The Benefit of Having No Expectations in Street Photography

San Francisco, 2015
San Francisco, 2015

“I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all.” – Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

I have a problem. I have really high expectations for myself. I want to become the best photographer I possibly can, the best teacher I possibly can, and also the best blogger that I possibly can.

The downside?

I put a lot of pressure on myself.

I put pressure on myself to constantly be shooting, to constantly be improving my teaching, and to also constantly be writing.

But I often feel that having too high expectations for myself is counter-productive. I feel that putting so much pressure on myself has lead to fatigue, depression, and anxiety. Not only that, but the more pressure I put on myself— the worse I actually perform.

What is the antidote that worked for me? Having no expectations.

Expectations in art

I am currently re-reading “Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca, and there is one chapter in which he is talking about art. He tells the story of an artist who said:

“I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all.”

This is a great quote that really resonated with me, because I think that sometimes we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to please our audience. Not only that, but we are also trying to constantly build up our audience— by getting more followers, likes, and social media fame.

But when we are creating any sort of art— whether that is our street photography, our writing, or music— we should be content if we please a few people (our close friends and followers online), just one person (a close friend), or none at all (just ourselves).

So when it comes to your photography, whom are you aiming to please? Are you trying to gain a million followers, or are you just content with making photos that please your good friend (whose photography you respect)? Or better yet— are you just out there shooting to make images that please yourself?

The benefit of setting no expectations

Alex Webb once said: “Street photography is 99.9% failure”. Which means when we’re out shooting, we will be failing 99.9% of the time. We should only expect to make a decent photograph .1% of the time.

Therefore if you are always out shooting expecting to get great shots, you will be massively disappointed.

Rather, set yourself no expectations. If you have no expectations, you will never be disappointed. And if you happen to make a decent shot, you will be happy.

I read another quote from philosopher Nassim Taleb (in his list of “Heuristics“) who wrote about the benefits of trying to not get anything done:

“A writer told me ‘I didn’t get anything done today’. Answer: try to do nothing. The best way to have only good days is to not aim at getting anything done. Actually almost everything I’ve written that has survived was written when I didn’t try to get anything done.”

Enjoy yourself

So when you’re out shooting street photography, don’t expect to make great photographs. Don’t have your happiness held hostage by external circumstances.

Rather, when you’re out shooting on the streets just tell yourself that you will go on a nice walk, enjoy the weather, enjoy the people you meet along the way, and the nice coffee you might have at a close by cafe.

I also feel the funny thing about street photography is the harder you try to make a good photograph, the less likely you are to get it. It is almost like trying to chase a butterfly. The more you try to chase a butterfly, the less likely you are to catch it. But the second you stand still, it will land gently on you.

So don’t put too much stress or pressure when it comes to your photography. Enjoy the experience and the process of your photography, and be happy if you get a few good photos, or no photos at all. Be happy if you have a few followers, or no followers at all.

Set no expectations and enjoy every moment.

Related articles on happiness and the philosophy of photography

  1. On Happiness and Street Photography
  2. How to Be Grateful For What You Have
  3. 8 Ways How Money Can Buy You Happiness in Street Photography
  4. How to Overcome the “Tyranny of Choice” in Street Photography
  5. On Purpose and Street Photography

If you enjoy these articles, you might also like my free e-book: “Letters from a Street Photographer“.