How to Master Street Photography

Tokyo, 2011

I am not a master in street photography; yet I am striving to (one day) master my street photography.

1. Self-mastery in street photography

Tokyo, 2016

First of all, self-mastery is the ultimate mastery. To want to be a ‘master’ of photography is a bit pretentious. I think the goal is for us to become the best photographer we possibly can.

I know for me, self-mastery in street photography means this:

Never hesitate before taking a street photo.

It also means for me to have the discipline to emotionally disconnect myself from my own photos, and to be more self-critical about my images.

Also self-mastery in street photography means this:

Never miss a good street photography opportunity.

That means always being ready, camera-in-hand, and to have the courage and perseverance to shoot street photography.

2. Learning from the masters of street photography

Downtown LA, 2015

If we want to master street photography for ourselves, the first step is to learn from the ‘real’ masters of street photography. The photographers who came before us, and who paved the path for us.

Of course, we shouldn’t bow down to the masters of photography like they are demigods. Rather, we should respect them, revere them — and see them as guides.

But still, history is a good guide.

He with no past, has no future.

Therefore, let us start off by studying the masters of photography. I recommend this ‘Beginner’s guide to the masters of street photography’ as a starting point.

My practical suggestion is this: when you’re studying the masters of photography, find 3 photographers who you are really inspired by, and get to know their work very well.

For me, the biggest inspirations in my photography include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, and Richard Avedon.

From Henri Cartier-Bresson, I learned zen minimalism, composition, and timeless concepts (like not cropping, capturing ‘the decisive moment’, and always thinking about geometry).

From Josef Koudelka I learned the importance of getting emotionally close to your subjects (he lived with the Roma people when he shot his ‘Gypsies’ project). Not only that, but he is a photographer who has lived his entire life based on his own preferences. He never took up a commercial job, because he didn’t believe in it. He essentially took a life-long vow of poverty, in order to shoot, only according to his own views. He has never compromised in his photography.

From Richard Avedon, I learned the essence of capturing the soul of a person through a portrait. I love his minimalism — his use of spare, white backgrounds. Much of my street portraits are directly inspired from him.

I’ve found it more profitable to constantly look through the work, interviews, and quotes from these 3 photographers (rather than look at a lot of random photographers all the time).

3. Share your insights about street photography

Hanoi, 2017
Hanoi, 2017

Qui scribit, bis legit / He who writes writes, reads twice

Also for me, I have found the greatest insights about street photography by writing about what I learned.

I encourage you to do the same.

If you read a quote from the masters of street photography that resonates with you — write it on your social media account, or share it on your blog.

Also when you learn any personal insights about street photography, share your tips, techniques, and stories with others. When you share your knowledge about street photography, you will better internalize these techniques for yourself.

4. Seek negative feedback

I have a problem that I often get over-attached to my street photos (especially my bad photos).

I have a new trick. If I really want to master my own street photography, I only solicit negative feedback.

I will share my photos with others, and ask them:

What would you do differently in this photo, or what doesn’t work in this photo?

I will also tell my friends:

Please, help me kill my babies.

The reason why seeking negative feedback is good is this: We all know what we like in our photos. But we are blind to what isn’t good in our photos.

5. Disconnect your ego from your street photos

Disconnect your ego from your photos. After you’ve shot a street photo, the image doesn’t belong to you anymore. Almost imagine like someone else shot the street photo. If that was the case, how would you judge your own photo?

Another good tip for self-criticism: imagine if you saw your own street photo in the feed of someone else on social media. Would you ‘like’ the photo, or share it with your friends?

6. Let it marinate

Lansing, 2013

Another tip in your street photography — let time be your ultimate counselor.

The longer you let your photos ‘sit’ and ‘marinate’ — the better judge you will be of your own photos.

For example, I only have about 5-10 street photos that have survived the last 10 years I have been shooting street photography.

As a rule, time devours everything. Only the strong will survive.

I make it a practice to regularly go back to my archives of what I thought were my ‘best’ photos from the past. 99.9% of them have perished over time. I only have about 1 photo a year that survives, according to my own standards.

There are some of my street photos which I like more as time goes on. There are other photos which I end up hating as time goes on.

7. Street photography is a marathon

Street photography is a marathon. If you want to master your street photography, you need to think long-term. Think decades, not days, weeks, or months, or years.

Think about it this way — if you shot street photography for at least 10 years, with diligence, and with self-study and introspection — how can you not master your street photography for yourself?

A decade is more than enough time for you to master the fundamentals of street photography. This should allow you to master your own camera, master your technical settings, and your own style and insight.

Once you’ve put in at least 10 years, then every decade, you will further distill and improve your photography.

I know for myself, I’ve been shooting street photography since I was 18, until I was 28. It wasn’t until I turned 28 that I finally felt secure in my street photography. And at this point, I’m working hard to take my street photography to the next level— by focusing on a single aesthetic (black and white for now), a single camera and lens (Ricoh GR II with the 28mm), and shooting mostly flash. I am also trying to simplify my street photography — trying to become the ultimate minimalist.

8. Study yourself

eric kim street photography - tokyo-0000358
Tokyo, 2016

I’ve studied a lot of other street photographers, yet I haven’t spent enough time studying my own photography, and my own sensibilities and style.

Studying myself as a street photographer, this is what I discovered about myself:

a. I prefer capturing emotions:

For me, my favorite street photos are the ones that evoke a mood or emotion.

b. I prefer getting close:

For me, far photos aren’t emotional enough. I prefer to get physically close to my subjects, which allows me to get emotionally close to them.

c. I prefer simple photos:

I love the multi-layered and complex photos of Alex Webb, Constantine Manos, and other contemporary photographers. But it isn’t for me. I prefer compositionally simple photos; but emotionally complex.

d. I prefer monochrome:

I love color photography. I’ve experimented with color for my street photography for a while, and I enjoyed it very much. But at the moment, I prefer monochrome — for the simplicity, minimalism, and the timelessness.

I’ve found the problem with color street photography is this: I can’t have a consistent ‘look’ in my color street photos over time. I experiment too much with different formats (digital color and color 35mm film), and none of my color photos have continuity or consistency.

Therefore, I prefer monochrome — I know that my black and white photos shot today will look quite similar to my photos 10 years from now.

e. I prefer personal photos:

I don’t consider myself only a street photographer anymore. I just want to be seen as a personal photographer— someone who photographs anybody with love. I want to photograph my loved ones (Cindy, family members, friends), I want to photograph landscapes that stir me, and I want to photograph my daily routine.

I don’t want to be pigeon-holed in just street photography. I’ve actually been more inspired to shoot street photography by not self-identifying as a ‘street photographer.’

9. Follow your own style in street photography

Hanoi, 2016

Not every shoe fits every single foot.

Once you discover your own style in street photography, then you can work towards self-mastery.

For example, some of us in street photography prefer to go on a ‘hunt.’ Some of us prefer to find a good background or a scene, and wait for the subjects to come to us. Some of us prefer to shoot faces, some of us prefer to photograph moments, some of us prefer black and white, others color.

Some of us like 50mm, some like 28mm. Whatever your tool, equipment, or style, you just want to find what fits you the best.

10. Consistency and variety in street photography

eric kim street photography tokyo-0000545
Tokyo, 2016

When you find what works for you, my suggestion is this: stick with it.

If you were in a play, and assigned a certain role — the right thing to do is play the same character until the end of the play.

To stay consistent in your street photography, stick with the same gear, the same focal length, and the same post-processing technique. I recommend staying consistent either within a certain street photography project, or staying consistent throughout your whole body of work.

But at the same time, you don’t want to bore yourself in street photography. You also want variety — you can create more variety by shooting in different places, by pursuing new street photography projects, or by trying out a new style.

My suggestion is this: balance your consistency and variety in your street photography, whatever that means to you.

11. Never be satisfied

dark-skies-over-tokyo-dodge-leica-m9-2012eric kim street photograpy - black and white - Monochrome-5
Tokyo, 2012

“I’m never satisfied, can’t knock my hustle.” – Jay-Z

I believe in Zen concepts of contentment. But honestly, if we are seeking self-mastery in our street photography, we cannot rest satisfied.

If we are too content with our street photography, we will never push ourselves, or innovate.

For example, would you want to live the rest of your life, only being able to lift the same weight in the gym? No, you would get bored. You would want to push your limits, you would want to increase the weight, increase the intensity, the duration, or the reps you put in.

The same is in street photography — think of how you can never stop innovating in your street photography.

For me, after shooting with a 35mm lens in street photography for about 10 years, I wanted a greater challenge. Personally, I found using a 28mm lens more challenging than a 35mm lens. Why? Because you get more clutter in the edges of your frame, and you have to get closer to your subjects. But the biggest benefit is this: I prefer the dynamic and edgy look of 28mm photos. Also in the future, if I want to create more complex street photos, I can create more layers with a 28mm lens.

12. Seek steady improvement

1 eric kim street photography tokyo-0000511
Tokyo, 2016

However in your quest of self-mastery in street photography, I recommend you to not force yourself. Meaning, don’t turn your street photography into a job, or a chore, that you end up despising.

I think you can work hard at something without forcing yourself.

For example, when I go to the gym, I always try to increase my 1-repetition maximum for the deadlift. Each week I try to increase the weight by 2.5 pounds. And week over week, these gains have become phenomenal over the long-term. I started off deadlifting at 135 pounds when I was 19 years old, and I hit a 430 deadlift at age 27.

For street photography, we make steady and gradual progress. But the quest of perfection is forever. I am like Jiro from ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ — he is dedicating his entire life to trying to master his art of Sushi.

I am also greatly inspired by Steve Jobs, who was also inspired by Zen Buddhism. He was inspired to try to make the perfect device. Each innovation was a step closer to perfection. But even he knew that there was no ‘perfection’ — but that didn’t discourage him from trying to seek it.

I think a good principle is the 1% principle — try to improve your street photography by 1% each day. That means try to shoot 1% more street photos today, have 1% less regrets in your street photography today, improve your knowledge about street photography 1% each day, or to improve your composition by 1% each day.

1% daily improvement sounds reasonable. 1% daily improvement will compound massively over a year. Keep that in mind.

If you think about a great redwood tree— it started from a tiny sprout. But year over year, it steadily grew. And over a thousand years, it was close enough to growing to the tallest possible height, blocking out the sun.

We of course won’t live to be 1,000. We don’t even know if we will live to be 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, or 100. We don’t know if we will be alive tomorrow.

But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aim to make steady, long-term growth. We should seek mastery in our street photography, just like the great redwood trees, who gain steady nourishment from the earth. Except, we gain nourishment as street photographers by walking the streets as often as we can, always having camera-in-hand, studying the masters and ourselves, and by constantly building our courage in street photography.

13. Eliminate your fears in street photography

Tokyo, 2016

Above all, to master street photography, you need to eliminate fear. All fear.

I am still a slave to fear in street photography. Even though I’m more confident in my street photography today than I was several years ago, I still don’t have supreme confidence in myself.

I know that if I had no fears in street photography, I would be able to shoot without hesitation, get closer, make better images, and better master my street photography. But in reality, I let my timidness consume me.

I however, have a few tricks up my sleeve to help me become more confident in street photography. These are some of the things that I have been working on, which have helped:

a. Listening to empowering music: I listen to a lot of empowering hip-hop music, to help me build my self-confidence. I personally love Kanye West, Dr. Dre, and Kendrick Lamar. Keeping their songs on replay on my head (even when I’m not listening), gives me the confidence when I’m shooting on the streets.

b. Powerlifting: Powerlifting (deadlift, squat, bench-press) has taught me to know that I have no limits. And whenever I accomplish a new “1 rep maximum” — I feel a massive rush of hormones, which gives me confidence in myself. I know that I have no limits. I also do believe with physical confidence comes mental confidence.

c. Immunizing myself to rejection: I know for myself, I often fear the rejection more than the rejection itself. Meaning, I don’t approach strangers I want to photograph and ask for permission to photograph them — because I am afraid of getting rejected. But this is silly. The worst that will happen is that they will say “no.” Therefore, I am building my immunity against rejection, by actually trying to get rejected. Whenever I see a scary person I want to photograph, I approach them, expecting to get rejected. And if they reject me, I don’t get offended (because I expected it). If they say ‘yes’ — I am overjoyed.

d. Don’t think: Whenever I over-think a street photography situation, I don’t shoot. Therefore, I set up my camera so I don’t need to think. I setup my camera to ISO 1600, center-point autofocus, P (program) mode, and I just shoot. The fewer technical barriers I have, the less I have to think, and the more I can shoot from the gut.

e. Smile: Honestly, there is nothing better to build your confidence than smiling. When I’m shooting street photography, I permanently keep a smile on my face, and if I make eye contact with others, I give them a subtle smile. This often helps others feel less suspicious of me, especially when I’m shooting candid street photography.

14. Create your own definition of street photography

eric kim street photography tokyo-0000673
Tokyo, 2016

Honestly, one of the worst ways you can spend your time is to argue about what street photography is and what street photography isn’t.

Rather, create your own definition for street photography. Shoot street photography in a way that is suitable to your style. Shoot street photography with permission (if it suits you), or shoot candids (if it suits you). Shoot with whatever lens you want, whatever style or approach, and whatever subject matter.

You don’t even need to call it ‘street photography’ — just keep that definition to yourself.

When you no longer care about definitions, you will truly be liberated. And end up shooting more, worrying less, and making more innovative street photos.

15. Life is a work-in-progress

NYC, 2016

In your street photography and life; everything is a work-in-progress.

You won’t master your street photography over night. Maybe not even in a few years, or even a few decades.

Just think of yourself constantly in beta; constantly testing, innovating, and improving yourself. Google Maps and Gmail stayed in beta for many years, before it became ‘official.’

Treat yourself the same. Never stop tinkering, learning, and pushing your work forward. The more successful you gain in your street photography, the more criticism you will face. But don’t let those negative critics discourage you. Rather, simply ignore the barking of little puppies — you are a huge monster, and nobody can bother your inner-serenity.

16. Be the best street photographer you can today

Hanoi, 2017

Shoot street photography if today were your last. Don’t hesitate before clicking, push your compositions to the limits, and find a zen-like state of flow when you’re shooting (by eliminating distractions). Build strong legs, wear comfortable shoes, and never be satisfied with your images. Be grateful for your past work, but always push yourself to innovate.

Let’s master street photography together.


Learn more: Street Photography 101 >