It is Impossible to Take 100,000 Bad Street Photographs in a Row

Stockholm, 2015
Stockholm, 2015

I recently read some advice by author Ray Bradbury for aspiring writers:

“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

I think the same applies for street photography. To change the numbers a bit– I think it is impossible to take 100,000 bad street photographs in a row. I think it was Henri Cartier-Bresson who said, “Your first 1,000 photos are your worst.” I think in the digital age, it is more like “Your first 100,000 photos are your worst”.

Assuming you shot 100 photos a day, that would be 36,500 a year. So at that rate, you can reach the 100,000 street photos mark in 3 years. If you’re more prolific and shoot more– you can reach that 100,000 mark much quicker.

I think it is impossible to take 100,000 bad street photographs in a row.

When I did my first backpacking trip through Europe in 2009, I took 1,000 photos a day for 30 days straight. At the end of my trip, I ended up with 30,000 photos. I ended up taking a lot of boring photos, but I ended up with around 5 photos I was pleased with.

My “keeper rate” was around 0.017%. Even nowadays, I only like 1 photo that for every 50 rolls of film (1,800 photos) I shoot. My current “keeper rate” is 0.056%.

Gary Winogrand was one of the most prolific street photographers in history. Legend has it that he would shoot an entire roll of film just walking down a square block. I even heard that he shot at least 5–10 rolls of film a day. In that sense, he was the “first digital photographer”.

Winogrand loved to shoot. He didn’t really care too much to look at his shots. When he died, he had thousands of rolls of film which were undeveloped. I don’t think Winogrand was the most “talented” or technically proficient photographer. But through his pure output of shooting– he was able to get a handful of very strong and memorable street photographs.

Daido Moriyama is another photographer who embraces this philosophy of shooting a lot. He doesn’t discriminate when he’s out on the streets. He just photographs whatever interests him– and doesn’t really care too much about anything else.

I’m not telling you to publish 100,000 photos to the internet. I’m a huge believer in doing a tight edit (selection of your work). Showing less photos is more. I believe photographers should only show their best work.

On the other hand, I do believe photographers should shoot a lot. Shoot a lot, then edit tightly afterwards. Most photographers I know are pleased with 1 “good shot” a month, and 1 “great shot” a year. I think especially due to the complicated and spontaneous nature of street photography– the same applies.

So know that you are going to take a lot of bad photos before making a few good ones. Even Alex Webb says that street photography is 99.9% failure. The only way to double your success is to double your failure rate.

So keep failing in the streets. But don’t be discouraged. Keep shooting. Try to aim to shoot everyday, regardless of how mundane your everyday life may seem.

Photograph not just “street photography”. Photograph your family, your kids, friends, co-workers, landscapes, even flowers if that interests you. Just don’t give up. Keep the snowball rolling.

Take those 100,000 photographs – and I guarantee you, you will get at least one good street photograph you will be proud of.