How to Be a Zen Photographer

Dec 6, 2016

Eric Kim

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How to Be a Zen Photographer

Dec 6, 2016

Eric Kim

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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I’m a big fan of Zen/Taoist, Eastern philosophy.

Even though I am very pro-American at heart (in terms of our love for risk-taking, for individuality, and for freedom), I see a lot of negatives of the American/Western line of thinking. There is too much focus on “profit”, “success”, and externalizing your self-worth in terms of material markers (having a lot of money, a big house, a nice car, etc).

I discovered “Zen”/Taoism by chance. I was mostly stressed out, fed up with the bullshit of life, and wanted more peace, tranquility, and happiness in my life.

Zen/Taoism was the solution for me. It helped me loosen up, walk slower, worry less, and mellow out.

Why do I use Zen/Taoism interchangeably? To me, there are far more similar than dissimilar. Honestly, I am not the expert in Zen/Taoism (I only know it from a pop-culture perspective), but my practical learnings is that they preach the same philosophy.

To move on, the more practical question — how can we learn how to be more “zen” in our street photography and life? Here are some ideas:

1. Street photography is “walking meditation”


I used to think that street photography was all about getting that one good shot, and getting a lot of “likes” on social media.


Street photography is about cleansing and easing your mind. Street photography is about enjoying your walks (slowly) with your camera in your hand. Street photography is all about finding the beauty in the natural world. Street photography is about the common, plain, and rugged.

I used to think of street photography like “hunting” (such an American/Western way of thinking). Now I see street photography as “walking meditation” — an opportunity for me to walk slowly, ease my mind, and empty my thoughts. I take each step with consideration, with calm, peace, and quiet.

I focus on my breathing, I enjoy the sights around me. I look up, down, left, and right. I smile at the people I walk by, wave hello to kids, and take photos whenever my gut tells me it is right.

2. There are no “good” or “bad” photos


I also don’t judge my photos as “good” or “bad” — I just see them for what they are; images of what I’ve seen and experienced.

In Zen/Taoism — they talk a lot of not classifying things as “good” or “bad” — they are just what they are. Would you call a spider “bad” or “evil” for catching a fly? Would you call a human being “bad” or “evil” for picking a fruit off a tree, and doing it to feed their family?

Whenever we judge a photo as “good” or “bad”, we are using our pre-conceived notions, and our experiences to color our perception.

Ultimately there are no “good” or “bad” photos. But there are photos which are more personal to us, and certain photos which are less personal to us.

So don’t outsource your own self-esteem to your photos, and how many “likes” you get on social media. Rather, make photos that bring you personal satisfaction and happiness, and rest assured that you’re truly shooting for yourself.

3. Find beauty in everything

Kyoto, 2016

Another point I want to bring to you is to find beauty in everything — whether it be a dilapidated building, the wrinkles in someone’s face, or the smile of a child.

Street photography is all about appreciating the beauty in the mundane. Not to look for the fantastical, crazy, or insane. But to find unadorned beauty in the world — and using your camera to identify, document, and share it.

I know that street photography has helped me be more appreciative of my surroundings, and my child-like sense of curiosity and awe.

Now whenever I walk the streets, and wander aimlessly, I love pointing at stuff and thinking to myself, “Wow…” (just like a child).

4. Embrace “child’s mind” or “beginner’s mind”

Kyoto, 2016

Another thing which has stuck with me regarding Zen philosophy is this concept of “child’s mind” or “beginner’s mind.”

The idea is that children are the wisest out of all. They are curious, playful, and don’t have any restrictions on their creativity. They experiment, tinker, and try out new things. They aren’t like “experts” who become fossilized in thinking a certain way. They just have fun.

I feel we can apply the same to our street photography. Don’t worry about composition, rules, or theories when you’re shooting on the streets. Just have fun. Be like a kid; play on the streets. Photograph anything that interests you — and don’t worry what others might think.

5. Unlearn

Not only that, but one of the things I learned from Zen/Taoism is to empty your mind. To “unlearn” rather than to “learn” in photography.

My personal problem is that in studying so many masters of street photography, I’ve accumulated too much information, knowledge, and “wisdom” from these master photographers. Now when I shoot, I become blocked. I over-think shooting, and end up shooting nothing.

Now I’m trying to unlearn everything I’ve learned— and to re-embrace my “beginner’s mind”. When I was a beginner, everything was possible. When I became an expert, everything was off-limits.

What are some myths that you’ve learned in photography, and wish to unlearn? Rather than learning one new thing a day, seek to unlearn one thing a day.


Kyoto, 2016
Kyoto, 2016

Why do we take life (and ourselves) so seriously? Let’s embrace our inner-child and learn to have fun again in the streets.

Street photography is about playing on the streets. To reduce stress and anxiety. Street photography is walking meditation, self-therapy, and a way for us to find more ease, calm, and peace in life.

If street photography is adding stress, anxiety, or fear to your life — you’re doing something wrong.

Enjoy the simplicity of street photography and life. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and never stop exploring on the streets.


Eric Kim is a street photographer and photography teacher currently based in Hanoi, Vietnam.  His life’s mission is to produce as much “Open Source Photography” to make photography education accessible to all.  You can see more of his work on his website, and find him on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube. This article was also published here and shared with permission

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3 responses to “How to Be a Zen Photographer”

  1. JC Avatar

    To make the claim that there are no “good” or “bad” photographs is reckless. Of course there are good and bad photos as much as there is good and bad art. To eliminate accountability and measurablitlity of the artist is irresponsible and feeds into the 20th century Modern Art ideology that everything and anything can be art. Also, to assume that a successful work of art can’t be measured and that there is no difference between a poorly executed photograph and a masterpiece is to believe in the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy. It’s absolute nonsense.

  2. AB Watson Avatar
    AB Watson

    I totally agree with Eric’s point about beginners mind. A few years back I was only concerned with what my clients wanted or at least what I thought my clients wanted my work to be. I used to shoot fashion with large amounts of studio lighting. After some self-reflection, I chose to adopt the Zen philosophy of beginners mind. I went back to just my roots, using one camera and capturing what came naturally to me. This was black and white land and seascapes, something I would never dream of doing. But thanks to Zen philosophy I can now call myself a Zen photographer. – A.B Watson