Sweat. Downtown LA, 2016 Leica m8.2

Life Lessons Street Photography Has Taught Me

Dear friend,

Street photography has taught me so much about living and how to become a better person.

I wanted to use this opportunity to share some personal lessons — things which have both helped my photography, and my persona life:

1. Take more risks

Downtown LA, 2011 / Photo by Rinzi Ruiz
Downtown LA, 2011 / Photo by Rinzi Ruiz

In street photography, the bigger risks I take— the bigger the reward.

For example, whenever I see a scene or a person and I’m scared shitless, I use the opportunity to test my own courage. I have found that whenever I photograph what I am terrified of, I am more likely to make a good photograph.

eric kim street photography downtown la
Downtown LA, 2011

Honestly, I still hesitate too much with my street photography. Whenever I see a person I want to photograph, the thoughts occur to me: “What if the person gets angry at me? What if they try to attack me? What if I offend them?”

Whenever I hesitate, I fail to take a photograph.

So my new motto for myself is this:

If I see something that scares me, I must photograph it.

How I applied this to my life

Tokyo, 2012

This philosophy has also worked well in my personal life. Whenever I encounter something that scares me, I must take action and do it.

For example, when I want to embark on a business venture, and it scares me — I go forth and do it.

Whenever I meet new people at a party who I feel intimidated by — I use that opportunity to build my courage, and walk over to say hello.

Often I am afraid of saying things because I am afraid of looking weak. Now, I use those opportunities to have the courage to make myself vulnerable.

Learn to build your courage in street photography, in order for you to make better photos, but also to live more courageously — and to live a better life.

2. Push my limits by 25%

eric kim la sweat contact sheet

When it comes to street photography, I have a personal rule:

When I think I ‘got’ the photo, I need to take 25% more photos than I think I should.

This helps me push my limits, and helps me be more likely to get a good photo.

For example, when I take photos of a street scene or a person, and I pause — I force myself to shoot 25% more photos than I think I should.

Many of my best photos were shot towards the end. Often times, the last photo is the best photo. If I didn’t push myself to shoot 25% more than I thought I should, I wouldn’t have made these good photos.

How I applied this to my life

Tokyo, 2016

I apply this 25% principle to pushing myself in other domains in my life.

For example, when it comes to physical exercise, I try to push my limits by 25%. For example, when I do pushups, and I get exhausted, I try to push my limits by 25% and crank out more repetitions.

When I am fasting, and I think I cannot endure hunger any longer, I try to extend my fasting by 25% longer.

When I am writing, and I think I am out of steam — I try to push myself by 25% more to write more.

When I am bored reading, I switch to another book and try to read 25% more.

And of course when in doubt, I drink 25% more espressos than I think I should.

Strength is only gained via applying stress. But at the same time, realize you need to rest and recover.

So don’t just be a work-a-holic. Perhaps rest 25% longer than you think you should.

3. Get closer

eric kim street photography tokyo-0000545
Tokyo, 2016 (Ricoh GR II + 28mm)

“If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” – Robert Papa

The problem we make in street photography is that we shoot too far away. I’ve found the closer I shoot my street photos, the better the compositions are, the more intimate the images, and the more interesting they are.

eric kim street photography tokyo eye contact sheet

So when I’m shooting street photography, I always try to get closer. I will ‘work the scene’ by taking multiple photos, and with each click of the shutter, I take a step forward.

How I applied this to my life

Walter / Hanoi, 2017

I also try to get emotionally closer to others in life.

It is easy for us to do ‘small talk’ with others (even our close and loved ones). We talk about sports, politics, economics, and other easy topics.

Rather, I try to ask deep and personal questions. I ask my friends what they feel is their purpose in life. I ask Cindy why she does what she does. I also share my personal experiences, struggles, and pains — in order to better open up myself to others.

Opening up your heart, making yourself transparent and naked is scary. It takes courage to get closer to others — especially if your heart has been hurt before. But no matter how much pain and suffering you’ve endured in the past, don’t let that deter you from opening up your heart to others. If the boxer is beaten black and blue and falls to the ground, the most noble thing he can do is rise up again.

Conclusion: Street photography taught me to appreciate the beauty of everyday life

Dalat, Vietnam 2016 / Photo by Cindy
Dalat, Vietnam 2016 / Photo by Cindy

Street photography has taught me a lot more life lessons, but the effect of this espresso is starting to wear off— so I will leave you with this final point:

Street photography has helped me appreciate the beauty of everyday life.

No matter how boring your city, there is always something interesting, valuable, and beautiful you can appreciate.

Hanoi, 2017
Hanoi, 2017

Street photography is a constant practice of gratitude. A practice of being grateful for being alive, for having eyes to see, and to be a human being (with fellow human beings to live with).

When we photograph strangers, we are really photographing ourselves. We photograph others with our own viewpoint, perspective, and hearts.

How has street photography made you a better person? Share your thoughts on social media with the hashtag #streettogs


Learn more: Street Photography 101 >