5 Psychological Biases You Must Avoid in Street Photography

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Mumbai, 2013

Besides street photography, I have a great interest in sociology, psychology, and philosophy. What I love about all these side-fields is that they overlap and add unto one another. Not only that, but I have probably learned more about street photography from these outside fields than from the field of photography itself.

A field I have been quite fascinated with is called “behavioral economics the idea that us humans act “predictably irrational”. This means that we all have similar cognitive biases in certain circumstances. Although we like to think of ourselves as rational beings– we are far less rational than we’d like to believe.

In this article I want to share some insights I have learned from “behavioral economics” (which tends to fit into the field of psychology and cognitive science).

1. The Anchoring Effect

Mumbai, 2013
Mumbai, 2013

One cognitive bias we all fall victim to is the “anchoring effect“. What exactly is it? Well it comes from the idea that us as humans don’t have an intuitive sense of what something is really worth (in terms of money value). Therefore we always need comparisons to determine the worth of something. And those comparisons affect us hugely.

For example in Scenario A, if you saw a new Leica M with a price tag of $7000, you might be a bit shocked. You might even be more shocked to see that a 35mm f/1.4 Summilux costs around another $5000. So for a simple “starter kit” (actually really nice) will set you back around $12,000. You are shocked how expensive it is.

This setup will take you back around $12,000 -- a huge anchoring price point.
This setup will take you back around $12,000 — a huge anchoring price point.

However you see that Sony has just come out with a new camera, the a7R, which costs around $2,300 for the body, and another $1000 for the lens– totaling $3,300. Granted $3,300 is still a large sum of money, but it seems to be “really cheap” in comparison to the $12,000 sum for the Leica.

The Sony a7R, “only” $3,300 compared to the $12,000 for the Leica setup.

If this line of thinking has ever occurred to you– you fell victim to the “anchoring effect.” This idea was discovered by Daniel Kahneman (the leading behavioral economist– you can read more of his great ideas in “Thinking, Fast and Slow“).

Let’s take another scenario, this time Scenario B. You are shopping around for a camera, and you see a Ricoh GRD V for $800. It seems a bit expensive, but now you see that new Sony a7R that costs $3,300 (lens included) but now you feel that the Ricoh GRD V feels cheap. $800 for the Ricoh vs $3,300 for the Sony? It is an easy decision. Who in their crazy mind would spend $3,300 on a camera?

The Ricoh GRD V, "only" $800-- which feels like a bargain compared to everything else. Still a lot of money, though.
The Ricoh GRD V, “only” $800– which feels like a bargain compared to everything else. Still a lot of money, though.

The madness goes on: Let’s imagine Scenario C. You are shopping for a new camera, and you see you can buy a used Canon 5D for $300. It is a great deal, and you also see a Ricoh GRD V that retails for $800. Now if you compare $300 against $800, the Ricoh seems like a huge rip-off.

Takeaway point:

Beware of falling victim to the “anchoring” effect when it comes to photography– especially when A) buying new cameras and B) social media.

A) When buying new cameras:

When buying new cameras, know that subconsciously the highest priced camera will make everything seem “not as expensive.” But rather than looking at camera prices at relative terms, look at them at absolute terms.

If you already have a great and functioning camera (let’s say a Fuji x100) and you are looking at upgrading to the x100s. Let’s say the x100 is worth $800 and the x100s is $1300, realize that is a $500 difference. $500 doesn’t seem much compared to the price of a Leica– but think about what $500 can buy you. You can buy 10 really amazing street photography books (assuming each book was around $50 each), you could attend a photography workshop, or you can go on a nice round-trip somewhere locally for a few days. Money can buy you happiness, but only if you spend them on experiences, not material possessions.

Remember how awesome the x100 was when it came out? Now it is "old news" -- but still a great camera.
Remember how awesome the x100 was when it came out? Now it is “old news” — but still a great camera.

Another psychological trick I learned from philosopher Nassim Taleb (from his book: “Antifragile“) is that we only need one reason to do something. And if we need more than one reason to do something, we are simply trying to convince ourselves of making a purchase we don’t really need to make.

For example, if we get our camera stolen (or it breaks)– we only need one reason to purchase a new camera. That is, we need a new camera.

However, if you have your x100 and you look at the x100s and you see that you “need” an upgrade due to the faster autofocus, better image quality, the better high ISO, etc– according to Taleb you are simply trying to convince yourselves of a purchase you don’t really need.

In my last impulse buy– I was thinking of upgrading my iPad 3. I saw the new iPad Mini (with retina) just came out. I played with the iPad Mini in the store and was amazed how compact and light it was (note the “anchoring effect” in process here). Then by comparison, my iPad 3 felt like a beast– way too big and heavy. But then again, when I first bought my iPad 3, it was the most amazing thing ever– and not that heavy or big. A point I will talk about in a bit– we tend to focus on differences, rather than similarities. After falling victim to this impulse buy, I quickly returned the iPad Mini (after a day) and am satisfied with my iPad 3.

The $500 for an iPad Mini (tax and case included) can bring me a lot more happiness in buying experiences (or photo books).
The $500 for an iPad Mini (tax and case included) can bring me a lot more happiness in buying experiences (or photo books).

At the end of the day though, the iPad Mini was just a tiny iPad and not as practical as the size of my iPad 3. Then the iPad Air seemed appealing (it is much lighter and thinner)– but am I really willing to spend another $600 (including cover and tax) for just saving 200 grams of weight? Once again, I can buy so many better experiences for $600 than just a device (that will be outdated in around a year anyways).

So in sum, when camera shopping– don’t compare your purchase price to Leica’s. Rather, compare the price of your new camera to the experiences you could have and of the ultimate price.

B) Comparing yourself on social media

The “anchoring effect” can also happen when it comes to social media. We look at other people on Flickr who have 200, 300+ “favs” and we feel like crap that our most popular image “only” has around 50. But then, do you remember the first day that you got 50 favs and how excited you were? Now we compare ourselves to others– we are never satisfied.

This comes to Facebook, Twitter, and all of those other social networks too. For example, I have around 38,000 likes on Facebook– which is a huge amount of support and followers. However, when I saw that Invisible Photographer Asia had over 150,000+ likes on Facebook, I felt like I had a tiny sum of followers in comparison. And I’m sure that feels like “a little” compared to Magnum Photos which has over 500,000+ likes on Facebook.

So when it comes to you and social media– don’t compare yourself to other people. It is kinda like money. No matter how much money you earn, or how rich and famous you become– there will always be someone with more than you out there.

Rather, value the followers and connections that you do have. Remember, it is quality over quantity. Who cares if you have a million followers but if they don’t know much about photography? I would rather have a few photographers follow and appreciate my work, who are phenomenal photographers.

2. The “IKEA” effect

Mumbai, 2013
Mumbai, 2013

In the book, “The Upside of Irrationality” by Dan Ariely, he talks about how whenever we create or build something– and invest energy, time, and effort into it– we value it more.

If any of you has built anything from IKEA, you know how much of a pain it is to create something. You first see the furniture at the IKEA store, and it looks great– with a superb price. Then of course you go downstairs, and you grumble as you have to actually find the furniture. But at the same time, you are amazed how small and compact it is in the box.

You bring the box home, and upon opening the box– you are confused and befuddled by the instruction manual. No printed directions– and all these confusing diagrams? Well, it doesn’t look too bad.

So you continue to build the furniture, and on step 19 of 20, you discovered you accidentally inserted one of the pins in the wrong order– and you have to start all over again, wasting the last 30 minutes of effort. You curse out loud, swear you are never buying IKEA furniture again, and then proceed to dismantle the furniture you bought, and start over again.

Who can really understand these directions?
Who can really understand these directions?

After around 2 hours of blood, sweat, and tears– you have finally built your piece of furniture. You are tired, exhausted, and frustrated from the insane amount of effort needed to put it together– but at the same time, you are incredibly proud of your “creation.” The next time your friends come over, you proudly show off your IKEA furniture– and explain how much effort and time went into creating it. You think it is the best piece of furniture in the house. And of course your friends (in the back of their heads) are thinking to themselves: “It’s just IKEA furniture…”

The same applies to street photography (and creating anything else). We value whatever we create more than other people. This explains why we can pour hundreds of hours into restoring old junky cars (which still look a bit ugly)– but we think they are the most beautiful thing in the world.

So realize that whenever you take any photograph and have some sort of strong emotion or experience with it– you are falling victim to the “IKEA” effect. You might think a certain photograph is amazing because it was very difficult for you to take it (for example, you took a photo of someone who nearly punched you). That memory and emotion is so strong, that you think it makes a great photograph. But as Garry Winogrand once famously said, “Sometimes photographers mistake emotion for what makes a great street photograph.”

Takeaway point:

There are certain ways in street photography you can not fall victim to the “IKEA” effect in thinking that the photos you take are great (when sometimes they really aren’t):

a) Get a second opinion

One of the best ways is to get a honest and brutal critique from other photographers who you trust. Whenever I bring around my iPad and show my new work to other street photographers who I admire– I always tell them to tear apart my work, and be brutally honest with me. I don’t ask for a critique to simply get people to tell me that they like my photos. Rather, I want them to find the holes in my photographs that I can’t necessarily see.

Not only that, but other photographers have often “discovered” great photos I took– which I first didn’t realize were interesting at all. For example, one of my most favorited photos on Flickr is a photo of a guy slouched over at the beach, passed out and sleeping. When I first saw the photo, I didn’t think much about it. But had I never shown it to my friend– I would have never known it was a good photograph.

b) Let your photos “marinate”

Garry Winogrand never developed film right after he shot it. Rather, he waited 1-2 years before developing them– so he would forget all memories of taking the photograph. Therefore when he was editing and choosing his best work– he would be much more objective when it came to his work.

I have done something similar now that I shoot film. Although I am not as hardcore as Winogrand, I generally wait for at least 3-4 months before developing and seeing my film. Therefore I become a lot more emotionally disconnected with my photos– and I can judge them better.

Therefore regardless if you shoot film or digital– let your shots sit and marinate for a long time, before judging them. Based on my experiences, I would say that it takes a minimum of at least a month before you can (somewhat) emotionally distance yourself from a photograph. So whenever in doubt, let time be the ultimate master.

3. Risk aversion

Mumbai, 2013
Mumbai, 2013

Another lesson I learned from Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking Fast, and Slow” is that us humans are risk adverse. This means, we as humans hate taking risks– and would prefer the certain option.

For example, would you rather flip a coin and if you guessed correctly– collect $200? Or would you rather have a certain $100? If you are like most people, you would probably take the certain $100 instead of flipping a coin and risk getting nothing.

The theory of risk aversion when it comes to evolutionary biology is that it is a hard-wired trait that prevents us from dying. It makes sense– would you risk trying to fight a lion for its meat (and risk dying)– or rather take the more “certain” option of eating fruits and berries, or killing easier animals like a rabbit?

I think risk aversion happens a ton when it comes to street photography– especially when it comes to overcoming our fear of taking photos of strangers.

If you are like me, you might have seen a great street photography opportunity– but hesitated. You might have thought to yourself: “I don’t know if I want to take the photograph. The guy looks a bit scary, he might punch me. What if he breaks my camera? What if he calls the cops?” All these worst-case scenarios dance around our mind and we end up not taking the photograph, because of “risk aversion”.

However we are fortunate enough that in our modern society, we don’t have to worry about death so much anymore. In most cases, the worst that happens is that you get yelled at or threatened but realistically you won’t get beaten up for simply taking a photograph of someone.

Takeaway point

I have found the best way to build more confidence when shooting on the streets is as follows:

a) After taking a photograph, smile and say “thank you”

If you think about being on the other side of the equation– imagine yourself as a person sitting down in some random public space. If a stranger suddenly approached you and took a photograph and walked away, wouldn’t you be suspicious of them? What are they doing? Are they undercover police? Are they going to put your photo on some weird online site? Once again, people who are getting their photos taken (without their permission) are also risk adverse– they don’t want anything bad happening to them.

However I have found that by smiling and saying “thank you” after taking photos reassures about 99% of people out there. It shows to the other person that they have nothing to worry about– that I am someone friendly and not sinister. I won’t do anything bad with these photos. And there is nothing more contagious than a smile and a “thank you”. In-fact, most people are hard-wired to say “no problem” or “you’re welcome” after anybody says “you’re welcome.”

A tough looking guy I took a photograph of (with permission). Even though he looked tough, he was the nicest guy ever.
A tough looking guy I took a photograph of (with permission). Even though he looked tough, he was the nicest guy ever.

b) Practice, practice, practice

When I first started shooting street photography, I was deathly afraid of taking photos of strangers. Whenever I was ready to bring up my camera, my heart would beat like crazy, sweat would start pouring down my back, and it felt like I was going to have a heart-attack.

But nowadays, before taking a photo of a stranger– my heart rate barely raises.

Why is that? Well, I have read a lot of studies that we become “acclimated” to certain situations of high-stress. For example, policemen and firefighters develop an immunity and resistance to high-stress situations over time. I have also talked to doctors and nurses and what they tell me is that after seeing a lot of painful accidents and death– they become much less emotionally affected than they did when they started.

So know that in street photography, the more you do it the more comfortable you will get with it. There is really no shortcuts when it comes to this. Practice really does make perfect.

Another tough looking guy who I asked to take a portrait of. He was totally cool with it (I might have not expected this in the past).
Another tough looking guy who I asked to take a portrait of. He was totally cool with it (I might have not expected this in the past).

c) Look to get rejected

To talk about risk aversion– I think that often we are more afraid of the fear of rejection– than the rejection itself. It is kinda like when you were in high school and you wanted to ask out that attractive guy or girl out on a date. The fear and social stigma of getting rejected is often worse than the rejection itself.

However I think we should hard-wire ourselves in a funny way– we should teach ourselves to want to be rejected.

One assignment I often give students in workshops is the following: Go around and ask people permission to take their portrait. You have to get 5 people to say no, and 5 people to say yes.

Therefore getting rejected (and having no said to you) is part of the assignment. For example, if you get 5 people to say yes (and 2 people who say no)– you have to keep asking for permission until you get 3 more people to say no. So you might purposefully seek out “mean-looking” people who you might expect to say no.

But I won’t spoil the outcome of what generally happens in this assignment– I just recommend you to go out and try the same and see what happens.

4. Hedonic Adaptation

Mumbai, 2013
Mumbai, 2013

Hedonic adaptation is also another cognitive bias we all might be familiar as consumers. Dan Ariey summarizes it perfectly in “The Upside of Irrationality”:

“By failing to anticipate the extent of our hedonic adaptation, as consumers we routinely escalate our purchases, hoping that new stuff will make us happier. Indeed, a new car feels wonderful, but sadly, the feeling lasts for only a few months. We get used to driving the car, and the buzz wears off. So we look for something else to make us happy: maybe new sunglasses, a computer, or another new car. This cycle…is what drives us to keep up with the Joneses…We look forward to the things that will make us happy, but we don’t realize how short-lived this happiness will be, and when adaptation hits we look for the next new thing. “This time,” we tell ourselves, ‘this thing will really make me happy for a long time.’”

One thing about photography I hate is how commercialized it is– in trying to get us to constantly buy new cameras and equipment. We are always told that we have isn’t “good enough” and small upgrades in camera sensor size, ISO noise sensitivity, lens sharpness is supposed to make us “better photographers.”

Falling into this “hedonic treadmill” is the idea that we keep buying more and more stuff– and as we get quickly bored and dissatisfied with what we have, we continue to buy more (hoping it will keep us happy). What ends up happening is we keep running on this treadmill as it speeds up faster and faster– forcing us to work longer hours in jobs we don’t really like, to buy these material things we don’t really need. In the photography world we also call this “GAS” (Gear Acquisition Syndrome).

Jony Ive's designed Leica M, went for a cool $1.8 million. There will always be a more expensive camera to buy, and we are never satisfied.
Jony Ive’s designed Leica M, went for a cool $1.8 million. There will always be a more expensive camera to buy, and we are never satisfied.

I have to admit, I have fallen victim to “GAS” quite a lot in my photography experience. I always had the wrong impression that once I got that new camera or that new lens– it would take my photography to new heights. Upgrading from a Canon point-and-shoot, to a Canon Rebel XT, to a Canon 5D, and to a Leica M9– I never really saw my photography get that much better from the equipment. And every time I upgraded a camera which I thought was my “dream camera” (which I thought I would be happy for the rest of my life)– it was never the case. Even with the Leica M9 which is by-far the most expensive camera I ever bought, I quickly got bored of it after around 8 months of use, and no longer appreciated it.

So know that with “hedonic adaptation” that we get used to the stuff that we buy. This includes buying a new car, a new smartphone, a new house, and a new camera.

Takeaway point:

To prevent ourselves from falling to “hedonic adaptation” (and the treadmill)– we could do some of the following:

a) Shoot film

The best way I was able to overcome hedonic adaptation and not wanting to always upgrade new cameras is simply shooting film. I shoot with a film Leica now– and I have the peace of mind that there will never be a camera that will be “better.” Granted, I have to keep buying film which does get expensive– I don’t waste my time thinking about new cameras anymore. But beware, you can fall victim to GAS when it comes to film cameras as well– because there are so many film cameras out there.

Film, never goes out of style.
Film, never goes out of style.

b. Realize you will adapt

I think it is fine to upgrade digital cameras but don’t set yourself unrealistic expectations. Never tell yourself “this is the last camera I will ever buy” or “this camera will make me happy for a long time.” Realize that our base-line happiness returns back to normal rather quickly after a purchase.

c. Be grateful for what you have

If we know that we will quickly adapt to new things we purchase– a good way to bypass this is to simply be grateful for what we have. Remember the first day you bought your new camera, and how excited and happy you were. Re-live that experience. Re-read old gear reviews (of the camera you currently own)– and remember how excited and hyped it up it was.

You can also imagine it getting stolen or losing it. How would you feel if you lost the camera you had? How much would you pay to get it back? How much would you regret being so clumsy?

5. Overconfidence

Mumbai, 2013
Mumbai, 2013

Another cognitive bias we fall victim to is overconfidence. For example in “Thinking Fast, and Slow” Daniel Kahneman explores the “planning fallacy”– that we tend to underestimate how much something will cost or how long it will take. For example in 2002, most Americans thought that remodeling their kitchen would cost around $18,658, but in reality– the average cost was around $38,769.

This comes with lots of different things in life. How many times have you started off your day with a huge to-do list, and unrealistically expected that you would finish it all? Or when you got assigned that paper for your final exam, and expected to finish it in a day or two, when it actually took you a full week?

I think it is easy to fall victim to being overconfident when it comes to our street photography as well. This goes with ideas we have with projects, trips, etc.

So for example, if you are going on a short trip to Paris (or some other exotic city) for only about a week– don’t expect to take mind-blowing photos.

I remember the first time I went to Paris, I was overconfident and believed that I would take hundreds of mind-blowing photos (like Henri Cartier-Bresson). But I went away with no good photos, and feeling quite sad.

In my experience I actually find that out of 50 rolls of film that I shoot (1800 photos), I get only 1 photo that I am really proud of and satisfied with.

Takeaway point:

So when it comes to working on photography projects also expect it to take longer than you imagine. That photography project you are working on (that you might expect to take only a few months) might end up taking you a few years.

Therefore I think it is important for us to set realistic expect ions with ourselves. Always expect things will take longer, and things won’t turn out to be as good as we want.

In order to get a better sense of things– I think it is important to take to other photographers, read interviews, and look at photography books to give us a sense of how difficult things are in photography.

For example, one of my favorite photographers is Josef Koudelka— and his phenomenal book: “Gypsies” took him 10 years to complete. Therefore for any of my serious projects (like my “Suits” project– I project that if I want it to be great, it needs to take about that long).


Mumbai, 2013
Mumbai, 2013

There are many cognitive biases we face as human beings– and nobody is perfect. It is extremely difficult to overcome these natural human tendencies– but once we become aware of it, we can better fight them. And I feel that this applies greatly not only to street photography, but all aspects of our life.

If you want to learn more about psychology, cognitive science, and behavioral economics, I recommend the following books:

  1. “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman – the best introduction to Behavioral Economics, and a must-read.
  2. “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely – another very easily readable book on Behavioral Economics.
  3. “The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic” by Dan Ariely – the sequel to Predictably Irrational and gives practical tips on how to overcome our internal biases.
  4. “Antifragile” by Nassim Taleb – more focused on practical philosophy, but he also delves into hedonic treadmills and similar ideas.