Veteran Street Photographer Offers Some No-BS Advice on How to Get Better

LA-based documentary and street photographer John Free has been practicing and teaching street photography for over 30 years. He’s taught workshops in LA, New York, Paris and London, and his work has appeared in Newsweek, Smithsonian, US News and World Report and more.

In other words, he has many years worth of experience to offer (which is probably why he teaches workshops), and in the short YouTube video above he makes a little bit of his knowledge available for free.

The topic at hand is street photography and getting rid of the tension you might feel when you first hit the streets with your camera. But in truth, the advice he offers is applicable to every type of photography, whether you’re inside the studio or out on the street.

Described as “part stand-up and part evangelist,” Free does a much better job of getting his points across than we could, so we’ll let you watch the video at the top rather than repeating everything here. But if we had to describe what he has to say in three words or less, we would probably pick: practice, practice and practice.


Several times throughout the video he points out that every other profession practices, so why not photographers. Don’t just go out and shoot, deliberately practice so that when the “decisive moment” comes along, you’re not stuck trying to dial in your focus or unsure of the best angle. Practice, maintains Free, will make it so that when your brain tells you to click the shutter, you’re actually prepared.

Of course, there’s a lot more to this short 5 minute video than that — including a brilliant bit at the end where he talks about who your photography is really for (hint: it’s not for yourself) and why understanding this is crucial to creating great work — but we’ll let Mr. Free take it from here.

To see more of Free’s work, read a more comprehensive bio, sign up for a workshop or buy one of his prints, head over to the John Free Photography website here.

(via Reddit)

  • Derek

    I love this guy.

  • Daniel

    love this!

  • Zta77


  • Vlad Dusil

    Without a shadow of a doubt the best motivational tutorial on documentary / street photography out there. No bs egocentric attitudes, just a devoted piece on the craft.

    From a car seat of all places.

    I love it.

  • Renato Murakami


  • Dee

    love it

  • Paulo Acoba

    My gosh. Best advice ever honestly

  • frank mckenna

    wow, now he is an inspiration. I have always admired his work. This was the best 5 minutes watching a video I have spent in a long time.

  • Francois

    Best 5 min. spent on the web in a loooooong time!
    Thank you!

  • Mark O’Brien


  • ksmith0034

    “The picture is never about you. It’s for them. You made it… but it’s always for them.”

  • Kodachrome64

    I’d love to have coffee with this guy and just soak up the knowledge and wisdom. I think it’s photographers like him who are the last of a generation who really understood their craft. If we don’t preserve this knowledge, the future generations are going to be a bunch of bumbling idiots taking a million useless snapshots (on Instagram) and never making a single strong photograph because they never heard advice like this.

  • Joel Ruiz Cantisani

    Experience talking.

  • Bing

    Really good advices by John Free. I would love to have some coffee with him in order to soak up some of his words of experienced wisdom! But what does he have to say when when you convince yourself that you are doing fine and making historical photos for the good of mankind but there is a bunch of mob after you for taking some photos? Or some person is pissed off at you for taking their photo and no matter how brilliant your convincing towards this pissed off person and it is not working? Anyways he reminds me of a Colonel I once knew on his advice giving. Atleast he photographs in his back yard (home base) so to speak and seems to practice what he preaches. I see a lot of so called street /documentary photographers mainly shoot in 3rd world places because it is so much easier especially if you are a white and think that they are God`s gift to the photography world. You know see these real close up shots portraits of Indians, South East Asians, etc while the style of shooting down in their home town is distant photos of people using the ole symmetrical repetitive back drops as a frame filler trick because they`re afraid of what their fellow white man would say as appose to poor country people`s reactions. I think it is called the colonial mentality syndrome when they have the in your face shots in 3rd world places but are afraid to do the exact shooting style in their home country or western world. Double standards!

  • Waleed Alzuhair

    Great advise.. But again, one need to use common sense and avoid problems.

  • Don Tusk

    The only photographer on youtube that truly understand social documentary photography. Forget other young self-proclaimed, so called “street photographers” like Eric Kim.

  • Jonathan Maniago

    I love John Free’s videos: Part tutorial, part speech. Beyond techniques, he also shares the philosophy of his photography.

    It’s nice to see the sage of street photography getting a little more of the attention that he deserves.

  • Christian DeBaun

    In a nutshell (and this would make a great motivational poster):

    Remove the tension.
    Practice, practice, practice.
    The picture is never about you, it’s for them.

  • Tony L.

    love it! While watching it, I went from being defensive about my process to having a smile on my face. Beautifully said!

  • TPopoola

    He really made me want to run out RIGHT NOW in the dead of NIGHT and shoot. I so needed to hear this!! Thank you!!!

  • Chuck Reyes

    This man just gave me the best 5 minutes of wisdom in photography. Thanks Petapixel, i didn’t know who he was until today.

  • Syuaip


  • Don Tusk

    The only photographer on youtube that truly understand social
    documentary photography. Forget young clowns like Eric Kim >
    self-proclaimed “international street photographer”

  • Kodachrome64

    Have coffee and soak up the wisdom, huh? Wow, I don’t know where you stole that line from…

  • dagomatic

    this beats every other muthrfickr down…so good.