THOUGHTS & STORIES ON STREET PHOTOGRAPHY 
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It is the time of the Corona Virus. Food delivery arrived and I sterilize the containers in the hallway outside of my apartment before putting the food away. After wiping items with disinfectant, I toss them into the apartment onto a rug about six feet away. The rug is nine feet long. When I come to four avocados, I throw each one inside. I notice that three of them end up at the very edge of the far end of the rug. That surprised me. I retrieved the avocados and tossed them in again with the intent to have them stop at the extreme edge of the rug. All four fall short or too far.


If you are still reading this and wondering what this has to do with street photography, or anything for that matter, please be patient. After the avocado event (I refer to it as an “event”), a long-lost memory comes to mind. I was at Disney World with my daughter and my father. I think my daughter was about eight years old, so this was about thirty years ago. We were at Blizzard Beach Water Park where there is an attraction called Cross Country Creek. On this ride, one sits in a rubber raft which moves around Blizzard Beach for perhaps a mile. The raft passes under a series of bridges where ice cold waterfalls pour down and depending on the raft’s location under each bridge, one gets soaked or not. It is possible to navigate in an attempt to avoid getting wet. To get to the point; the first two rides around, I tried as hard as I could to navigate the raft to miss getting wet. It was a failure under almost every bridge. On the third trip, I let the raft go where it may with no effort to avoid the downpour. We didn’t get wet at all.


If you are staying with me and still reading, perhaps you see what I am getting at. It is as follows:


For me (and maybe some of you), I rarely get a good picture if I am trying to make a good picture. If I forget about outcome and just go for the ride and enjoy the experience or seemingly mindlessly toss an avocado, good pictures may emerge.


Addendum: “Mindlessly” does not mean without mental activity or intent. In this instance it means being immersed in the process with minimum conscious effort. It has been referred to as “Flow” (A book by Csikszentmihalyi). Try to pronounce that name!



The end of the day is the best time to photograph on the street.  No, it has nothing to do with the quality of light. I find that frequently my best pictures are my last pictures. This happens too often to be a random occurrence.  I get my best pictures after I have given up for the day and I am on the way home. I am quite sure that the reason for this is that when I am finished, the quest for good pictures has ended.  Instead of trying hard to come up with something worthwhile, I stop trying and “trying” is the enemy of finding and seeing. This problem with trying cuts across all sorts of endeavors from sports to sex and everything in between. As soon as one “tries”, he or she is in the head and not fully attending to what is out there to be photographed. This phenomenon is nothing original. It has been discussed by social scientists for a long time. However, it is easily forgotten, and most people are geared to “work” at things rather than play. I use the word “play” because for me, street photography is a sport to be played and not so much a job to pressure oneself to succeed, which often involves constant “trying.”


If you take what I am saying seriously, you may try not to try. That won’t cut it. It is merely another form of trying. To stop trying involves letting go. In my opinion, it happens, or it doesn’t. I am aware that there are techniques to maximize the chances of more enhanced vision. For many people, applying approaches to mindfulness, becomes one more job to “try”. My opinion is that it may be best to simply wait for the opportunities and make the most of it. Even world class athletes rarely get “in the zone.”


Recently, I went out without a camera. I rarely do that. I saw all kinds of good “frames” (pictures), that I usually don’t see. This seems to be a bit of evidence to confirm that the quest for good photographs blocks observation and flow.


So, quit and go home. But keep your camera out.


Here are some of the photographs made after I was “finished’" for the day, and on the way to the subway or home.






In this blog I am referring primarily to street photography. Candid street photography is the style I attempt. I do not ask people to take their picture and I don’t attempt to engage people on the street. Of course, I look at them and at times I am seen and that is a type of engagement. I should say that engagement is not intentional. I try to not be seen.


In this type of street photography, there is a close resemblance to sports.  In most sports, one fails more often then, one succeeds. Baseball hitters usually do not get on base. Basketball players miss many shots, and fishermen may leave empty handed. If one engages in a sport, uncontrollable external factors are always at play. Most athletes go through periods of mediocre performance. It may last a day, a week, a month, and sometimes over a year. This is true for the very best at their sport. When “on” the athlete may even be in the zone where performance flows effortlessly. When “off”, nothing goes right. Typical performance lies between these two extremes.



With street photography, factors such as weather conditions, the nature of light, and particularly the presence of good subject matter, cannot be fully controlled. Successful shots are largely given to us and not primarily made by us. Yes, experience, intuitive composition, and visual alertness count. I don't mean to imply that street photography is a passive experience where the photographer waits for luck to break through.  There are strong elements of luck or chance or favorable and unfavorable conditions and subjects. However, it is up to the photographer to make the picture when something or someone turns up and is seen.  This involves choosing what is seen, vantage point, understanding and use of light, arranging for background, and putting one's individual stamp on the image.  Moreover, some photographers have an ability to make something of practically nothing (I don't). Some days it happens and other days it doesn't happen.  Good pictures can't be forced. Passive waiting and watching and active making are both involved. 


Get one very successful picture a day, you are doing great. A few hundred in a lifetime and you may be mentioned in the history of photography. I don’t mean okay pictures. Those are easy. I mean exceptional pictures. I wonder how many Cartier-Bresson achieved? However many it was, it took years.


Like hitting a home run or bringing in a great white marlin (if that is your thing), it rarely happens and less than in other types of photography, you can't make it happen. As in sports, the more you try to make it happen, the worse the results. “Trying” is a major cause of slumps. Letting go and waiting for flow is hard.


I dabbled in fishing as a child. I played high school baseball, too, but my main sport was golf. I played competitive amateur golf for over fifty years.  I played at a relatively high level (much higher than my photography) and that is where I experienced horrible slumps and learned something about them.


Slumps are an interaction of psychological and physical. These two components can interact and cause a downward spiral of performance where one feels unable to get out of it. The harder you try, the worse it gets.


But enough abstract verbiage.  Here are the important points:


  1. Most slumps are not slumps at all. The nature of candid street photography itself results in very few outstanding pictures.  A really good picture is a rare occurrence during any day of shooting. Coming up empty handed on any given day is part of the game.

  2. If one feels stale and non-productive, a new venue, a different camera, or a different lens can all help. Trying any one of the three will invariably result in better pictures. That is because our interest is perked up and in addition, the reminders of “bad” results are not present.

  3. If these changes don’t seem to break the so-called slump; there are three other things that will do it. One can stop shooting for a while until desire wells up or better still, just shoot away without care until the pictures emerge. Finally, taking pictures of only a narrowly defined subject matter usually results in seeing other subjects that you are not trying to find.


The slump-breaking approaches above usually work. However, recognizing that it is hard to get a good picture and knowing that the nature of street photography is the issue, and not so much your own failure, helps most of all. Photo of me was taken by Clay Benskin.

All photographs copyright  © 2020 Paul Kessel.  All rights reserved.