On Opportunity Costs in Street Photography

Hong Kong, 2014
Hong Kong, 2014

Life is short and limited. We only have so many days to live. We only have so many zeroes in our bank accounts.

We all want to live happy, productive lives. We want happiness in our photography. We want to creatively thrive, and live a life which we don’t have any regrets.

I have lots of temptations in my life. To earn more money, to buy more physical possessions, which creates a lot of distractions in my life.  But what really matters in life?

Opportunity costs in life

I’ve recently been thinking about “opportunity costs” in my life. For every ounce of energy I spend on something (lusting after a new camera, wanting a new smartphone, etc) is an ounce of energy I could have invested elsewhere (reading a book, writing an article, spending time with loved ones).

There are lots of opportunity costs in our lifes, both in terms of time+effort and money.

The sad thing in life is that we can’t have it all. We only have limited resources. We need to choose wisely.

Opportunity costs in terms of money

I want to start off by talking about opportunity costs when it comes to money.

There is substantial research which proves that money can buy us happiness– but only if we spend it on experiences, not physical things.

For example, buying a new camera or lens won’t make us happy. But attending a photography workshop or going on a trip will. I also categories books more as “experiences” than things – as you don’t just own a physical book to adorn, the purpose of a book is to educate and inspire you.

So whenever I have an urge to buy a new laptop, car, camera, lens, etc– I don’t compare apples to apples. I compare apples to oranges.

So what I mean by that is this:

I’m not wondering whether I should buy a new Mamiya 7 camera or a Fujifilm GF670 medium format. I’m wondering if the $2500 investment is better spent on buying a round-trip ticket somewhere in the world, a Magnum photography workshop, 250 rolls of 35mm Kodak portra 400 film, or 50 damn fine photography books.

Once again, whenever I get the urge to buy something physical, I try to translate that into experiences.

Psychologically I think that buying new physical possessions will make me happier, but logically I know that experiences will buy me happiness. It is a constant struggle between the both, but I always try to go with experiences.

Also another way I prevent buying shit I don’t need: I always ask Cindy for her opinion on things (she sees it from an objective outside perspective). It also helps she’s much more financially fit than I am.

Opportunity costs in terms of mental energy

I think that we often forget the opportunity costs when it comes to our mental energy.

Current theories on willpower liken our motivation and energy like a gas tank in a car: we only start off with a limited amount of willpower, and as the day drags on, we steadily use our willpower. By the end of the day, we are depleted of our willpower (that’s why we tend to lose our temper with our kids or significant others at the end of the day, rather than the beginning of a day). That’s also why it is best to do your creative work or exercise at the beginning of the day (rather than at the end).

I often find the urge to buy shit I don’t need takes a lot of mental energy. I have been pondering whether I should buy a new laptop, new nike shoes, a medium format rangefinder, etc. I end up wasting mental energy simply thinking about it– rather than focusing my energy on what matters the most (writing, reading, photographing, spending time with people that I love).

So nowadays I’ve been incredibly stingy with my willpower and energy. Things which I find deplete my willpower and energy (which I have mostly removed from my life):

  • Television (perhaps the single biggest time waster, I stopped watching tv when I was a junior in college, and now regret wasting all this time on it).
  • Social media (I don’t check my posts to see how many “likes” or comments I get after posting it. Also I check my comments very rarely, so not to get distracted by my purpose in life– which is to contribute to the pool of knowledge of street photography and a philosophy of life).
  • Email (still necessary, but I no longer spend 3–4 hours a day in my inbox like I used to when I had a corporate job. I try to check my email as infrequently as possible).
  • Unnecessary commitments (I try to say “no” to more requests now regarding my time. I only spend time with friends or family I really care about. I try to avoid “time wasters”).
  • Media (I don’t read the news, watch YouTube videos, and no longer read any blogs [zenhabits and farnam street are excellent, though]. There is too much noise out there. I now focus on finding more signal which I get from books, and engaging conversations with like minded people).
  • Smartphone applications (I used to be a sucker for “productivity” apps. I always tried downloading new applications thinking that they would revolutionize my life. But now, I have the practice of uninstalling an app everyday. If anything, this has helped me be more focused. The essential apps: Evernote, kindle, iA writer. Everything I need to produce and publish).
  • Negative people (negative people and trolls are a waste of time. I’d rather use my energy on positive and loving friends and colleagues, than try to “defend” myself against people who dislike me. There is no way I can make everybody like me, might as well focus on those I care about).
  • Negative thoughts (no need to waste time and energy on negative thoughts. They don’t change your life for the better. Rather, I find focusing on positive thoughts to be much better).

What to avoid in photography (and life)

Some thoughts on more ideas you can apply in photography:

  • Rather than contemplating on what new camera to buy or lens, just go out and shoot with what you already got. I’ve found the best cure to GAS is to just go out and shoot, as once you fall into the “flow” of shooting, you totally disregard what camera you’re shooting with.
  • Rather than wasting energy and time on camera review sites and rumor sites, instead look at great photography (Magnumphotos.com)
  • Rather than arguing with trolls on the definition of street photography or some debate on Hardcore Street Photography or Facebook, give constructive and honest feedback to other street photographers you know – and ask for their feedback on your work.
  • Rather than checking the likes/favorites/comments on your photos, print out your photos, figure out how to edit and sequence them, and possibly exhibit, publish, or print them as a book. Or figure out who you can donate or give a print to.
  • Rather than wondering what trip you can go to (in a foreign county) for street photography, figure out if there are some other areas close to where you life that you haven’t shot yet.


Don’t waste your energy, willpower, life, mental energy, money, and time on negative people, lusting for new equipment, or external recognition.

Figure out how to inject more excitement and meaning into your life via experiences, meeting other like minded and passionate photographers, and personal photography projects which are meaningful to you.

The secret of living a meaningful life (and being a successful photographer) isn’t so much what to do– it is what to avoid.