What the Black Swan and Unpredictability Can Teach You About Street Photography

Matt Stuart

(Above image by Matt Stuart)

One of the books that has profoundly changed my understanding of the world is “The Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb. His thesis is that much of what happens in the world is by pure luck and randomness. He uses The analogy of the “black swan” is that scientists for hundreds of years assumed that because only because white swans were seen, no black swans existed. However the day that a black swan was discovered, their understanding of swans changed dramatically.

In life there are two types of black swans: positiv black swans that bring us fortune, and negative black swans that bring us misfortune.

Recently every book I have been reading (whether it be a finance book, an economics book, a sociology book, or philosophy book) I have been able to always link it back to street photography.

Manikin for Joel
David Gibson

Many people say that street photographers are just plain lucky. Whenever I heard the statement, I would become enfuriated and state the opposite viciously…that there was no “luck” in street photography.

Over the years, my understanding of luck in street photography has changed. Of course street photographers are lucky, and in many regards. Street photography captures unposed scenes, and we cannot manufacture these scenes (besides framing that scene). We cannot tell that boy to stand by the fence and drop his ice cream again, or for the rainbow to appear out of the depressed man’s head again.


When all of the elements of a great photograph come together, we can see that as a positive black swan. The likelihood of all the great elements coming together was very unlikely, but it happened. It was an opportunity.

However what separates “good” street photographers from “poor” street photographers are that “good” street photographers are able to spot out this opportunity, and capture it. A large amount of skill also involves knowing now to handle ones own camera well (using zone focusing over autofocus) to ensure we don’t miss that decisive moment.

Canary Wharf
David Solomons

Of course in street photography negative black swans occur as well. For example, “freak accidents” that we never expected to happen. For example, recently I got my ass kicked (literally) when shooting a stranger smoking. I took his photo with a flash (in broad daylight at noon) and walked on. He then chased me, kicked me in the behind (hitting my camera bag) which caused my camera flash to go flying (which was in my left hand next to my butt) and break into a thousand pieces (okay maybe not a thousand, but my batteries went flying). He then came at me, cursing in Japanese (I don’t know what he was saying but he looked very angry) and I quickly bowed and said sorry, and moved on.

That event I described before was a black swan. It has never happened to me, and I had no expectation of something happening like that. Although this experience didn’t stop me from shooting street photography (or with a flash) it has taught me the following:

Be prepared how to react

We can never predict negative black swans, but it is important to know how to react. Even though you may have never had a negative experience in street photography (you may never) but it is important to know how to react. In my story above, I reacted by quickly apologizing and quickly moving on.

Kramer O'Neill

Therefore you can use the same idea. Know how to react, whether it be showing the other person your business card, calmly explaining what you are doing as a street photographer (capturing the beauty of everyday life through people), working on a photography project, or offering to delete their photo (if you shoot digital).

Also discussed in the black swan was that we cannot predict future events based on past events. An analogy used in the book was that of a turkey. Let’s a turkey has lived for 99 days. For those 99 days, it has known that it will live the next day (because it always had). However on the 100th day, it was slaughtered for a thanksgiving feast. It couldn’t use it’s last 99 days of living as a prediction that it would live its 100th day.

Swing and a miss
K. Praslowicz

Life arranges itself in strange ways. Sometimes certain elements in a scene arrange themselves randomly in a certain way. Just because you have never seen something done in street photography doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. Also just because you have had a few negative experiences shooting street photography doesn’t mean that you will keep having negative experiences moving forward. Just because you haven’t seen the “decisive moment” occur in front of you for an entire year, it doesn’t mean that it won’t happen tomorrow.

We are not always lucky, but we can make our luck. Of course the best way to get more “lucky” in street photography is to walk as often as you can (street photography is hard to do while you are driving), always have your camera with you (it is hard to take photos if you have no camera by your side), and try to go out to take photos as much as you can (preferably everyday). Great photography opportunities happen in the least likely places (I have seen tons of great street photographs done in public restrooms).

Nils Jorgensen

There is no negative outcome from not being luck in street photography. The worst that happens is that we “waste” money on more hard drives (or film). I would say street photography is a better hobby than skydiving (the risk is that you die). There has never been a street photographer who died from shooting street photography (that doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but the risk is far less). Consider the war photographer (they make our job as a street photographer a walk in the park).

Now go out and shoot. The more we look and spend time on the streets, the more positive black swans will come your way!

What role do you think that “luck” plays in street photography? Share your thoughts in the comments below! 

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