On Expectations and Street Photography

East Lansing, 2013

East Lansing, 2013

Photos in this article are from my time in Michigan in 2013.

In life I have a certain strategy: I set very low (or no) expectations for myself and try my personal best.

I know often people say you should always set your ambitions and expectations high– but I find several faults with this strategy:

First of all, if you don’t need your expectations– you are disappointed. This disappointment may lead you to not pursuing other projects (knowing that you might fail).

Secondly, even if you reach your self-imposed expectations, it isn’t that rewarding. You simply shrug and say to yourself: “Oh I achieved this goal–but I expected it of myself.” Then you set the next expectation and simply move on.

Advantages of having no (or low) expectations

Detroit, 2013

Detroit, 2013

What I think is the great advantage of having no expectations of yourself (or very low expectations) is twofold:

1. You are never disappointed

If you have very low expectations of yourself (or even better–no expectations of yourself), you will never be disappointed. Why is that? Well, if you don’t meet your expectations, you didn’t expect to do so in the first place. Furthermore if you actually achieve more than your initial expectation you are happy– because of the low bar you set yourself up in the first place.

2. There is less pressure

Another great advantage of having low or no goals is that there is less pressure in your everyday life. We have enough pressures from expectations from others– in terms of how much money we earn, how much power and prestige we have, what car we drive, what smartphone we own, where we live or the square footage of our homes, how popular we are, and how good partners or parents we are.

For the majority of us (myself included)– street photography is our passion and hobby. We often put too much pressure on ourselves to become popular and well-known, but aren’t we simply supposed to be shooting in the streets because we enjoy it? I often find if you put more pressure on yourself– we tend to enjoy it less.

Low expectations vs no expectations

East Lansing, 2013

East Lansing, 2013

So the next topic I wanted to tackle was the idea of having low expectations versus no expectations.

I feel that both of these strategies work well. I personally like to set low expectations of myself (to at least give me some sort of direction). The more ideal strategy however is to set no expectations of yourself (because you will truly never be disappointed or have pressure on yourself).

With low expectations, I give myself somewhat vague goals like publishing a book, having an exhibition, writing articles for my blog, videos for YouTube, etc. I set low expectations on myself by telling myself that they don’t need to be revolutionary, perfect, or the world’s best. I just try the best that I can personally achieve– and that is the most I expect out of myself.

With setting no expectations for yourself might cause you to become really lazy and not do anything at all. However this depends on the person. If you embrace a “Zen” or “Taoist” mentality– you don’t set goals for yourself or have expectations, but you can still work hard at your task.

Expectations in photography

Detroit, 2013

Detroit, 2013

Below are some goals and expectations I used to set for myself in photography:

  1. I wanted to become famous and have exhibitions all around the world.
  2. I wanted to have my photography admired by many people.
  3. I wanted a large and strong social media following.
  4. I wanted every single photo I posted to have “at least” 100 likes/favorites.
  5. I wanted to own a Leica camera.
  6. I wanted to travel the world and photograph big cities.
  7. I wanted to make photography my full-time profession.

Funny enough, I have achieved (most of) those goals above. I felt that once I met these expectations and goals of myself– it would bring me enduring happiness and satisfaction.

However once I checked off every accomplishment off the list, the happiness and joy was fleeting. The “buzz” lasted a few days, but then I felt that I needed to “one up” myself– by setting even higher goals and expectations for myself.

My experiences with expectations for myself in photography is that I should simply be satisfied with what I have at the moment.

For example, I wouldn’t say that I am any “happier” now having over 300+ Favorites on my Flickr photos than I had 30+ favorites on my photos. The same goes– having 40,000+ followers on Facebook hasn’t made me any happier than having 400+ followers on Facebook. Even though I appreciate my Leica camera, frankly once I got used to it, it didn’t make me any happier than when I had my Canon 350D.

Can you achieve greatness without having high expectations?

Detroit, 2013

Detroit, 2013

I think one of the biggest arguments against the idea of setting high expectations for yourself is the idea that by setting low expectations of yourself– you will simply be satisfied with mediocrity.

I would contest. I think you can still create great work, without putting the pressure of high expectations on yourself. I think if you are passionate about anything (let’s say street photography) that your natural inclination would be to go out and shoot obsessively, and aim to create great work.

Therefore I don’t think that being “artistic” can or should be forced. If you don’t have a burning passion and desire to create great photography– perhaps your true passion in life isn’t photography– but something else. And that is totally fine, we don’t have to dedicate ourselves 100% to photography. We can just pursue photography as a hobby, and for fun.

On having low expectations when shooting on the streets

Detroit, 2013

Detroit, 2013

I think with street photography, to get a great photo is extremely difficult (and very uncertain).

For example, there may be days where we go out and take lots of great photos. Other times we may go out for a month or two and not get any good photos at all. Even worse, we could go an entire year (or even longer) without getting what we consider a good photograph.

In street photography the only two things we can really control is where we stand and when we hit the shutter. Other than that, we can’t control how people look, what clothes they are wearing, how the light looks, what the background is, etc. Therefore although half of making a great photograph is skill, the other half is luck.

So when you are out shooting on the streets, don’t expect to take any good photos. Rather, simply enjoy the experience of being on the streets. When you are out and about, grab a nice coffee or sandwich. Talk to strangers on the street and get to know them. Enjoy the slow pace of your walking, and enjoy the sights you experience. Don’t become disappointed if you go a long time without taking any good photos.

Most of the great street photographers I know personally say they might get one good photograph a year. I would say that is about the same with me too.

So set yourself a low and reasonable goal: to get one good photograph a year. Work hard towards that goal, but don’t be disappointed along the way.


Detroit, 2013

Detroit, 2013

Whenever I am testing out my ideas or speaking outloud– I always confide in my girlfriend Cindy (who is a lot smarter than me, and also has differing opinions to me).

Cindy personally sets herself high expectations of herself to give her direction and purpose in life. However if she doesn’t reach them, she doesn’t necessarily become disappointed in herself. She simply continues to strive harder toward the expectations she imposes on herself.

I feel that is fine too– to have high expectations or goals for yourself, without feeling anxiety, pressure, or disappointment.


Detroit, 2013

Detroit, 2013

Personally at the end of the day, I think we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when it comes to photography, art, or our lives. We should always strive to do our personal best, but if we miss the mark of perfection or being “the best”– I think we should be fine with that.

Photography is our passion and we are all amateurs– meaning we do it for the love of it (not necessarily that we don’t have skill).

Therefore if you ever find yourself disappointed in your photography, don’t fret. Learn to find solace and satisfaction with your personal best. Not all of us are as artistically inclined as one another. If we were only 5 feet tall, we could probably never make it to the NBA– but we could strive to be the best basketball player we could personally be.

So in 2014, even though I suggested some “street photography new year’s resolutions use it more as a simple guideline or blueprint, to give you new ideas and inspirations. If you don’t stick with your resolution, simply switch it around ditch it, and pursue what stimulates you and makes you satisfied.

What do you think about setting high (or low) expectations for yourself in photography (or life?) Share your comments and thoughts in the comments below.

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  • loi diep

    Anicca, anicca my friend. Love your blog. Keep it up.

  • theclickingdame

    Thanks for the great reminder, Eric, especially “enjoy the experience of being on the streets”. I would also add “to shoot with our heart” and not worry so much about technicality.

  • http://stephenbray.me/ Stephen_BRAY

    Ha, ha, . . . a good philosophy, but these images? They belong in a fine art collection, rather than in a street photography blog. I like them though, especially the first Detroit 2013, and East Lansing 2013.

  • Marcelo Caballero

    good advice!

  • Dave Rathke

    Excellent advice, Eric. I tend to be a realist (and a borderline pessimist), and NOT an optimist. Things in life always turn out better with this kind of an attitude, and this pertains to all aspects of life, not just street photography. I think that the photography greats became great because they were in the right place at the right time with a marketable skill…that’s all.

  • David Sierra

    This combination of photos and words really hit the mark.

  • Patrick

    Again a great article.
    Thanks !

  • isabellasfoto.nu

    Really refreshing advice. It’s so easy to get disappointed of yourself and have too high expectations. That’s something I really want to approve and just enjoy the ride and feel relaxed. I don’t want the anxiety to take over my passion of photography! Great article! :-)


  • Eric

    OK, I get it and do agree overall with the idea of not being too hard on yourself (always better to exceed those expectations than never to meet them). But lately I’ve been thinking of all these approaches and the idea of monetizing a photography business. A person who intends to make a living out of selling photos (as opposed to other photo-related activities that are so prevalent everywhere today) may have to raise those expectations a bit. Don’t you think?

  • Mike

    Eric, that many celebrated street photographers would be satisfied with one really great photograph a year is worth noting and repeating. I remember when, many years ago, I decided to process and print my own b&w photos. When purchasing my paper and chemicals I asked the photo retailer if home development was easy. “it’s easy to do badly”, he replied, and so it is with photography. It needs time to develop the required skills and time spent in the field putting yourself in situations which may provide photographs. Luck certainly plays a part in street photography but, to repeat a quote attributed to more than one person,’the more I practice, the luckier I get’. Great post and photographs Eric.


  • John Patterson

    I think this is wonderful advice, Eric. I put enough pressure on myself in my day job. Photography has always been an escape for me. The minute I allow it to become stressful is the minute it stops being a hobby. I agree that it’s better to go out and enjoy the experience and not worry about fame. If you’re talented, it will come. If you’re not, but you’re happy, then that’s fine, too.

  • Ilkka

    There are who schools of thought. Some think that setting up very difficult goals, stretch goals, even goals that are unachievable, is good and helps people get further. I disagree, as you do, too. In my experience they often cause the opposite reaction. Nobody likes to fail. If you know the goal is impossile, it is easy to give up and not try too hard.
    But I also think that not setting goals at all, or setting much too easy goals is not that good either. Nothing much can be achieved that way.

    You said: “…go out and shoot obsessively, and aim to create great work.”

    But isn’t that setting a high goal? To create great work is not easy.

  • Pedro

    Eric, with the exception of number 6 (travel the world) on your goals and expectations list all of the others are ego-based ideals. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with your pursuits but it seems to reflect your need of approval from others. I mean “every photo to have at least 100 Facebook likes”? I think that the contentment you seek won’t be from the approval of others, that’s fleeting and won’t last. Photograph for yourself, not others. Capture what you like. Really love this artform for what it does for you and only you. You will definately improve. That’s really the true spirit of it, and you can still share it with others and try not to care what they think.

  • thezak

    This doesn’t sound like the Eric Kim we know and love from this blog. I don’t think you would have gotten to where you are today if you didn’t have high expectations for yourself. You seem like a goal-oriented person who goes out and does what it takes to achieve his dreams and that is inspiring to your readers! Keep up the good work in 2014.

  • Stephanie

    This is what I needed … Thank you!