How to Find Your Style in Street Photography: Learn What Not to Photograph

SF, 2015
SF, 2015

One of the most interesting ideas that I’ve got from Nassim Taleb’s book “Antifragile” is his concept of “via negativa”. The concept is this: when describing something, negative descriptions often work best.

What is a negative description?

Well, describing what something isn’t can better define something.

For example, it is hard to describe who/what “God” is, but it is easy to describe who/what God isn’t.

Similarly, it is hard to describe what pornography is (think of the famous judge who said that he couldn’t describe what pornography was, but he could identify it once he saw it). It is easy to describe what pornography isn’t..

Similarly, it is hard to describe what street photography is. There are so many differing viewpoints on what constitutes street photography. But most people agree on what street photography isn’t.. Street photography isn’t taking photos of landscapes, flowers, and macro photos of insects. To some people, street photography isn’t street photography when it is shot with permission. To some people, street photography isn’t street photography if it doesn’t include people.

I just started to read “Managing Oneself” by Peter Drucker, and in one of the chapters he wrote the following:

“Most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong. More often, people know what they are not good at— and even the more people are wrong than right.”

I think I can definitely agree with Peter here. When I was studying my undergraduate degree at UCLA and decided to choose my major, the way I was able to make a decision was this: to figure out what I didn’t want to study, and then figure out what I wanted to study by editing down the choices.

For example, I knew that I didn’t want to study anything that involved math or science. So that automatically winnowed down my decisions to studying something in the humanities. I then saw “Sociology” in the list of majors, and I thought to myself: “I like people and society, that might be interesting.” The rest is history.

So when applying this same line of reasoning to your photography, a lot of people don’t know what their “style” in street photography or what interests them.

But we should take the “via negativa” approach and rather than trying to figure out what we want to photograph, we should figure out what we don’t want to photograph.

For some street photographers, they really dislike taking “street portraits” of strangers in the streets with permissions. However on the other hand, some street photographers dislike being “sneaky” when shooting on the streets and don’t like to shoot candidly.

Some photographers dislike shooting in color, and some dislike shooting in black and white. Some photographers dislike working on projects, and some photographers dislike working without some sort of framework or structure.

Some photographers dislike shooting in their own neighborhood, but some photographers dislike shooting while traveling (all their photos end up looking like cliché ‘National Geographic’ photos).

So what kind of photography do you not like to shoot? I think a lot of us fell into street photography because we didn’t like to shoot landscape, HDR, selective color, macro. We craved to photograph humanity, life, and what is real.

Another idea: to figure out what kind of photographer you want to become, figure out what kind of photographer you don’t want to be like.

If you think that Bruce Gilden is an asshole (shooting close with a flash), then perhaps shoot exactly oppositely of how he shoots. If you dislike shooting urban landscapes like Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, or Joel Sternfeld— photograph people instead. If you dislike shooting on a 50mm lens like Henri Cartier-Bresson did, do the exact opposite: photograph with a wide-angle lens (like a 28mm–35mm) like Garry Winogrand, William Klein, or Alex Webb.

We can take this analogy of “via negativa” even further when it comes to happiness. We often don’t know what makes us happy, but we know what makes us unhappy. What makes us unhappy? Perhaps it is a shitty boss, a long and boring commute, perhaps it is going several days without shooting, toxic relationships, and a feeling of lack of freedom in your life.

So how can you do the exact opposite of what makes you happy? If commuting for a long period of time makes you dissatisfied, perhaps move to somewhere closer to work, pay a little extra in rent, but reap the benefits of being happier. Does your work make you unhappy? Try to get a new job. Are you in a toxic relationship? Get out of that relationship. Only stick around people who make you feel good and positive.

Also I think to become a truly great photographer is to know what kinds of photography to avoid. If you want to become a truly great photographer, don’t get stuck in the short-term view. Don’t just try to become a super-famous Instagram photographer. Rather do the opposite of uploading photos everyday (that are mediocre): work on long-term projects and publish books.

If you are a part of a photography community that is toxic, cynical, and egotistical— quit that group, and find a group of people who are loving, supportive, and encouraging.

Getting rid of one negative person from your life is equivalent to adding 10 really positive people to your life.

In terms of photography in general, try to also figure out what kinds of photography not to look at. Personally, I rarely look at photos on Instagram, Tumblr, or Flickr anymore. I have tried to cut out images on social media out of my diet, and I try to constantly study the work of the masters, and look at photography books instead.

To sum up

To sum up, figure out what you can subtract from your life with the “via negativa” approach. Some ideas:

  1. Subtract gear from your life (get rid of cameras, lenses, equipment you don’t need).
  2. Get rid of negative photographers from your life.
  3. Get rid of photography books in your library you don’t look at, and only focus on the ones that really inspire you.
  4. Figure out what kind of photographer you don’t want to become.
  5. Try to figure out what kind of approach in street photography you dislike, and do the opposite.
  6. Avoid doing what makes you unhappy.
  7. Avoid going long periods of time without taking photos.
  8. Don’t let work get in the way of doing creative work.
  9. Don’t care about what others think about you— focus on pleasing yourself.
  10. Don’t buy gear, buy experiences.


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