You can download this essay for free as a PDF or Microsoft .DOCX file.
I wanted to write you a personal letter on innovation. Not to say that I am the most innovative person (I’m not), but in the hope that I can hash out some of my personal thoughts on creativity, pushing boundaries, which I hope can ultimately help you too, my dear friend.
I just finished re-reading the excellent biography of Steve Jobs written by Walter Isaacson. If you can own just one book on innovation and inspiration, this is the book to get friend. So let me map out some of the lessons I’ve learned from the book, and the life and philosophies of Steve Jobs:
“You can’t control the results, only the effort.” – Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is a guy I admire very much he’s about my age, and has accomplished a lot. He’s a best selling author, practicing stoic (highly recommend his book, “The Obstacle is the Way), passionate blogger, and overall down to earth guy.
I read this quote on his Twitter a while back, and it really struck a chord with me.
In life, we are told that if we work hard, we will achieve everything we want in life.
We can control the effort we put in, but not necessarily the results.
For example in street photography. What can you control in terms of effort? You can decide to shoot everyday, to be focused (turning your phone to airplane mode when shooting), you can decide to invest in photographers books (and not gear), you can call up another photographer to do a critique session together, you can study composition and learn how to “work the scene”, and you can study the work of the masters.
But you can’t control the result.
What is the result in street photography? You ultimately can’t control whether you get a good shot or not. You can’t control the weather (although you can control when you go out and shoot), you can’t control what people look like, you can’t control what the city you shoot in looks like, and you can’t control whether all the elements of a scene will come together perfectly.
But we can control the editing process; deciding which shots to keep, and which to ditch.
So this is today’s meditation: detach yourself from the results, and enjoy the process.
I’m easily disappointed. I want every photo I take to be brilliant. But 99.9% of the time, I take shitty photos. If I get 1 shot I’m happy with every 50 rolls of film, I’m doing well.
The problem I have with shooting digital is this: it makes me focus too much on the results, not the effort.
Having an LCD screen on a camera is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that when we’re starting off as beginners, “chimping” helps us quickly learn from our mistakes. But as we get more experienced, the LCD screen is a crutch; it is more of a nicotine addiction. Checking the LCD screen is a sign of our insecurity.
Furthermore, assuming that a good street photographer only gets one good shot a month, the likelihood of one photo being half good is a extremely low probability. Checking your LCD screen every hour, or checking your photos on your computer everyday, has a very low “signal to noise” ratio. “Signal” are the good shots that we get. “Noise” is the bad photos that we take. So after 8 hours of shooting in a single day will result in a few (or no) good photos and a lot of bad photos.
Furthermore I find that the expense of shooting film is a blessing, not a curse. Why? Whenever I’m about to click the shutter, I got “skin in the game”, meaning, everytime I click the shutter it costs me something. Therefore I am very considerate before I take an image. I’m a lot more picky and selective before I shoot.
“But don’t you lose a lot of shots because you’re afraid to click the shutter?”
Not at all. What I do is this: I’m picky with the scenes I decide to shoot, but once I find an interesting scene, I’ll shoot an entire roll of film on it.
For example, I might go an entire day of not seeing anything interesting. But once I see something good, I’ll “shoot the shit out of it.” So rather than taking 1-2 photos of everything, just identify 3 good scenes a day, and try to shoot 30+ photos of each scene.
If you shoot digital, take 50, 100+ photos of the scene. For one of Alex Webb’s most famous “Barber Shop” image in istanbul, he shot 10 rolls of Kodak Kodachrome on it. Like Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “Sometimes you got to milk the cow a lot to get a little bit of cheese.”
Apparently even Josef Koudelka shoots 1,000 rolls of film a year. And his book “Exiles” which took him over 10 years contains fewer than 80 images. Less is more.
Morale of the story? Shoot a lot of photos, but be very selective which you decide to keep.
Don’t be disappointed
Ultimately you shoot street photography because you love it. You have enough stress and disappointment from your job, income, family life, etc. Why add additional stress, anxiety, and disappointment to your photography — which should be your joy and passion?
Hustle hard when you’re shooting on the streets, but fuck the results. Of course you want to get good shots, but don’t be disappointed if you don’t.
How can we be less disappointed when we’re shooting on the streets? Some ideas:
1. Don’t chimp
Turn off your LCD preview. If you can’t control yourself, tape it up with gaffers tape. Better yet, shoot film (then you truly won’t be tempted). I have no self control when it comes to chimping, so shooting film is the ultimate solution.
Also make it a point to look at your images infrequently as possible. I’d say if you shoot digital, let your photos “marinate” for at least a week before looking at them on your computer. On top of that, I’d suggest waiting at least a month before deciding to upload them. For me personally, it takes me about a year before I can fully emotionally detach myself from my images and identify whether my shots are truly good or not.
2. Enjoy the walk and a nice coffee
One piece of advice I got from my friend Jack Simon: don’t go out and shoot “street photography.” Just tell yourself: “Today I’m going to go on a nice walk, enjoy the city, have a nice chat with some strangers, and enjoy a nice coffee. And I’ll just take photos of whatever is interesting to me along the way.”
Enjoy the process. The journey is the reward.
“The good traveler is not intent on arriving.” – Laozi
3. Don’t upload your shots
I think more photographers should keep their work offline, and not publish their shots until they’re truly ready.
This is also great because it allows us to make images we’re happy with, rather than just uploading images that please others.
Whenever I upload an image to social media it is a lose/lose situation. If I get a lot of “likes” on a shot, then that becomes my new standard. And if I get any fewer “likes” than that, I get disappointed.
For example, before I deleted Instagram from my phone last week, I would get (on average) 800-1000 “likes” a shot. This made me hungry for more. But whenever I got “only” 500 likes, it would make me feel shitty. I would self doubt myself, my inner serenity would be disturbed, and I would feel like a failure.
Not uploading any new shots has been insanely refreshing. I feel more peace of mind, more happy, and less stressed.
So if you’re addicted to social media and the approval of those little virtual red hearts, try an experiment: go 30 days without using any social media. Just uninstall Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr, whatever from your phone for a month. See how you like it, you can always reinstall it after the 30 days.
Don’t worry about making good photos. First of all, just enjoy yourself. Have fun. Don’t add unnecessary pressure or stress or disappointment in life. We already deal with enough of that bullshit.
But still, hustle hard, try to push your limits in street photography (only compare yourself to yourself), and realize photography is a journey.
Godspeed my friend, you got this shit!
*On the way from Stockholm back to Berkeley! So excited to see cindy back home, and wish me a safe flight. Got 2 transfers, one in Frankfurt, another in Montreal. Gonna also try fasting from eating, apparently it helps with jetlag. We’ll see. Lots of cool new stuff I have planned for the blog, plan in printing more physical books (art books and instructional manuals), etc. So stay in the loop, and thanks always for your love generosity, and time in reading this.
I want to share you with excitement a new idea that I got, from William Eggleston. The concept is quite simple (and I know I have shared this with you in the past) but it is this: Street photography is all about capturing beauty in the mundane.
Almost a year ago, I ordered “From Black and White to Color” from Eggleston, a lovely photobook that is yellow on the outside, and fits nicely on the hand. It is a lot easier to hold and look at than Eggleston’s unweildy “Chromes” (and much cheaper), and also has a great selection of images.
The funny story is that I just got back here to Berkeley, and was cleaning up my apartment. I’m choosing a lot of “normal” books to donate to the Salvation Army, and am starting to figure out what kind of photobooks I want to give away to friends or those who might appreciate them.
Anyways, the funny thing is that I ordered this book: “From Black and White to Color” ages ago, but never opened it. So when I saw it on my shelf, I took off the plastic cling-wrap, sat down on my kitchen table, drank another espresso, and started to look at the images.
What I realized was this: his photos are of nothing– of boring life in Memphis. In the past when I first saw his images, I didn’t “get” them. All of his photos looked like bad snapshots of boring shit. Why was he so famous, well-regarded, and seen as a God of color photography?
I started to realize that his genius and contribution to the photographic world was this: he lived almost his entire life in his boring town of Memphis, and tried his best to make interesting photos of the boring material he was presented with. Although he was rich, he didn’t spend his time in foreign travels, going to Paris or all these other exotic places in the world to make interesting photos. He realized that his own backyard was ample enough, and spent his entire life (quite diligently) to make beautiful images from the banal, boring, mundane, and ordinary.
I complain a lot about the city I live in (Berkeley). I get the “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome in which I am jaded with my current surroundings. I wish I was in San Francisco, Paris, Tokyo, New York, or another exotic location– to make interesting photos.
But what Eggleston has taught me is that the entire world exists in your own backyard; and what matters in photography is how you can make something boring look interesting, rather than trying to capture something interesting in a boring way.
I watched a documentary on Eggleston, and one of his friends (a famous photographer, forget his name) was quite excited to visit Eggleston in Memphis. But once he arrived there, he was massively disappointed. Memphis was boring as shit. Yet, how did Eggleston manage to make interesting photos of where he lived?
Reading a little upon the history of Eggleston, I learned some interesting things.
First of all, he started (like many of us) inspired by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. When Eggleston was studying at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, he developed a passionate interest in photography:
“A photographer friend of mine…bought a book of MAgnum work with some Cartier-Bresson pictures that were real fucking art, period.”
Eggleston idolized Cartier-Bresson, and said:
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything more than making a perfect fake Cartier-Bresson.”
The funny thing is that Eggleston (like myself) went to Paris to try to imitate Cartier-Bresson, but once he was there, he realized that all the subject-material was already exhausted, and it was pointless for him to “reinvent the wheel.” Apparently the entire visit Eggleston was in Paris, he didn’t even take a single shot.
After Eggleston finished his studies (he didn’t get a degree), he moved to Memphis and made black and white prints in his own darkroom. When he returned to Memphis from his Paris trip, he complained to his friend and mentor Tom Young:
“I don’t particularly like what’s around me.”
However Young gave him some really great words of wisdom, by replying that this might be a reason to take pictures. Eggleston realized the genius in this idea and said: “You know, that’s not a bad idea.”
So basically Eggleston had the realization that he needed to confront his immediate surroundings and use them as a source of inspiration for his subjects and images:
“I had to face the fact that what I had to do was go out in foreign landscapes. What was new back then was shopping centers, and I took pictures of them.”
This is the challenge that I face: I hate looking at my own surroundings, as I think everything as boring, cliche, and uninteresting.
But I need to start asking myself: What is interesting or new or changing in Berkeley? Currently, there is a lot of gentrification happening in the neighborhood. A Whole Foods just entered the neighborhood (ironically next to a Dollar Tree store), hipster coffee shops galore, and that is causing rents to skyrocket. Berkeley was expensive enough, but North Berkeley/Albany (the neighborhood where I live, near the “Gilman District”) is starting to push out poorer people who can no longer afford rents.
I went to Whole Food’s the other day, and was chilling outside in front of the cafe, enjoying the nice sun and a book (reading philosophy by Epicurus) and overheard a conversation between a man and a woman. The man was sitting in a V8 Mercedes-Benz (turbo-charged), and the woman was commenting on how she loved the sound of the engine, and how she owned a similar model, but without the big engine. The guy started to grin, rev his engine, and was totally showing off his cock. The whole conversation was quite repulsive to me, and really showed the absurdity of the wealth in the area. I then also took a look at the parking lot of Whole Foods; all I saw were BMW’s, Prius’s, Mercedes-Benz’s, Maseratis (a few), and Nissan Leaf’s. Eco-chic, rich, Berkeley folks.
So perhaps I should even do a photography project on the Whole Foods here, and photograph the people in the parking lot, inside the store, and inside the cafe (they even have their own private “Allegro” high-end cafe inside, with $3.00 espressos, which actually don’t taste all that great).
But to get back to the point, I know that you might also be jaded by where you live. You might live in a suburb, you might commute stuck in traffic, you might work in an office cubicle in the middle of nowhere– perhaps some industrial park.
But what do you find interesting in your immediate surroundings? Perhaps you are surrounded by neighbors who all they do is try to “keep up with the Joneses” by buying bigger cars, bigger homes, and showing off wealth. Perhaps you can document that. Perhaps you can do a photo-series on office life (I recommend checking “Office” by Lars Tunbjork). Perhaps you can do a “personal documentary” series of your own life (photograph your family, friends, and loved ones seriously like art). I am actually doing a photo series on my life with Cindy called the “Cindy Project.” As I’m typing these words on my iPad, Cindy is eating an enchilada for lunch, checking emails on her laptop, and I have my Leica next to me– and I just snapped 3 snapshots of her.
Regardless of your external circumstances, there are always opportunities to make images. And the more boring the place you live, the better. Why? The more boring the place you live, the harder you need to work to make interesting images. And the more boring the place you live, the less likely that there are famous bodies of work done there.
I actually feel the worst for street photographers in NYC– so much great work has been done there already. They must feel a lot of pressure trying to supersede what’s been done before them.
So what kind of “foreign landscapes” can you photograph in your own city? If you were an outsider, visiting your own city like a tourist, what would you find interesting?
You never know what something looks like, unless you take a photograph
Remember friend, photography is all about risk-taking. When you click the shutter, who knows if it will end up being an interesting or boring photograph?
I think the fun and excitement of photography is that you never 100% know what the photograph is going to look like when you click the shutter. After all, the camera renders our three-dimensional reality into a two-dimensional plane.
So for example, when I take a photograph in black and white film (Tri-X pushed to 1600 with a yellow filter), I have no fucking clue what the resulting photograph is going to look like. That is the fun and excitement. This is a bit why I dislike shooting digital; you have too much control over what the final image will look like (you can always play with the RAW files).
But regardless if you shoot film or digital, the ultimate result of what the photo looks like is out of your control. Sometimes you don’t notice all the details in a photograph, like the expression of someone’s face, or if something randomly pops in the background.
I think we need to glue this saying by Garry Winogrand to the back of our cameras:
“I don’t have anything to say. I photograph to find out what something will look like when photographed.” – Garry Winogrand
Another thing I found interesting about Eggleston’s way of working is that he always tried to shoot from a different angle, a different perspective– which was out-of-the-ordinary:
“I think I had often wondered what other things see– if they saw like we see. And I’ve tried to make a lot of different photographs as if a human did not take them. Not that a machine took them, but that maybe something took them that was not merely confined to walking on the earth. And I can’t fly, but I can make experiments.”
So if a chair could take photographs, what would the perspective of the chair be? Or if an ant could take a photograph, what would the world look like from the ant’s perspective (one of my favorite Eggleston photos is of a tricycle, shot from a super-low angle, which literally does look like an ant shot it, which makes the tricycle look larger-than-life).
Don’t just shoot human beings
Friend, another lesson I learned is that in photography (don’t worry about the definition of “street photography”) you don’t always need to photograph human beings. Sometimes by photographing objects, you get a sense of human-feeling.
For example, one person once commented to William Eggleston that his photos didn’t have enough people in them. Eggleston responded by saying: “Objects in photos are naturally full of human presence.” Some of Eggleston’s most memorable photos are of boring, everyday, mundane things like home appliances, sinks, ovens, freezers, and even food– subjects that many photographers of his time totally overlooked.
So once again, I think the secret of making great photography is to truly find the beauty in the mundane– of capturing interesting photos of boring things and places.
The “democratic camera”
Another concept I learned from Eggleston was the concept of the “democratic camera”– that he wouldn’t judge things, people, or places as “good” or “bad”– but would see them on equal footing.
He didn’t discriminate scenes or subject-matter. To him, all things could be made interesting. By embracing a “democratic camera” – you aren’t being prejudiced to “boring” scenes.
The difficulty with shooting with a “democratic camera” is that you are constantly at “war with the obvious” (another term coined by Eggleston). Because how can you make what is obvious and boring look interesting?
Eggleston retorts by saying: “I’ve never felt the need to enhance the world in my pictures.”
Ultimately the thing I love most about Eggleston’s work is the beautiful colors and light in his work. If you look at his beautiful color slide film photos, you can see that his most successful shots were at sunset; when the colors started to scream with brightness and intensity.
At the end of the day, light is what photography is all about. I have often found that boring scenes can be rendered into beautiful scenes, just by capturing them in good light.
So friend, I recommend you to pick up a copy of “From Black and White to Color” by William Eggleston, which is a relatively affordable introduction to his work. I prefer it over his other book: “William Eggleston’s Guide”, as the book I recommended you has a combination of both his color and black and white work. Eggleston is famous for his color work, but it is absolutely fascinating to look into his black and white work, and see how inspired and influenced he was by Cartier-Bresson.
Another good takeaway point: Every “master” has started off by copying another “master.” So don’t feel bad, guilty, dirty, or whatever by imitating the work of another great photographer. We all need to start somewhere.
Lastly, embrace the beauty in where you live. I know it is hard my friend, but try to make beautiful photos of boring, banal, and ordinary things.
Seek the beauty in the mundane, and you will be truly set free in your photography.
Farewell, and Godspeed!
Love, hope, and encouragement from your friend,
Written from 7:30am–8:45am, at my home in Berkeley, 9/2/2015 after about 4 espressos (give me a break, I’ve been up since 3:30am, still jetlagged from Stockholm). But it is going to be a beautiful day. I have the entire day ahead of me, planning on meeting my mom and my sister hopefully for dinner, and have some plans on shooting more black and white film, and perhaps even printing them in the darkroom. Started off the day reading “Tao Te Ching” and feeling super zenned out. Life is good :)
Getting my laptop stolen recently has been the best thing that happened to me recently. Let me explain why.
Not having a laptop the last week, I’ve been making all these excuses not to blog and write. I generally prefer working with a a laptop, having a keyboard, and the flexibility of having a “real” computer.
So the last week I’ve been just dependent on my smartphone. And damn, I’m pretty impressed and realize how much I can truly do with a smartphone. I can (obviously) check my email, plan my schedule, pay bills, but even better– I can record videos, take photos, process my photos, update my blog, and even “write” (actually “text”) articles on my smartphone (like I’m doing now on my smartphone).
Funny enough, I can probably text as fast as I can type. I use android and with the “SwiftKey” keyboard, I rarely make typos. Not only that, but I can write ideas while standing (not possible on a laptop with keyboard), while waiting in line at the store, or when in a cramped airline (Ryanair).
In fact, I’m starting to really wonder nowadays with the cloud and Google services what we really need laptops for. Of course for the power user (heavy video or photo editing) or Excel gurus you’re going to need a computer. But I really feel that 99% of “normal” people no longer need a “normal” computer.
Bringing the topic back to excuses, there were a lot of articles I wanted to write but I made the excuse that because I didn’t have a laptop, I couldn’t write it. But then I really wanted to write, so I used the only tool I had: my smartphone. And I’m able to “write” on my smartphone just fine.
So perhaps moving forward, I’m going to do less “writing” on a laptop, and putting down more ideas on my smartphone using Evernote. I really have no more excuses for my tools being insufficient for writing.
I also used to make excuses that my camera wasn’t good enough for street photography because I didn’t own a Leica. Now that I own a Leica I have finally leaned (the hard way) that the camera is an excuse. Not having a good enough camera is always a bad excuse. The only limitation is your creativity, inspiration, and vision of the world.
What other excuses have I made in my life and art?
I don’t have enough money to travel to shoot interesting street photos. Solution: shoot your own city.
My camera isn’t good enough. Solution: use the camera you already use.
I don’t know any other photographers to inspire me. Solution: buy photo books and make masters of photography your personal tutors.
I don’t have enough time to shoot. Solution: try to take at least 1 photo a day during your lunch break, before work, after work, or of people you know.
I’m too old. Solution: use your age as benefit (you have great wisdom that young people don’t have, which can aid your learning process). Jack Simon didn’t pick up street photography until he was 65, and at age 70 is one of the best in the world.
I’m not talented or artistic enough. Solution: educate yourself by investing in photography education (artists are made, not born).
I’m too lazy. Solution: use your laziness to your advantage and just use a smartphone and make “boring” photos of your everyday life.
I don’t understand technology. Solution: just use a disposable film camera and get the shots printed at the nearest drugstore as 4×6 prints.
I’m afraid to take photos of strangers without permission. Solution: start off by asking permission. If scared of asking for permission start off by asking friends and family to take their photos. Worst case scenario: your mom will never say no.
I’m not inspired. Solution: shoot first, the inspiration will follow.
I am excited to announce that I just finished writing a new book titled: “How to Overcome Photographer’s Block.” If you have ever felt lack of motivation, inspiration, or direction– this is the book for you!
If you’re in a creative rut, learn how to break out of your “photographer’s block” with this comprehensive and practical manual. In this book, I share practical tips, guidance, and assignments to break out of any creative barrier you have with your photography, no matter how severe.
You will learn how to overcome perfectionism, “paralysis by analysis”, giving yourself the permission to make “imperfect photos”, learn how to integrate your life with photography, how to focus on the process (not the outcome), how to add more novelty and randomness to your life, and more.
The book is “open source,” meaning you can share it, remix it, and do anything you want with it for free. Feel free to share it with a friend, print it out, or even translate it into a different language!
You can download the book for free in these formats:
In “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron, I came across this interesting idea: that creativity is like a shark. If sharks stop swimming, even for a minute, they will sink to the bottom of the ocean and die.
A lot of things in life are about momentum– about creating positive habits, that allow us to achieve our dreams.
I am currently reading “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron— an interesting book that links creativity, spirituality, and overcoming your artistic self-censor.
I know a lot of photographers who are perfectionists or have a lot of self-doubt. This causes them to not pursue their dreams of becoming a photographer. Not becoming a full-time photographer, but to be someone who makes photography a part of his or her everyday life, soul, and existence.
My mom recently came back from an epic backpacking trip through Nepal for about 28 days. She is an incredible woman. At the age of 59, she was able to withstand the freezing cold, the difficulty of breathing in high altitude, and the challenge of keeping her motivation up for nearly a month in which she hiked 8+ hours a day.
Darren Hoyland: How [do you] keep yourself motivated whilst out on the streets when you have that deja view moment of been here done that?
Hey Darren, I face this a lot: when I’m shooting on the streets and I don’t feel motivated and I feel like I’m just repeating myself. Here are some tips I recommend in terms of staying inspired with your street photography and to stay motivated:
In “The War of Art”, the author Stephen Pressfield talks about “The Resistance” — and how it is the biggest obstacle to all of our artistic pursuits and endeavors.
We can encounter “The Resistance” in many ways in our life. We encounter it when we want to start our own business (and we have thoughts of self doubt), we encounter it when we want to start exercising more (but the resistance keeps us from leaving our house), and we encounter it when we want to go out to social functions (we are nervous of meeting new people, and would prefer to stay at home).