiences.

For example, I’ve been yelled at hundreds of times in street photography, physically confronted a dozen times, and had the cops called on me twice. During the moment, those experiences sucked and caused me to feel frustrated. But looking back in hindsight, those experiences helped me become more confident and brave in street photography.

Now whenever someone yells at me in street photography, I don’t get angry with myself (for being such a jerk), nor do I blame the person. I just see the negative experience as a cloud that passes me. I try to rethink positive thoughts to “reset my frame” and continue on.

To thrive creatively as a photographer, these are some things you don’t want to be dependent on:

  • The ideal situation
  • The ideal location
  • The ideal schedule
  • The ideal perfection of images

Life isn’t perfect. The more we seek for perfection, the more dissatisfied we will be— which will lead us into this “downward spiral”. Rather, we should be satisfied with what we currently have, and channel what we have in our lives to create the best art we are humanly capable of.

So how can you use negative setbacks to your advantage? When you feel dips in motivation or inspiration in photography, how can you use those moments to your benefit?

When life gives you lemons, made lemonade.

11. Self discovery over ambition

Portrait of Josh White. Seoul, 2014

Portrait of Josh White. Seoul, 2014

Many of us (myself included) are ambitious with our photography. We want to become “famous”, recognized for our work, have our work featured in galleries, to be sold for thousands of dollars, and to be put in the history books.

However one big piece of advice Josh gives in “The Art of Learning” is this: focus on self-discovery over ambition.

What does he mean by this? Well, realize that street photography is more about learning about yourself as a human being, rather than just trying to make good photographs to please others.

I think as I have evolved as a photographer, the more I have focused on self-discovery and “self-actualization” — rather than worrying about being ambitious (gaining more followers, gaining more viewers on the blog, earning more money, buying more material crap I don’t need).

The more I have focused on self-discovery, the more personal my street photography has become. I now shoot on the streets to discover how I can better interact with strangers, to discover my neighborhood and foreign places, and to build my own confidence. I no longer shoot to get a lot of “likes” on Facebook or Instagram.

So how can you better discover yourself through street photography? Can you focus on “art for art’s sake?” What does your photography do for you personally? Would you shoot even if nobody else (but yourself) would see the images?

What are your ultimate goals for your photography? Are you self-driven, or are you externally driven?

These are some questions you can ponder for yourself— but know that self-discovery is one of the most beautiful aspects of street photography. Every photograph you take is a self-portrait.

12. Follow your personal disposition

Portrait of Sean Lotman. Kyoto, 2014

Portrait of Sean Lotman. Kyoto, 2014

Don’t shoot like other photographers. Shoot what makes you feel comfortable, happy, and fulfilled.

If you see yourself as a more shy and introverted street photographer, don’t suddenly feel you need to bust out a flash and start shooting at .7 meters like Bruce Gilden.

But on the other hand, if you find yourself as a gregarious and social human being, don’t feel you need to be hidden and shoot “candidly” (behind bushes) like Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Stay true to who you are as a photographer. Keep cultivating your “natural voice” — and follow your guts and instincts.

Be open-minded to the feedback, thoughts, critique and ideas from others. But know at the end of the day, you need to follow your own inner-vision.

Photography is all about self-expression. How do you see, feel, and experience the world which is unique from others? How can you best nurture your inner-vision, rather than trying to shoot to just please others?

One of the practical strategies that Josh Waitzkin gives is to deeply study another art.

What that means is this: if your passion is street photography, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Try to pursue your other interests deeply. This can be jazz, computer science, quilting, scrapbooking, hiking, swimming, improv comedy, writing, reading, or traveling.

When you start studying another art deeply, you start to build your sense of intuition. You also begin to see “uncanny connections” between different types of arts.

For example, I recently have become very interested in improv comedy. There are so many interesting connections between improv comedy and street photography. Here are some tenants of improv comedy:

  • Say “yes, and”
  • Live in the moment
  • Be around others who support you

How can we apply this to street photography?

a) Say “yes, and”

In improv comedy, you want to build upon the scenarios or jokes other improv artists make up. So rather than seeing what others say, do, or perform as stupid— you go with the flow. You say “yes, and…” add your own ideas.

For example let’s say your partner starts pretending to drive a car. Then you go with the flow by pretending to crank up the music. You both add upon one another.

When others give you feedback or critique in your street photography, don’t just reject it outright. Rather, see how you can positively incorporate their feedback into your work.

b) Live in the moment

This one is pretty obvious. In improv, you have to always live in the moment. The same is in street photography.

You have to go into the “zone” or experience a state of “flow”. You can’t think about the past, the future. You can only think about now.

c) Be around others who support you

My most important learning experiences have been from other photographers who are incredibly loving, supportive, and a part of a community.

Sometimes people joke that people in the improv comedy scene are like a cult. It is because they are so extremely supportive and loving of one another.

So what other outside arts can you study to develop these “uncanny connections” with street photography? The world is your oyster— there are no limits to your creativity.

13. Follow “beginner’s mind”

Istanbul, 2014

Istanbul, 2014

In Zen Buddhism and meditation, they often talk about “beginner’s mind”. What is that exactly?

Think back when you were a child. When you would invest hours into doing something “pointless”— but something that brought you so much incredible joy and fun. You weren’t tied down by doctrine, or how you “should” do things. You did things you wanted, for the pure enjoyment of it.

Think about when you first picked up a camera. You didn’t care so much about technical settings, compositional rules, or whatever. You just went out to the world, and made photographs of whatever interested you. This act brought you a lot of inner-joy, excitement, and happiness. You had “beginner’s mind”— the mind of a child.

Sometimes we look down on “newbies” or beginners. But it is the beginners we can learn most from.

When we are beginners, our minds are open to opportunities, and we are excited by learning. We put away our egos, and constantly invest in learning and improving ourselves.

So when you’re out shooting street photography, remember to play like a child. If you’re not having fun, why are you shooting street photography?

14. Depth over breadth

Amsterdam, 2014

Stockholm, 2014

Another interesting take-away point I got from “The Art of Learning” was this: focus on depth over breadth.

If you try to focus too much on breadth in photography (trying to photograph every single genre of photography), you will never truly master one genre.

However by focusing on depth, you can really learn the nuances of the art you are pursuing.

So for example in street photography, my practical advice is this: don’t seek to learn about every single street photographer who ever lived. Rather, find 3 street photographers you really admire, and really focus on getting to know everything about them. Focus on depth of knowledge of those street photographers, not breadth.

To get really good at anything, we need to have focus. If we spread ourselves too thin, we will never be able to push through barriers and break the surface.

For example, a sun’s rays are generally harmless if spread out. However if you focus the sun’s rays with a magnifying glass, you could burn holes through things. And take that a step further— imagine a laser— it could cut through steel.

To really master photography, you need to stick with the basics— and really master them before trying to master everything.

So for example, stick with one camera and one lens for a very long time. Learn all the nuances of your camera. Learn how many clicks you need to turn to the left or the right to change your aperture. Memorize by heart the focal length of your lens, and know every button, curve, and function of your camera. You want to get to a point where you can use your camera without even thinking.

When it comes to photography, you can focus on depth over breadth by focusing on a photography project. By focusing on a photography project, you focus your intention and creativity. You go deeper and deeper into your project, and learn more about the nuances of your art.

For example, when I started photographing my “Suits” project, the first year were just crummy snapshots of anyone wearing a suit and tie. But as time went on, I started to focus on only men wearing suits and ties (not women). Then as time went on, I started to focus on men wearing suits who looked miserable and sad. And as time goes on, I continue to focus my project by editing out my weaker images, and by adding stronger images.

So how can you better master your fundamentals, and hone the skills you already have?

15. Trust your unconscious

SF, 2014

SF, 2014

Our unconscious has more wisdom than we think.

Have you ever done a test in school, and circled “C” as the answer (because your gut told you so), but then at the last minute erased it and chose “B” (because your logic told you so?). If so, what happened?

I can bet that 90% of the time that when you followed your intuition, your answer was correct.

When we’re out shooting street photography, we need to relax our conscious mind, and let our unconscious mind flow unobstructed.

A way we can practically apply this in street photography is this: whenever you see anything remotely interesting, just take a photo of it. Don’t let your rational mind talk you out of it.

For example, sometimes I see interesting scenes but I don’t take a photo because that judgmental and self-critical voice in the back of my head says, “No Eric, don’t take a photograph of that. That is stupid. It will make a horrible photograph.”

Don’t get me wrong— you will make lots of bad photographs by just following your gut. But every once in a while, you will get a really amazing photograph by following your gut.

Photographer Anders Petersen has a saying: “Shoot from the gut, edit with your brain.

So how can you also use your intuition in street photography? Sometimes that might be following your gut feelings to know who not to photograph. Or sometimes when you’re editing your images (choosing your best images), you should listen to your gut feelings (rather than trying to over-rationalize your choices).

16. Look at less, not more

NYC, 2013

NYC, 2013

One interesting thing about chess grandmasters is that they look at less of the board, rather than more.

Psychologists call this “chunking”— when our brain consolidates information and data into patterns.

For example, when a chess grandmaster looks at a board, they don’t see all the pieces. Rather, they see certain arrangements and patterns on the board which they have internalized.

For example when you’re shooting on the streets, learn how to “chunk” all this information by deliberately looking at less, not more.

So when you’re out on the streets, purposefully ignore things which are distractions. This means ignore distracting trees, white plastic bags, white cars, and boring looking people.

Photograph only the essential. Look for emotions, hand-gestures, facial expressions, and body language which interest you. Look for interesting characters, situation, and nice light.

17. Influence the moods of others

Orange County, 2014

Orange County, 2014

Another fascinating insight from Josh Waitzkin in “The Art of Learning” is how we can psychologically influence others and their states of mind.

For example, a simple one we can apply in street photography is this: if you are confident when you’re out shooting in the streets, others will be more comfortable and willing to be photographed.

Another idea: if you tell a stranger you are a photography student and that you need to take photos of strangers for your project, they will feel more empathetic with you and more willing to participate with you.

Another tip I learned: physical touch is one of the best ways to quickly develop a sense of rapport with a stranger. In a study, they showed that waiters/waitresses that just lightly tapped the shoulder of their customers and asking “is everything going ok?” got substantially higher tips than waiters/waitresses who just asked “is everything going ok?” without physically touching them.

I’m not telling you to grope your subjects. However what I am trying to tell you is this: even by shaking the hand of a stranger and saying hello is a quick way to build a sense of trust. In-fact, if you stretch out your hand (preparing to shake someone else’s hand), most people’s natural reaction is to shake your hand in return.

Another strategy I personally use: whenever I take a photograph of a stranger (let’s say it is candidly), I will smile, say thank you, and just slightly pat them on the shoulder. Funny enough, this actually puts huge smiles on the faces of strangers, and also puts me in a good mood.

So how can you exude more positivity and energy in the streets?

A tip I heard when it comes to public speaking: before you are about to do something that causes you social anxiety, watch some stand-up comedy. When you watch standup comedy, you start to subconsciously mimic the sense of confidence that master standup comedians have, and also laughter produces a lot of serotonin and other feel-good hormones in our brain.

18. Stress & Recovery

San Mateo, 2014

San Mateo, 2014

Another (yeah I know there are a lot of them) insight I got from “The Art of Learning” is that dominant performers strategically use their recovery periods.

For example, master violin players (on average) sleep 9+ hours a night (which is about 1–2 hours more than their less experienced peers). The strongest bodybuilders and power lifters stress the importance of sleeping well (and a lot) to get bigger muscles and more strength. The master fighters, boxers, and competitors are able to intensely rest during their brief moments of inactivity.

When Josh Waitzkin was performing as a high-level chess master, he found that the more breaks he took in-between practice sessions, the more creative breakthroughs he had, and the better his game became.

I know in street photography I generally advocate the importance of shooting everyday. But there are also exceptions that sometimes taking a break from photography is good for your creativity.

Perhaps you are going through a creative slump with your photography. By taking a break, you can get a better insight of why you are having a creative slump. Perhaps it is because you are putting too much stress and pressure on yourself in photography. Or perhaps photography really isn’t your calling— it might be performance art, writing, painting, or something else. And that is okay.

19. Building your creative trigger

SF, 2015

SF, 2015

Have you ever had an experience when you’re shooting on the streets and you were totally in the moment? Totally lost in the flow— without any stresses or anxieties in your life?

But why is it that sometimes when we’re out and shooting, we are in the zone, and other days we feel uninspired? How can we build a trigger so we always feel inspired and content when we’re out making images?

The idea is to build a trigger into a creative routine.

For some people I know this trigger is music. They listen to some good jams before (or while they’re on the streets).

For me, my creative trigger is coffee. Whenever I am about to shoot, I have a nice espresso, which gives me a good buzz to hit the streets.

Another creative trigger you can incorporate is to look at an inspirational photography book before you hit the streets. I have said this many times before, but there is no better investment in your photography education than photography books.

What are some other triggers you can build into your street photography routine? Perhaps it is having a nice snack or fruit smoothie before you go out and shoot. Perhaps it is journaling a bit before shooting. Or perhaps it is having a workout before going out to shoot.

Whatever it may be— try to identify what might be some good positive triggers for you to incorporate into your street photography— and your creativity will soar.

Another bonus idea: in your smartphone have a list of inspirational photography quotes. Whenever you’re about to shoot, just look at the list of quotes, and you will hit the streets with some inspiration!

20. Channel your emotions

Portrait of my mom. Berkeley, 2014

Portrait of my mom. Berkeley, 2014

I think the best street photographs are the ones which have strong emotions.

So when you are feeling a bit sad and depressed, perhaps you should channel that into your street photography. Try to photograph other strangers on the streets who might look the same way— this helps you empathize with the, and also express your emotions.

Perhaps you are feeling happy or social a certain day— use that energy to interact with more strangers on the streets, and perhaps shoot more street portraits.

Perhaps you are feeling a bit tired and lazy that day. Maybe that day you can just take it easy and shoot urban landscapes.

Don’t fight your emotions, your mood, and how you feel. Go with the flow.

Conclusion: A life of learning

Chicago, 2015

Chicago, 2015

So to wrap up this article, here are some takeaway points:

  1. Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses
  2. Commit to a life of learning and improvement
  3. Use your street photography as a vehicle of self-expression
  4. Follow your own internal voice
  5. Always find the time to express yourself creatively

I hope you continue to commit to a life of learning, and for you to use your street photography as a vehicle for self-exploration and expression. I hope that your street photography helps build your confidence and love of people and the world. I hope that street photography helps you stay excited like a child (in “beginner’s mind”). I hope that you make beautiful art, and live and shoot without regrets.

Now go forth and live life by the horns. Don’t waste a precious second of your life, and always commit your life to learning.

Never stop learning

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  1. To learn more about learning, definitely pick up a copy of “The Art of Learning”.

  2. If you want to also to invest in your own self-learning in street photography, build your confidence, and find your unique voice— check out my upcoming street photography workshops. It is an opportunity that can change your life, meet incredibly passionate people, and take your street photography to the next level!