How to Get into the Zone in Street Photography

Downtown LA, 2014
Downtown LA, 2014

One of the best feelings when I’m shooting street photography is getting into the “zone” — the feeling when I am being the most creative, the most concentrated, and hours fly by.

I feel one with the camera, and I no longer think. The camera takes photos by itself.

How do we enter this mythical “zone” in street photography? How can we better harness this “flow state” in our work?

1. Kill all distractions

Downtown LA, 2013
Downtown LA, 2013

I can’t really focus on my street photography if I’m doing anything else. I can’t focus on my street photography if I’m walking with someone else, if I’m listening to music, on my phone, or trying to make videos.

The more distractions you have, the less you are able to focus.

Silence your phone, turn it into airplane mode, or just turn it off completely.

Take out your earbuds. The more you can listen to the outside, the more you can identify possible good shots.

Which brings me to the next point:

2. Shoot solo

Quoc. Provincetown, 2015
Quoc. Provincetown, 2015

The best street photography I do when I’m in the zone is when I’m alone.

Unfortunately as a social photographer, I prefer shooting with others. I still get decent photos, but the best photos I’ve shot are almost when I’m by myself.

When you are with other photographers, they are often a distraction (or pull you away from your zone).

When it comes to working out, I prefer to work out alone. When I’m working out with others, while I enjoy their company, I am more focused on conversation than actually working out.

The same thing happens with photography. If you want to make your best photos, shoot solo. If you want to have a good time, perhaps go with other photographers.

3. Take some time to warm-up

Tokyo, 2013
Tokyo, 2013

Furthermore, I’ve realized it takes me a while to “warm up” before I can get into the zone when shooting street photography.

I also find that it is hard to “warm up” in the beginning. I don’t see anything interesting, or I feel nervous or self-conscious when I’m shooting.

What we’re trying to do is get rid of our self-consciousness. We want to forget the “self.” We want to enter a state where we simply react to what is in front of our eyes, take photos without hesitation, without fear, or without concern.

4. Set your camera and forget it

Tokyo, 2011
Tokyo, 2011

I find another great way of entering the zone in street photography is to “set it and forget it” (in terms of technical settings).

For example, on my Ricoh GR II camera, when shooting, I keep the camera in P (program) mode (the camera automatically chooses the aperture and shutter speed), ISO 1600 (allows me to have a fast shutter speed), and center-point autofocus (works good enough). Once I set my settings, I can simply forget them. And when I’m shooting, I’m not worried about my settings.

Depending on what camera you use, you can use different settings. For example, when shooting with a rangefinder (let’s say a digital Leica) I would just use f/8, ISO 1600-3200 (depending on how dark it is), and pre-focus to 1.2 meters or so. And take all the photos at that distance without thinking about the camera.

What we want to do is enter a state where we no longer think about the camera. So try to use the simplest camera that you can. The benefit of a lot of micro 4/3rds cameras is that they have incredibly fast autofocus (if you tend to miss focusing a lot).

I also find that a camera that is light, portable, and compact helps us get into the “zone.” When my camera is big, heavy, and cumbersome — I’m worrying more about the weight and the strain in my shoulders (if wearing a neck strap), rather than making photos.

5. Shoot in crowded places

NYC, 2016
NYC, 2016

I also find that I’m a lot less self-conscious shooting street photography in crowded places. I simply enter the crowd, and become one of the wave of people.

When I’m shooting in quiet or deserted places, I become much more self-conscious of myself, and nervous. And I hesitate, and I am less likely to shoot without thinking.

Also one of the benefits of shooting in a crowded place (let’s say a downtown area) is that it is less intimidating for our subjects. They simply assume that we might be photographing someone else, or that we’re a stupid tourist.

6. Wear comfortable clothing

SF, 2016. Portrait by Luis Donoso
SF, 2016. Portrait by Luis Donoso

This sounds a bit simple, but wear clothes that you’re comfortable out shooting in. If you’re somewhere hot, wear breathable clothes (don’t wear jeans). Wear comfortable athletic shoes which allows you to walk for miles without hurting your feet. I think buying a good pair of shoes in street photography is better than buying an expensive camera (credit to Matt Stuart for the idea).

Also, I find that wearing all-black (along with having a black camera) is the best way to be “stealth” and blend in with the crowd. There is a reason why ninjas wear all black.

The brighter the color clothing you wear, the more attention you will draw to yourself, and the more self-conscious you will become.

7. Don’t try too hard

SF, 2016
SF, 2016

Lastly, just enjoy your walk when shooting street photography. Don’t force yourself to make good photos. Rather, simply think to yourself: “Today I will enjoy my walk, take a few photos, enjoy a cup of coffee, and if I happen to make some good shots, that is ok. If I don’t get any good shots, that is ok too.”

By putting less pressure on yourself, the better you perform. Ask any person who goes to sleep with someone else for the first time (if you try too hard you won’t perform as well).

In Taoism they this “wu-wei” (action without action) — or “unforced action.” You don’t over-analyze or over-think things when you’re out shooting. You simply see what is interesting, and click. You figure out whether you like the shot later.


Downtown LA, 2016
Downtown LA, 2016

I think street photography is self-therapy. There is nothing that gets me out of my head than to walk around, talk to strangers (or don’t), enjoy a walk, and make images. I love feeling one with the streets, and it helps me not worry about the stresses of my life.

Try your best to get into this elusive “zone.” Kill distractions, go solo, focus, yet don’t be too hard on yourself.

The more you are in the “zone”, the more creative you will be, the less stressed, and the more wonderful photos you will shoot.

Go forth,

Learn more: Street Photography 101 >