To me, creativity is all about cross-pollination of ideas in novel ways.
I don’t believe that there are any truly “original” ideas anymore. Rather, we take different ideas and let them have “idea sex”—which leads to a totally new idea. This idea is a hybrid between the two ideas prior.
I’ve been really into this “lean” concept that runs pervasive in technology circles here in the Bay Area. The concept goes back to the Japanese Toyota philosophy of “lean manufacturing”—where they try to reduce or subtract superfluous processes, and by subtracting the unnecessary—they add value.
The philosophy of “lean” can permeate your life in many different ways. Rather than packing 300-pounds of muscle, perhaps you can have 150 pounds of muscle, but pack more “punch” in your small frame (imagine Bruce Lee, the lean mean machine, versus a bodybuilder in a street fight).
Furthermore, as a lifestyle philosophy, it is better to have a few material things you really like (that are good quality), rather than being over-burdened with lots of junk. So perhaps buy a few “basic” staples in terms of your clothes and outfit (with decent materials that will last), instead of just buying tons of H&M that seem to fall apart after a year of wearing it.
The word “lean” means to have no superfluous fat. And as photographers, we certainly have a lot of superfluous fat.
We have superfluous fat when it comes to our equipment. We have too many cameras, too many lenses, too many accessories (filters, tripods, etc) and other distractions that weigh us down.
When it comes to our images, we have too much fat around the edges of the frame. Therefore our images are too complicated, and more distractions in the background of our images.
Lean photography principles
I propose a “lean” photography approach.
To me, it means the following:
- Don’t have any superfluous gear
- Don’t have superfluous elements in your frame
Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally guilty of these two things. For a long time, I had way too many cameras and lenses. The more gear I owned, the more ‘choice anxiety’ I would have. If I went out to shoot, I would have no idea which camera/lens which to use, which would cause me delay, frustration, and anxiety.
Now I’m just sticking to a digital Ricoh GR II camera, which is my “one camera, one lens.” Even the film Leica (intentionally) is being hidden in a cupboard, so it doesn’t distract me.
Furthermore, when it comes to my photography, I used to never think about the background in the frame of the image (as well as the edges of my frame). This caused me to have an interesting subject, but a messy background. What I try to do now is the opposite—start with a clean background/canvas—and try to insert my subject (while having clean edges in my frame).
I also think that photography is much more about subtraction than addition. Creativity loves constraints. This is why in photography we are limited to a frame. What you decide to leave out of the frame is more important than what you decide to leave in the frame.
Lean in photography (and life)
How are some other ways we can incorporate being “lean” into our photography and life?
When you travel, try to pack as light & lean as possible. Rather than deciding what to bring on a trip, decide what not to bring. Give yourself a creative constraint—just bring 1 camera, 1 lens, and perhaps only shoot black-and-white or only color the entire trip.
If you shoot film, perhaps you can bring only 10 rolls of film for a trip. This means you’re only allowed to shoot 10 rolls — which will mean that every shot you take will really count.
Don’t bring superfluous clothes on your trip. Bring 2 pairs of everything (don’t pack anything cotton; make sure it is quick-dry). Don’t bring superfluous books, gadgets, or accessories that will only weigh you down.
With diet & exercise—decide what unhealthy foods you can subtract from your lifestyle. Don’t waste too much time in the gym either—stick to a few “compound” movements (squats, bench, deadlift, chin-up) and save your time.
Many of us live very ‘busy’ lives, and we want more time to shoot, spend time with our loved ones, and pursue our creative endeavors.
I’ve found the only way to “add” time to my schedule to do what I want is to subtract superfluous distractions, commitments, and actions. This means checking your email less, spending less time on your phone, uninstalling distracting social-media apps, and not staying in the office later than necessary.
In Taoist/Zen philosophy, having empty space is far more valuable than having everything jam-packed and ‘optimized.’ For example, a room is only as valuable as how much emptiness it has inside. Furthermore, the value of a cup isn’t how big it is, but how much emptiness it has on the inside.
Less is more
Also as a lifestyle thing, perhaps rather than buying that huge SUV; opt for a Mini or some ‘subcompact’ hatchback—that is lean in size, but spacious on the inside.
With photography books, only own a few books that you really really like (that you will re-read over and over again). And know that big and expensive hardcovers aren’t necessarily better than paperback books that can fit in the palm of your hand.
With cameras, opt for “lean” cameras— cameras that are small, compact, inexpensive, and easy to carry with you everywhere you go. DSLR’s are really only ‘necessary’ for professional commercial/wedding/bird photographers. I don’t think anyone needs such a big camera in today’s ‘lean technology’ economy.
The 80/20 principle
I love to think about the “Pareto Principle”— the idea that much of life has an asymmetry of cost/benefits. For example, 20% of the staff of a company tend to do 80% of the work. 80% of the stress in your life can be attributed to 20% of your activities.
It is all about maximizing the smallest input in your life.
For example, what 20% of your activities brings you 80% joy and happiness? For me, that is writing, reading, and photography.
Where do you create the most value? For me, 20% of my time is spent writing/blogging— but that brings 80% of the value to the photographic community.
80% of the stress in my life is attributed to 20% of the things in my life—for example, I get stressed out about finances, family drama, and being petty with Cindy. But I always try to remind myself to think of the “bigger picture”—and not be so petty. It is tough, but I’m always trying to reduce the amount of stress, anxiety, and frustration in my life by cutting out the bulls***.
Cut the fat
So friend, figure out ways you can cut the superfluous fat in your photography, life, and personal relations. They say a few bad apples is what spoils the whole bunch.
Subtract negative people from your life, unfollow spammy people on social media (or people with poor images), and focus more of your attention on those who you love, and those who inspire you.
Life is short. Be lean, mean, and keep your mindset clean.
About the author: Eric Kim is an international street photographer who’s currently based out of Berkeley, California. You can find more of his photography and writing on his website and blog. This article was also published here.