The Five Levels Of Street Photography

Searching for a better editing process

Editing is the hardest part of street photography. It is harder than being confronted by strangers or getting lost in the bad part of town or trying to focus manually with the Fuji X100.

Just to clarify, for the purposes of this post, when I say editing I am referring to the process of selecting the images that “make the cut” and discarding the ones that don’t.

My decision process when looking at one of my images usually goes something like this: “wow, this one is fantastic!…..maybe not…..well, it could be……ah.. whatever, I’m keeping it….. I guess….not sure…… yes!”.

At the risk of discombobulating such a scientific and rigorous process I started to think if there could be a better way to more easily select images that have higher impact and meaning and that will make me feel a little better about my photographs.

Since images have two elements, visual aesthetics and emotional content, I thought it would be good place to start by categorizing the images according to how much of each element it reveals to the viewer. This is important because the first one operates at a more conscious level and the second one aims at the subconscious level.  Images that are mostly visual would be categorized in the lower levels because it fulfills the most basic needs of the viewer.  Images that have strong content would be placed at a higher level because fulfills deeper needs of the viewer.

Just like Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, fulfilling the needs at the top has a more lasting effect and is a more powerful motivator. The same thing happens with SP images.  Some images fulfill the basic need of providing information or delivering visual/esthetic reward while others are more complex and touch the subconscious part of the viewer eliciting a stronger reaction that lasts longer and makes the viewer come back to it over and over.

Cognitive Friction

The term “complex” isn’t enough to describe if an image will be in the higher level. Complex doesn’t define well the impact of the photograph because we can have a very simple image with a strong emotional content. For example a white wall with one single shadow of a person on it.  It is a simple image because there is really only a wall and a shadow but opens the mind to a wide variety of meanings and emotions. Complex might refer to multiple elements and subjects on the frame but that doesn’t necessarily make it more interesting so I had to find a better word or tool.

During this self-imposed and unnecessary quest, I came across a concept that not only will make it sound like I know what I’m talking about but will also add the scientific validation that the whole process is sorely lacking. This concept is called cognitive friction.

In the world of interaction design, cognitive friction is defined as“The resistance encountered by a human intellect when it engages with a complex system of rules that change as the problem changes.”  Is a common concept in the software development world and it basically means that if on different screens or modes the same button performs a different function, it makes it more difficult for the user to learn how to use it.

Simply put, applying cognitive friction to street photography means that the image changes or acquires different meaning based on our current or present emotion. If you are an interaction designer you want less cognitive friction but if you are a photographer you want more.

If an image has high cognitive friction it means that you cannot understand it  just by looking at it. Your mind has to work to understand it and your interpretation or emotion will change depending on many different internal factors that are also changing constantly. I am aware that even though it sounds scientific it is still a subjective process.

Five levels, Five emotions.

Based on the emotion that they trigger and the amount of cognitive friction they have I created five levels to help me determined which one of my photographs will be the target of the delete or export button. The five levels are:

Level 1

  • Emotion: Interest  
  • Cognitive Friction: Low
vivian maier

Vivian Maier


Henri Cartier-Bresson

These type of images are mostly informational. Elicits some interest but is not enough to keep the viewer engaged for long periods. It could be viewed as a  basic photograph of people in a public setting. Sometimes these images lean more towards the documentary side and have more meaning if analyzed in the context in which they were taken.

Level 2

  • Emotion: Joy.
  • Cognitive Friction: Low

Robert Doisneau

lev 2 HCB

Henri Cartier-Bresson


Elliott Erwitt

These are images that trigger a pleasurable emotion such as when we smile at the visual joke created by the juxtaposition of the subject and background or are amused by the contrasts or patterns.

There is usually one theme or pattern and all the elements are visible in the frame without leaving much to the imagination. The answer is given, no questioning involved, so the impact diminishes with time. In other words the more we look at it the less strong the emotion becomes. A funny story becomes less funny with time.

Level 3

  • Emotion: Surprise
  • Cognitive friction: Medium

Robert Doisneau

lev 3 HCB

Henri Cartier-Bresson

lev4 henri-cartier-bresson-0

Henri Cartier-Bresson

In these images all elements are visible but displayed in a way that they elicit strong curiosity or questioning. The viewer has to work a little bit to figure it out because they find something unexpected in the frame. Images that have “layering” or different scenes in the same frame, and images with peak gestures captured at the right exact moment are an example of this type of photographs.

Level 4

  • Emotion: Distress  
  • Cognitive friction: High

Robert Frank


Lee Friedlander


Robert Frank

These images trigger emotions such as confusion or fear, sometimes anger or sadness.  Images that trigger confusion or fear usually have missing elements in the frame or they are only partially visible, missing or distorted. Shadows and blur are common.

Level 5 

  • Emotion: Mixed (usually combination of 3 and 4)
  • Cognitive friction: Highest

Henri Cartier-Bresson

lev 4 HCB seville

Henri Cartier-Bresson


Robert Frank

The combination of the elements in the frame triggers different emotions at the same time. These are powerful images, not easy to create  yet the masters seem to have done it almost routinely. This is what  Meyerowitz and Winogrand called tough images, “tough to like, tough to see, tough to make, the tougher they were the more beautiful they became”.

An editing framework

As I said at the beginning, this is just a framework to help me categorize and decide what images have a better impact. I realized in the process that it also helps me when I’m shooting .  To summarize and to make things easier to use as an editing ( or shooting ) tool:

Screen Shot 2013-01-21 at 10.59.56 AM

I am aware that the whole thing is a subjective process and because it is based on emotions it will vary greatly from person to person. It is a starting point. I also realize that the images I used as examples can move from one level to the other very easily.

I started using these new system and so far the main result is that I don’t like any of my photographs!. Not the result I was hoping for, but maybe that’s a good thing. All it means is that I have to go grab my camera and go out for a walk.



50 thoughts on “The Five Levels Of Street Photography

  1. This is a great framework and I plan on referring to it. I also hope you will keep updating and refining it. But I think you might be unnecessarily tough on yourself. I don’t want to take anything away from the masters for whom I have admiration, but they lived at a time when it was much easier to create the effects of interest, curiosity, anguish or ordered chaos with layered scenes, contrasting patterns or amusing effects. It was easier then because the kind of rapid economic growth of the 20th century happening right after a century of large scale urban planning to build magnificent cities fractured the landscape with strange juxtapositions of regular lines and human activities in which the human element started to appear confused, free, or out of place.

  2. Thanks Steve. I agree, it was a different time so maybe it was easier for them. This is a work in progress and will probably evolve over time. So far it has helped me to put a little objectivity into a very subjective process. I appreciate your comments and support.

  3. Juan, muy interesante tu nota y más interesante aún tu propuesta de niveles a través de procesos cogntivos. Me parece un camino diferencial en la edición.
    En mi caso personal, y en forma involuntaria, reafirmo estas tendencias de los niveles a través de las respuestas de los contactos en las redes sociales.
    Un abrazo y a seguir dando muchos paseos con la cámara!

  4. Gracias Marcelo por tu comentario. Estoy de acuerdo, la respuesta en las redes sociales ratifica de alguna manera los niveles que menciono aquí. Creo que me tengo que dar una vuelta por Barcelona para practicar mas!. Un abrazo.

  5. absolutely fascinating. thank you. As you say editing is very much a subjective process. One thing that comes to mind: When I am looking through the viewfinder I might know what’s going on or I might not. I have to put myself in the “mind” of a different viewer. In that way the cognitive friction may be “low” for me, but “high” for a viewer who wasn’t there. I am probably stating the bleeding obvious, but just came to mind. I would like to post this on my blog with your permission. Not that I have many readers, but….

  6. Juan, your framework is a real mind-opener! I have been thinking about it for days and hoping that it catalyzes growth in my own photography. Thank you so much for sharing your insights. They are an inspiration.

  7. Do you all think it’s best to always have street photography in black and white so the idea pops? I’d like to see successful color images, if not.

  8. Never thought of it this way… That’s a very interesting approach. I wonder how colour would fit in this but I suspect there would be no difference. In street photography content and moment are prevalent.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • thanks Bogdan. The concept applies the same for BW or color. I agree, it’s all about content as you mentioned. Color is harder because it brings more elements into the frame. Thanks for visiting.

  9. I’m so glad the topic of color has come up. I’m relatively new to photography, and really like looking at photos of street photography….which all seem to be in B&W; this is refreshing! Thanks

  10. Very interesting post. In constract to my opinion, that you can’t describe what makes a great photo, you managed to pull it off at some level. The cognitive friction parameter of your framework, and the levels I believe are on the spot. On the other hand I disagree up to a point with the emotion element. Do you think that a photo that causes distress can’t be on level 1 or 2 ? Or an element of suprise can disqualify a photo from being a masterpiece ? Food for thought (about photography and art in general).

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  12. I’ve read so much analytical and philosophical stuff (ie crap) on photograpy, but this is the best post i’ve come across for years. It is true also, people like your worst pictures on Facebook…. (I never liked Erwitt…)

  13. Hola José!

    Excellent writeup. Thanks for sharing, you have some very interesting articles in here, I’ll make sure to keep on reading 🙂

    I invite you to visit my blog on street photography in Montevideo, Uruguay: – I’m already applying the principles discussed here to help me better define which pics make the cut, and which do not.

    Best regards,

  14. Hey Juan, I just stumbled onto this post and was wondering if you’ve made any refinements to the approach.

    This is an interesting undertaking but I’m completely confused by this presentation. As I understand it, you’ve come up with five levels to help you determine which of your pictures to delete and which to keep, yet you’ve illustrated all levels with masterful photography. Here’s a tip: if you take a picture as good as any of these, keep it 🙂

    You state that your key point is that we interpret photographs differently dependent upon our present mental state, yet you don’t explain or expand on this point – in fact, you label the emotion we’re supposed to feel for each picture as if viewers are all the same. The concept of cognitive friction is interesting but doesn’t seem to apply to the selection of photographs. For the record, my emotional response to all of these photographs was interest – I didn’t feel distressed by any of them.

    I applaud your efforts but feel you’re making overly-complex something that is just a simple subjective judgment (i.e., does this picture “work”). Oh, and you’ve totally misrepresented Maslow’s theory.

    I reject the notion that visual aesthetics is distinct from emotional content. Indeed, in many great photographs, the only emotional content is the visual aesthetic (e.g., some of Webb, Gruyaert, Friedlander to name but a few). And your notion that emotional content operates on a subconscious level is silly – how could you assign emotion-labels to the pictures if that were the case? – unless you’re somehow assigning these subconsciously.

    For all practical purposes (i.e., editing) a picture either “works” or it doesn’t – the “why” is just an academic exercise that is, in this case, not very useful.

    Cheers, Jason

  15. Hi Juan,

    This is a really excellent post. I’m looking at my editing process in a whole new why thanks to this.

    @Jason – I think you’re being over analytical. Juan is presenting a structured conceptual framework not a procedure or rule book. What I took from it was the idea of applying a framework to my editing process that gives me a subjective guideline for assessing my images. Even if we had a highly codified framework what images fit each level would still be somewhat subjective. Come up with your own refinement and share it. I know I will.

  16. Really interesting article. Never really tried to deconstruct the emotional elements of a street photograph but this is a good start. I think there is another element that has to do with the level of connection between the subject and the camera. I find a certain appeal when the photographer seems to establish a connection with the subject yet they aren’t really there but for a moment they are inside the space of the people in the photo and connected with them. Don’t know if I’m explaining this well, but I think it’s one of the reasons people like Gary Winogrand create such amazing images and it’s a reason why a zoom lens doesn’t really work for street photography. You’re not just capturing the moment – you are in the moment – for just a moment. Cool article – thanks for putting that out there. Tony

  17. Very useful article. In my opinion Technical perfection, Asthetic excellence and Message are the most important elements of any good picture. Among these technical perfection and Asthetic Excellence should be the second nature of a photographer which can be mastered with practice. And remaining and the most important element is “Message” which in my opinion you have reffered as “Emotion”. Apart from other two elements acquired as a second nature, we should strive and look for “Emotion” that conveys a “message” to the mind of a viewer. This may be applicable while shooting or while editing. While Shooting I look for “emotion” and while editing I wait for a smile on my face to keep a photo, otherwise I delet them. Thanks.

  18. A very interesting personal perspective. The question of interaction with the people in street photography raises various comments. Although the shots we are shown display people looking in our direction, and do not appear to be showing any signs of hostility to the street shooter, we all know that sometimes people can be hostile or questioning. If only a camera could be specifically designed for street photography?

    Me says one already exists. I have one and it can be found on eBay too. It is a Nikon F2 with waist level finder (WLF).

    I have been using this unique camera for a couple of years. A friend has obtained a WLF for his ancient Nikon F and I’m on the lookout for a WLF for my F3 so I can have the luxury and convenience of autoexposure!

    • Hi Thomas, thanks for visiting my blog. I think it’s great that you translated it and thank you for giving proper credits and linking to my page. I’m glad the article was helpful to you.
      Juan Jose

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  21. Cognitive friction by itself is a vacuous pursuit. What it means is that something is harder to comprehend because it’s unconventional but if there is nothing valuable to be understood in your image you are wasting people’s time. As a Graphic Designer I play with people’s attention of what is conventional in graphic language to elicit curiosity, create expectation, retain attention BUT I only do it to deliver a message or to guide attention through a content structure, if I overdo it I’m playing against my own goal which is to communicate.

    David Carson passed to history of Graphic Design both as a rebel innovator and as an asshole, he intentionally made things very to read just to look cool but it was all hype: the magazine articles were all crappy amateur surf journalism unworthy of your attention once you found out the way to understand them.

    I do like very much the idea of incoroprating the concept of cognitive friction to our toolset but let’s not make it an end on itself.

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