Draft v1 (8/28/2015)
Special thanks to Paul King and Alan Morris who have contributed lots of edits!
I am excited to share you the first draft of my upcoming book: “Learn from the Masters of Street Photography.” There is a ton of text, a lot of typos, grammatical error, incomplete parts (some chapters have tips, and others don’t). Oh yeah, and I haven’t added any images yet.
This is a huge project I have been working on. When I was in Marseille a month ago, I literally locked myself up in a cafe for two weeks straight, and wrote this non-stop, distilling all of the wisdom I’ve absorbed from the “Learn From the Masters Series” on the blog.
I have a huge favor to ask you: I am trying out something new, to embrace a “crowdsourcing” way of editing this text. I believe your collective wisdom far outweighs mine, and I could use your help.
I have the entire text available on Google Docs (with commenting enabled). Could you help me edit the text in terms of style, grammar, spelling, and offer suggestions in the comments section?
Looking forward to your edits, and also your suggestions, comments, feedback, and ideas in the comments on this google doc!
Also the entire text is available below:
Lesson #1: Get closer
“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” – Robert Capa
One of the common mistakes that many beginning street photographers make is this: they don’t get close enough.
We have many fears and provide a lot of excuses for not getting close enough in our street photography. We are worried about pissing people off, we are worried about making other people feel uncomfortable, and we are worried that strangers might call the cops on us (or even worse, physically assault us).
However realize that this is all in your head. By getting closer to a stranger, you won’t die. In-fact, I have learned that in photography (and life), with physical proximity comes emotional proximity.
It isn’t enough to use a telephoto or zoom lens to get “close” to your subject. That is fake intimacy. By using a telephoto lens, you are treating your subjects like zoo animals, and your photography is a safari hunt.
However, when we read the quote from Robert Capa on closeness, it doesn’t necessarily mean physical proximity. You can be physically close to your subject, and still emotionally distant. The most important thing as a street photographer is to empathize with your subject and try to connect with them, their emotions, feelings, and condition.
In street photography I generally recommend using a 35mm lens (full-frame equivalent) for most photographers (Alex Webb, Constantine Manos, and Anders Petersen shoot with this focal length). The human eye sees the world in around a 40mm field-of-view, and I find that shooting with a 35mm lens gives you enough wiggle-room around the edges of the frame. A 50mm is fine too (Henri Cartier-Bresson was famous for using it for nearly his entire life), but in today’s crowded world, I find it to be a bit too tight. A 28mm is fantastic too (William Klein, Bruce Gilden, and Garry Winogrand have used this focal length); but realize that you have to be close enough with this lens to fill the frame.
As a rule-of-thumb, I try to shoot with a 35mm at least two-arm-lengths away (or closer). 2 arm-lengths is 1.2 meters (around 4 feet). Therefore I always have my camera pre-focused to 1.2 meters, set at f/8, ISO 1600, and I simply go out to find moments to shoot.
The .7 Meter Challenge
To truly get comfortable getting closer to your subjects, try this assignment from my friend Satoki Nagata: For an entire month, only take photos of your subjects from .7 meters (1-arm-length). For this assignment, switch your camera to manual-focusing mode, and tape the focusing mechanism of your lens to that distance. By setting yourself this “creative constraint,” you will learn how to better engage your subjects and get them comfortable with you shooting at such a close distance.
Start off by asking for permission, then once you feel more courageous, start shooting candidly.
Shooting street photography with a telephoto
You don’t always need to shoot with a wide angle lens. Some of the greatest street photographers have used a longer lens (e.g. Saul Leiter, Tony Ray Jones, and Rene Burri). They used long lenses intentionally to compress their backgrounds and make unique images. However, their images still have emotion and soul to them, as they caught moments of the “human condition.”
Ultimately use the lens and focal length which suits your personality. But if you’ve never tried shooting wide and getting physically close in street photography, I recommend you to try it out, and push yourself out of your comfort zone.
Lesson #2: Shoot from the gut
“My photography is not ‘brain photography’. I put my brain under the pillow when I shoot. I shoot with my heart and with my stomach.” – Anders Petersen
Anders Petersen is one of the most influential contemporary master photographers. He shoots with a simple point-and-shoot film camera (Contax T3) and shoots soulful black and white images which he refers to as “personal documentary.” He makes himself and the people he meets as his main subjects and he shoots from the heart.
A photograph without emotion is dead. The problem that a lot of photographers make is that they try to become too analytical with their photography. They are too preoccupied with composition, framing, form, nice light, and they forget the most important thing of making a memorable image: creating an image that has heart, soul, and passion.
So when you’re out shooting, try not to be too analytical. Shoot from your intuition and your guts. If you find anything even remotely interesting, don’t self-censor yourself. Don’t let your brain tell you: “Don’t take that shot, it is boring, and nobody will find it interesting.”, take the photograph anyway because you can always edit it out (remove it) later.
But when is it time to become analytical?
“It is more after when I am shooting, when I am looking at my contact sheets, and then I try to analyze and put things together.” – Anders Petersen
Shoot from your gut when you’re out on the streets, but use your brain when you’re at home and editing your shots. Analyze your images after-the-fact as a post-mortem, and learn how to “kill your babies” (your photos that you are emotionally attached to, but you know aren’t great photos).
Separate the shooting and editing sides of your photography. They use different parts of your brains, and if you try to do both of them at the same time, you will fail. As a practical tip, turn off your LCD screen when shooting, and refrain from looking at your images immediately. Let your shots “marinate” by not looking at them until a week after you have made your images.
Letting a photograph “marinate”
I shoot both film and digital, but one of the biggest advantages of shooting film is that you cannot look at your photo immediately after you’ve shot it. I generally wait 6-12 months before processing my film . This helps me truly disconnect myself emotionally from my shots, allowing me to look at my photos more objectively.
For digital, I find it a lot harder to let my shots “marinate,” as I am prone to “chimping” (looking at your LCD screen immediately after you’ve taken photographs).
For this photograph above, I saw this woman in London juxtaposed against this billboard behind her. I got close to her, and took two photos: both with a flash. One of them she was looking away, and one she was looking directly at me.
At first, I didn’t think that it was an interesting shot, but then I let the shot “marinate”— and the longer I sat on the image, the more I ended up liking it. I also ended up showing the photograph to a couple of my close friends, who all agreed that it was a strong image.
For some shots, the longer you let your shots “marinate,” the more you like them. For others, the longer you let your shots “marinate,” the less you like them. Imagine oil and water in a bottle. You shake the bottle hard, and they are both mixed. But the longer you wait, the oil will soon rise to the top (your good photos), while the water will sink to the bottom (your weak photos).
Lesson #3: Don’t shoot from the hip
“I never shoot without using the viewfinder.” – Garry Winogrand
Another common mistake that aspiring street photographers make is that they try to overcome their fear of shooting street photography by shooting from the hip (photographing with your camera at waist-level and not looking through the viewfinder).
Personally when I started shooting street photography, I was dependent on “shooting from the hip.” I was too scared to bring my camera’s viewfinder up to my eye, because I was afraid of getting “caught” of taking candid photos of strangers.
Garry Winogrand was one of the most prolific street photographers in history. He shot with a Leica M4, 28mm lens, and was known for creating layered, edgy, and head-on shots. If you go on YouTube, you can see how close he is to his subjects when shooting, and he always quickly looks through his viewfinder while shooting. This allowed him to frame properly, and capture the moments he found interesting.
The downsides of shooting from the hip
“[Don’t shoot from the hip], you’ll lose control over your framing.” – Garry Winogrand
In my experience, I found that shooting from the hip was a huge crutch. The more I shot from the hip, the less confident I was as a street photographer. Not only that, but as Garry Winogrand said, I lost control over my framing. My shots would be poorly framed, skewed, and any shot that I got that looked half-decent was because of luck.
Remember, as a street photographer, you aren’t doing anything wrong. You are trying to make images that people can empathize with. If it weren’t for street photographers, historians would have no idea what people did in public spaces in the past. All of the iconic street photography done by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, Robert Doisneau, and Vivian Maier wouldn’t exist.
Be confident. Have faith in yourself. By not shooting from the hip, you’re signaling to the world that you’re not doing anything wrong. Also by using your viewfinder (or LCD screen) you can have better control over your framing and composition.
The benefit of having your subjects see you while shooting them
Sometimes it is good to have your subjects notice that you are about to take a photograph of them.
For example, in this photo I shot in Hollywood, I saw this hip older lady with these great sunglasses and hat. I crouched down, and took a photograph with my Canon 5D and 24mm lens. The second I was about to take a photograph of her, she looked at me and posed with her hands (giving me the “jazz hands”).
Now if I shot from the hip, she might have not noticed me about to take a photograph. Therefore she would have never posed for me, and this photo would never had been created.
But does that ruin the photograph, the fact that your subject noticed you? Absolutely not. William Klein famously engaged with his subjects a lot when he shot street photography, and his presence made his photographs more vibrant, dynamic, and edgy.
So what happens when you’re shooting street photography (with your viewfinder), and you get “caught in the act?” My suggestion: Look at your subject, smile, say ‘thank you’ and move on.
Lesson #4: Don’t crop
“If you start cutting or cropping a good photograph, it means death to the geometrically correct interplay of proportions. Besides, it very rarely happens that a photograph which was feebly composed can be saved by reconstruction of its composition under the darkroom’s enlarger; the integrity of vision is no longer there.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Another common mistake a lot of photographers make is that they over-crop their shots. They are “crop-a-holics,” in which you crop every single photograph you take.
I am also a recovering “crop-a-holic.” When I shot on the streets, I would be sloppy. I disregarded framing, as I told myself, “Eh, if I don’t get the shot right, I can always crop it later.”
However when I learned this lesson from Henri Cartier-Bresson (the master street photographer on composition), I decided to give it a try. At first, it was difficult not to crop my shots. But when I gave myself the “creative constraint” of not cropping, it forced me to improve my framing in-camera.
Over the course of a year, I discovered that my framing and composition got much better. I worked harder to get the shots right in-camera, and this caused my photography to improve drastically.
Now I am not saying that you should never crop your photographs. There are a lot of master street photographers who heavily cropped their photographs (Robert Frank did some radical cropping for his seminal book: “The Americans,” even turning some landscape shots into portrait shots with cropping).
Assignment: Go an entire year without cropping
If you are trying to improve your composition and intuitive sense of framing: give yourself the assignment of going an entire year without cropping. I can guarantee you that a year later, your photography will improve dramatically. And if in the future you do decide to start cropping again, always do it in moderation. Very rarely does a poorly-framed photo look better when cropped.
A practical tip for framing better without cropping? Look at the edges of the frame while you’re shooting. Avoid suffering from “tunnel-vision” (only looking in the center of the frame)
Lesson #5: Emotionally detach yourself from your photographs
“Sometimes photographers mistake emotion for what makes a great street photograph.” – Garry Winogrand
Imagine this situation: it is a cold and rainy day. You are out shooting on the streets, and you are feeling miserable. You haven’t got any good shots all day, despite the fact that you left your warm (and dry) house to take some street photos. You are about to give up and go home when you see a little girl with a red umbrella about to jump over a puddle.
You think of the famous photograph of Henri Cartier-Bresson (man jumping over puddle), and get excited. You hold up your camera, and wait patiently. The girl then jumps, and you click. You quickly look at your LCD screen and you realize: “voila!” You just captured the “decisive moment.” You are excited.
You then rush home, quickly download your photos to your computer, post-process the photo, and then upload the photograph to your social media website of choice. You cross your arms, and think that it is one of the finest photographs you have ever taken. You are excited that perhaps, finally, you will get over 100+ favorites/likes on this image.
A day or so passes, and you only got 10-15 favorites/likes. You throw up your hands in rage and think to yourself: “These people on the internet wouldn’t know a great image if it hit them in the face!” You then continue about your day. A week or two go by, and you revisit the image. You then look at the image and tell yourself: “Hey, this image isn’t quite as good as I remembered it to be.”
What just happened? You became emotionally attached to the backstory of how difficult it was to get that image (and the emotion you felt of being excited). This confused you into thinking that this was actually an “objectively” good shot.
This happens to the best of us. We get too emotionally attached to our shots, because we were there. We experienced it. It feels alive and vivid inside our memories.
he problem is that our viewers have no idea what the backstory of the image is (unless you write a long caption, which I generally advise against).
So what is the solution? Try to emotionally detach yourself from your photos. When editing (selecting) which images to “keep” and “ditch,” ask your peers to be “brutally honest” with your work. Another tip: don’t refer to the photos you take as “my photos.” Refer to them as “the photos.” The difference? Calling them “the photos” detaches you emotionally from them, so you can be more critical and objective when editing your shots.
Stories don’t exist outside of the frame
In photography, the entire story of the image must exist inside the frame. If you want to tell a better story, include context in your photos (like this environmental portrait I shot of a man in San Diego).
I have this vivid story in my head of how I got the image: I saw this well-dressed man in a hotel lobby, and asked if I could make a few photos. He said, “No problem,” and I started to take a bunch of images. Afterwards, I asked him what he did and what he was up to. He told me, “I own this hotel!”
Now I have this vivid backstory, but the viewer has no idea about that story or information in this photograph. However, viewers find this photograph interesting because the outfit of the man looks like he’s from the 1950s — a relic of the past. The viewer then makes up their own story about the man, based on the TV shows (Madmen) or films they have seen.
Morale of the story? If you have a photograph which is weak without having a compelling story, ditch the shot. When you have to “explain” the back-story of a street photograph, it is like explaining a joke. The funniest jokes don’t need to be “explained” (or else it isn’t a good joke). A good photograph shouldn’t need an intricate backstory or explanation in the caption.
Lesson #6: Provoke your subjects
“Rather than catching people unaware, they show the face they want to show. Unposed, caught unaware, they might reveal ambiguous expressions, brows creased in vague internal contemplation, illegible, perhaps meaningless. Why not allow the subject the possibility of revealing his attitude toward life, his neighbor, even the photographer?” – William Klein
There is a general scorn in street photography against “posed” photos (or photos that aren’t shot candidly). A lot of people follow the Henri Cartier-Bresson school of street photography in which the photographer shouldn’t interact with his/her subjects, to be an unattached observer.
However, there is more than one approach to street photography. On the other extreme of Henri Cartier-Bresson (who covered his silver Leica with black tape to be more discrete) is William Klein, a street photographer who gave a middle-finger to all of the “rules” in photography, and instead acted like a director. He would provoke his subjects, and interact with them. Even for his most famous “kid with gun” photograph, he told the kid: “Look tough.” At that moment, the kid with the toy gun pointed the gun to Klein’s face with a look of hate, anger, and intensity.
I often take this approach in street photography (similar to Klein). While I do enjoy shooting a lot of candid street photographs, I also like to engage and provoke my subjects. Sometimes I will tell them to just look into the lens and not smile. Other times I will ask them to explicitly do things for me (look the other direction, cross your arms, take a puff of your cigarette, look down).
But once you engage your subjects and ask them to do something for you, doesn’t it make the photograph less legitimate? Doesn’t the photograph become less about the subject, and more about you?
Every photograph we take is a self-portrait of ourselves. We decide how to filter reality. We decide what to put into the frame and what to exclude. So don’t have any personal qualms about showing your own version of reality through your photography. Embrace it.
“Can you do that again for me?”
Sometimes you see things happen in the street: certain gestures, facial expressions, or actions by your subjects. A tip: I approach the subject and ask them: “Oh, I just saw you blowing your nose. Can you blow your nose again for me?”, as I did in the photograph above.
Believe it or not, most people are quite happy to repeat certain gestures for you.
Another thing you can do if you see an interesting scene, approach the subject and tell them: “Excuse me, I think you look really cool smoking on this corner here. Do you mind if I take a few photographs, and you just pretend like I’m not here?’ The majority of people will laugh, and comply, and literally ignore you.
If your subjects don’t ignore you, simply linger around. The longer you wait, the more people begin to ignore you, and just continue their business. Once they drop their guard, start shooting.
Lesson #7: Don’t be a slave to your camera
“You are not supposed to be a slave of mechanical tools, they are supposed to help you and be as small and unimportant as possible not to disturb the communication.” – Anders Petersen
There is a disease and a sickness out there. It afflicts thousands (if not millions) of photographers globally, and it costs people hundreds and thousands of dollars. This disease breeds insecurity amongst photographers, and causes photographers to make tons of excuses about their photography.
The disease? It is called “G.A.S.” (gear acquisition syndrome). The concept is that you become addicted to getting new cameras, new gear, new lenses, and new photographic gadgets, rather than focusing on just becoming a better photographer. You make excuses about your gear, and that your camera and equipment is holding you back. You tell yourself, “Oh if I just had camera ‘X’ I would be more inspired in my photography, and take better photos.
I personally still suffer from G.A.S. Whenever I am dissatisfied with my photography, I always think that buying a new camera or lens will help inspire me to become a better photographer. It never does.
The only real way that I have improved my photography is by traveling, attending photography workshops, buying books (not gear), and by just shooting.
I have discovered that when you are actually out shooting, you become very unaware of your camera. You get caught in the “flow” of shooting— and all the excuses about your camera or lens disappear. You become one with your camera, and it is almost as if the photos take themselves.
I always lust for gear when I spend too much time online and on gear forums or review sites. Beware: 99.9% of the photography sites online are just dedicated to gear (as advertising and affiliate sales of cameras drive the photography industry).
How can you cure yourself of “G.A.S”? Unsubscribe (or block) all gear review websites, and whenever you have the urge to buy a new gear just buy a photography book. Realize that your camera is just a tool to create images. As photographer Anders Petersen tells us, just try to get a small camera that is unobtrusive and focus on making images. He shoots with a simple Contax T3 (a point-and-shoot 35mm camera), and focuses on the emotion in his photos. Focus less on the camera, focus more on shooting, telling stories, and use your cash to travel.
Lesson #8: Embrace “beginner’s mind”
“My dream is that if you go out in the streets where you were born you see the streets like for the first time in your life even though you have been living there for 60 years.” – Anders Petersen
Do you remember when you first picked up a camera, and weren’t disturbed by dogma, rules, constraints, or any other “theories” in photography? Do you remember the lightness that you would just roam the streets, and just took photos that interested you without any prejudice or self-criticism? Do you remember how excited it was to just play, like a child?
In Zen Buddhism they call this approach “beginner’s mind.” When we begin any sort of pursuit, hobby, or art in life, we are unburdened. We see the world as fresh and full of opportunities. We are excited, nimble, fresh, and open-minded. We see possibilities, not obstructions.
However, the problem is that the more experienced we become in photography (and life), the more we become jaded. Everything just seems to becoming boring. Nothing interests us anymore. You can live in the most interesting city in the world (Paris, Tokyo, New York) and after a while become bored with what you see.
The secret? Follow Anders Petersen’s advice and hit the streets like it is the first time. Imagine that it is the first time you experienced it. Imagine what you would find interesting and unique. Imagine yourself like a tourist in your own city.
Sometimes it takes getting out of your comfort zone or out of your routine to appreciate the city or street where you live. Try switching things up. Walk around your city with a different route than you usually take. Perhaps take a short trip out of town, and come back to your city with new and refreshed eyes.
Or imagine yourself like an alien visiting from another planet. If you were an alien and visited your own city streets for the first time, what would you find interesting or unique?
For the two photos on the other page I didn’t try to analyze the scene too much when shooting. I just found them interesting and just clicked. I didn’t let theory or definitions deter me from making this image. Some might ask: “But is it street photography?” I don’t care, I just took a photograph like any good beginner would.
Lesson #9: Limitations are freedom
“Too many choices will screw up your life. Work on one thing, then expand on your canvas.” – David Alan Harvey
The problem with modern society is that we have too many choices. Do you remember the last time you went to the grocery store and wanted to get some breakfast cereal? Let’s say you wanted to get some wheat cereal. You go to the cereal aisle, and you see that there are 10 different brands. Even worse, there are different flavors: sugar, chocolate, vanilla, blueberry, and strawberry. On top of that, there are some cereals loaded with probiotics, some with less sugar, and some that is advertised as “heart healthy.”
Overwhelmed, you just pick up some of the chocolate wheat cereal, and you go home and the next morning you have a bowl of cereal. You are slightly disappointed with your choice, and you kick yourself for not getting the sugar variety.
This is what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls “The Paradox of Choice.” When we have too many choices or options, we become overwhelmed. This causes more regret, and more stress.
Having too many choices (having more than 1 camera and more than 1 lens) can be stressful. You are making tons of decisions everyday as a photographer: what camera to use, what lens to use, what film to use, how to post-process your photos, etc.
Limitations are freedom. Ironically enough, having fewer options leads to less stress, and more inner-peace.
One of the philosophies I strongly believe in is “one camera, one lens.” Whenever I have owned more than one camera and more than one lens, this has caused me stress and “decision fatigue.” By having only one camera and one lens, you don’t have to think when you’re about to shoot a photograph. You have only one option, and that is that. Therefore you can use more of your decision-making energy on how to make a good photograph.
The masters in photography have almost universally followed this rule. Henri Cartier-Bresson made the majority of his iconic images with his film Leica, 50mm, and black-and-white film. Alex Webb has stuck to mostly a film Leica, a 35mm lens, and Kodachrome color film. Daido Moriyama has stuck with point-and-shoot Ricoh GR cameras, 28mm, and have stayed consistent with grainy black and white film.
So try to figure out how you can start to eliminate options and choices from your photography (and life). Having more limitations will force you to be more creative, and set you free.
The Zen of One Camera, One Lens
In January 2013, I got the news that my grandfather passed away. I quickly boarded a plane, and only brought one camera and lens with me: the Ricoh GR1v (a point-and-shoot film camera with a 28mm lens). I also only brought 10 rolls of film (Neopan 400) and pushed the film to 1600. I set myself this limitation in terms of my gear and my goal was to document my grandfather’s funeral in a meaningful, present, and mindful way.
By having this simple point-and-shoot camera, I was able to really focus on the experience of being there for my grandfather’s funeral. Because I used film, I couldn’t “chimp” and check my LCD screen after every photograph I took. I was truly present, and wasn’t distracted by my camera. I think this lack of distraction from my camera helped me create one of the most meaningful projects in my photography career: my “Grandfather” series.
If you are a photographer that owns more than one camera and one lens, just take one camera and one lens with you when you go out shooting. Or if you’re pursuing a certain photography project, do it all on one camera, one lens, and one film (or style of post-processing if you shoot digital). This will help you photograph more on the shooting process, and less about the equipment involved.
There is nothing that has given me more zen and peace than having one camera and one lens.
Lesson #10: Shoot with a “stream-of-consciousness”
“For me, capturing what I feel with my body is more important than the technicalities of photography. If the image is shaking, it’s OK, if it’s out of focus, it’s OK. Clarity isn’t what photography is about.” – Daido Moriyama
One of the common mistakes a lot of photographers make is that they are too analytical when they shoot street photography. They forget the most important part of photography: photographing what you feel, with your heart.
Daido Moriyama is one of Japan’s most famous photographers who popularized the “stream-of-consciousness” style of photography. Not only that, but he popularized the radical “bure boke” (grainy, blurry, out-of-focus) aesthetic, which rebelled against the photography at the time, which focused on making hyper-sharp images with fancy high-end cameras.
What is “stream-of-consciousness” in photography you ask? Well, the concept is that your thoughts, emotions, and ideas are like a river or stream, flowing through your mind. You trust your intuition, instincts, and gut.
So when you’re shooting street photography, you just photograph what you find interesting, without any judgement, self-criticism, or frustration. You setup your camera with fully-auto settings, and just point-and-click. It is the purest form of “snapshot” photography, where you aren’t thinking like an “artist.” You are just like a child, exploring the world, and photographing what you find interesting.
When you shoot with a “stream-of-consciousness,” realize that the majority of your shots won’t be very good. In-fact, you will make a lot of crappy, uninteresting, and boring photographs. However if you channel your emotions into your photos, they will become more personally meaningful to you, and also this feeling will transfer to the viewer.
This makes the editing process so important. You need to always get a second opinion on your photos, and to see if other people get the same emotions from your photograph as you do.
If you are a photographer who is “stuck” or facing “photographer’s block,” this approach will suit you very well.
You can also apply the “stream of consciousness” type of shooting with street photography projects. Simply react to what you see, and then you can compile your projects or series later. Elliott Erwitt explains:
“I don’t start out with any specific interests, I just react to what I see. I don’t know that I set out to take pictures of dogs; I have a lot of pictures of people and quite a few of cats. But dogs seem to be more sympathetic.” – Elliott Erwitt
Shooting what it feels like
“Seeing is not enough; you have to feel what you photograph” – Andre Kertesz
I shot this above image in Saigon, Vietnam. I was at a bar, and I saw the mysterious mood and feeling of this man through a set of curtains. I was shooting this photo on a Fujifilm x100s, and set the camera to manual-focus, focused on the man, and just started to shoot away in “program” mode (aperture set to auto, shutter-speed set to auto) at ISO 3200.
I loved the expression of the man’s face, his sense of loneliness, and the mysteriousness of the place. I didn’t think too much about the composition and the framing, I just kept shooting what the scene felt like: dark, estranged, and lost.
Afterwards when I shared the photo with my friends and other photographers I trusted, they told me that the emotion that I felt in this scene mirrored what they felt.
The emotions you feel while shooting street photography won’t always translate to your viewers. However the more you shoot with your heart (and not with your brain), the more likely you are to translate what a scene feels like to your viewer.
Lesson #11: Embrace failure
“Luck – or perhaps serendipity – plays a big role… But you never know what is going to happen. And what is most exciting is when the utterly unexpected happens, and you manage to be there at the right place at the right time – and push the shutter at the right moment. Most of the time it doesn’t work out that way. [Street] photography is 99.9% about failure.” – Alex Webb
Street photography is all about failure. Every time you click the shutter, there is only a .1% chance that you will make an interesting shot. The majority of the time, you might shoot an entire day, not get a single good shot, and feel disappointed and frustrated.
But know that failure is a good thing. The more you fail, the more likely you are to succeed. As Thomas Watson once wrote: “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”
The only thing you can control in your street photography is the amount of effort you put in. Meaning, you can control putting in 8 hours of shooting in one day, and how hard you work. What you can’t control is whether you get a good shot or not.
In my street photography, I often found that the more I go out and take my camera, the more “lucky” I get. When I have my camera with me, the more opportunities I see.
Luck isn’t some magical thing that hits us like lightning. Luck favors those who are prepared. Always having your camera with you, always observing your scenes and environment, and know that every once in a while, you will be at the “right place at the right time.” If you’re comfortable with your camera and skilled enough, you will also click the shutter at the right moment.
When you fail to get the shot, don’t become discouraged. Rather, learn from your failures and mistakes. What caused you to miss the shot? Was it because your camera wasn’t set up properly? Was it because your camera was not in your hand ? Was it because you were too nervous and didn’t have the courage to click the shutter? Learn from your failures, and the closer you will become to mastering street photography.
Lesson #12: Add “something more” in the frame
“It’s not just that that and that exists. It’s that that, that, that, and that all exist in the same frame. I’m always looking for something more. You take in too much; perhaps it becomes total chaos. I’m always playing along that line: adding something more, yet keeping it sort of chaos.” – Alex Webb
The more experienced you get in street photography, the more sophisticated you will become. You might start getting bored with the images you make, and you want something more in your images.
Alex Webb is famous for creating complex images, with multiple layers and colors while having minimal overlaps in his frame. His photos are bursting with life, energy, and subject-matter. His photos are on the border of chaotic, yet they still work.
What Alex Webb does is he constantly looks for something more in the frame he can add, especially things in the background. As beginner street photographers, we become obsessed only what is in front of us, and we disregard the background. We don’t know that the background is often as important as the foreground.
So if you see a single-subject in the foreground, take the shot; but wait and be patient and look for “something more.” Perhaps somewhere to the right of the scene, you see an old lady about the enter the frame. And on the top-left of the scene, you might see a woman pushing a baby stroller into the frame. Try to frame the shot where you can balance the image by dispersing subjects in opposite sides of the frames. Also try to avoid creating overlaps in your images with your subjects by adding a little bit of white-space between them.
But how do you know when a scene is “too busy”? It is often a matter of taste. What I try to find is “multiple stories” in a single scene, which keeps the viewer engaged and interested. Don’t just put extra subjects in the frame for the sake of it. Only add what you think is essential and will add something of value to the frame.
Fill the frame
I was in Downtown LA, walking down Broadway when out of nowhere, a huge crowd of people started streaming down the street. I loved the light and the mystery of these people, and thought of the work of Alex Webb in terms of filling the frame and adding complexity to the scene.
So I held my camera up, and started to click away, head-on. I tried to fill the frame with interesting elements (the signs on top of the frame), the woman in the bottom-left of the frame, a person with a hat in the bottom-right of the frame, and I clicked the second I saw the man with the “LA” hat make an interesting hand-gesture.
I really like how the shot turned out in terms of the energy, excitement, and vigor of the scene. I showed this photograph to my friends, and they told me that it felt very “Alex Webb” in terms of how I filled the frame and added energy and chaos to the scene.
While this isn’t the style of photography I usually shoot (I generally prefer single-subjects in my photos), I was glad that I was able to apply the working style and philosophy of Alex Webb to experiment creating different styles of images.
When you’re out shooting street photography, try to experiment with filling the frame. Try to see how much you can add to your frame before the image bursts at the seams. Cram in creativity.
Lesson #13: Master your body language
“If you photograph for a long time, you get to understand such things as body language. I often do not look at people I photograph, especially afterwards. Also when I want a photo, I become somewhat fearless, and this helps a lot. There will always be someone who objects to being photographed, and when this happens you move on.” – Martin Parr
As a street photographer, you want to learn how to master your body language. 90% of communication isn’t verbal; it is actually through your facial expressions, body position, hand gestures in which we communicate.
If you want to shoot more candid street photography and not be noticed, you don’t want your body language to suggest that you just made an image. Rather, you want to use your body language to suggest that you took a photo of something behind a person. Martin Parr gives further advice:
“I go straight in very close to people and I do that because it’s the only way you can get the picture. You go right up to them. Even now, I don’t find it easy. I don’t announce it. I pretend to be focusing elsewhere. If you take someone’s photograph it is very difficult not to look at them just after. But it’s the one thing that gives the game away. I don’t try and hide what I’m doing – that would be folly.”
Eye contact often makes a stronger street photograph, but also it makes it very obvious to your subject that you want to photograph them. So if you want to be invisible when shooting street photography, avoid eye contact.
However there are also moments where you want to engage your subjects and ask for permission to take their photograph. In these circumstances, mastering your body language to show confidence is key. This means standing up straight, speaking in a bold and clear voice, being relaxed, and not hesitating. The less nervous and awkward body language you show, the less nervous and awkward your subjects will feel.
Assignment: Eye contact
Variation #1: Don’t make eye contact
For this assignment, go up to a stranger very close (about 1 arm length away), and take a photograph of them. After you take a photograph, don’t drop your camera. Keep it up to your face, and avoid making eye contact with your subject. Hold up your camera for 15 more seconds, and then drop it and move on. See how your subject responds.
This assignment will teach you that if you pretend you shot something else (convincingly with your body language), nobody will assume otherwise.
Variation #2: Make eye contact
For this assignment, walk around the streets and find someone interesting. Stare at them until they make eye contact with you. Once they make eye contact with you, smile, wave, and say hello. Then with a big smile, give them a compliment and ask them to take their photograph.
This assignment will help you build confidence via your body language.
Lesson #13.5: Aim to make 1 good photo a month
Martin Parr shoots “tens of thousands” of photos, prints “maybe 15,000 a year” and “If there are 10 good ones, it would be a good year.”
One of the problems of studying the work of the masters of street photography is that you only see their great work. You don’t see their mistakes, their ditched images, or the boring photos they’ve made. They only show their best work.
Most of the master street photographers I’ve studied admit to only making about 10-12 good photos a year. On average that is one good shot a month.
A story that I heard (not sure if it is true or not) was between Henri Cartier-Bresson and Josef Koudelka in a taxi cab. Josef Koudelka leans over to Cartier-Bresson and asks him softly, “So, how many good images you make a year?” Cartier-Bresson responds by saying, “Perhaps 10-12 if I’m lucky.” Koudelka than wipes off the sweat on his forehead and says, “Phew, that is wonderful to hear. I thought I was the only one!”
Whether or not the story is true, remember: you’re only as good as your weakest photograph. Not only that, you’re only as good as your last photograph.
So don’t settle for mediocrity, but at the same time, be realistic with yourself. It is rare that you make a great street photograph, as street photography is the most challenging form of photographers out there. So if you can manage to get one good street photograph a month, be at ease.
Assignment: “Kill your babies”
To start off, think to yourself: if I can only be remembered for 10 photos, which photos would they be? Then choose those 10 images, print them out, put them in a box, and also add them to a “portfolio” set on your website. I can guarantee those will be 10 very strong shots.
Then moving forward, only aim to make one good street photograph a month. Be patient with yourself, and always think long term.
Lesson #14: Kill your mentor
“In those days Henri Cartier-Bresson limited us to lenses from 35 mm to 90 mm. When I showed him the photos he said, ‘brilliant René!’ I went outside and shouted ‘Hah!’ He heard me and said ‘what was that?’ I said, ‘nothing, never mind’. The lens I used was 180 mm – I never told him! At that point I broke loose from my mentor. I killed my mentor!” – Rene Burri
Ironically enough even though this series on learning from the masters of street photography, there are only so many “lessons” you an learn from the masters before you need to “kill the masters.”
For example, when Rene Burri started to shoot photography in Magnum, Cartier-Bresson was one of his mentors and “masters.” He hugely admired Cartier-Bresson’s work, and therefore would follow his philosophies in not using telephoto lenses, not cropping, and not posing his subjects.
Ironically enough one of Burri’s most famous images of silhouetted men in Brazil, he shot it with a 180mm (directly contradicting the rules of Cartier-Bresson). By “breaking the rules,” Burri was able to make one of his most iconic and memorable images.
So know that after learning from the masters, you need to know when to ignore them or when to go against their teachings. Consider the “masters” of street photography simply as mentors or guides. Don’t listen to them blindly, as one day you need to take off your training wheels and learn to ride on your own.
Assignment: Contradict a “rule”
If there is a certain “rule” in photography you normally follow, for a month intentionally try to break it, but do so in a creative way.
For example if the rule is “don’t crop,” do the exact opposite by experimenting with radical cropping. This is what William Klein and Robert Frank did with their images.
Lesson #15: Follow your curiosity
“The camera is like my third eye it is an outlet for my curiosity. I was always curious as a kid and you have to use your senses. I wanted to meet the big giants of the 19th century, a sculptor, an artist, a dictator a musician and then ‘I would find the pictures would just happen’. I respond to situations and I am very fast – fastest gun in the West – even at my age.” – Rene Burri
One of the best traits a street photographer can have is curiosity. You can’t fake curiosity in life. Curiosity is the fuel of life. Curiosity is what keeps us hungry to learn more, experience more, and live more.
If you want to become a better photographer, learn how to become more curious in life. Be more like a child and less like an adult. Once we become adults, we become closed off to new ideas and ways of thinking. Rather than exploring things for ourselves and following our curiosity we would rather Google answers.
Jacob Aue Sobol also mentions the importance of being curious about your subjects:
“I also photograph because I am curious. I am curious about what the person on the other side of the street is thinking, how he or she lives, and how he or she feels. I am always looking for someone to share a moment with.” – Jacob Aue Sobol
Don’t photograph what you think others might find interesting. Rather, photograph what you are personally interested in. If there is a certain neighborhood or part of your town that you are interested in, just go there with a camera and take photos. Don’t think too much. Follow and shoot what you’re curious about.
Assignment: Curiosity notebook
This assignment is to help rekindle your sense of curiosity in life and photography. Buy a cheap notebook and carry it with you in your camera bag. Whenever you have an idea for a photography project or find something you are curious in, write it down in your “curiosity notebook.”
The goal is that everyday try to write down at least one idea or concept or photography project you’re interested or curious about. You can also write down master photographers you are interested in learning more about. For example, if you’ve heard about William Eggleston and don’t know his work but are curious about learning more, write it down in your notebook.
You don’t need to explore every idea. But the act of writing down ideas will keep your mind sharp and curious.
Also write down your ideas, no matter how stupid, silly, or childish they may seem. This is a private notebook, nobody else will see it.
Lesson #16: Leave your photos open to interpretation
“I leave it to others to say what [my photos] mean. You know my photos, you published them, you exhibited them, and so you can say whether they have meaning or not.” – Josef Koudelka
One of the common mistakes photographers make is that they don’t leave their photos open to interpretation. They use fancy titles which explain what they want the viewer to take out of the photograph.
Take the opposite approach: leave your photos open to interpretation to the viewer. The more open to interpretation you make your photos, the more engaging they will be to your viewer.
A key way to do this is to leave out key information, or to add mystery or ambiguity to your photos. Intentionally cut off heads, limbs, or obscure the background. Kill the sense of context of the scene. Make the viewer work hard to interpret what is going on in the scene.
A good joke shouldn’t need to be “explained” by the joke teller. Similarly a good street photograph shouldn’t need a detailed backstory in the caption of a photograph.
Similarly, movies are always the best when they end in an ambiguous way, in which the viewer makes up their own ending. When the director ends a film without a clear ending, the film is unforgettable.
Photographer Joel Sternfeld shares how when the photographer makes an image, he or she is interpreting the world:
“Photography has always been capable of manipulation. Even more subtle and more invidious is the fact that any time you put a frame to the world, it’s an interpretation. I could get my camera and point it at two people and not point it at the homeless third person to the right of the frame, or not include the murder that’s going on to the left of the frame… There’s an infinite number of ways you can do this: photographs have always been authored.”
Richard Kalvar also shares the importance of having mystery behind your shots and not explaining them:
“First let me address the question “What was going on there?” in general. I try to avoid answering, because when I do, people generally stop looking and turn the page. If you kill the magic and the mystery, what’s left but humdrum reality?”
“It’s tempting to satisfy people’s curiosity as to what was “really going on” in a scene, but it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If there’s a mystery, the viewer should try to unravel it for him or herself, subjectively, through intelligence, imagination and association. I want people to keep looking, not just move on to the next thing.”
Assignment: Make an open-ended photo
Try to make a photograph without a clear explanation. Intentionally try to use blur, out of focus effects, a flash, high contrast black and white, or cut out limbs or body parts. Make an image difficult to interpret, and ask your friends or viewers to come up with their own story.
Alternatively try to capture people with strong body gestures or emotions, and don’t make it clear what exactly is going on.
Leaving a photo closed to interpretation
Sometimes when you’re doing documentary or photojournalism photography, you don’t want your photo open to interpretation. You want it to share a specific viewpoint. In this case, you want a detailed description or caption, for the viewer not to be misled.
But street photography is more about creating your own interpretation of the world, rather than trying to capture some “objective” reality. The more ambiguous or open ended you make your images, the more engaging for the viewer.
Lesson #17: Remove your ego from your photos
“I wouldn’t talk about the photographs. No, I try to separate myself completely from what I do. I try to step back to look at them as somebody who has nothing to do with them.” – Josef Koudelka
Sometimes we can let our ego get in the way of our photography. We think our photos are like our children, and we become too emotionally attached to them (even if they are bad photos).
Personally I have a difficult time overcoming my attachments to my photos. When people critique my photos, I feel like they’re critiquing me as a human being.
But remember: you are not your photos. When people critique or criticize your photos, they aren’t criticizing you. They’re just judging your photos.
One of the best ways to overcome this is to detach your ego from your photos. By detaching your ego from your photos, you can judge them more honestly and objectively. When you want feedback on your photos, ask people, “Please be straightforward and give the photos a brutally honest critique.” Also when critiquing your own work, imagine that they were shot by someone else.
Another master photographer, Sebastiao Salgado mirrors this sentiment. He dedicates making images for others to make a positive impact in the world, instead of boosting his own self-ego:
“The biggest danger for a photographer is if they start thinking they are important.” – Sebastiao Salgado
Edit ruthlessly, and detach your ego from the process.
Assignment: They’re not your photos
Ultimately the photo we take don’t belong to us. They are for society and our viewers to interpret, consume, and analyze.
To overcome having your ego attached to your photos try this assignment: For a year, don’t refer to the photos you take as “my” photos.[a] Rather, refer to them as “the” photos. After you take the photos, take a step back, and let them tell their own story, and exist on their own.
Lesson #18: Photograph what you love
“It’s not normal to feel that you have to do something, that you love to do something. If that’s happening you have to pay attention so you don’t lose it.” – Josef Koudelka
You can’t fake love and passion in what you do in life, and what you photograph. People are good bullshit detectors; they can smell “fakeness” from a mile away.
On the other hand, enthusiasm is contagious. If you shoot your subject matter with love, compassion, and honesty, this will show in your photos. The viewer will feel the same feelings you did.
With love also comes fascination. Koudelka shares how he has always been in love of landscapes, but never was able to capture the soul of landscapes, until he picked up a panoramic camera. He shares his experience below:
“I ran around Paris; I had to photograph everything. I realized that with this camera I could do something I’d never done before. The panoramic camera helped me go to another stage in my career, in my work. It helped me to remain interested in photography, to be fascinated with photography.”
It is hard to fall in love with your subject matter, project, and to remain fascinated. But having an intense love and fascination of what you’re interested in photographing will help you get to a new stage in your career.
Once you are no longer interested or fascinated with the world, you lose your artistic vision and insights. In fact, Koudelka mentions how even Henri Cartier-Bresson lost his interest in photography:
“I’m going to be seventy-seven. When I met Cartier-Bresson, he was sixty-two. I’m 15 years older than Cartier-Bresson was then. And at that time Cartier-Bresson was stopping his work with photography.”
Koudelka continues in another interview:
“Many photographers like Robert Frank and Cartier Bresson stopped photographing after 70 years because they felt that they had nothing more to say. In my case I still wake up and want to go and take photographs more than ever before.”
When your photography no longer fascinates you, or when you are no longer having any fun, it is a good chance for you to reassess yourself as a photographer. Why are you no longer interested? Why do you feel bored? Do you feel like you’re just continuing to do the same thing?
Avoid boredom at all costs. Remain fascinated. If you consider yourself a “street photographer” yet you no longer find the streets interesting, switch things up. Try shooting landscapes like Koudelka or pursue a different project. Pursue a project that you’re afraid of. Sometimes our best growth opportunities come from what we’re frightened to pursue.
As a photographer don’t dry up, wither and die. Keep your artistic eye and seed well watered. Do this by reading interviews with photographers and artists you admire, by investing in photography books, classes and workshops, through traveling, and by meeting new people.
Magnum photographer Jacob Aue Sobol also mentions the importance of being emotionally connected to your work:
“I do find it difficult to work in places I am not connected to in some way. I simply lose interest in the place, because I don’t have a close relation, which allows me to approach the place in a more personal way. In Greenland, I started photographing Sabine because I was in love with her, but in Tokyo the situation was different because Sara worked long hours and I was left on my own to explore the city. In this way, my love for Sara and the emotions we shared in our relationship mostly appeared in my images from the streets and in my meetings with strangers.” – Jacob Aue Sobol
Assignment : What do you love?
If you have no idea what kind of photography project to pursue, write down a list of things in life you love. Is it music, coffee, dance, theater, films, cafes, night clubs, or books? Brainstorm as many ideas as you possibly can.
Then ask yourself: “How can I photograph what I love?”
By starting off with your other interests outside of photography, you can channel your camera to show that love and interest you have in it.
If you love what you photograph, it will never feel like a chore. It will be fun, exciting, and uplifting.
Lesson #19: Photograph who you are
“Photograph who you are!” – Bruce Gilden
One of the most polarizing street photographers is Bruce Gilden. Love him or hate him, he is true to who he is. He was born and raised in the concrete jungle of New York City, and he professes that his father was a “gangster type.” Bruce has an attitude, shoots up close and personal with a flash and 28mm, and is unapologetic about how he shoots or his work.
A lot of people criticize him for exploiting his subjects, or being an asshole. Personally I’ve met him and I would say that he stays true to who he is: a rough, tough, no bullshit human being. But at the same time, he has a lot of empathy for the people he photographs:
“I love the people I photograph. I mean, they’re my friends. I’ve never met most of them or I don’t know them at all, yet through my images I live with them. At the same time, they are symbols. The people in my pictures aren’t Mr. Jones or Mr. Smith or whatever; they’re someone that crossed my path or I’ve crossed their path, and through the medium of photography I’ve been able to make a good picture of that encounter. They have a life of their own, but they are also are symbols. I would say that I respect the viewer, but I don’t want to tell him everything.”
Also when Bruce Gilden is choosing his subjects, he tries to engage the viewer:
“Hopefully, there’s an element of mystery involved. I like him to look at a picture and say “Well, that that reminds me of someone,” and make up a little story in his head, make him smile, brighten up his day. I think this is what I’m trying to achieve with my photographs.”
I’m a very social person, but when I started shooting street photography, I tried to imitate Henri Cartier-Bresson (who was a complete introvert and hated being noticed in the streets). I would look for interesting backgrounds and compositions, and just wait for the right person to enter the scene before clicking the shutter.
But the problem is that I wasn’t being true to myself. I didn’t photograph who I was. I was imitating a photographer whose personality and worldview was completely different from mine.
Over the past several years I discovered my style in street photography reflected who I was as a human being: social, chatty, and engaging with others. Ultimately I prefer engaging with my subjects when photographing them (as Bruce Gilden often does), and I prefer to shoot closely and prefer physical intimacy through proximity.
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to shoot street photography. You need to shoot who you are. What makes your personality unique? If you prefer not to interact with your subjects, shoot from a distance and be candid. If you’re extroverted and like conversation, don’t be afraid to talk with your subjects.
The ancient Greeks said: “Know thyself.” Similarly, know thyself in street photography, and shoot what suits your personality, mood, and temperament.
Assignment: Role play
For this assignment, find a street photographer whose personality, style, and images you admire. Intentionally try to imitate them through “role playing.”
Imitation is one of the best ways to kick start your photographic journey. The best Renaissance painters all started off as apprentices (copying their masters), before they broke the umbilical cord and started heading off in their own direction.
Another version of the assignment: “role play” another photographer who is completely different from you. This will help expand your mind, push you outside of your comfort zone, and challenge you. And through this assignment, you will learn more about your own style.
Discovering what you don’t like to shoot is a better way to discover your voice than knowing what you like to shoot.
Lesson #20: Don’t repeat yourself
“When I went out of Czechoslovakia I experienced two changes: The first one is that there wasn’t this situation any longer. I didn’t need wide-angle lenses. And I had understood the technique very well, I was repeating myself, and I’m not interested in repetition, I wanted to change. I took a 50mm/35mm Leica.The second change was that I started to travel the world. I had this possibility and I had a look at this world.” – Josef Koudelka
There is always a fine line between repetition and variety as a photographer and artist. On one hand you want repetition and consistency in your work to give you a certain style or voice. On the other hand, you want variety in your work to prevent yourself (and viewer) from getting bored.
When Josef Koudelka worked on his “Gypsies” project, he traveled and lived with the Roma people for around ten years. He shot it all on an slr and a 25mm lens. This helped him shoot in cramped quarters, and create an intimate document of the life of the Roma people.
However when he was done with the project, he realized that he no longer needed to repeat himself. Therefore he just ended up exploring and traveling the world with a 35mm/50mm Leica. He wanted to also switch up the subject matter that he photographed.
Koudelka explains more in another interview:
“I am not interested in repetition. I don’t want to reach the point from where I wouldn’t know how to go further. It’s good to set limits for oneself, but there comes a moment when we must destroy what we have constructed.”
There is a concept or “creative destruction” in art. The idea is that you need a framework to keep you inspired and creative in your artwork. But at a certain stage, this framework can become more of a cage. Once this happens, you must break out of your cage.
Assignment : Repetition and Variety
The fine line we always need to balance is repetition and variety.
So for this assignment, choose a certain theme, like “old people”, “hands”, or “couples.” Stay focused on this theme, and repeat it.
But on the other hand, try to find variety in the assignment. So for example if your assignment is “old people”, try to find old people doing a variety of different things. Shopping, having a cup of coffee at a cafe, or walking their grandchildren in the park.
If your theme is “hands”, you can repeat the same type of framing and distance. But you can create variety by choosing different types of hands (old hands, young hands, dark hands and light hands, hands with fingernails, and hands with cigarettes).
Lesson #21: Ask for permission
“I carried this little album of my work. I have three choices. If I see someone in this beautiful mood, I’ll go up to them and ask them, I’d like to take a picture of that mood. If they say yes, I ask if they can get back into that mood. Not everyone can do that. Or, if the said no, then I took out the album and they saw the work. Or I took it, and ran like hell. I had those three choices in the subway.” – Bruce Davidson
Bruce Davidson is a street photographer who isn’t afraid to ask for permission. He is a street photographer who has deep empathy for his subjects, and tries to make imagery that connects with them.
His first big body of work was “East 100th street,” when he did a documentary series of people in the impoverished neighborhood in NYC with uncompromising sincerity with his large format camera and black and white. He later moved on working in the gritty subways of NYC in color, using an slr and a flash.
If you see Davidson’s images in his “Subway” book, most of them look candid and without permission. But in reality, Davidson asked a lot of his subjects for permission. He carried around his portfolio of images, and would often ask his subjects to recreate the mood he first saw them in.
Davidson did this for several reasons. First of all, shooting in a subway can be very tricky, as you can’t run away after taking someone’s photo. Secondly, when you use a flash, you can shock and surprise people.
So Davidson would approach people openly, and even offer to give them a print afterwards.
But the problem with this approach is if the subject said no, “…it was no forever.”
However at times, Davidson didn’t always ask for permission. But shooting candidly would sometimes draw unnecessary attention. He explains below:
“Sometimes, I’d take the picture, then apologize, explaining that the mood was so stunning I couldn’t break it, and hoped they didn’t mind. There were times I would take the pictures without saying anything at all. But even with this last approach, my flash made my presence known. When it went off, everyone in the car knew that an event was taking place– the spotlight was on someone.”
Therefore know that there is no reason you should be afraid of asking for permission. The worst case scenario is that someone will say “no” upon you asking them.
Diane Arbus is another photographer who was able to overcome her fear of photographing strangers and getting close by asking for permission:
“I remember one summer I worked a ltot in Washington Square Park. It must have been around 1966. The park was divided. It has these walks, sort of like a sunburst, and there were these territotries stalked out. There were young hippie junkies down one row. There were lesbians down another, really tough amazingly hard-core lesbians and in the middle were winos. They were like the first echelon and the girls who came from the Bronx to become hippies would have to sleep with the winos to get to sit on the other part with the junkie hippies.
It was really remarkable. And I found it very scary. I mean I could become a nudist, I could become a million things. But I could never become that, whatever all those people were. There were days I just couldn’t work there and then there were days I could.
“And then, having done it a little, I could do it more. I got to know a few of them I hung around a lot. They were a lot like sculptures in a funny way. I was very keen to get close to them, so I had to ask to photograph them. You cant get that close to somebody and not say a word, although I have done that.” – Diane Arbus
Zoe Strauss, a contemporary Magnum Photographer also has to deal with a lot of rejection in her work when asking for permission:
“I’ve stopped hundreds of people and asked to make their photo. If it’s an up-close portrait, I always ask the person if I can take the photo. Often the answer is “no”.”
Assignment: The 10 yes, 10 no challenge
If you want to quickly break out of your shell in street photography, start off by asking for permission. The goal is by the end of the day, you want 10 people to say “yes” being photographed, and 10 people saying “no” to being photographed.
In terms of approach, tell your subject that your assignment is to make portraits of strangers. Also if you tell them you’re a photography student, people are more sympathetic and willing. Even though you might not be enrolled in a photography school, the truth is you are still a photography student.
Another tip: offer to email your subject the photograph afterwards. Better yet: carry a small Instax wifi printer and give them a small print afterwards.
You can also show your subject your LCD screen after taking their photo, to show them what you’re trying to achieve. You can also ask your subject which photo of them they prefer. This engages your subject, and makes them more comfortable being photographed.
Lesson #22: Don’t hesitate
“Despite my fantasies of being a hunter stalking a wild animal, I was still afraid. It was hard for me to approach even a little old lady. There’s a barrier between people riding the subway – eyes are averted, a wall is set up. To break through this painful tension I had to act quickly on impulse, for if I hesitated, my subject might get off at the next station and be lost forever.” – Bruce Davidson
There is a phrase which directly applies to street photographers: “paralysis by analysis.” Sometimes thinking too much whether you want to take a shot or not leads to hesitation. And with hesitation, you become nervous and self conscious and end up not taking the photograph.
The secret is to know that if you hesitate to make a photograph of someone, you will regret it for the rest of your life (or at least when you go to sleep that night). Live life without regrets. It is better to take the shot and deal with the consequences, rather than not to take the photograph at all.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve missed thousands of potential good street photographs because I hesitated. This was due to self consciousness, fear of getting yelled at (or hit), or of making people feel uncomfortable.
But know as a street photographer, you have a higher calling. Your task in life is to make the most beautiful street photographs, to inspire people and contribute to society. So keep that in mind before you hesitate taking a shot.
Assignment: when in doubt, click
A phrase I picked up from my friend (and talented street photographer) Charlie Kirk is this: “When in doubt, click.”
Keep that phrase embedded in your mind. Whenever you have even a tiny doubt whether the shot will be good or not, just take the shot. Don’t hesitate. Don’t worry too much about the framing or composition. Just take the shot. And after taking the first shot you can better “work the scene” and make some other better shots.
Break through that barrier. Shoot without regrets.
Lesson #23: Don’t become pigeonholed by definitions
“Oh people you’re a documentary photographer. I don’t even know what that means. Oh people say you are a photojournalist. I’m rarely published in journals. Oh then yore a fine art photographer. Then I say I’m not. I aspire to be a fine photographer.” – Bruce Davidson
Even though this book is focused on street photography, know that if you want to truly become a great photographer, you don’t want to become pigeon-holed by definitions. Most of the “street photographers” profiled in this book never call themselves “street photographers.” They just see themselves as photographers, and they simply photograph what they are interested or passionate about.
Similarly, the way that Bruce Davidson shoots crosses definitions and boundaries in photography. Some of his work is “documentary” in the sense that he spends a lot of time with the same subjects. Some of his work is “street photography” in the sense that he shoots photos of subjects candidly, in public spaces.
Ultimately, it is better to say that you are a “photographer” rather than trying to define yourself. Let your photos define you, not any sort of classifications or external definitions.
Once you shed external definitions, this opens up your view to the world. No longer do you not shoot certain subject matter because it isn’t “street photography.” Simply photograph anything that interests you.
Don’t aim to be a “street photographer”, aim to be a great photographer. And don’t ask people whether they think some of your photos are “street photography” or not. Simply ask them whether they are great photos or not.
People like to define others, because it makes life more comfortable and easy for them. People are uncomfortable with unambiguity, and they always want to see where they are in comparison to you.
I often get ridiculed that I am not a “street photographer.” Rather than arguing with them, I just resort to self-deprecating humor by saying, “You’re right, I’m not a street photographer. I’m just an Asian tourist with a camera.”
At the end of the day, you don’t even need to define yourself as a “photographer.” Just see yourself as a human being interested in others and in life, and you happen to make photos of what you’re passionate about.
So what is Davidson ultimately interested in? He explains below:
“I’m just a humanist. I just photograph the human condition as I find it. It can be serious. It can also be ironic or humorous. I’m political, but not in an overt way.”
Even Garry Winogrand hated the term “street photographer.” In one interview he joked that when people asked him what kind of photographer he was, he would just that that he was a “zoo photographer.”
Assignment: Try shooting another genre
If there is a genre of photography that you don’t understand, appreciate, or “get,” try it out and try to understand why others may be interested in it.
For example, let’s say you hate HDR photography. Ask yourself: “Why do others like this type of photography?” Then genuinely try to understand and connect with that genre of photography. Or perhaps you can try out macro, landscape, or studio photography.
Even within the genre of “street photography”, there are many different approaches. Some people prefer shooting candidly, others prefer asking for permission, and some like to keep a distance, others like to get up close and personal.
So try an opposite approach of what you are comfortable with. This will help open up your mind, not care as much about definitions, and help you realize that at the end of the day, no matter what kind of photographs we make, we are all unified with this love of making images.
Lesson #24: Don’t stop your projects too soon
“I find that young people tend to stop too soon. They mimic something they’ve seen, but they don’t stay long enough. If you’re going to photograph anything, you have to spend a long time with it so your subconscious has a chance to bubble to the surface.” – Bruce Davidson
One of the problems that many photographers starting off is that they stop their photography projects too soon. They quickly get bored before really delving deep into their subject matter, theme, or concepts.
A truly great photography project require time, depth, consideration, hard work, sweat, passion, and endurance.
For example for Davidson’s “Subway” project, he rode the subway nearly every single day (at random hours in the day) for two years straight. By spending so much time in the subway, he became part of the subway. He learned the nuances of the subway, was able to capture different types of subject matter, and a variety of images.
But the problem with modern day society is that we often suffer from photographic “ADD”; we can’t concentrate on one project, vision, or subject matter. We quickly flit from one fashionable type of photography to another.
An analogy I like is that you should imagine your photography projects and style like a seed. It takes a long time for a seed to sprout into a great tree. But if you remove the seed from the ground prematurely it will never grow.
Similarly, when you’re cooking a fish, you don’t want to poke it too much. You want to let it cook a bit on its own before moving it around.
But how do you find a photographic project that is interesting? Davidson gives great advice below:
“If I were a student right now and I had a teacher like me I’d say, ‘You have to carry your camera everyday and take a picture everyday. And by the end of the week you should have 36 pictures exposed. And then suddenly you’ll latch onto someone, maybe a street vendor- oh he or she is very interesting I might have to be with him or her. So things open up visually.”
Dorothea Lange, the famous photographer of “migrant mother” also shares the philosophy of working your theme until exhaustion, and not giving up too soon:
“Pick a theme and work it to exhaustion… the subject must be something you truly love or truly hate.” – Dorothea Lange
Lange expands in another interview:
“Photographers stop photographing a subject too soon before they have exhausted the possibilities.”
Assignment : One square block
An assignment I was given in Downtown LA by the Think tank gallery was this: for an entire month you could only shoot once square block in the Fashion district in Downtown LA (both sides for street), and I had to edit down to my best 3 shots for an exhibition.
It was a daunting task at first because I know myself: I am prone to boredom, and I have a hard time sticking around to one location.
In the beginning the assignment was frustrating. I felt annoyed that I couldn’t wander off to different parts of the city. I craved more variety in terms of the scene.
But as time went on, I became to enjoy the meditative pace of slowly walking in the same neighborhood. Soon the vendors began to recognize me and say hello. Every time I circled the block, I noticed one thing that I didn’t notice before. I started to pick up small differences and nuances. The square block soon became my own home. And at the end of the month I ended up making 3 of my strongest shots, 2 of which entered my portfolio (fingernails and a guy blowing his nose).
So regardless of how boring your neighborhood or street is, there is always something interesting to photograph, as long as you try hard enough.
So give yourself a creative restriction in terms of location. Find a place you want to photograph, and you’re only allowed to shoot that one square block (both sides) for a month. Then edit down to your 3 best shots. I can guarantee you they will be damn good.
If you are even more ambitious, try to slowly expand that location by a block or two. Then try to shoot that one neighborhood for a year, and then do an exhibition of your best 12-15 photos. Invite people from the neighborhood to attend, and have a great party.
Lesson #25: It’s okay to shoot bad photos
“You shoot a lot of shit and you’re bound to come up with a few good ones.” – Trent Parke
I know a lot of street photographers that suffer from “photographer’s block” in the sense that they are perfectionists. They have a lot of good ideas for projects and images, but they get too caught up in the details and they forget the most importantly thing: just going out and shooting.
A lot of perfectionists shoot themselves in the foot because everytime they go out and shoot street photography, they expect all their shots to be great. But realize, the more “shit” you shoot, the more likely you are to get a great shot.
For me, I get easily disappointed when I shoot street photography on digital cameras. Why? Because at the end of the day I can quickly look through all of my images and see all of my mistakes. Not only that but the likelihood of getting a good street photograph after only one day of shooting is highly unlikely.
The upside of shooting film is that it has given me more permission to shoot a lot of “shit”, without the disappointment of seeing my shitty photos afterwards.
I also usually get my film processed 6 months to a year after I shoot, which means once I finally get my images scanned and look at them on the computer, there is a higher likelihood that I will get a great image that I’m proud of.
Wayne Gretzky, one of the best hockey players of all time once said: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Applied in street photography, whenever you see a scene that you think has some promise, just shoot it. Every time you click the shutter and make a bad photo, the closer you are to make a great photo.
So don’t be afraid to shoot shitty photos. Just be a brutal editor, and refuse to show the shitty shots you take.
Even Trent Parke had to shoot a lot of “shitty” photos before he got one that he was satisfied with.
For one of his most famous images of dark silhouetted subjects against a bus in Sydney, he went there 3-4 times a week for a month to get the shot he imaged. He explains:
“I shot a hundred rolls of film, but once I’d got that image I just couldn’t get anywhere near it again. That’s always a good sign: you know you’ve got something special.”
Fortunately most of us shoot digitally now, which means we can shoot a lot of bad photos to get one good one.
So we don’t really have any excuses to get the images we want. The question you want to ask yourself is: “How bad do I want this shot?”
Diane Arbus also agrees the importance of shooting bad shots:
“Some pictures are tentative forays without your even knowing it. They become methods. It’s important to take bad pictures. It’s the bad ones that have to do with what you’ve never done before. They can make you recognize something you had seen in a way that will make you recognize it when you see it again.”
Assignment : take 10,000 shitty photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “Your first 10,000 photos are your worst.’ That was in the days of film. Nowadays I think your first 1 million photos are your worst.
Anyways, I don’t think it is possible to take 10,000 shitty photos in a row. If you go out to the streets, assert yourself, and try to make good images, you are bound to get a few good ones.
So as an assignment, try to take 10,000 street photos as quickly as you can. If you’re trigger happy and shoot 1,000 in a day, it will take you about 10 days of dedicated shooting (assuming you shoot every weekend, that is around 2-3 months). For some others it might take you 6 months-1 year.
After you shoot those 10,000 shots, you are only allowed to keep one image. Yeah it will be really hard, but I can guarantee it will be a damn good shot.
Then once you’re done, onto your next 10,000 shots!
Lesson #26: Chase the light
“I am forever chasing light. Light turns the ordinary into the magical.” – Trent Parke
The root of the word “photography” in Greek means “drawing with light.” Without light, photography couldn’t exist.
When I started shooting photography, I could never get the epic photos I wanted. I saw all of these incredible images on the internet with glowing faces, dark shadows, and images that took my breath away.
I soon realized that I had no concept of light in my photography. I didn’t think about the importance of “golden hour”, and shooting when the light was beautiful (sunrise and sunset). I didn’t pay attention to what direction the sun was in. I didn’t try using a flash to add artificial light. I didn’t know the difference between direct and harsh light versus diffused light.
But as time went on, I started to study and seek the light. And it has made all of the difference in my photography. When I go out during the day and the light is too harsh (around noon), I use a flash and photograph people in shady places or indoors. Ultimately natural light is preferable but using a flash helps give you more freedom to shoot other times in the day. If you have no experience shooting with a flash, I recommend using your camera’s integrated pop-up flash in “P” (program mode) at ISO 400. If your camera doesn’t have an integrated flash, just buy the cheapest and smallest “TTL” (through the lens) automated flash for your camera.
Another practical tip is when you’re shooting when the light is harsh, expose for the highlights and try to get really dramatic and dark shadows. On a digital camera you can set your exposure to -2 compensation.
But ultimately you want to chase the light. Go to where the light is, and be patient. As street photographer Blake Andrews says, “Don’t try to fight the light you will always lose.”
So if you’re shooting during sunset, follow where the light is. Start seeing where rays of light hit, and be patient. When you start losing the light, follow the streets where the light is still good.
If you prefer to shoot natural light, don’t shoot when the light is harsh (mid day). Shoot early in the morning during sunrise and when the light becomes harsh, have lunch and take a nap. Then in the afternoon go location scouting and find some interesting areas you want to shoot. Then once the sun starts to set and the light becomes good, shoot in that area like there is no tomorrow. This is a more efficient way to shoot: containing your shooting time to 1-2 hours during both sunrise and sunset, rather than shooting for 8 hours straight through the whole day.
Assignment : Study the light
Find an interesting area to shoot, and try to shoot at 3 different times of the day: sunrise, noon, and sunset. When you go home review the images, and see how the color, quality, and intensity of the light is different. Which do you prefer?
Also try experimenting shooting with a flash in your street photography. Go an entire day only shooting with flash, and see what effect it has on your images.
Remember: no amount of post processing can make a photograph good without great light.
Another way you can use this assignment: during sunrise or sunset just stay at one busy intersection with good light. When you have a good scene, a good background, and good light, stand there, and just wait for your subjects to come to you. Expose for the highlights and get dramatic shadows, and capture the drama of your subjects.
Once you start losing the light, continue to chase the light, until it fades away.
Lesson #27: Channel your emotions into your photos
“When I came to Sydney at the age of 21 I left everything behind – all my childhood friends and my best mate – at first I just felt this sense of complete loneliness in the big city. So, I did what I always do: I went out and used my Leica to channel those personal emotions into images.” – Trent Parke
There is no photography which is truly “objective”. Reality is always filtered through your lens. You decide what to include in the frame and what to exclude from the frame. You are also a “subject selector”; you only make images which you find personally interesting and relevant.
One of the best ways to make great images is to channel your emotions in your work. This is why often the greatest artistic work is done when an artist suffers a death, a break up, or when there is immense joy in his or her life. Trent Parke describes the importance of channeling personal emotions into your work:
“I’m always trying to channel those personal emotions into my work. That is very different from a lot of documentary photographers who want to depict the city more objectively. For me it is very personal – it’s about what is inside me. I don’t think about what other people will make of it. I shoot for myself.”
I personally find street photography as a sort of self therapy. When I’m feeling stressed about family, relationships, money, haters, etc, there is nothing that clears my head more than pursuing “walking meditation” when shooting street photography.
Also the more I shoot street photography, the more I learn about myself. Street photography is self discovery. Through street photography, I learned that I love interacting with people, which shoes through the intimate” street portraits” I shoot. Trent Parke has a similar philosophy: that photography is discovering yourself and your place in the world:
“My mum died when I was 10 and it changed everything about me. It made me question everything around me. Photography is a discovery of life which makes you look at things you’ve never looked at before. It’s about discovering yourself and your place in the world.”
Jacob Aue Sobol is another Magnum Photographer who puts his heart and soul into his images:
“The year after I started at the European Film College, I started writing short stories and, later, taking pictures. Once I realized that I was able to isolate my emotions and communicate them through my pictures, I felt like I had found an ability which was unique and which I wanted to explore further. Now, a lot of experiences in life and the people I have shared my time with have added to my memories, my fear and my love, and through this they have inspired me to continue photographing.” – Jacob Aue Sobol
Joel Meyerowitz also shares how he is trying to communicate less of his thoughts, but more of his feelings in his photos:
“What are we all trying to get to in the making of anything? We’re trying to get to ourselves. What I want is more of my feelings and less of my thoughts. I want to be clear. I see the photograph as a chip of experience itself. It exists in the world. It is not a comment on the world. In a photograph you don’t look for, you look at! It’s close to the thing itself. It’s like an excitation. I want the experience that I am sensitive to to pass back into the world, fixed by chemistry and light to be reexamined. That’s what all photographs are about—looking at things hard. I want to find an instrument with the fidelity of its own technology to carry my feelings in a true, clear, and simple way. That’s how I want to think about less is more.”
Assignment : Shoot how you feel
Our emotions are highly variable. On some days we are super optimistic and think everything in life is perfect and super dandy. The future is limitless, and we feel extreme joy and contentment with our lives.
However on other days we can feel pretty shitty. We feel stressed from our job and personal issues. We feel lost. We don’t know what direction our life is heading in. We don’t have enough money in our bank accounts. We have hit a wall in our photography. We don’t feel inspired.
The only cure is action via shooting. So for this assignment, shoot how you feel. If you’re feeling moody and depressed, channel your emotions when you’re shooting. Perhaps having this mood will help you identify and empathize with other random people on the streets that might feel the same way. Generally when I’m feeling moody I find that gritty black and white suits my mood.
However when you are in a good mood, look for the good and joyful moments out there. Photograph kids playing freely. Photograph old couples in love. Photograph your loved ones.
Work on shooting an emotion and mood based on how you feel. Try to do this for a year, and make a series of 10-12 images that fit a mood like “despair, hope, joy, or isolation.” The more emotional you make your photos the more your viewers can feel what you feel.
> “A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is truth.” – Richard Avedon
Richard Avedon isn’t known as a “street photographer.” He is famous for his large format 8×10 portraits of celebrities, musicians, and fashion photography.
Often overlooked is Avedon’s “street portraits” in his book: “In the American West”, he traveled across America and shot portraits of people he found interesting from 1979-84. He asked his subjects for permission, placed them in front of a huge white backdrop, and caught moments of hope, despair, longing, strength, confusion, and love.
Avedon describes how when he made photos of these people it was more of a “fiction than documentary:
“I think the larger issue is that photography is not reportage, it is not journalism— it is fiction. When I go to the west and do the working class (it is more about the working class than the west)—it is my view. Like John Wayne is Hollywood’s view. So it means my idea of the working class is a fiction.”
Avedon is one of the greatest portrait photographers in history, and he boldly stated that every photo we make is an opinion. We decide when to click the shutter, because we personally find a certain moment or expression interesting.
However he also states that all photos are “accurate” in the sense that the moment your camera captures an image, the moment you caught is precise. However there is no objective “truth” in your photos.
In that sense all the photos we tell are “lies”.
So what is the secret of making great photos? It isn’t to tell the truth but to show your subjective view of reality.
Mary Ellen Mark also shares how a photographer can never be 100% objective:
“I don’t think you’re ever an objective observer. By making a frame you’re being selective, then you edit the pictures you want published and you’re being selective again. You develop a point of view that you want to express. You try to go into a situation with an open mind, but then you form an opinion and you express it in your photographs. It is very important for a photographer to have a point of view- that contributes to a great photograph.” – Mary Ellen Mark
The humanist photographer Sebastiao Salgado also says:
“Photography is not objective. It is deeply subjective – my photography is consistent ideologically and ethically with the person I am.” – Sebastião Salgado
Assignment : Lie through a photograph
For this assignment you are required to try to make a convincing lie. Find a stranger in the streets who looks very happy. Then approach that person, ask to make a portrait of them. If they say yes, start off by asking them to smile really big doe the camera. Then try to ask them to look sad or melancholy. Tell them to tell you a sad story, or something unfortunate that happened to them recently.
Now when you made several images, go home and try to find the most convincing image of that subject looking sad. Try to show it to some friends or colleagues and ask them how the photo makes them feel. Notice whether or not the viewer is “fooled” by thinking that this person is genuinely sad (whereas in “reality” they were quite happy).
For example this one photograph I shot of an old man in Amsterdam on a train looks quite lonely and miserable. The viewer might come up with a story about him: how he worked his entire life and never had a loving family or partner. In the frame he looks isolated and alone.
But in reality, his wife was sitting next to him. However I made the decision not to include her in the frame. I told a lie; the version of reality I was trying to create.
In another photograph of a man taking a bite out of a sandwich for my “Suits” series, I also recreated the scene. I saw him about to take a bite out of his sandwich, and I brought up my camera to make an image. He saw me, and stopped. I then asked him through the window to take a bite. He listened and took a bite, and I took a photograph. The image looks candid, but it was staged and recreated.
So don’t feel guilty about telling lies in your photos. Remember: all photos are accurate, none of them is truth.
Lesson #29: Disturb your viewer
“It’s so strange to me that anyone would ever think that a work of art shouldn’t be disturbing or shouldn’t be invasive. That’s the property of work— that’s the arena of a work of art. It is to disturb, it to make you think, to make you feel. If my work didn’t disturb from time to time, it would be a failure in my own eyes. It’s meant to disturb— in a positive way.” – Richard Avedon
Sometimes as photographers and artists, we are afraid of being criticized. We are afraid of having out work criticized, but also criticized for not being a loving, empathetic, or mindful human being.
There is not one great photographer in history without his or her critics. No matter how good you are as a photographer, you’re always going to court some sort of controversy or hate. In fact, I believe that the more hated or criticized a photographer is, the most successful he or she is.
When Robert Frank made his book: “The Americans”, it was largely seen as a horrible and anti American book. It got trashed by editors and photography magazines. But several decades later it was seen to be one of the finest photography books in history.
When Daido Moriyama first started to shoot street photography with a cheap point and shoot Ricoh GR camera, he was ridiculed by other photographer for his grainy, out of focus, and technically imperfect images. But now it is a generally accepted aesthetic, with lots of photographers who admire this type of shooting.
As Richard Avedon states: the best art is disturbing and invasive to the viewer. Great art disturbs the viewer by pushing themself out of their comfort zone, to challenge their thinking, thoughts, world view, and beliefs. It challenges the viewer to feel a different way.
The worst thing you can be as an artist and photographer is to be boring. The secret to failure as a photographer is to make work that doesn’t offend anybody.
Assignment: Haters are gonna hate
For this assignment, do research on a photographer or artist you admire. Search in Google for their name and add keywords like “overrated” or “critique”. No matter how successful or talented a photographer is, he or she is always going to have “haters.”
So realize, you cannot go through life and your photographic journey without having someone dislike your work. My suggestion: embrace it, and intentionally try to disturb your viewer.
This one photograph I took was quite controversial. It pissed off a lot of people, as people found it rude and controversial. It is a photograph of a woman inside a money-exchange booth in Hong Kong. I saw the woman who looked lonely and trapped inside, and I wanted to catch that emotion. So I brought up my camera and prepared to take a photograph. At that moment, she started to bang against the window (signaling me not to take the photograph). But I reacted to that gesture, and took an image with a flash.
Many viewers were upset because I took the photograph against this woman’s wishes. But still, I feel that by conveying her anxiety and energy in the photo make it engaging, full of energy and passion, which shows her emotions.
Was it “right” or “wrong” for me to have taken the shot? Ultimately it is the ethical judgement of the viewer which decides, not that of the photographer.
“Modern technology has taken the angst out of achieving the perfect shot. For me, the only thing that counts is the idea behind the image: what you want to see and what you’re trying to say. The idea is crucial. You have to think of something you want to say and expand upon it.” – Martin Parr
Nowadays with smartphones and modern digital photography, a photographer doesn’t need to rely on manual or technical settings anymore. If you just set your camera to “P” (program mode), your camera automatically chooses the exposure, aperture, shutter speed, and often does a better job than the photographer. This liberates the photographer to focus on composing and framing the scene well.
Ultimately the technical settings matter insofar much as you need to make a strong image with a strong idea. Many Magnum photographers shoot in “P” mode (even nowadays Steve McCurry). The real master photographers don’t care so much about technical settings, but what they are trying to say through their images.
Magnum photographer Constantine Manos also mirror the importance of ideas in photography:
“Ideas are very important and underrated in photography. A photograph, like a written text or a short story, is an idea. A photograph is an idea. A visual idea. It doesn’t need any words. But it is an idea– a visual idea. If you see something, a good photograph is the expression of an idea. This doesn’t require captions and explanations. A photo should make a statement.” – Constantine Manos
Even going back further in time to the work of Andre Kertesz in the early 20th century, he stresses the importance of mood and emotion, not technique:
“Technique isn’t important. Technique is in the blood. Events and mood are more important than good light and the happening is what is important.” – Andre Kertesz
Kertesz expands on saying that even though you might have a technically perfect image, it doesn’t mean anything without expression or soul:
“If you want to write, you should learn the alphabet. You write and write and in the end you have a beautiful, perfect alphabet. But it isn’t the alphabet that is important. The important thing is what you are writing, what you are expressing. The same thing goes for photography. Photographs can be technically perfect and even beautiful, but they have no expression.” – Andre Kertesz
Assignment: Try out “P” mode
When you’re out making images, you only have a limited amount of brainpower. So don’t waste your effort in thinking about your camera settings. Focus on capturing the moment, the mood, and the soul behind an image.
If you’ve never tried “P” mode, give it a go. Set your camera to “P” (or program), center-point autofocus, and ISO 1600. This will automatically prevent you from worrying about the technical settings, and more on the image-making aspect of things. Try it out for a month, and see if this liberates and helps your photography.
In this photograph I took in Downtown LA, it was sunset and I saw this fascinating girl with a shadow that looked like a Pinnochio nose. I shot it on a Ricoh GR, and had the camera set to “P” mode and center autofocus. This allowed me to focus on “working the scene,” and not worrying about technical settings. Ultimately, I got the shot that I wanted, because I didn’t have to waste energy on worrying about what my aperture or shutter speed was.
If you ever exhibit your photos or print them in a book, nobody is going to ask you if you shot it fully-manually or not. Ultimately only the image and idea matters.
Lesson #31: Enjoy the process
“I was taking pictures for myself. I felt free. Photography was a lot of fun for me. First of all I’d get really excited waiting to see if the pictures would come out the next day. I didn’t really know anything about photography, but I loved the camera.” – William Klein
If you’re not having fun in photography, you’re doing something wrong. Not only that, but why would you make photos if you didn’t enjoy it? We already have enough stress and anxiety from our jobs, relationships, and other aspects of our lives.
The more fun you have while making images, the more your enthusiasm will communicate to the viewer.
William Klein expresses his love and enthusiasm for photography vividly. Through his words, you can see how much love and passion he has for his craft:
“… a photographer can love his camera and what it can do in the same way that a painter can love his brush and paints, love the feel of it and the excitement.”
When William Klein shot on the streets, he would experiment and try out different techniques. He wasn’t 100% sure what he would get, but he harnessed luck and chance, all the while enjoying the process:
“I would look at my contact sheets and my heart would be beating, you know. To see if I’d caught what I wanted. Sometimes, I’d take shots without aiming, just to see what happened. I’d rush into crowds – bang! Bang! I liked the idea of luck and taking a chance, other times I’d frame a composition I saw and plant myself somewhere, longing for some accident to happen.”
While it is important to work hard in your photography, don’t push yourself so hard that you no longer enjoy the process of photography. Constantine Manos explains:
“…Don’t drive yourself [too hard]. If you’re tired, sit down. If you’re not enjoying it [photographing], you’re doing something wrong. Photography should always be a pleasurable search for something wonderful.” – Constantine Manos
Another tip: don’t take yourself too seriously, just like Elliott Erwitt:
“I’m not a serious photographer like most of my colleagues. That is to say, I’m serious about not being serious.” Elliott Erwitt
Assignment: Make yourself miserable
Sometimes it is hard to know whether you are having “fun” or not. But it is easy to tell whether you are feeling miserable, are bored, or don’t enjoy something.
So for this assignment, we are going to learn how to have more “fun” in photography by intentionally learning what makes us miserable in photography.
Take out a notebook and write down a list of things which you don’t enjoy or things that makes you miserable or bored in photography. Everyone differs in their perspectives. So here are some ideas, just pick and choose what resonates with you:
- I dislike shooting everyday.
- I dislike not shooting everyday.
- I dislike shooting alone.
- I dislike shooting with others.
- I dislike shooting with a project in mind.
- I dislike going out and shooting without having a propose.
- I dislike talking and engaging with strangers in public, I prefer to be candid.
- I dislike shooting without permission, I would prefer to ask.
So after you write down a list of things you don’t enjoy in photography, to have fun just do the exact opposite.
Lesson #32: Single photos can’t tell stories
“For me this just reveals, once again, the biggest problem with photography. Photographs aren’t good at telling stories. Stories require a beginning, middle and end. They require the progression of time. Photographs stop time. They are frozen. Mute. As viewers of the picture, we have no idea what those people on the waterfront are talking about.” – Alec soth
Alec Soth is one of the most successful and hard working contemporary master photographers. He is a master storyteller, and also constantly experiments with his photography. Although he is a photographer, he is less interested in making single images and more interested in telling good stories.
Soth makes the bold statement that a single image cannot tell a story. While a single image can suggest a story to the viewer, a real story needs a beginning middle and end. And you can only achieve that through a series of images. Soth expands on the idea:
“So what are photographs good at? While they can’t tell stories, they are brilliant at suggesting stories.”
Furthermore, the problem with single images is that they often don’t provide enough context. Soth states:
“You can’t tell provide context in 1/500th of a second.”
Photography has only been around for less than 150 years. But story telling has been around for millenia. Soth views the storytelling as the ultimate goal in his photography:
“This is the never ending struggle, I think storytelling is the most powerful art, for me. I just think there’s nothing more satisfying than the narrative thrust: beginning, middle, and end, what’s gonna happen. The thing I’m always bumping up against is that photography doesn’t function that way. Because it’s not a time-based medium, it’s frozen in time, they suggest stories, they don’t tell stories. So it is not narrative. So it functions much more like poetry than it does like the novel. It’s just these impressions and you leave it to the viewer to put together. ”
Garry Winogrand also shares his perspective that photographs by themselves are just images; light reflected off surfaces. The meanings created through images are through the viewer, not the images themselves:
“Photos have no narrative content. They only describe light on surface.” – Garry Winogrand
Joel Sternfeld also shares the problem of photography, that single images can’t explain anything:
“You take 35 degrees out of 360 degrees and call it a photo. No individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium.” – Joel Sternfeld
Sebastiao Salgado ties it all together by also hammering in the point that he only works for a group of images to tell a story:
“I always work for a group of pictures, to tell a story. If you ask which picture in a story I like most, it is impossible for me to tell you this. I don’t work for an individual picture. If I must select one individual picture for a client, it is very difficult for me.” – Sebastiao Salgado
One last piece of advice from Alec Soth: think of yourself less as a photographer, and more of a film maker. This will help you, because making great photography projects isn’t just shooting; the editing, sequencing, and publishing are just as important:
“I don’t come close to shooting every day. For better or worse, I don’t carry a camera with me everywhere I go. I liken my process to that of filmmaking. First I conceive of the idea. Then I do pre-production and fundraising. Then shooting. Then editing. Then distribution (books and galleries). As with most filmmakers, the shooting takes just a fraction of my time.” – Alec Soth
Assignment : Tell a story
One of the best ways to learn how to tell better stories in photography with a series is to study film, novels, and stories. See how the stories have a beginning, middle, and end.
In terms of sequencing, think about the flow of images you want, and how you want the feel to be. Do you want your story to start off with a drama or problem, and slowly introduce protagonists to your story, and have them resolve it at the end? Or perhaps do you want your story to be like a fairytale like photographer Jason Eskenazi did in his “Wonderland” book?
When putting together a book or series, I recommend printing out your photos as small 4×6 prints, and spreading them out on a table. Try to find some sort of flow to the images, and even ask your friends to help sequence your images to tell different stories. If you prefer a digital approach, you can also try sequencing your images on an iPad.
If you’ve never created a series before, constrain your story to 10 images. Think about what your opening shot will be, the sequencing of the next images, and the final shot.
As a final suggestion, if you want to learn how to focus on storytelling, take a break from social media which focuses on single images (Instagram and Flickr).
Work on your story for 3 months. Spend 1 month shooting, 1 month editing and sequencing, and 1 month printing and publishing your work.
Lesson #33: Think like a film maker (got combined with lesson #32)
“I don’t come close to shooting every day. For better or worse, I don’t carry a camera with me everywhere I go. I liken my process to that of filmmaking. First I conceive of the idea. Then I do pre-production and fundraising. Then shooting. Then editing. Then distribution (books and galleries). As with most filmmakers, the shooting takes just a fraction of my time.” – Alec Soth
Another practical lesson I learned from Alec Soth was to think of yourself less as a photographer, and more of a film maker. This will help you, because making great photography projects isn’t just shooting; the editing, sequencing, and publishing are just as important.
Lesson #34: Focus on the work (before the promotion)
“Now I’m in the position where I see a lot of young photographers pushing their work, and I think that’s fine, but so often it’s wasted effort before the work is ready. Everyone’s running around trying to promote themselves, and you kinda have to put in those years of hard work to make something decent before you do that. Particularly that first project is the hardest thing. I always say the 20s are the hardest decade because you don’t have money and you don’t have a reputation. In relation to this kind of issue, I’m always wary that the advice is like “you need to put together this promo package that you send out to these 100 people.” No, you need to do the work, and worry about that later.” – Alec Soth
In today’s society we all want to become famous. Social media has only intensified this. We start to focus on how to become more famous; how to get more followers, more views, more comments, more likes, more awards, more commissions, more exhibitions, more money, and more popularity.
However know that before you worry about promotion, fame, and wealth, you should focus on the most important thing in photography and art: the work itself.
It is true that you need some promotion if you want to have your work recognized. For example, Vivian Maier died penniless because she never showed her work to anybody else while she was alive (even though she was a master photographer).
But at the same time, the problem that a lot of photographers make is they focus on the promotion of their images before getting better.
In today’s world with social media, if you make good work, sooner or later you will become “discovered” and have your work appreciated.
I find the photographers who best become “discovered” are the ones who work on meaningful projects, that have a cohesive concept and theme, and publish it as a “body of work.” This often works much better than publishing random photos to Facebook, Instagram, or Flickr.
Assignment : don’t publish any photos for 6 months
If you want to learn how to focus on your work it is important to not get distracted. So as an assignment: try to abstain from publishing any of your photos online for 6 months.
Personally I did this assignment (suggested from my friend and photographer Charlie Kirk) and it was the best thing I ever did. It taught me to focus less about how many “likes” and “favorites” I would get on my images, and more about how to make powerful and meaningful images and projects.
6 months might seem like a long time, and learning not to upload your photos all the time on social media will teach you patience. Not only that, but the longer you wait before publishing your work the better you can judge your images objectively; whether they are worth publishing or not.
“I have this thing, the camera’s on a tripod, it’s like an easel “Ok, I can only take a couple, I gotta makes this great.” Then I tried to get everything in the frame, which, in fact, is not a good strategy for photography. Its pulling stuff out of the frame is usually what you want to do, to simplify it. But I didn’t know that. So that was one of the lessons learned.” – Alec Soth
Photography is much more about subtraction than addition. As a photographer, you want to show your viewer the significance of a scene. You want to be specific.
By having too many subjects or objects in a frame, you only confuse your viewer. A cluttered photograph is difficult to look at, and often uninteresting.
Subtraction is addition. By removing unnecessary elements from the frame, you give more focus and importance to what actually exists in the frame.
Photographer Joel Meyerowitz also shares how determining what to include and exclude is what determines the meaning of a photograph:
“And early on I sensed the power of that in this regard: when you put your frame up to your eye, the world continues outside the frame. So what you put in and what you leave out are what determines the meaning or potential of your photograph. But you must continue to keep in mind that there are plenty of stuff off-stage. And what bearing might the rest of the off-stage have on this?” – Joel Meyerowitz
Furthermore, remove from the frame which might distract the viewer. Photographer Richard Kalvar explains:
“The framing is very important – you have to keep out things that distract from the little drama that’s in the picture. I’d like my pictures to exist almost in a dream state and have people react to them almost as if they’re coming in and out of daydreams, you know?” – Richard Kalvar
Assignment : Subtract until there isn’t anything left to subtract
This assignment is a zen assignment: try to subtract from your frame until there is nothing left to subtract.
So for example, take a photograph of a scene you find interesting. Then subtract from it, perhaps by taking a step closer or by framing the scene differently. Then try to subtract some more by asking yourself, “What information in this scene is not really necessary?” You might subtract unnecessary trees, cars, lamp poles, people, or even body limbs. Keep subtracting and cutting from your frame until there isn’t anything left to subtract.
Then go back and choose which of your photos works the best. Try to find that balance of simplicity and minimalism in your frame which highlights the “little drama” happening in your frame.
Lesson #36: Make yourself vulnerable
“One thing I’m really interested in is vulnerability. When you talk about Arbus and Hujar . . . I like being exposed to vulnerabilities. I think there’s something really beautiful about it. That’s kind of what I’ve been doing with these little stories, amping up the vulnerability, but also my own vulnerabilities, exposing more of myself. Because I knew with that “journalist” line I’m exposing my own shit there. I’m trying to get down to something raw.” – Alec Soth
The more vulnerable you make yourself as a photographer, the more vulnerable your subjects will make themselves to you. And the more vulnerable your subjects, the deeper you can connect with then emotionally.
If you look at many of Alec Soth’s portraits of people, you might wonder how he was able to make them open up so much to him. His subjects are totally open, transparent, and sometimes even nude (metaphorically and literally).
You can’t expect your subjects to open up to you if you don’t open up to them. People respond to you reciprocally.
Another photographer who gets very deep with his subjects is Jacob Aue Sobol. He sees photography as an exchange between photographer and subject. You must make yourself equal to your subjects as well:
“You have to be completely open and demonstrate that you are also vulnerable. You can’t be just a photographer – you have to discover who you are yourself. If you don’t, people won’t open up to you. That means that you mustn’t avoid being vulnerable. For me, it’s a kind of exchange. Even though I’m the one taking the pictures, my ambition is to achieve an equal exchange between myself and the person I’m photographing.” – Jacob Aue Sobol
Assignment: What does it feel like to be on the other side?
If you want to make your photos more personal, it is important to make an equal exchange with your subject.
Ironically, I know a lot of photographers who don’t like being photographed. This is a huge hurdle to overcome, because if you’re not comfortable being photographed, how can you expect your subjects to also feel comfortable being photographed? Not only that, but you will also assume that everyone else doesn’t like being photographed.
So experiment by being on the other side of the camera. If you have a friend who is a portrait photographer, ask them to take portraits of you. Then make notes in terms of what makes you feel comfortable or uncomfortable when you’re being photographed.
Another idea: if you approach a stranger on the streets and you’re interested in them, start off by asking them to shoot a portrait of you. Then once they’re done, kindly ask if you can take a portrait of them as well.
Then afterwards, show them the photos you took of them on the LCD screen of your camera, and ask them which of the photos they prefer of themselves. Then offer to email them the shots, or even send them a print.
Make your photography an exchange, and make yourself vulnerable to your subjects. Only this way can you get deeper emotionally to your subjects.
Lesson #37: Stay an amateur
“I am an amateur and intend to remain one my whole life long. I attribute to photography the task of recording the real nature of things, their interior, their life. The photographer’s art is a continuous discovery, which requires patience and time. A photograph draws its beauty from the truth with which it’s marked.” – Andre Kertesz
Often being called an “amateur” is an insult. Being called an “amateur” connotates that you are unskilled, a beginner, and someone without vision.
However in reality the root of the word “amateur” is to do something for the love of it (as opposed to a “professional” who does something for money).
Just because you’re a “professional” photographer doesn’t mean that you’re good. You can be a baby photographer in a mall and be a “professional.” Or you can have a full time job doing something else and only make photos of what you love being an “amateur.”
My suggestion: embrace being an amateur. Revel in it. Love is the energy and passion which keeps your photography moving forward. Sometimes when you think too much about monetizing your photography professionally, you lose your passion for what you photograph.
Assignment: Give away your photography
Thinking too much about making money off your photography (especially if you already have a full time job) can hurt you creatively.
As an experiment, I would suggest giving away your photography, and seeing how it makes you feel.
Start off by printing out your favorite photos, and give them away for free to friends, family, and colleagues. See how much joy this brings them.
Personally, all of my photos are “open-source”, meaning that they are free to download, print, share, etc. All of them are available full resolution on my Flickr page (flickr.com/ekizz).
While I make my living teaching photography workshops, I give away all my photos, books, videos, and articles away for free. This helps me to keep this “amateur” side of photography, where I do it purely for the love of it, and not always worrying how I can “monetize” my photography.
I have gained much more energy and inspiration in my photography from the appreciation I get from others rather than money.
Forever be an amateur.
Lesson #38: Stay hungry
Even when Andre Kertesz was 90 years old, he created a new portfolio and shared it with the photographer Susan May Tell. When Tell asked him what kept him going, Kertesz responded: “I am still hungry.”
Many of us have excuses in our photography: that we are too old, and that we wish that we started sooner.
However our age, nationality, background, heritage, or skill in photography doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is how passionate and hungry we are in our photography.
Many photographers become jaded after years of shooting. They lose a sense of their hunger and passion.
Andre Kertesz (after a lifetime of shooting) still created new work in his 80s and even presented a new portfolio when he was 90. He wasn’t easily satisfied with his work, he was still hungry to explore the world and shoot more, and to see the limits of the photographic medium.
One of my favorite quotes that is similar is from Steve Jobs, who said: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”
We all need a bit of hunger in our life to propel us to action, and to keep going. If you’re constantly full and bloated with food, you have no motivation to move or do anything.
Personally I find my best writing, photography, and exercise happens when I am physically hungry. That hunger compels me to act.
Similarly in photography, stir up your appetite and hunger. Whenever I don’t feel motivated or inspired, I look at the photography and work of the masters. Whenever I see their images or read their thoughts, it makes me hungry to also make images in photography.
Assignment: Shoot without film or a memory card
If you feel you have “photographer’s block” in your work and don’t feel inspired, try out this assignment: for an entire day, shoot without having film or a memory card in your camera.
Walk around for an entire day with your camera, and take photos of anything that interests you. But without having any film or memory cards in your camera, you will frustrated and upset that you didn’t record anything that entire day. Then you can rush home, put in some real film or memory cards, and then go out and shoot with a reignited sense of vigor and hunger to make images.
“Shooting people is more beautiful, because it is more difficult.” – Constantine Manos
One of the best things about street photography is that it is so challenging. Anything in life which is too easy is no fun. As human beings we crave adventure, difficulty, and challenge.
Street photography is one of the most difficult genres of photography out there, because it is difficult to shoot human beings. We have so little control over the background, the subject, and the light. We have a fear of pissing people off. We have the fear of missing the “decisive moment.”
If you find yourself being bored with photography, it probably has become too easy for you. So push yourself out of your comfort zone, and aim to make more difficult images.
For example, let’s say your photography is mostly of single subjects, which has become too easy for you. Try to add complexity, layers, and depth to your shots (like the work of Constantine Manos or Alex Webb).
Assignment: Shoot what you’re afraid of
Have you ever had a situation when you were out shooting all day and you didn’t find anything interesting? Happens to me all the time.
However have you ever seen a scene that you wanted to capture but were too nervous or afraid to do so?
Channel that fear. Photograph what you are afraid of. The only reason that you’re afraid of shooting a scene is because you want to photograph it, but you’re afraid of the consequences.
By doing what we’re afraid of we continue to grow. We escape complacency.
So try to photograph a neighborhood or type of subject matter which frightens you. Of course do this within common sense and with safety in mind.
But whenever you see a shot you’re afraid of, shoot it.
Lesson #40: Print your photos
“A photograph doesn’t exist until it is printed.” – Constantine Manos
In today’s digital age, we are so used to seeing our images on a screen. We see them on our laptops, tablets, and smartphones. But the print is a dying medium. When is the last time you printed 4×6 prints of a holiday trip, instead of just sharing and tagging them on Facebook?
Constantine Manos says a photograph doesn’t exist until it is printed. I would have to agree. If a photograph isn’t printed, it only exists metaphorically in pixels, and in 1’s and 0’s digitally in the ether. Printing a photograph makes it physical and brings it into the “real world.” A printed photograph has texture, weight, and takes up physical space.
In a manifesto called “The Print”, Constantine Manos professes his life and shares the importance of printing our images:
“There are still photographers who believe that a photograph does not exist until it is a print. There remains in their memory the experience of working in a darkroom and recalling the magic of seeing an image gradually appear on a piece of paper in a tray of liquid; all this lit by a warm golden light.
If processed and stored properly this print can last for generations. It becomes archival; it becomes vintage. It becomes a treasure to be put in a fine box between soft acid-free tissues. It can be framed and hung in a favorite spot, to become an object of daily pleasure and comfort. It is a real object we can hold in our hands, not a negative or an image floating around in space and stored in cold machines.
Whether captured on film or captured digitally, this print, this object, reflects the craft and skill and pride of its maker. Its quality is a reflection of the skill and art of its making.
Let us sign it with our name as an expression of pride and accomplishment– whether we have made it ourselves or have entrusted it’s making to a skilled artisan. Let us be collectors and guardians of these beautiful artifacts. Let us celebrate the print.” – Constantine Manos, September 2014
Assignment : Print your photos
Have you ever had a hard drive crash on you which caused you to lose priceless images? If so, remind yourself how painful that experience was. If this has never happened to you, trust me; it will happen sooner or later. The average hard drive is rated to only survive 3 years. Even though we have data stored online in “the cloud,” can you expect people to retrieve that data 200 (or even 2000 years from now?)
Make it a habit to print your photos. While photos can burn in a fire, they are still more stable than digital files. Print out your favorite photos and put them into boxes, folders, or scrapbooks. Enjoy physically holding, touching, and arranging your photos.
Experiment printing your photos in different sizes, and see how that changes how you feel about your images.
Always remind yourself, a photograph never truly exists until you turn it into physical atoms through the print.
Lesson #41: Don’t get suckered by ‘the exotic’
“It is not enough to just photograph what something looks like. We need to make it into something that is unique, a surprise. Photography has been used forever to show what things look like, like when photographers photographed objects and landscapes.” – Constantine Manos
Have you ever been to India for the first time, where you strove to make all your photos look “National Geographic” and exotic? But we have all already seen those types of images before, they are quite boring.
The job of a photographer isn’t to just make beautiful postcards of exotic places. The job of the photographer is to make a unique image that hasn’t been done before. Rather than simply duplicating what has been done in the past, we should strive to add to the conversation of photography by adding something a little extra.
Constantine Manos advised me not to get “suckered by the exotic.” I have to admit, this happens to me all the time, especially when I travel to exotic locations which are novel to me, like India, Tokyo, or Paris. I have a mental repository of all the exotic photos I have seen in the past, and I try to simply replicate it.
Also as a photographer, we need to imbue meaning into the images we make. We aren’t there to simply capture what is before our very eyes. We have already seen a million photos of the Eiffel tower, the Taj Mahal, and of a sunset. We shouldn’t photograph what things look like. We should photograph what things feel like.
Assignment: Shoot your own backyard
Many of us photographers daydream and fantasize about going to exotic places in the world to make fantastical images.
However realize the best photographs are to be taken in your own backyard; your own city, neighborhood, or town.
So try this as an experiment: be a tourist in your own hometown. Imagine that you visited your own city for the first time. What would you find interesting and unique? At the same time, you know what is a “cliché” photo, so try to avoid that. Find the beauty in the mundane in your town, and know you don’t have to rely on exotic happenings, places, or events to make powerful images.
Lesson #42: Why are you pushing the button?
“The best way to take a bad picture is to take it. Ask yourself: ’Why am I pushing the button?’ You want to get rid of the clutter before putting it into the machine.” – Constantine Manos
As photographers we sometimes ask the wrong questions to ourselves. We ask how to take photos, where to take photos, when to take photos. But rarely do we ask ourselves why we take photos.
You need a reason why you click the shutter. What about a scene interests you? Why did you make that image? What kind of mood does it have? What kind of juxtaposition does it have? What kind of oddness is there?
Assignment: why do I take photos?
For this assignment, take out your notebook and write why you make images.
For me, I studied sociology as an undergraduate in university and I strive to make images that are sociological; that challenges the viewer to look at society differently.
Everyone will have a different answer. But it is a question that is difficult and takes a long time to contemplate and ask oneself.
As the ancients once said, “Know thyself.” and Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Lesson #43: Create specific photographs
“A photograph has to be specific. I remember a long time ago when I first began to photograph I thought, There are an awful lot of people in the world and it’s going to be terribly hard to photograph all of them, so if I photograph some kind of generalized human being, everybody’ll recognize it. It’ll be like what they used to call the common man or something. It was my teacher Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be. You really have to face that thing. And there are certain evasions, certain nicenesses that I think you have to get out of.” – Diane Arbus
A common mistake I see a lot of beginning photographers make is that their photos are too general. If you make your photos too general, there isn’t enough interest for the viewer.
Viewers want their eyes to latch on certain details they find interesting in a photograph. They want a visual anchor they find interesting to keep their eyes from wandering outside of the frame.
For Diane Arbus, she learned the lesson from her teacher (Lisette Model) that the more specific you make your photos, the more people they will reach and touch.
For example, Diane Arbus would find specific details in her subjects that she found interesting. She would be drawn to their face, body gestures, or their expressions. Not only that, but she was specific in the types of subjects she photographed; people generally ignored or ostracized in society. These included dwarves, transgendered people, and others commonly known in her era as “freaks.”
So to make more interesting photographs, strive to make more specific photographs.
This goes back to the concept of “creative constraints,” in which setting boundaries in your art help you creatively. Don’t seek to photograph everything but constrain yourself from photographing the general.
So if you plan to do a photography project, don’t aim to shoot the entire city. Constrain yourself to one neighborhood. Don’t try to photograph all the types of people you come across, photograph just one type of person.
Assignment: See one color
For this assignment it will show you the power of being specific. To start off just choose one color you find interesting. Then for the entire day, only shoot that one color.
For example let’s say you decide to shoot the color red. I can guarantee you that once you narrow your focus and be specific to that one type of color, you will start seeing it everywhere.
Once you’re done with this assignment you can try to be specific with other types of subject matter: shadows, cars, dogs, children, the elderly, hands, sunglass, etc.
The more specific you make your photos, the more interesting they will be to the general public.
Lesson #44: Compose intuitively
“Composition must be one of our constant preoccupations, but at the moment of shooting it can stem only from our intuition, for we are out to capture the fugitive moment, and all the interrelationships involved are on the move.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
There are two main things that make a great photograph: content (what’s in the frame) and form (how it is composed). You need a perfect marriage of these two elements to make a memorable photograph.
As photographers we must constantly be preoccupied with how we compose our photos, as Henri Cartier-Bresson mentioned. However, especially when it comes to street photography, how can we compose quickly when the moment we see can be so fleeting?
Henri Cartier-Bresson states that composition can only be derived from intuition. It is hard to see diagonals, triangles, circles, leading lines, etc when you’re shooting. But the more you study the composition of your photos after you shoot it, the more you can learn how to better compose your images. Cartier-Bresson continues below:
“Any geometrical analysis, any reducing of the picture to a schema, can be done only (because of its very nature) after the photograph has been taken, developed, and printed– and then it can be used only for a post-mortem examination of the picture.”
Having a “post mortem” examination is one of the key points to improving your composition. We learn more from our mistakes than our successes. If you make a photo with poor composition, don’t beat yourself up. Rather, ask yourself, “How can I learn from this compositional mistake, and improve upon it for next time?”
Another practical tip from Henri Cartier-Bresson: trace the geometric shapes you see in your photos after you’ve shot them to analyze and learn from them:
“You can take a print of this picture, trace it on the geometric figures which come up under analysis, and you’ll observe that, if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.”
The greatest street photographers also agree on this point, that composition is mostly intuitive and comes with practice. Diane Arbus shares her ideas below:
“I hate the idea of composition. I don’t know what good composition is. I mean I guess I must know something about it from doing it a lot and feeling my way into and into what I like. Sometimes for me composition has to do with a certain brightness or a certain coming to restness and other times it has to do with funny mistakes. Theres a kind of rightness and wrongness and sometimes I like rightness and sometimes I like wrongness. Composition is like that.” – Diane Arbus
Helen Levitt also draws on the importance on focusing on practice and intuition, less on theory in composition:
“It would be mistaken to suppose that any of the best photography is come at by intellection; it is like all art, essentially the result of an intuitive process, drawing on all that the artist is rather than on anything he thinks, far less theorizes about.” – Helen Levitt
Walker Evans also shares how he doesn’t think much viciously when composing his images:
“I don’t think very much about it consciously, but I’m very aware of it unconsciously, instinctively. Deliberately discard it every once in a while not to be artistic. Composition is a schoolteacher’s word. Any artist composes. I prefer to compose originally, naturally rather than self-consciously. Form and composition both are terribly important. I can’t stand a bad design or a bad object in a room. So much for form. That way it’s placed is composition… when you stop to think about what an artist is doing one question is, what is the driving force, the motive.” – Walker Evans
Assignment : Trace over your photos
For this assignment, print out your most successful photos (and some unsuccessful) photos as cheap xerox prints. Then you’re going to take a red marker and start to draw all the lines, diagonals, triangles, circles, leading lines, and other compositional elements you see.
Then ask yourself: if you could have framed this photograph again but differently, what would you change?
Try not to force yourself to think too much about composition when you’re out shooting on the streets. Rather, study it after you’ve taken images. Then this will help you make your compositions more intuitive over time.
Lesson #45: Arrange yourself, not others
“I work from awkwardness. By that I mean I don’t like to arrange things if I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself”. – Diane Arbus
In photography, position is everything. The perspective and point of view you get as a photographer greatly affects and influences how an image turns out.
When you’re shooting on the streets, you can’t always arrange your subjects to be the way you want them to be. However you always have the control of arranging yourself in a certain way.
So if you want certain compositions or framing when you’re out on the streets, learn how to dance on the streets, almost like a ballerina. Stay light on your toes, just like a boxer. Move left, move right, take a step back, and forward. Learn to crouch, and when to tippy toe. Henri Cartier-Bresson explains how we can change our perspectives just by changing our position by a millimeter:
“A photographer’s eye is perpetually evaluating. A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimetre. He can modify perspectives by a slight bending of the knees. By placing the camera closer to or farther from the subject, he draws a detail. But he composes a picture in very nearly the same amount of time it takes to click the shutter, at the speed of a reflex action.”
Assignment: 360 degrees
For this assignment, you are going to practice getting a 360 degree perspective of a subject.
Start off by asking a friend or loved one to photograph. Try to take a portrait of them from every single angle from a 360 degree perspective. Analyze how the light on their face changes. Analyze how at certain angles you can see both eyes, and at certain angles you can only see one eye. Consider how interesting you find the back of their head versus the front of their face.
Then when you’re on the streets, don’t keep your feet glued to the same perspective when shooting. Learn to “work the scene” by embracing different perspectives. Also remind yourself that one millimeter in terms of perspective can change everything.
Also when you’re playing with perspectives, as a simple assignment try this: go to a public place where you see a long horizontal pole. Then try to see someone in the background and place them that it looks like they’re sitting on the pole.
Or another example: try to make surreal photos by placing common objects on top of people’s heads. For example if you see a vendor selling balloons, try to time it perfectly that it looks like one of the balloons have replaced somebody’s head.
Lesson #46: Don’t just take photos of people
“The manifestation of people, whether it’s actual people or what people do, it’s the same thing.” – Elliott Erwitt
As street photographers, our primary concern is to document humanity and society. But that doesn’t always have to be done by photographing human beings. Rather, we can focus on capturing the “manifestation of people” as well.
For example, many street photographers are drawn to “urban landscapes” in the sense that they are interested in the environments that humans live in and interact in. Sometimes an urban landscape can tell us more about human society than just photographing a portrait of a human being.
Similarly, you can also photograph certain objects or juxtapositions which you think make sociological statements. For example, one of Elliott Erwitt’s most famous photos show Jesus on the cross juxtaposed next to a Pepsi advertisement. What does this say about human society, and the separation of advertising, money, and religion?
Assignment : Show soul from an intimate object
For this assignment try to make a photograph that evokes a human emotion from an intimate object. Perhaps you can see a human face in the holes of a cardboard box. Perhaps you can see a lonely traffic cone that looks ignored. Maybe you can see the facade of a once great building that is falling into ruins.
Know that at the end of the day, you don’t always have to photograph human beings. Try to make images that evoke strong emotions about human beings.
Lesson #47: Focus on content over form
“My wish for the future of photography is that it might continue to have some relevance to the human condition and might represent work that evokes knowledge and emotions. That photography has content rather than just form. And I hope that there will be enough produce to balance out the visual garbage that one sees in our current life.”- Elliott Erwitt
Sometimes in photography we can focus too much about the composition, framing, color, light, and technical settings of a photograph instead of the emotion and soul behind an image.
Our primary concern as street photographers is to document and to convey the vastness of the human experience and condition.
Of course there needs to be a balance between form and content. We can have the most emotional photograph in the world, but without the right composition, we cannot convey that emotion.
Assignment: The human condition
Write down a list of all the human emotions that you know of. This can include joy, despair, hope, loneliness, and companionship.
Then as an assignment for yourself, try to take a photograph which explains each of these human emotions and conditions.
This will be a great assignment to help you become a more emotional and empathetic photographer.
Lesson #48: Learn how to see
“Seeing is more than a physiological phenomenon… We see not only with our eyes but with all that we are and all that our culture is. The artist is a professional see-er.” – Dorothea Lange
The most important tool of a photographer is his or her eyes. What differentiates an ordinary from a great photographer is how perceptive his or her eyes are.
Some people simply look at the world, without truly “seeing” the world. Others “see” the walls by analyzing, studying, and psychologically penetrating what is before their very eyes.
If you take Dorothea Lange’s advice: your job as a photographer is to see the world from a unique perspective. You are a professional “see-er.”
So how can you better learn to see? Well, one tip Lange gives us is to pause, take our time, and truly analyze what is before our very eyes. This will also allow the viewer to be a more keen observer in terms of what they see:
“This benefit of seeing… can come only if you pause a while, extricate yourself from the maddening mob of quick impressions ceaselessly battering our lives, and look thoughtfully at a quiet image… the viewer must be willing to pause, to look again, to meditate.” – Dorothea Lange
Sometimes photographers make the mistake of thinking that buying a new camera will help inspire their vision and way of seeing the world. But that is pure folly. Dorothea Lange explains what the camera is useful for; to see the world with it a camera:
“A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.”
Another practical tip from Lange: have a sense of urgency to your image making. You can do this by pretending as if you’re going to lose your vision tomorrow:
“One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind.” – Dorothea Lange
Elliott Erwitt also mirrors the thinking of Lange that he is constantly aware of his surroundings, and trying to always notice what might make a good photo, even when he doesn’t have a camera with him:
“Noticing possible pictures — with or without carrying a camera — is fundamental to any working photographer. I would never get tired of noticing, although I would probably not be moved to take pictures that repeat and repeat.” – Elliott Erwitt
Assignment: imagine if you were to become blind tomorrow
The world is truly a marvel; a visual feast. Sometimes we complain that our camera isn’t good enough, that we don’t live in an interesting place to photograph, or that we don’t have enough time to photograph.
A way to break out of that way of thinking: imagine if the doctor told you that you had a rare disease and that you would lose your vision tomorrow. If you were to hear that news, how would you spend your day as a photographer? What would you find valuable that you wanted to document and record? Is there a certain documentary project you would pursue for a day? Or take photos of friends and loved ones? Or shoot a certain neighborhood you’re interested in?
In reality, there are a lot of blind people who will never have the pleasure (or once had the pleasure) of seeing. So no matter how shitty our life situation may be, how little money we may have, etc, always be thankful for your gift of sight; the most valuable gift of being a photographer.
Lesson #49: Every photo you take is a self portrait
“Every image he sees, every photograph he takes, becomes in a sense a self-portrait. The portrait is made more meaningful by intimacy – an intimacy shared not only by the photographer with his subject but by the audience.” – Dorothea Lange
The photos you make are less about your subject and more about yourself. Whenever you hold your camera to your subject, you are really holding up a mirror and facing yourself.
When you’re shooting portraits, there needs to be collaboration between the photographer and subject. But ultimately, the photographs you decide to take of a subject is more a judgement of what you find interesting about that person (rather than what your subject finds interesting about him or herself).
This is a fine line we must tread as photographers, but know that once again, there is no true “objectivity” in photography. It is subjective, and there is no ultimate truth. Richard Avedon explains below after decades of making portraits:
“There is no truth in photography. There is no truth about anyone’s person. My portraits are much more about me than they are about the people I photograph. I used to think that it was a collaboration, that it was something that happened as a result of what the subject wanted to project and what the photographer wanted to photograph. I no longer think it is that at all.” – Richard Avedon
Assignment: Self portrait
If you believe that every portrait you take of someone else is a self portrait, try off by taking self portraits of yourself (literally).
You can do self portraits in many different ways. You can set your camera on a tripod and timer, and shoot yourself. You can shoot yourself through a mirror or reflection in a puddle. You can photograph your own shadow.
Sometimes you are your best own subject, when you have nothing else to photograph.
The more you shoot self portraits, the more you will discover about yourself. Then try to apply the same philosophy when you shoot others.
Lesson #50: Don’t shoot your preconceived notions
“To know ahead of time what you’re looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting, and often false.” – Dorothea Lange
To be a great photographer is to have a flexible and open ended mind.
Think of this zen example: if there is a great storm, the trees that are rigid and rooted into the ground will be blown away. But the bamboo trees which are nimble and flexible will simply sway in the wind and not break.
Similarly, try your best to have a fluid mind as a photographer. When you’re pursuing a photography project in a certain foreign place, don’t enter that place with any preconceived notions. Have an open mind, without any of your personal prejudices. Start off with a blank slate.
By approaching a place, subject matter or project with an open mind, you open up more possibilities. You also get a deeper glimpse into another reality of a place that you might not have known existed.
In fact, being ignorant is a gift. Lange explains:
“The best way to go into an unknown territory is to go in ignorant, ignorant as possible, with your mind wide open, as wide open as possible and not having to meet anyone else’s requirement but my own.” – Dorothea Lange
Garry Winogrand also tried to enter the streets without any preconceived notions. He simply documented what he saw and perceived before his very eyes:
“I don’t have anything to say in any picture. My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have no preconceptions.” – Garry Winogrand
Assignment : Reset your mind
For this assignment enter a certain neighborhood in your city that you know a lot about. Perhaps it is known as the “posh” or the “ghetto” part of town.
But enter that place and manually reset your mind. Wipe it clear of any preconceived notions you may have. Then simply document what you see before your eyes without any preconceived notions. See what kinds of images or scenes will come to you, without your filter of preconceptions blinding you.
This also means the next time you travel to a foreign city, try not to look at too many photos of that place by other photographers. This will allow you to document your version of reality rather than simply copying what you’ve seen before.
For example, every photographer who goes to India is highly influences by the vivid portraits or Steve McCurry. Therefore many photos shot in India are simply weak attempts to repeat what Steve McCurry has already done. But our job as a photographer is to try to pave new ground, and go somewhere nobody else has gone before.
Lesson #51: Time is your ultimate resource
“The important thing is management of time, because there’s so much going around. There’s so many things happening that take your concentration away from things that you want to be doing. What I want to be doing is taking pictures. Management of time becomes more complicated as your photographic life gets complicated.” – Elliott Erwitt
Time is the ultimate non-renewable resource that we have in our lives. In theory if we lose $100, we can easily earn another $100 down the line. But if we lose a year of our life, no matter how rich we are, we cannot buy another year of life.
Life is a ticking death clock, with each day subtracting time from us. Once we’ve lost time we can never gain it back.
Know that as a photographer your ultimate resource is time. It is ironic that a lot of people trade their time for money, where in actuality we should trade our money to have more time.
As a thought experiment what would you prefer: to spend 3 months working and saving up money to buy a new camera? Or would you rather spend 3 months working and saving up money for a vacation so you don’t have to work for perhaps 6 months in southeast Asia?
Many photographers complain that they don’t have enough time to shoot. It isn’t that we don’t have enough time but we just spend it wastefully. Instead of spending time going out to shoot during our lunch breaks, we sit in front of a computer to answer a few more (unimportant) emails. Instead of shooting after work, we rush home to watch Netflix. Instead of having a part time job that would give us more time to shoot, we put in extra hours in the office to earn a raise, to earn more money, and to buy more material things we don’t need.
Assignment : What if you were to did tomorrow?
To vividly imagine time as a ticking death clock, imagine if you were to die tomorrow. How would you live your life as a photographer differently today? What kind of extraneous things would you cut out of your schedule? Would you really watch that episode of Game of Thrones, read that gossip magazine, go to a networking event full of people you don’t really care about or waste time lusting after a camera you don’t really need?
I can guarantee if you were to die tomorrow, you would spend your time more wisely to shoot what is important to you.
Lesson #52: Stage your photos for a greater purpose
“I don’t object to staging if and only if I feel that it is an intensification of something that is absolutely authentic to the place.” – W. Eugene Smith
In photography (especially street photography) there is a general scorn against posing photos. Photos which are posed don’t feel as authentic or real. We romanticize candid and unposed moments.
However ultimately photos are just reflections of light against a piece of paper. Photos don’t show any “truth” or ultimate “reality” of the world. Photos are just tools to communicate some sort of message or emotion to the viewer.
W Eugene Smith was one of the most prolific and passionate photographers who have ever lived. He had no objections to posing images, as long as he felt that they intensified some sort of “authenticity” he perceived in a scene.
Furthermore, Smith felt that arranging scenes wasn’t dishonest, as long as he personally felt that it was legitimate. He trusted his intuition and feelings, and his own ability to understand as he explains:
“I ask and arrange if I feel it is legitimate. The honesty lies in my — the photographer’s — ability to understand.” – W. Eugene Smith
Assignment : Direct your subject
The next time you see a stranger on the streets with a certain emotion or mood you want to convey, ask them to pose for you in a certain way.
For example, if you want them to look contemplative, ask them to put their finger on their chin and look down. If you want them to look hopeful, ask them to look up.
Try to pose or stage the scene, and disregard the concept of “candidness.” A posed photograph, as long as it evokes some sort of genuine emotion is authentic.
Lesson #53: Discover projects after you shoot
“My obsession is with making photographs. I generally do not have a theme when in the act of photographing. Themes emerge after the photographs begin to accumulate. This happened in a clear way with my new book and exhibition Twirl / Run. For me picture taking is pure instinct. Gut. That is why I love doing it. I’m not thinking when I am working.” – Jeff Mermelstein
Jeff Mermelstein is probably one of the most focused and intense contemporary street photographers. He has made several photography books, one of them titled “Twirl / Run”, which is a compilation of street photos he shot of women twirling their hair and of people running.
Working on street photography projects can be very challenging if you have too rigid of a concept before you go out and shoot. This can make your mind rigid to new opportunities.
So as an approach you can intentionally go out without a theme in mind. Then as time goes on you become to discover a theme as you go.
Simply react to what you see, and then you can compile your projects or series later. Elliott Erwitt follows the same way of working and explains:
“I don’t start out with any specific interests, I just react to what I see. I don’t know that I set out to take pictures of dogs; I have a lot of pictures of people and quite a few of cats. But dogs seem to be more sympathetic.” – Elliott Erwitt
Elliott Erwitt has shot for many decades, and after compiling thousands of images, he discovers common threads and themes in his work. Now towards the later part of his life, he is compiling his images into books of certain subject matter and places.
Helen Levitt, one of the pioneers of color street photography also rebelled against the notion of having a “project,” she simply photographed what she noticed:
“I never had a ‘project.’ I would go out and shoot, follow my eyes—what they noticed, I tried to capture with my camera, for others to see.” – Helen Levitt
Another way to discover what kinds of projects to pursue in your photography is to print out your photos and start sorting them into different boxes. Once the boxes start to fill up, you’ve got a project as Lee Friedlander explains:
“I just work and I throw the pictures in a box that says “X” or whatever, and eventually if the box gets full it merits looking at. I often work on two or three or four of those things at once. People tell me that they all look like they’ve been well thought out, and that’s because I’ve worked on them for so long.” – Lee Friedlander
Assignment : find a common theme or pattern in your work
If you feel that you don’t have a direction or focus in your work, go to your entire catalogue of images and start to look for patterns or themes in your work.
What you can do is look at all your photos, and start to categorize and apply tags to your images. Then after going through your body of work, you can start to count which tags or categories you have a lot of photos.
This process might cause you to discover that there is a certain part of town you are really drawn to. Perhaps you will discover that the majority of the work you prefer is in color. Perhaps this can help you discover that you love taking “street portraits.”
Also by analyzing your metadata in your catalogue of images, you can see which cameras, lenses, or focal lengths you use the most. If you find there is a certain camera and lens you use 90% of the time perhaps you should stick with it and be consistent with it.
Lesson #54: Improve a little everyday
“Without instruction, at a very early age, I could play the piano. Anything, particularly—after hearing it once. Not reading music. I would pass a quite fine piano in my house everytime we came from the back from the front—and everytime I would pass it I would play a few things, and without any success at all. And I got a little better and better, and time went on. And maybe never playing the same one twice. It aint much different the way I work today, still [in photography].” – William Eggleston
It is easy to look at a body of work by an accomplished master photographer and feel that no matter how hard we work, we can never achieve as much as that photographer.
But realize that the journey of a thousand steps begins with the first step. If you want to create a body of work in photography, you need to start off with a single photograph.
If you want to improve your photography, just aim to become slightly a better photographer everyday. Simply aim to improve your photography by 1% everyday. You can improve your photography by taking more photos, studying master photographers, or analyzing photography books.
By improving 1% everyday, you will see huge compounded interest in the course of a year.
Great bodies of work take time. We need to be patient. Zen Master Hakuin explains below:
“It’s like chopping down a huge tree of immense girth. You won’t accomplish it with one swing of your axe. If you keep chopping away at it, though, and do not let up, eventually, whether it wants to or not, it will suddenly topple down…But if the woodcutter stopped after one or two strokes of his axe to ask, ‘Why doesn’t this tree fall?’ and after three or four more strokes stopped again, ‘Why doesn’t this tree fall?’ he would never succeed in felling the tree. It is no different from someone who is practicing the Way.”
Assignment: take at least 1 photograph everyday
One thing I read about physical fitness is that it is hard to overcome the mental block of going to the gym everyday. What is a lot more realistic? Just doing 1 pushup everyday. When you go on the ground to do 1 pushup, you will find it is easy to do 5, 10, perhaps even 20 pushups. And if you aim to do at least 1 pushup everyday, in the course of just a month you can become quite fit.
Similarly in your photography, aim to take just 1 photograph a day. Not every photograph you take everyday is going to be a good shot. But it is a good practice that keeps your eye sharp, and your trigger finger well greased and lubricated. And if you aim to just make 1 photo a day, that might lead you to making 5, 10, 20 or even more photos.
Then compound that over the course of a week, a month, a year, and a decade, and before you know it, you will have an incredible body of work in photography.
Lesson #55: Make something extraordinary from the ordinary
“I think it’s exciting to make something extraordinary out of the banal. I’m not the kind of photographer that needs to travel to take pictures. I am not saying that there aren’t extraordinary images being made in Gaza and sometimes I wonder I should go to Gaza. But I’d probably get sick and be scared. I don’t want it. I’m comfortable, I’m not drawn to bullets. I’m not drawn to danger.” – Jeff Mermelstein
One of the great things about street photography is that we don’t need to live in a super exotic or interesting place to make good photos. The beauty of street photography is to make powerful images from the ordinary and mundane.
But what if you live in a really boring place, and you can’t see any beauty? Start off by taking photos of “ugly stuff”, as Rosa Eggleston (the wife of William Eggleston) shares:
“Bill at one time said to his great, highly respected friend: ‘Well, what am I going to photograph? Everything here is so ugly.’ And our friend said, ‘Photograph the ugly stuff.’ Well we were surrounded everywhere by this plethora of shopping centers and ugly stuff. And that is really initially what he started photographing.”
Then over the course of several decades, William Eggleston made an incredible body of work of pretty mundane and boring scenes. His city Memphis isn’t New York City, but he has really made his banal city beautiful.
Photographer Joel Meyerowitz also agreed that the most beautiful art often comes from the ordinary of everyday life:
“Why is it that the best poetry comes out of the most ordinary circumstances? You don’t have to have extreme beauty to write beautifully. You don’t have to have grand subject matter. I don’t need the Parthenon. This little dinky bungalow is my Parthenon. It has scale; it has color; it has presence; it is real: I’m not trying to work with grandeur. I’m trying to work with ordinariness. I’m trying to find what spirits me away. Ordinary things. – What did I say when I drove by those bungalows—something about the lives lived in them?” – Joel Meyerowitz
Embrace the plain, boring, mundane. Don’t strive to create high-brow “art”. Just document ordinary things as a photographer:
“Forty years ago when I was going around with a camera I was doing some things that I myself thought were too plain to be works of art. I began to wonder – I knew I was an artist or wanted to be one – but I was wondering whether I really was an artist. I was doing such ordinary things that I could feel the difference. But I didn’t have any support. Most people would look at those things and say, “Well, that’s nothing. What did you do that for? That’s just a wreck of a car or a wreck of a man. That’s nothing. That isn’t art.” They don’t say that anymore.” – Walker Evans
Assignment : Make something ugly into something beautiful
For this assignment, go out and intentionally look for ugly things to photograph. The uglier and more ordinary, the better.
Now your job is to make that ugly thing interesting or beautiful. How could you do that? Perhaps wait until the light turns good (sunset). Maybe try to use a flash. Maybe try a diagonal composition. Perhaps try to get a good angle or try shooting it in black and white.
When you realize you can turn the ugly, boring, and banal into beautiful and interesting photos, this will liberate you.
Lesson #56: Don’t see your photos as art
“I don’t think of my photos as works of art—I see them as a fraction of a second in which my understanding and the worlds offering are unified in some way. That allows us to have some sort of open experience to share with whoever happens to look at the photo. So it isn’t formal, it is more experiential.” – Joel Meyerowitz
Pretentiousness is what often blocks or obstructs many photographers. If you want to create more inspired images, don’t force yourself to create “art.” If you start thinking that your work has to be “Art” with a capital A, you will put unnecessary pressure on yourself, which can actually prevent you from creating beautiful photographs which can be considered as “art.”
Also by not thinking of your work as art, you can be more open to experimentation and failing and tying out different things for fun.
Assignment : Self depreciating humor
If you feel too much pressure to create good images, give yourself some compassion through self depreciating humor (making fun of your own photos).
Start referring to your images just as snapshots, and don’t take them too seriously. Don’t take yourself seriously either. Don’t call yourself a “photographer” or “artist.” Just consider yourself as somebody who is curious and fascinated with the world, and happens to like to make images.
This mode of thinking will ultimately liberate you, and help you create more inspired “art” in the long run.
Lesson #57: Constantly question yourself
“It’s me asking myself: ‘How interesting is this medium? And how interesting can I make it for me? And, by the way, who the fuck am I?‘” – Joel Meyerowitz
It can be painful to feel lost and confused in our photography. But don’t fret, this is absolutely normal. Even the master photographers constantly grapple with these questions.
Photography is often a form of self discovery. And the more questions you ask yourself and the more you analyze your intentions in photography, the more you will grow, and the more you will become focused in your work.
Joel Meyerowitz, who was one of the most influential pioneers in color photographs even admits that he hasn’t found the definitive answer for himself yet: “No, not yet [smiling], and time is running out. But I’m getting there.”
Assignment: Everyday question yourself
If you feel lost in your photography, and feel you don’t have direction or purpose, keep a journal in which you answer the prompt: “Why do I photograph?” on a daily basis. The more you self reflect, the more clarity you will give yourself and the more focus and meaning you will give your work.
Lesson #58: Feel emotions in color
“Color plays itself out along a richer band of feelings—more wavelengths, more radiance, more sensation. I wanted to se more and experience more feelings from a photograph, and I wanted bigger images that would describe things more fully, more cohesively. Slow-speed color film provided that.” – Joel Meyerowitz
Shooting color isn’t just purely for decorative purposes. Shooting color reveals a deeper psychological depth and emotions in a scene.
Joel Meyerowitz explains the importance of how colors can evoke feelings, memories, and certain life experiences:
“A color photograph gives you a chance to study and remember how things look and feel in color. It enables you to have feelings along the full wavelength of the spectrum, to retrieve emotions that were perhaps bred in you from infancy—from the warmth and pinkness of your mother’s breast, the loving brown of you puppy’s face, and the friendly yellow of your pudding. Color is always part of experience. Grass is green, not gray; flesh is color, not gray. Black and white is a very cultivated response.” – Joel Meyerowitz
Whether you decide to shoot color or black and white realize that you have control over your palette:
“A photographer must choose a palette as painters choose theirs.” – Joel Sternfeld
Joel Sternfeld, another pioneer in color photography also shares the challenge of color, which is how to abstract reality:
“Black and white is abstract; color is not. Looking at a black and white photograph, you are already looking at a strange world. Color is the real world. The job of the color photographer is to provide some level of abstraction that can take the image out of the daily.” – Joel Sternfeld
Assignment : Photograph a color and mood
Colors are primarily split into two categories: warm and cool colors. Warm colors include red, yellow, orange, brown, and other colors that evokes warmth, sunsets, heat, passion, and love. Cool colors include blue, green, violet, which evokes the color of water, tranquility, peace, and nature.
One of the strongest colors is red, as it mimics the color of blood. The color red psychologically draws us. We think about death, passion, life, fire and energy.
So for this assignment choose a specific color you’re drawn to, but also think about the psychology of that color. What kind of emotions do that certain color provoke? Keep this in mind and shoot while trying to match the mood and colors of a scene.
Lesson #59: Always have a camera with you
“I carry [the 8×10 camera] with me as I would carry a 35mm camera. In the very beginning, if I went for a drive or to the A&P, the camera was in the back seat of the car; if I went for a walk down the street to visit a neighbor, or if I went to the beach, the camera was on my shoulder. No matter where I went, that camera was ever-present: parties, walks, shopping. It came from the discipline of carrying a 35mm at all times—in the early years you never saw me without a camera. I didn’t want to be in that position of saying, “Oh I saw a great shot, if only I had my camera.” At that time no photographer was without a camera. We got that from Henri Cartier-Bresson’s being ready for “the decisive moment,” and from Robert Frank’s traveling everywhere in America and making pictures of the Americans that seemed to occur in the most unexpected moments. Since my discipline was always to carry a camera, it didn’t matter that when the size changed it became big and awkward; I still wanted to have it at all times. So I provided myself with the opportunity of making large-scale, highly detailed photographs of unusual moments.” – Joel Meyerowitz
Have you ever seen a great potential photograph, but you didn’t have your camera with you? It has happened to all of us at least once.
I think one of the best disciplines that a photographer can have is always have a camera with him or her. I don’t necessarily feel that a photographer must take a photograph everyday (unless you want to), but the peace of mind of always having a camera on you (just in case) is wonderful.
Most people in the western world have smartphones, with more than capable cameras. So if you find yourself without your main camera, know you can always use your smartphone camera. It is better to shoot a scene with a smartphone camera than not take a photograph at all.
Assignment : Always have your camera with you
So as an assignment (or better yet, as a way of life), always have a camera with you. Bring your camera to the most mundane situations like going to the grocery store, going to the tax office, dropping off mail, visiting a friend for dinner.
Bonus points if you always have your camera around your neck or hand. I find when I am physically holding a camera I see more photography opportunities.
Lesson #60: Make books
“Before I lay out a book, I read the pictures many many times, until I’ve absorbed the so-called meaning of each picture. My feeling about it – not intellectually, but my gut feeling about these pictures and how I relate to them, and then I just collect them all as miniatures, at three inches across, and I carry them with me like a deck of cards, and I lay them out, everytime I have a few minutes, I lay them out – I’m doing it now, for this next book – I lay them out and look and look, and then I’ll see something that looks like a starting point. So I’ll put that picture first, and then I’ll see what happens. What does it call, like magnetism, to itself? And what do these two call themselves, and what do these three call? Because it’s not just about the next picture, it’s the weight of the three of them in a row. Five of them in a row. Ten! I can set-up certain rhythms or cadences, so that when you get to the third or fourth picture, you begin to realize the first picture again, like, ‘oh yeah, the first and fourth are linked!’ And there are these links so that if you were to make a drawing of this book, if there were forty pictures – I could probably make a diagram that comes after the fact, not before the fact, that the first connects to the fourth and the tenth and on and on – and that there are these interconnections. It’d be a fun thing to do, actually!” – Joel Meyerowitz
I feel that every photographer should aim to make at least 1 personally meaningful book in his or her lifetime. Why? A book can last decades, centuries, or perhaps even millenia (if well stored). A digital photograph on Instagram on your hard drive? Who knows how long that will be accessible (do you remember floppy or hard disks?)
Also seeing your photos printed out in a book is a unique experience. It is a unique way of looking at your images which more tangible, real, and personal. Furthermore, a book allows you to pair, sequence, and arrange images in novel and flexible ways.
You don’t need to get your books printed by some fancy publisher. Nowadays there are many great print on demand services like Blurb which give you high quality photo books without having to print 1,000s of them.
So if you have no experience putting together a photography book, where do you start? You can start off by dissecting your favorite photography books from other photographers. Joel Meyerowitz gives some advice below:
“You should take your favorite book and take it apart that way and see why it works that way. What is it about the rhythm of these pictures that make you see it as a book, rather than a collection of pictures. I think, too many photographers make books that are just collections of pictures. You could throw them together any way and they’d be alright. And there are other photographers that make books that are works of art, as a book.” – Joel Meyerowitz
Lee Friedlander also shares the joy of the process of putting together books:
“I like making books… I realise that the nature of photography is such that I can’t see everything on first look, because photography has this ability to deal so well with information. There’s so much information in a picture that often I don’t see until the fifth reading or 30 years later.I can pick up Walker’s book American Photographs today and see something I never saw before – and I’ve owned that book for over 30 years. So I think that books are a great medium for photography. They seem to be the best. I can go back and re-read things – ‘Oh shit, I didn’t see that before’.” – Lee Friedlander
Assignment : make a “zine”
Photography magazines or “zines” are rising in popularity. The concept that it is a printed collection of your images, that isn’t as expensive as a hardcover photography book. This makes it easier for you to print, distribute, at a fraction of the price of a traditional photography book.
Start off by making a “zine” of around 15 images. Think of some sort of concept or theme and compile your images together.
Experiment, have fun, and in the long run aspire to also make a “proper” photography book.
Lesson #61: Create relationships in your frame
“I believe that recognition and the power of the frame to put disparate, unrelated things together—suddenly this guy who was going on his business doing all this stuff and this woman with her poodle—they have no knowledge of each other. But in your frame, it is context.” – Joel Meyerowitz
One way to make stronger images is to put together unrelated things into a frame, which create a sense of juxtaposition, contrast, and context.
For example if you’re out shooting street photography and you identify one interesting thing going on, see if you can add another element of interest to make the frame more complex.
Joel Meyerowitz continues on the point of making relationships in his photos:
“I’m going to go on record here—when I think about my photographs, I understand that my interest all along has not been in identifying a singular thing. But in photographing the relationship between things. The unspoken relationships, the tacit relationship—all of these variables are there if you choose to see in this way. But if you choose to only make objects out of singular things you will end up shooting the arrow into the bull’s-eye all the time, and you will get copies of objects in space.”
It us only through comparison, analogy, similarities, and differences can we create meaning. Without sadness we couldn’t have joy. Without dark we couldn’t have light. Without man we couldn’t have woman.
Much of street photography is to also show the hidden drama of everyday life. So if you’re able to make photos that show this tension between happiness and sorrow, hope and despair, old age versus youth in a single frame, you’re connecting with the viewer. Also by capturing these relationships in your photos, you’re also acknowledging your own humanity, as Meyerowitz continues:
“I didn’t want copies of objects—I wanted the ephemeral connections between unrelated things to vibrate. And if my pictures work at all, at their best—they are suggesting these tenuous relationships. And that fragility is what is so human about them. And I think its what is in the ‘romantic tradition’—it is a form of humanism that says we’re all part of this together. I’m not just a selector of objects.
Assignment: Juxtapose two unrelated things in a single frame
If you’re not familiar with the term “juxtaposition”, it is essentially a fancy word which means contrast. It is when you put two different things or concepts together (side by side) that directly contrast or contradict one another, yet there is some sort of relationship.
For example a great juxtaposition in a photograph would include a young kid next to an old man, a tall person next to a short person, a person with a dark complexion next to a person with light complexion.
So for this assignment put together two people in a single frame whom directly juxtapose one another. Sometimes this takes patience; you start off by identifying a single subject you find interesting, and you wait until someone else walks into the frame.
Seek to find these juxtapositions and relationships in your frame to create and capture more of the human drama.
Lesson #62: Pave your own path
“I was enthralled by Eggleston, as everybody was. But I knew if I was ever to make a mark, I’d have to go to places he hadn’t headed. He owned the poetic snapshot, but I’d always had this leaning towards narrative, and so I began to lean a little harder.” – Joel Sternfeld
When learning photography, it is always great to study the work of the masters. The masters have put in decades of work, and have dedicated their lives to photography and their craft.
We can gain a lot of inspiration from them but we should consider us more of our guides, rather than trying to follow them blindly and duplicate them.
For example when Joel Sternfeld started shooting, he was greatly inspired by the color photography of William Eggleston (as were many other photographers). But Sternfeld knew that if he wanted to make his mark in the world of photography, he needed to go down his own path and road.
Assignment: Creatively Isolate yourself
I think it is useful to study the theory and philosophy of photography from the masters, but only up to a certain point. If you want to truly find your voice, you need to isolate yourself for a while to really focus on your own work (without getting distracted by the work of others).
So for this assignment, you’re going to intentionally creatively isolate yourself. For an entire month, don’t look at any other photos from other photographers, nor read their philosophies. Try abstain from consuming images on social media. Uninstall Instagram and Facebook from your phone for a month.
For that month, try to create images without the outside influence of others. Of course all the accumulated inspirations of the past will seep into your work. But slowly try to isolate yourself during this month, and see what kind of work emerges from your work, organically and fluidly.
Let your own voice emerge. It might start off as quiet but the more you shut up outside voices, the more you can hear it.
Lesson #63: Learn where to stand (cut?)
“The question of where to stand is interesting. What we’re really talking about is a vantage point. If you look at amateurs or people taking pictures, they do funny things. Most people obviously don’t know where to stand. They’re standing too close, they’re contorted.” – Lee Friedlander
One of the lessons I learned from Magnum photographer David Hurn is that the two main things you control in photography is where to stand (your position) and when to click the shutter (your timing). Lee Friedlander shares the importance of your position, and knowing where to stand when hitting the shutter:
“You don’t have to be a fancy photographer to learn where to stand. Basically you’re stuck with the frame and just like the person taking a picture of his family, who needs to go half a foot back – well, he doesn’t step half a foot back—but on the other hand, he knows where to be if he hits it right.” – Lee Friedlander
You don’t need an expensive camera or equipment to know where to stand. Sometimes all you need to do to make a better photo is to take a step forward or backwards.
Lesson #64: Stick with one camera for a long time
“They’re humorous to watch, people who photograph, especially people who aren’t in tune with their equipment, because they don’t know when they pick it up what it will do. If you work with the same equipment for a very long time, you will get more in tune to what is possible. But within that there are still surprises. But using a camera day after day after day, within a framework, I’ll do the same thing. I’ll back up and I’ll go forward with my body.” – Lee Friedlander
In today’s society we are plagued by the disease of “G.A.S” (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). The concept is that when we are dissatisfied with our photography (or don’t feel inspired), we wrongly believe that buying new cameras, lenses, or equipment will make us more creative or inspired.
However in reality what ends up happening is that we waste our valuable money, flit from one camera system to the next, trying to find the “perfect” camera for our needs.
The reality? No perfect camera exists. With every upside there is a downside. Not only that but because there are so many cameras out there, we never get really comfortable with one system.
Personally it has taken me a long time before I settled down shooting with my film Leica and 35mm lens. Furthermore, I found the more cameras and lenses I owned the more stressed out I was. Before going out to shoot, I wouldn’t know which camera to use. I fell victim to “paralysis by analysis” and having too many choices hurt me.
The solution? One camera and one lens. With only one camera and one lens, the benefit is there is no stress. You know exactly which camera and lens to take to shoot because you have no other options. This is another “creative constraint” that will help your vision as a photographer.
Not only that, but when you stick with one camera and lens for a long time, you get to know the camera inside and out. You can change the controls of the camera without even thinking about it. You know all the buttons, dials, and how much to twist the focusing tab of your lens for a certain distance. You begin to worry less about technical settings and more about making the images you want.
Assignment : One camera, one lens
For this assignment you are to stick with one camera, one lens, and one film (or style of post processing if you shoot digital) for a year. If you own other cameras, either sell them, give them away, or lock them in a cupboard (give the key to someone you trust).
You will find that you will have more consistent looking images, you will make fewer excuses in your photography, you will have less stress in your photography, and will ultimately make more photos.
Lesson #65: Expect to be disappointed
“It’s generally rather depressing to look at my contacts– one always has great expectations, and they’re not always fulfilled.” – Elliott Erwitt
No matter how good you are in photography, expect to be disappointed. Even the masters of photography are often disappointed when they’re looking through their photos.
“I hate looking at my work. I delay it for as long as possible… I just know that it won’t live up to my own expectations.” – David Alan Harvey
But don’t be disappointed at being disappointed. Rather know that your disappointment comes from the fact that you have high expectations for yourself. If you had low expectations for yourself, you would never be disappointed.
I think in photography it is important to have high expectations. If you set your mark high, even if you miss, you still achieve a higher caliber of work.
However learning from your mistakes can be the best instructor, as David Hurn explains:
“The contact sheet is a valuable instructor. Presumably, when a photographer releases the shutter, it is become he believes the image worthwhile. It rarely is. If the photographer is self-crucial, he can attempt to analyze the reasons for the gap between expectation and actuality. How does one think? Could the image be improved by moving backwards or forwards, by moving to the right or left? What would have been the result if the shutter were released a moment earlier or later? Ruthless examination of the contact sheet, whether one’s own or another’s , is one of the best teaching methods.” – David Hurn
Assignment: Learn from your mistakes
We learn more from our mistakes than our successes in photography. So don’t look at your failed photos with disappointment. Rather, look at your failed photographs as your most valuable teachers.
When looking at your failed photos, ask yourself what didn’t work out. Were you too far away from your subject? Did you fail to fill the frame? Was the light poor? Did you not crouch enough? Should you have taken a step closer? Should you have taken a step to the left or right? Did you click the shutter a second too soon or late?
As long as you keep learning from your mistakes, you are on your way to mastering your photography.
Lesson #66: On digital vs film
“The workload with digital has certainly doubled with fieldwork. You have now to photograph, edit and send your images on the same day. You go back to your car or hotel room to download, caption and transmit your work. It’s much more immediate and it becomes much more difficult to revisit the work.” – Paolo Pellegrin
Digital photography is one of the greatest blessings in photography. It has helped democratize photography to the masses. With digital photography, we can learn a lot quicker from our mistakes.
However there of course is downsides to digital photography. With digital photography, sometimes we feel too rushed to share our images. Other times, it is difficult to revisit our work after letting our images “marinate.” Digital photography can also cut out some of the collaborative process:
“Digital photography can permit greater sharing in the field, but cuts out collectively at the other end. Fewer people share the whole process. It used to be that you sent raw film in and often the Magnum editorial or another photographer would take a look at the contacts.” – Susan Meiselas
Not only that but the LCD screen is a blessing and a curse. One of the downsides of being able to see your images immediately is that you are given a false sense of certainty. Not seeing your photos on film made you work harder to get the image because the process was more uncertain:
“I still think not knowing what you ‘have’ at the end of the day with film gives strength of the intensity when you work. It is a mystery and surprise. Now everyone spends more time looking at their screens, first on the camera and then the computer.” – Susan Meiselas
Gilles Peress also shares how with digital it is harder to reflect at the end of the day after a full day of shooting:
“With film you kept track in your head of what you were shooting, and evenings could be spent on a mental recap of the work you had made: the technical demands of digital editing in the field, at their worst, mean ‘less reflection, less intelligence, less thinking time‘. – Gilles Peress
Assignment : Shoot film
I think ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you shoot film or digital. There is not one “superior” format; they’re just different.
But if you have never shot film before, try it out. Just buy the cheapest film camera you can buy, some cheap film, and go out and shoot 20 rolls, and get them developed and scanned some local lab (many pharmacies and drugstores still process color film).
Reflect on how the process of shooting film is different from digital. Then ultimately take those lessons and apply it to your digital photography. Or perhaps you can just end up sticking with film (or shooting both film and digital).
What you will find with film is that it will teach you patience, appreciation of images, the enjoyment of the slower process, and the excitement and joy of finally seeing your images after a long time.
Lesson #67: Kill your babies
“I am a tough editor of my work, and usually when I look at my contacts I find that I can go as many as fifty rolls without getting a good photo.” – Bruce Gilden
Editing (choosing your best images) is one of the most important things in photography. The problem is nowadays “editing” is used interchangeably with “post processing.” So when many photographers say that they’re going to go home and “edit” their shots, what they really mean is that they’re going to go home and post-process their photos.
What is the problem with this? The issue is that there is much more emphasis on post processing images (rather than having the discipline of choosing only your best photos). What ends up happening is that you think that post processing a so-so photo will suddenly make it better. But no amount of post processing can make a mediocre photo into a great photo.
Know that photography is hard, especially street photography. Bruce Gilden admits that sometimes he has to shoot 50 rolls of film (1,800 images) before he gets a photo he likes.
But choosing your best shots is one of the most difficult decisions, especially when we shoot many photos of the same scene. The difficulty is that ultimately, you can only choose one image to represent your vision:
“It can be difficult to make a decision because you can like this frame for this reason, and that frame for that reason. Each photograph has its particular strength. But you only pick one. One has to represent all. So I am always trying to put everything into one image: the statement, the foundation, the composition, the story, the individual personality – all of that together into one image…” Leonard Freed
So how do we best edit our photos? Part of it is following your gut:
“Over three or four days I shot something like forty rolls of film. When I edit, I go for a gut, instinctual feeling. I started editing when I got the film back a day or two after I returned to the states. You are so aware of what you saw; the experiences that reflect in your mind. You don’ really forget the people and what they are going through. So I wanted to work on it immediately. Like anything else, when you’re trying to put down what you witnessed, you go for the pictures that speak to you.” – Eli Reed
Another way is to edit your images is by listening to your heart and feelings:
“When I look at a contact sheet, I try to remember the feeling I had when I took the frame. The memory of feeling helps me edit. Art for me is really simple. It’s when a feeling overcomes you and you convey your feeling with symbols. In photography the symbols are the thing itself.” – Larry Towell
Sometimes when you’re looking through your images, there are some that simply “jump off the page”:
“When I look at a contact sheet, I go in order from no 1 to no 36. I mark the ones I like, and unless something really jumps off the page at me, I go over them again to see which is the best one. With my personal work, I only print what I think is good. When something jumps off the page, it’s easy”. – Bruce Gilden
Another practical piece of advice: ask yourself what you are trying to communicate through your photos, and what they are really about:
“During the four years I spent making The Shipping Forecast I exposed nearly 1,200 rolls of film, which amounts to 14,000 individual pictures. Editing this down to a manageable number was a major exercise. I had advice from several people whose opinion I respected, but this only served to confuse me more. So instead I asked myself what the work was really about, and the answer was far clearer: it was about my childhood. In the end, The Shipping Forecast doesn’t depend on outstanding individual pictures, but instead on its collective strength.” – Mark Power
It is often hard to edit your images just by yourself. Having outside opinions and advice can greatly help the process. Mary Ellen Mark trusts the opinions of those close to her:
“Then I ask my husband or Teri who works for me in New York, to also look through the contact sheets and to pick the ones they like. It always helps to have an outside opinion. You are so close and so personally involved with your work, it’s hard to separate yourself from it and see it objectively.” – Mary Ellen Mark
Assignment: Kill your babies
The problem with editing our own images is that we are often too emotionally attached to them. Sometimes the memory of taking certain shots is so vivid that we think a shot is good. We treat our images like our children, and if you know anyone with ugly children you know, we think all of our children are beautiful.
But realize your photos aren’t your babies or children. They’re just photographs. So you need to learn how to “kill your babies.”
There are many ways to kill your babies. You can first off ask people you trust to be brutally honest with you. You can show people certain shots you’re unsure of and simply ask them: “Keep or ditch?”, then ask them to explain why.
You can also let your photos marinate and sit for a long time before looking at them. This makes you forget having taken the shot, so it’s almost like you’re killing someone else’s babies (which is always easier). Garry Winogrand famously wouldn’t process his photos for a year after he shot it to totally emotionally disconnect himself with his images, and to forget the photos he shot.
You don’t have to wait an entire year, but I do advise for you to at least sit on your photos for a week before looking at them. This gives you enough distance with your photos which can help you make more objective decisions when editing your shots.
Lesson #68: Milk the cow, a lot
“Sometimes you need to milk the cow a lot to get a little bit of cheese.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
It is rare that you make a good photo. It is also rare that you find scenes that you find very interesting.
If you happen to be lucky enough to stumble upon an interesting scene, learn to “work the scene” and take as many photos of the scene as humanly possible. Know that especially in street photography, once you see a scene, you will never see it again.
There is a common misconception that Henri Cartier-Bresson (who coined “the decisive moment”) would only take one shot of a scene. In reality, he took many photos of a scene, and would select” the decisive moment” after the fact.
Even if you shoot film, don’t feel bad shooting an entire roll for just one image, as Elliott Erwitt did for one of his most famous images of a bulldog sitting on a man’s lap:
“I was out walking with my friend Hiroji Kubota around the corner from my studio on the upper west side of Manhattan, and i didn’t have my camera. I saw the situation and i said, “Could I borrow your camera?” And I borrowed his Leica. He was very generous and let me use it and I shot the whole roll of film on it.” [..] “Its a lot of pictures getting to the good one.” – Elliott Erwitt
Assignment : The 1,000 photo challenge
If you find yourself having a hard time to “work the scene” and you only typically shoot one or two photos of a scene, this assignment will help loosen your trigger finger.
The idea is that in a day, you have to take at least 1,000 photos. Don’t just set your camera to burst mode and “spray and pray.” Rather, keep it in single shot mode and shoot intentionally, but a lot.
I’m not saying you always have to shoot 1,000 photos a day, but rather this assignment will teach you to shoot more, and not be afraid to click the shutter more.
Especially if you shoot digital, there is no downside to taking extra photos. The more you click the shutter the more likely you are to capture “the decisive moment.” Every time you click the shutter, it is like you are swinging the bat another time. As the more time you can swing the bat, the more likely you are to hit a home run.
Lesson #69: Take photos for yourself
“What was happening in Czechoslovakia concerned my life directly: it was my country, my problem. That’s what made the difference between me and the other photographers who came there from abroad. I was not a reporter. I didn’t know anything about photojournalism. I never photograph ‘news’. I photographed gypsies and theatre. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was confronted with that kind of situation, and I responded to it. I knew it was important to photograph, so I photographed. I took these pictures for myself, with no intention of publishing them”. – Josef Koudelka
There are many photographers who make images hoping that they will get a lot of attention, acclaim, and “likes” on social media. But that is the wrong approach; you need to first start off by shooting for yourself.
Shoot as if you will never show your photos to anybody. This will make your images much more authentic and personal:
“Photograph because you love doing it, because you absolutely have to do it, because the chief reward is going to be the process of doing it. Other rewards — recognition, financial remuneration — come to so few and are so fleeting. And even if you are somewhat successful, there will almost inevitably be stretches of time when you will be ignored, have little income, or — often — both. Certainly there are many other easier ways to make a living in this society. Take photography on as a passion, not a career.” – Alex Webb
Sometimes a lot of photographers pick up a camera as a hobby and because they love it. But then the idea of becoming a “professional” can taint their vision. Start off by taking photos for yourself; photos you care about. Then let everything follow as Christopher Anderson explains:
“Forget about the profession of being a photographer. First be a photographer and maybe the profession will come after. Don’t be in a rush to make pay your rent with your camera. Jimi Hendrix didn’t decide on the career of professional musician before he learned to play guitar. No, he loved music and and created something beautiful and that THEN became a profession. Make the pictures you feel compelled to make and perhaps that will lead to a career. But if you try to make the career first, you will just make shitty pictures that you don’t care about.” – Christopher Anderson
Only shoot photos what you feel like shooting, rather than what you think others will find interesting:
“I think that I do what I feel like doing, which may not follow contemporary fashions but which comes spontaneously from the heart, the guts and the brain. To me, that’s what counts.“ – Richard Kalvar
Assignment : Document your own life
There is nobody who knows your life as intimately as you do.
Sometimes it is hard to find a subject matter to document and photograph. So if you have no idea, just document your own life.
Anders Petersen calls this “personal documentary”, that you photograph your own life instead of documenting the lives of others. This will open up a lot of doors for you, as you can photograph yourself (self portraits), your loved ones, and things you like to do.
This way, photography becomes less of a forced project, and more of a lifestyle. You just take photos of your own life without stress and pressure.
Take photos that you feel compelled to shoot for yourself. You are the ultimate filter in terms of knowing what you like and what you dislike.
Disregard fame, attention and the concept of making “good photos.” Only by starting to please yourself that maybe one day you can also please others.
Lesson #70: Photograph your own backyard
“I just made my photos in Wilkes-Barre and a few other places because I wasn’t the kind of photographer who liked to, or needed to, travel around the world. That reminds me, I saw something you had said about how artistic range effects an artist’s development over time. And I work on an extremely narrow range, in terms of my method and technical issues, too. It’s what is in my head that has developed over time. So I’ve just kept taking pictures in the same two counties [Wilkes-Barre and Scranton].” – Mark Cohen
It is always hard to shoot your own backyard. We become accustomed to our own neighborhood, and it is easy to become jaded.
Mark Cohen is a great source of inspiration: he documented his own small town for several decades, and made interesting photographs. He didn’t need to be in NYC, Tokyo, or Paris. He made his own backyard his Paris.
You can often find beauty in the most ordinary places, as Saul Leiter shares:
“I never thought of the urban environment as isolating. I leave these speculations to others. It’s quite possible that my work represents a search for beauty in the most prosaic and ordinary places. One doesn’t have to be in some faraway dreamland in order to find beauty. I realize that the search for beauty is not highly popular these days. Agony, misery and wretchedness, now these are worth perusing.” – Saul Leiter
Assignment: Shoot a boring place
Find the most boring neighborhood in your city and try to make interesting photos there for a week. This will force you to think outside the box, and force you to work and see what can make a good photo.
You will then discover your can make an interesting photograph regardless of where you are or live.
Lesson #71: Make strong images that stand in their own
“To be honest with you, I always try to think of the specific pictures. What’s important to me is to make strong, individual pictures. When I look at a documentary photographer or photojournalist whose work I really love- somebody like Eugene Smith-it’s because the images are single images. I think of his great picture stories as stories where the images really stood by themselves. In Life’s “Country Doctor,” for example, you remember each image. They weren’t only linking images -each one was strong, and each can stand alone. I think in great magazine or newspaper photography every picture can stand on its own; it doesn’t need the other pictures to support it to tell a story.” – Mary Ellen Mark
One analogy I heard about writing is that instead of thinking of writing a “book”, try to write perfect paragraphs. Every time you write a perfect paragraph, you are making a pearl. And with enough pearls, you can connect them and make a beautiful pearl necklace.
You can also apply the same thinking to your photos. Try to make each photograph into a perfect pearl. Make each photograph a strong one that can stand on its own, without any sort of caption or outside context.
Also a strong single image is often universal, and can be appreciated by anybody, regardless of their culture, worldview, or age:
“What I’m trying to do is make photographs that are universally understood, whether in China or Russia or America‑photographs that cross cultural lines. So if the project is about street performers, it touches those little things and whimsies we’re all interested in -animals and people and anthropomorphic qualities. If it’s about famine in Ethiopia, it’s about the human condition all over the world: It’s about people dying in the streets of New York as much as it’s about Ethiopia. I want my photographs to be about the basic emotions and feelings that we all experience.” – Mary Ellen Mark
Assignment : Can a child appreciate your photo?
A test to see if you can make a strong single image: show it to a child. Print it and show it to a child (10 years old). See if the photo catches their attention, and if they’re interesting. Children don’t bullshit or try to spare your feelings. Not only that but they are averse to boredom.
Another thing you can do: share your photos with a friend (who doesn’t know much about photography) and ask them which photos they find interesting. Even somebody who isn’t educated in photos or art can generally distinguish between an interesting and boring photo.
Lesson #72: Make universal images (cut)
“What I’m trying to do is make photographs that are universally understood, whether in China or Russia or America‑photographs that cross cultural lines. So if the project is about street performers, it touches those little things and whimsies we’re all interested in -animals and people and anthropomorphic qualities. If it’s about famine in Ethiopia, it’s about the human condition all over the world: It’s about people dying in the streets of New York as much as it’s about Ethiopia. I want my photographs to be about the basic emotions and feelings that we all experience.” – Mary Ellen Mark
Lesson #73: Your photo either works or doesn’t work
“What counts is the result. It works or it doesn’t work. You may think after you’ve taken a picture that you may have something. And then you find out that you don’t have anything, that you almost had something but that in fact, you pressed the button at the wrong time. That you took a lot of pictures, but you were on auto-pilot – that instead of waiting, you shot buckshot at it, so you missed the one that might really work.” – Richard Kalvar
It is common we make photos that “almost” work. But ultimately, a photo either works or it doesn’t work. There is no need to beat around the bush.
If you didn’t get the shot right in camera, don’t think that excessive cropping, vignette adding, making it black and white, hdr, selective color, or post processing can salvage the image.
The process of making photos is important, but know at the end of the day, the result of the photograph is the most important. You can have the most interesting backstory in terms of how you shot a scene, but if the result of the photograph isn’t interesting, nobody will care.
So learn to be honest with yourself and your images. Be sincere to yourself; ask yourself, “Does this shot work, or not?”
I have generally found with my photographs, if I have to hesitate whether I think works or not, it doesn’t work. Also when editing my photos, if a photograph is a “maybe”, it doesn’t work. The good photos you take generally tend to be quite obvious.
Assignment: Yes or no
When you are editing your photos, ask yourself: does this photo work, yes or no? If you need to hesitate, ditch the shot immediately.
Lesson #74: Abstract reality
“In order for the mystery to work, you need abstraction from reality. Black and white is an additional abstraction, in addition to selective framing, to the freezing of the moment that in reality is a part of an infinite number of other moments (you have one moment and it never moves again; you can keep looking at the picture forever). The black and white is one more step away from reality. Color, for me, is realer, but less interesting.” – Richard Kalvar
Regular reality is boring. What the viewer is interested in seeing is the abstraction of reality, not reality itself. So think to yourself, when you are making photos, what is the extra layer that makes the image interesting?
So how can we make reality more surreal and abstract? You can start off by trying to “lie with reality”, as Richard Kalvar explains:
“That’s part of the magic of photography. Look at a picture and you have no idea what was going on. The only thing you can know is what’s visually depicted, and we all know photographers lie. That’s where the fun comes in. To be able to tell a lie with “reality” is a very tough trick.” – Richard Kalvar
You don’t want to make your photos too obvious. You want the viewer to work hard to come up with his or her own interpretation of reality. You do this by adding mystery and removing context from your images:
“As a photographer if your photos are too obvious then you’re missing the point. Photos are about mystery, about not knowing, about dreams, and the more you know about that—then you can recognize them on the street.” – Jason Eskenazi
Another approach you can have in street photography is to try to create “little dramas” in your frame. You want to create little mini-stories in your images, and you want them to stay open ended. You want the viewer to come up with their own interpretation of the scene:
“I’m trying to create little dramas that lead people to think, to feel, to dream, to fantasize, to smile… It’s more than just catching beautiful moments; I want to fascinate, to hypnotize, to move my viewers. Making greater statements about the world is not my thing. I think there’s a coherence in the work that comes not from an overriding philosophy but from a consistent way of looking and feeling.”- Richard Kalvar
Assignment: What is going on?
For this assignment, you want to make your viewer confused. Make a photograph as abstract and confusing as you can. Show it to your subject, and you will know if you are successful if they tilt their head, curl their eyebrows, as if they had a big question mark above their head.
Then to take it a step further, try to take photos of street scenes where you have the viewer say, “What the fuck is going on?”
Lesson #75: Make little dramas (cut)
“I’m trying to create little dramas that lead people to think, to feel, to dream, to fantasize, to smile… It’s more than just catching beautiful moments; I want to fascinate, to hypnotize, to move my viewers. Making greater statements about the world is not my thing. I think there’s a coherence in the work that comes not from an overriding philosophy but from a consistent way of looking and feeling.”- Richard Kalvar
Lesson #76: Capture your own “decisive moments”
“Sometimes it happens that you stall, delay, wait for something to happen. Sometimes you have the feeling that here are all the makings of a picture – except for just one thing that seems to be missing. But what one thing? Perhaps someone suddenly walks into your range of view. You follow his progress through the viewfinder. You wait and wait, and then finally you press the button – and you depart with the feeling (though you don’t know why) that you’ve really got something. Later, to substantiate this, you can take a print of this picture, trace it on the geometric figures which come up under analysis, and you’ll observe that, if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
When we are shooting images, we never fully know which moment will be “decisive.” But when we are shooting, we sometimes have a gut feeling or an intuition that a certain moment might be significant. At that moment, we must click the shutter.
It is hard to know which moments are significant while we’re shooting, so we need to take a risk. Whenever you’re in doubt or think a moment might be interesting, don’t think too much. Just click the shutter.
Henri Cartier-Bresson expands the concept of “the decisive moment” below:
“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
But which moment is “decisive” and which moment isn’t “decisive?” Ultimately, it is a judgement call. Every single moment which we think might be significant is personal:
“Your decisive moment is not the same as mine, but most of us are looking for a moment that is necessary for what we’re trying to do. Unnecessary moments quickly become easy, common, and boring.” – Richard Kalvar
Assignment: Shoot hand gestures
Sometimes it is hard to identify a “decisive moment.” Generally for me, I think the most significant decisive moments are emotions, which are manifested through body language and gestures.
So for this assignment, you aren’t allowed to shoot a person without a gesture. Go out for an entire day, and look for people with interesting hand gestures. Look for people covering their eyes, people with their hands on their hips, or scratching their head.
Then think a step further: how do these gestures show certain emotions? Ponder this to yourself, as ultimately you are trying to capture emotions, not mere hand gestures.
Lesson #77: Rules will set you free
“I didn’t write the rules, but following them set me free.” – Richard Kalvar
As artists we have a knee-jerk reaction against “rules.” We want to be open, free, and unlimited in our creativity.
But know that often having rules can help us be more creative. Certain “rules” in photography include not cropping, not mixing color and black and white in a series, not posing your photos, n to use zoom lenses, and not applying gimmicky post-processing to your photos.
However know that once again, these “rules” are simply “creative constraints.” Richard Kalvar followed a lot of the “rules” from Henri Cartier-Bresson, and first disdained them. But over time, he found out how these rules ended up helping his photography:
“Sometimes it turns out that the things that you do for the wrong reasons turn out to be the right things to do anyway. In retrospect, I’m really glad that I decided not to crop, because that developed my compositional discipline and my ability to organize a picture instinctively, in the viewfinder. It also obliged me to work very close up to my subjects in order to fill my 35mm lens frame. I had to be a toreador, not a sniper. Also, I had the feeling of doing something difficult, getting the picture right in the first place; anyone could crop a picture and find something interesting, but doing it in the camera was special. These things were essential to my photographic development.” – Richard Kalvar
So when you’re starting off any creative endeavor, you don’t want to have too many options. It is good to set these artificial boundaries and rules for yourself.
Assignment: Create a rule for yourself
It is harder to listen to rules of others; so try to make your own rules. Perhaps your rule can be that you’re not allowed to upload a photograph until you have let it “marinate” for a month. Perhaps it can that you’re not allowed to own more than one camera or lens. Or your rule can be that you’re not allowed to crop, shoot in black and white, or pose your subjects.
Create some sort of rule for yourself, and listen to it for a year. As time goes on, start adding more rules to further constrain you.
You will discover that in the end, it is rules and constraints which will set you free.
Lesson #78: Experiment
“I liked different lenses for different times. I am fond of the telephoto lens, as I am of the normal 50 mm lens. I had at one point a 150 mm lens and I was very fond it. I liked what it did. I experimented a lot. Sometimes I worked with a lens that I had when I might have preferred another lens. I think Picasso once said that he wanted to use green in a painting but since he didn’t have it he used red. Perfection is not something I admire. [Laughs]. A touch of confusion is a desirable ingredient.” – Saul Leiter
Experimentation is what makes life exciting and fun. If you were to simply do the same thing everyday, life would quickly become boring and dull. Imagine eating the same one dish for the rest of your life. Imagine how quickly you would become bored with it.
As artists and photographers, it is hard to balance the fine line between experimentation and consistency. However without experimentation, you will never be able to find your voice in photography, or what you enjoy.
So have fun and experiment. Think of yourself like a scientist, and you can experiment with different approaches, subject-matter, cameras, lenses, films, styles of post processing, etc.
But once you’ve found a certain experiment that works well, try to stick with it and see how deep you can go with it.
Assignment: Try out different focal lengths
Not every shoe fits the same foot. My suggestion is to experiment with different focal lengths and to find a focal length that suits your eye. For some people that is a 28mm, other a 35mm, others a 50mm, and others even a 200mm lens.
Find out what works for you, and once you have discovered your ideal focal length, try to stick with it for a long time to continue to sharpen your vision and voice.
Lesson #79: Disregard fame
I’ve never been overwhelmed with a desire to become famous. It’s not that I didn’t want to have my work appreciated, but for some reason — maybe it’s because my father disapproved of almost everything I did — in some secret place in my being was a desire to avoid success.” – Saul Leiter
Being famous in photography or life is overrated. Fame can often add unnecessary pressure, anxiety, and stress.
Saul Leiter is one of the best examples of a great photographer who lived a happy, peaceful, and fulfilled life. Instead of trying to network all the time and try to get his photos seen in prestigious galleries, he preferred to simply sit and enjoy a nice cup of coffee:
“My friend Henry [Wolf] once said that I had a talent for being indifferent to opportunities. He felt that I could have built more of a career, but instead I went home and drank coffee and looked out the window.” – Saul Leiter
Also know that whether you become famous or not is out of your control. There are many famous artists in history who died penniless and without any fame, and were discovered after they died. Saul Leiter explains:
“The cream does not always rise to the surface. The history of art is a history of great things neglected and ignored and bad and mediocre things being admired. As someone once said “life is unfair.” In the 19th Century someone was very lucky. He or she acquired a Vermeer for $ 12. There are always changes and revisions of the appreciation of art, artists, and photography and writers and on and on. The late art of Picasso is no good but then a revision takes place and then it becomes very good as the art records indicate. Things come and go.”
With social media and today’s modern society, we crave attention. But there is often a great advantage of being ignored, that you can live more peacefully and live life according to your own principles:
“I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way. Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learnt to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently. I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything.” – Saul Leiter
Even if you become the world’s most famous photographer, there will still be people who don’t know or appreciate your work. Just focus on creating work for yourself, without the added pressure to please others:
“I have a deep-seated distrust and even contempt for people who are driven by ambition to conquer the world … those who cannot control themselves and produce vast amounts of crap that no one cares about. I find it unattractive. I like the Zen artists: they’d do some work, and then they’d stop for a while.” – Saul Leiter
Saul Leiter expands on not taking yourself or life too seriously:
“In order to build a career and to be successful, one has to be determined. One has to be ambitious. I much prefer to drink coffee, listen to music and to paint when I feel like it… Maybe I was irresponsible. But part of the pleasure of being alive is that I didn’t take everything as seriously as one should.”
Assignment: Create a secret social media profile
For this assignment, create a social media account and intentionally make it hidden. Don’t try to get any followers, and only upload images to it that you like. Consider it a private diary and scrapbook. This will help you avoid the need for “likes” “followers” and other meaningless demarcations of fame or popularity. This will bring you more “zen” and peace to your photography and life.
Lesson #80: Think long-term
“I very much like to work on long-term projects. There is time for the photographer and the people in front of the camera to understand each other. There is time to go to a place and understand what is happening there. When you spend more time on a project, you learn to understand your subjects. There comes a time when it is not you who is taking the pictures. Something special happens between the photographer and the people he is photographing. He realizes that they are giving the pictures to him.” – Sebastiao Salgado
Everything great takes a long time. You can’t expect to become a master photographer overnight. A redwood tree needs decades, centuries, and sometimes even thousands of years to achieve their grandeur.
Similarly, don’t feel so rushed in your photography to create great work overnight. Some of the best photographers in history need years, sometimes even decades to make a body of work they’re proud of.
For example, Sebastiao Salgado shares the importance of spending a long time on a project, which really allows you to understand your subject matter deeper. Even though you might be tired and exhausted, you must keep peddling forward:
“When I started Genesis I was 59 and I thought I was an old man,” he says. “But now I am going to be 70 and I feel fine so I am ready to start again. Life is a bicycle: you must keep going forward and you pedal until you drop.” – Sebastiao Salgado
Zoe Strauss also worked on her “I-95” project for nearly a decade. The effort of her work really shows, the images are powerful, cohesive, and tell a narrative:
“I-95 was an epic narrative about the beauty and struggle of everyday life, comprising 231 photographs adhered to the concrete support pillars under an elevated highway that runs through South Philadelphia, Interstate 95. The installation of photos went up once a year, from 1pm to 4pm, on the first Sunday of the month. I worked on 95 for a decade, from 2000 to 2010.” – Zoe Strauss
Why a full decade? Strauss explains:
“A decade would allow me enough time to make a strong body of work. I needed to learn to make photographs and couldn’t gauge my capability until I actually started working. Setting a time constraint assured that the installation wouldn’t be overworked. Plus, I could go at it as hard as possible without fear of burning out.”
The more time you can work on a project, the more photos you take, the more you have to push yourself creatively to make interesting images.
Strauss also did something interesting: she set a time limit on how long she was allowed to work on her project. She figured a decade was enough time to work on her project, but didn’t dare work on it for longer than that.
Another example: Richard Avedon worked on his epic project: “In the American West” for 6 full years. During that period of time, he photographed 752 people, exposed 17,000 sheets of 8×10 film, traveled to 17 states, 189 towns, and ultimately only showed 123 photos for his exhibition.
Assignment: Think of a decade-long project
With social media we think about our photography on a day-to-day basis. But think long-term, think years, or better yet; decades.
What kind of photography project would you be passionate enough to work on for a decade? Write down some ideas, and commit to working on it for a decade. Stay consistent with one camera, one lens, film (or post processing), and aim that at the end of the decade, you will publish it into a book and as an exhibition.
I feel it is better to create one epic body of work than dozens of mediocre projects. Give this project your entire life, focus, and soul. Then after you die, people will still be able to appreciate your body of work.
Lesson #81: Create a relationship with your subjects
“If you take a picture of a human that does not make him noble, there is no reason to take this picture. That is my way of seeing things.” – Sebastião Salgado
One of the main problems in street photography is how shallow it can be. Through street photography, we are trying to build a connection with our fellow human beings. But often when we shoot candidly, we aren’t able to make that deeper connection.
In these circumstances, I feel that it is important to try to build a human connection with your subjects.
Many proponents of street photography day that street photography must be candid. It is true that sometimes the best street photos are candid. But also some of the best street photos involve the photographer getting intimate with his or her subject. By getting to know your subject, you connect with them on a deeper and emotional level, which might help you uncover some hidden truths about them, which might manifest in the photos that you take.
Sebastiao Salgado is less of a “street photographer” and more of a documentary photographer, who photographs important socioeconomic and political issues all around the world. But one thing that we can learn about him as street photographers is his deep love of humanity.
He doesn’t believe that making an image is just a one way process; rather, making a photograph is a collaboration between the subject and photographer. He explains below:
“The picture is not made by the photographer, the picture is more good or less good in function of the relationship that you have with the people you photograph.” – Sebastiao Salgado
To get your subjects to open up to you, you also need to open yourself up to your subject:
“I tell a little bit of my life to them, and they tell a little of theirs to me. The picture itself is just the tip of the iceberg.” – Sebastiao Salgado
Walker Evans also shares the importance of a photographer being able to be with other people, and to have your subjects feel comfortable:
“Incidentally, part of a photographer’s gift should be with people. You can do some wonderful work if you know how to make people understand what you’re doing and feel all right about it, and you can do terrible work if you put them on the defense, which they all are at the beginning. You’ve got to take them off their defensive attitude and make them participate.” – Walker Evans
Sometimes there will be moments where you won’t have time to make a deep connection with your subject. However one of the most important things are to create an emotional bond with your subject, by empathizing with them as Weegee shares:
“When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track. ” – Weegee
Assignment: Talk with a stranger for 10 minutes
For this assignment, you are to approach a stranger you find interesting and you need to have a conversation with them for 10 minutes. You can approach a stranger at a cafe, bar, restaurant, park, or any other public place.
Ask them where they’re from, how their day is going, and try to find some common ground for you to connect with them.
Then at the end of the 10 minutes, tell them that you really valued your conversation with them and want to make a memory for yourself by making a few portraits of them. One lesson is that people are often much more relaxed and opened to being photographed if you first treat them as a human being (not just the subject of a photograph).
Then if they say yes, make some portraits of them. If they say no, just remember that sometimes the conversation and human connection is more important than the photograph you make.
Lesson #82: Don’t bore your viewer
“Don’t take boring photos.” – Tony Ray-Jones
One of the worst things you can do as a photographer is to bore your viewer. In today’s society we have very limited attention spans and if your work doesn’t instantly invite, captivate, or interest your viewer, you will fail to ever have an audience for your work.
But how can you make your photos less boring? One piece of advice from Jason Eskenazi is to reveal something personal about yourself:
“Ultimately any photo project that you do isn’t really about the subject matter, it is about you – and revealing yourself. If you don’t reveal anything about yourself, you are boring everyone. It is a confession in some ways.” – Jason Eskenazi
So as a general rule, try not to bore your viewer. When you’re working on a photography project, share them with people who aren’t photographers and ask them which of your shots are boring, and which you should cut out.
Ultimately what you find “interesting” is subjective to how you see the world. So start off by making shots that interest you. If you’re bored with your own work, good luck trying to find anybody else who isn’t bored with your work as well.
Assignment : Shock and awe
For this assignment try to create an image that will shock, provoke, and interest your viewer.
In street photography, you can do this by shooting your subject really closely, using a flash, by photographing an interesting subject, or by intentionally cutting off limbs in a photograph.
To see whether you have succeeded shocking your viewer, create a collection of 10 images and prepare them as prints or put them on a tablet or your smartphone. Put your “shocking” image somewhere in the middle. And once you land on that shocking image, judge the reaction of your viewer; whether their eyes popped up, if they leaned closer to the image to inspect it, or if they pause on the image and ask you about it.
Don’t be boring.
Lesson #83: Embrace your day job
I know a lot of photographers who wish their full time profession was being a photographer. Or if they were rich, and didn’t have to work, and could simply travel the world and photograph all the time.
However the reality is that sometimes having too much free time can be bad for your creativity. There is a benefit on having a “day job” as a photographer. Having a steady income allows you to buy photography books, film, attend workshops, travel, and not have to stress to make a living from your photograph.
In fact, I know a lot of professional photographers who are so burnt out from commercial and wedding photography that they barely have energy or passion left to shoot what they really love, which is street photography.
Some of the most famous street photographers in history have had normal “day jobs”, like Vivian Maier who worked as a nanny. The benefit of being a nanny was whenever she took her kids to the city, she brought her camera along and made photos. Not only that, but when she was off work, she could fully devote her time to making images, without having to worry about selling her photos or anything to survive.
Walker Evans also had a job that gave him during the day, which didn’t pay much, but paid for his freedom:
“I had a night job on Wall Street in order to be free in the daytime. It paid for room and food. You didn’t have to sleep or eat much. In those days I was rather ascetic.”
Even Albert Einstein worked as a clerk at the Swiss patent office, doing menial labor while he came up with the theory of relativity. So why can you create a great body of work in photography, even with a normal job?
Assignment : Write down the benefits of having a day job
If you have a day job, count yourself blessed. Rather than bitching and moaning about how your day job holds back your creativity as a photographer, think about the benefits of having a day job as a photographer. Then write down all the benefits on a piece of paper and tape it to your cubicle wall.
Another idea: try to find where you can make free time around your day job to do more shooting. Perhaps you can shoot for 30 minutes before work on the train, subway, or in your neighborhood before you go to work. If you drive, perhaps you can shoot photos while stuck in traffic (do this with caution).
If you have a lunch break, devote that time to shoot your office neighborhood. If you don’t have people in your office area walking around, shoot urban landscapes, or just portraits of your Co workers.
Don’t stay late after work sending more emails or sucking up to your boss, get out immediately at 6pm and go shooting where you want to go.
Maximize your weekends for shooting. Devote holidays to shoot. Ask your boss if you can work part time to allow yourself more time to shoot.
Find the little holes of time in your schedule and maximize it. There are no excuses, only photos to be made.
Lesson #84: Don’t become married to your beliefs
“A year ago I would have said that color is vulgar and should never be tried under any circumstances. It’s a paradox that I’m now associated with it and in fact I intend to come out with it seriously.” – Walker Evans
In today’s society it is frowned upon to be a “flip-flopper” and to go back on previously stated beliefs you might have had. Not only that, but it is true that it is hard for old dogs to learn new tricks. Once we have a certain belief or way of thinking established in our minds, we don’t like to change our beliefs.
But the secret of continuing to grow, evolve, and learn as a photographer is to not get married to your beliefs. It is important to stay open-minded to new ideas, approaches, and ways of working.
For example, Walker Evans worked most of his career in black and white. He looked at color photography with disgust, horror, and suspicion. He went on the public record by calling color photography “vulgar.”
Ironically enough, he started to be more interested in color when he started to shoot with an instant Polaroid camera. He then started to have fun and understand the benefits of shooting color. What I admire about Evans that he was able to admit that he was wrong, and changed his beliefs. Not many photographers or human beings can do that.
Assignment: Find a counter-example to your beliefs
Similarly, what are some other beliefs are you married to in photography, and can you find any counter arguments which contradict your belief?
For example, there were many ideas I was married to in street photography. I used to believe that street photography had to be candid. What I discovered over time was that street photography often was great when you asked for permission. I used to think that a photographer should never crop his or her photos (the Henri Cartier-Bresson school of thinking). I soon learned that many master street photographers actually did crop their photos a lot? While I do believe in the philosophy of “one camera and one lens” in street photography, there are many other great photographers who have been able to make great images using lots of different cameras in their lifetime, Araki being a notable one.
So write down some of what you believe to be “truths” in photography on a piece of paper, and try to find a counter example to any point you might believe in. You can start by going to Google and searching the opposite of what you believe in.
This will help you open your mind to new possibilities and to know that there isn’t just one “right” way of doing anything. There are different approaches. Everyone has a different way of working. It is just a matter of finding out what works well for you.
Lesson #85: You’re only as good as your last photo
“Keep your eyes open. If you see anything, take it. Remember – you’re as good as your last picture. One day you’re hero, the next day you’re a bum.” – Weegee
There’s a saying also for film directors that you’re only as good as your last movie. Once you reach a certain quality or bar in your photography, you don’t want to make future work which is worse than your old work. You want to continue to improve, and be judged based on your past work.
Have a strong work ethic in your photography. Don’t be easily satisfied, try to make the best possible photos you can, judging yourself to your past work.
The secret isn’t to judge yourself and your work compared to other photography. Rather, only judge yourself to the last photo you took. If you have a certain shot that you’re really proud of, make that photograph your new standard. Aim to make photos as good as that shot, if not better. This will help you continue to pave new ground in your photography, and take your work to the next level.
Assignment : Only show your best 5 photos
The common mistake that I see photographers make is that they don’t show their best work. They show too many of their so-so images.
I believe if every photographer showed only their best 5 photos, they would look like amazing photographers.
Imagine if you were to die, and you were only allowed to leave behind 5 photos to be remembered by. Which would those 5 photos be?
Choose those 5 images, and make those your golden standard. Now try to build upon those 5 images with another 5 great images. Don’t stop until you die.
Lesson #86: Shift the thinking of your viewer
“In terms of art, there is a possibility to provide someone with an image that will cause them to have a shift in their thinking, not necessarily to change their thinking but the possibility to think about things in a slightly different way. I don’t think that is realistic all the time, but that’s what I work toward. It’s not always successful, but it’s what I am plugging away at.” – Zoe Strauss
One of your jobs as a photographer and artist is to shift the thinking of your viewer. What you don’t want is for your images to be forgettable and make no impact on the viewer.
What you want your photos to do is to emotionally impact your viewer and subtly shift how they see the world and reality.
Think about what kind of meaning your photos have, and what you want your photos to say. Also think to yourself what you want your viewers to take away from your images. Do you want them to see and appreciate more or the beauty of everyday life? Or is there a certain social issue you want to expose them to through a photo series you make? Or do you want your subject to become more empathetic to the suffering of others?
Assignment : do a documentary project
For this assignment, think of a concept of an important social issue to you. Choose a project that will be easy for you to access, and also preferably close to where you live.
Your assignment is to do a documentary project of this place. If you have no experience in documentary photography, don’t worry. Just go to that place every weekend for a month, and get to know that place very well. Make friends with the people who live or work in that area and ask if it is okay that you make photos of them. Then keep going back and making images.
At the end of the month, edit it down to 10 images, and try to make a story of that place you documented. Try to evoke some sort of emotion through the shots, that will teach your viewer about the soul of the place you documented. Expose them to new ideas, a new place, or a new way of living.
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