My Top 10 Sources of Discontentment in Street Photography

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SF, 2015

I ultimately want to be happy. But unfortunately there are a lot of sources of dissatisfaction in my life. There are a lot of things I want to change about my life, and my outlook in the world.

In this article I want to share some of the 10 deepest sources of dissatisfaction I’ve had in my life, and strategies I’ve been able to cope with these issues. I hope this can help give you some sort of help (if you’re dealing with similar issues as me).

1. My gear isn’t good enough

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This is one of the biggest sources of discontentment I’ve had in my life. I always felt that my camera was never “good enough” — regardless of what camera I had.

For example, when I had my Canon point-and-shoot, that wasn’t good enough so I got a DSLR (Canon 350D/Rebel XT). That soon wasn’t good enough, so I got a full-frame DSLR (Canon 5D). The lenses I had weren’t good enough so I got some Canon L lenses. That soon wasn’t good enough (too big and bulky), so I lusted after a Leica M9.

I then got the Leica M9, but thought that my lens wasn’t good enough. I soon got entranced by film and got the Leica M6. That wasn’t good enough, so I ended up selling the Leica M9 and got the Leica MP. The Leica MP was limiting (too heavy), so I got some compact film cameras (Contax T3 and Ricoh GR1s). But that wasn’t robust enough, so I went back to my Leica.

Soon 35mm started to bore me, and I experimented with medium-format on a Hasselblad. I found that was too much of a pain, and I’ve been shooting more on my smartphone and processing with VSCO. The resolution of that isn’t good enough, so I’ve been shooting more on a digital Ricoh GR.

The camera and gear you have will never be perfect. It will never be enough. No matter how expensive your gear is, there will always be something bigger, better, and newer out there.

I know guys who own 3+ digital Leica bodies and that isn’t enough. They start buying more lenses, start getting interested in different cameras systems, and the really rich guys start getting into digital medium-format. There is never enough.

I preach “buy books, not gear” a lot on this blog and on social media. Why do I do that? It isn’t because I am somehow impervious to wanting to buying more gear— far from it. I try my best to constantly simplify the gear that I own, and get down to basics (currently sticking with my Leica MP and digital Ricoh GR). But whenever I feel dissatisfied or uninspired, I always feel that buying a new camera will solve my life’s problems.

But that is never the problem. The gear is never the limiting factor. It is always myself.

I have personally found that investing in experiences, not physical things, as being the best for my happiness and creativity. Buying experiences include attending classes, going on trips, or investing in education (like photography books). Buying stuff (new cameras, new lenses, etc.) have never brought me happiness— they have just lead to more dissatisfaction and disappointment. There is never a “perfect” camera setup or system. Every setup has its own flaws and shortcomings.

But I think true happiness is being content with the things you already own. Don’t desire the gear that you don’t have. Desire the gear you currently own.

Think about how excited you were when you first wanted to buy the camera (that you already own). Do you remember reading all the specs on the camera, and daydreaming about that camera? And do you remember how excited you were when you first got the camera? Re-live that experience.

Another thought experiment I do is this: imagine if you lost your camera or if someone stole it. How sad would you be if you lost the camera you currently own? How much more would you appreciate what you have?

I have also found the best antidote of being discontent with my gear is to go out and actually take photos. The more time I spend indoor in front of my camera and on camera review sites, the more dissatisfied I am with my gear.

But when I actually go out and shoot, I totally forget about wanting to buy new gear. I just enjoy the shooting experience.

In psychological terms, try to be a “satisficer” instead of a “maximizer.” Be satisfied with what you have, and know that it doesn’t have to be perfect (satisficer), rather than trying to maximize the best out of what you own (maximizer). For more on this, read the book: “The Paradox of Choice”.

For more on this topic, I recommend reading my article: “What to consider when buying a new camera for street photography”.

2. Not having enough social media “fame”

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One of the things that I have learned from stoicism is that we should focus on the things we can control, rather than the things we can’t control in life.

What can’t we control in life? We can’t control how other people perceive us, their opinion of us, how much other people respect us, and how famous we are.

Of course we can put some effort in terms of building up our ego and how other people might perceive us— but that control is very limited. We have some control of how others perceive us, but ultimately how others perceive us isn’t dependent upon ourselves (but upon others).

In an article I wrote in the past, “How many likes are enough?” I explored this source of dissatisfaction I had in my life— essentially how many likes, favorites, comments, view, and followers I had on social media. When I started in photography, I desperately wanted to become “famous” and to be “acknowledged” for my work. I wanted external recognition and validation for my work. I wanted to have books, exhibitions, and features. I wanted my name to become a household name.

However over the years regardless of how much “achievement” I have gotten— it hasn’t really brought me any more satisfaction or happiness in my life. Rather, the more I achieve, the more ambitious I become, and the less satisfied I am with what I have.

I remember when I started off in social media, even having 100 followers was phenomenal. But soon that wasn’t enough, I wanted 1,000 followers. Soon 1,000 followers weren’t enough, I wanted 10,000. And it goes on and on…

Essentially there is always someone out there who will have more followers, likes, favorites, comments, views than you. There will always be someone who is more accomplished as a photographer than you will be. Even if one day you become a Magnum photographer, you will constantly be comparing yourself to your peers— and even possibly become more dissatisfied with your work.

The solution? Don’t seek external affirmation, seek internal affirmation.

Ryan Holiday (a stoic thinker and marketing strategist) once said something along the lines of: “You can’t control the results, only the effort.

I think if we apply this to photography, it means that we can control how much effort we put into creating our work, but we can never control the outcome (whether we become famous or not).

At this point in my life and my photography, I don’t really care how many followers, favorites, or likes I have anymore. I have realized that it will never be enough to fill this void that I have in my life. No amount of little hearts or “likes” will make you eternally happy.

Rather, I have been trying to make myself internally happy by judging myself with an internal ruler. I ask myself the questions like: “Did I put enough effort into my photography today? Am I becoming a better photographer from the past? Am I growing and evolving in my knowledge, experience, and photo-making ability?”

If you’re interested in learning more about this concept, I recommend reading: “On shooting for your internal scorecard.”

3. On not getting a “keeper”

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Do you ever have one of these days in which you go out and you shoot all day (8 hours) and at the end of the day, you don’t end up with any “keepers” or photos that you are proud of?

It happens to me all the time.

No matter how hard we work in our street photography, we cannot always guarantee we will always get a “keeper” in our work or not. We can control how long we shoot, where we shoot, and how much effort we put into shooting, but getting a “keeper” requires some luck as well.

One of the things I love about shooting film is that it takes a lot of pressure off of me in terms of having to always make great images. With digital, I will quickly download the photos at the end of a long day of shooting, and look desperately if I got a “keeper.” However with film, I am stuck in the dark— which helps me enjoy the process of shooting more than worrying about the results.

I think that “happiness” in street photography revolves around enjoying the process of image making, not just worrying if you get a good photo or not. I enjoy the people I interact with on the streets with, I enjoy stopping by coffee shops in-between shooting sessions, I enjoy giving feedback and critiquing the work of others, and also having my photos being given feedback and critique. I enjoy meeting other photographers, and “talking shop” about street photography. For me, the experience of shooting street photography is more valuable than actually making great images.

I feel that by focusing on the process of photography, we are able to be less dissatisfied. We have much more control over the process of photography than the results.

Most street photographers I know (whose work I admire and respect) only admit to making 1 “keeper” a month. That is 12 “keepers” a year (good enough for a small solo 1-person show at a coffee shop). That is 36 “keepers” in 3 years (good enough for a book). So just remind yourself: if you can even take one decent photograph a month that you’re content with, you’re doing really well.

4. Comparing your work to others

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No matter how good your photos are, there will always be someone out there whose work you admire (more than your own).

I think it is good to be inspired by the work of others, to strive you to push your work forward— to become the best-realized version of yourself. You want to become the best photographer you possibly can, rather than trying to be the best photographer in the world. The only person you should compete with in photography is yourself. As long as you’re a better photographer this year than you were last year, you’re making great progress.

I am often discontent when I look at the work of others (whose work I perceive as better than mine) and think self-defeating things to myself like: “Oh man, no matter how hard I try, I will never be good as that photographer.”

But then the reason why it is bad to compare our work with others is that we have different life circumstances from others. Some professional photographers out there have the luxury of traveling the world and shooting everyday for 10+ hours. If you have a family and a 9–5 job, you won’t have that same luxury. So it is unfair to compare your work to the work of others who make photography their full-time living.

Another example: let’s say you are color-blind. Then you won’t be able to perceive colors as well as other photographers (who aren’t color-blind). Therefore you can’t beat yourself up for not making as good color photographs as someone who isn’t color-blind.

A more extreme example: let’s say you are blind. You won’t be able to make as good photos as someone who is able-sighted. But being born blind isn’t something in your control. But if you’re a blind photographer, you can make the best photos you can (considering you are blind). In-fact, there are actually some blind photographers out there (who make pretty decent photos). But of course you would never compare the work of a blind photographer with the work of an able-sighted photographer.

Essentially what I am trying to say is that we all have different abilities in photography. Some of us are older and can’t shoot for 10 hours straight (before getting tired). Some of us don’t have as much time to shoot. Some of us aren’t as creative or experienced as other photographers.

So be compassionate to yourself. Don’t compare your work with others— or else you will always be dissatisfied with your work.

5. Not having enough time to shoot

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Another major source of dissatisfaction I know a lot of street photographers have is not having enough time to shoot.

If you have a family to take care of, you won’t have as much time to shoot. If you have a 9–5 job, you won’t have as much time to shoot. If you are a full-time student, you won’t have as much time to shoot.

I know personally when I was working full-time in an office job, I always told myself: “If I become a full-time photographer, I will have all the time in the world to shoot, and I will spend a lot more time shooting, and will be a lot happier.”

However in reality, now that I am a “full-time” photographer, I actually don’t spend more time shooting than I did when I had a full-time office job. Instead, I pre-occupy more of my time blogging, doing logistical things, answering emails, etc.

I actually sometimes feel that having less free time is beneficial for creativity. Why is that? When I have a 10-hour day free with nothing scheduled, I have a hard time being productive and using my time wisely. I tend to piss away my time when I have nothing planned.

However when I have a really busy day with only 1–2 hour breaks in-between my scheduled events, it forces me to use my time more efficiently and effectively.

So let’s say that you only have 2 hours of “free time” a week to shoot. You will make sure to make those 2 hours the most intentional 2 hours to shoot ever. Compare yourself with a retired person who might have 80 hours a week to shoot. If you have 80 hours of free time, you probably wouldn’t shoot as passionately as if you only had 2 hours of free time a week to shoot.

Another thing I think we need to consider is the fact that the quantity of time we spend shooting (the total amount of time that we shoot) isn’t the same of the quality of time that we spend shooting (how focused and intentional we are when shooting).

So regardless of how much free time you have, rather than wishing that you had more free time to shoot— think about how more effectively and efficiently you can use that time to shoot.

I also do believe that the less free time we have, the more we cherish and appreciate it. So in-fact, 2 hours of intentional shooting (once a week) might be more satisfying than 80 hours of moderate so-so shooting (without really trying).

So how are some other ways you can better utilize the free time you already have to shoot? Are there other ways you can shoot during the gaps of your day? Can you shoot during your lunch break? Can you shoot a little before breakfast, or after dinner? Can you spend more time photographing your co-workers or friends or family? Instead of watching TV at night or surfing the web, can you go out and shoot some nighttime street photography?

Think of ways you can better incorporate street photography into your life, rather than trying to carve our bigger chunks of time to go out and shoot.

6. Not always feeling inspired

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I think one of the most elusive things in a creative life is to always feel “inspired”. But the sad reality is that “inspiration” is a short and fleeting feeling.

Inspiration isn’t an on-off switch. We can’t choose when to be inspired and how often we will be inspired.

There are a lot of quotes out there that share the mentality that you shouldn’t only do creative work when you feel inspired.

This quote by Chuck Close has really resonated with me over the years:

“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”

I totally agree with Chuck Close. We shouldn’t wait around for inspiration before we do our work. Rather, we should just “show up and work”.

The way we can apply this in our street photography is to not wait for inspiration before we go out and shoot. Rather, go out and shoot when you don’t feel inspired— and you will find inspiration once you start the process of shooting.

Another example: I didn’t feel particularly “inspired” when I decided to write this article. However I tried to focus on the process. What is my “process” for writing? It is simply showing up to “work” (Artis Coffee, which is my favorite cafe in Berkeley), having a double-shot of espresso, and putting on a “Pomodoro” timer (25 minutes or work and 5 minutes of rest), and just starting to write.

Whenever I wait for inspiration before I write, I never get any writing done. Whenever I wait for inspiration before I go out and shoot, I never go out and shoot.

Of course there are ways we can spur more creativity into our lives. We can buy more photography books, learn from the masters of street photography, and meet other photographers. But don’t expect to always feel inspired.

Speaking of inspiration- what is “inspiration” exactly? My best understanding of how inspiration works is this: we study something for a long period of time, let the idea marinate in our minds, and suddenly there is an “aha” moment when all these ideas in our head connect in a novel way.

But these moments of inspiration or “aha” moments happen very infrequently. So if you wait for inspiration before shooting or doing any sort of creative work, you will never get anything done— which might also lead to more dissatisfaction to your life.

So how do I personally deal with not being inspired?

Like everybody, I wish I was constantly inspired. I wish I could constantly be turned on, and inspired to either shoot, write, or create.

One of the best things I’ve learned is focusing on is focusing on “systems, not goals” in street photography. What is the difference between “systems” and “goals”?

Well with “systems” it is focusing on the creative process. It is going out and focusing on doing the work.

With “goals” it is based on external achievement— which is something you can’t always control.

So when you aren’t feeling inspired, just go out for a walk. Go out for a walk, and take your camera along. Simply snap anything that tickles your fancy. Don’t expect to make great photos, and set your expectations low (even better, have no expectations).

Focus on the creative process in street photography. Always have your camera with you, always try to walk a little more everyday, try to be more mindful, and put in more effort with your photography.

7. Not being able to travel

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“You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate” – Seneca (from “Letters from a Stoic“)

I personally love traveling. I have had the great opportunity to travel to all of these amazing places in the world, and have met some incredibly inspirational people.

However I don’t always have the freedom or the luxury to travel. Often when I am dissatisfied with my life, I think that traveling will cure my dissatisfaction.

But I think that sometimes traveling is just escapism— we have a hard time dealing with the reality of our everyday lives, and we think that after traveling, everything will mystically be fixed.

However this is rarely the case. I think that traveling in street photography is a good source of seeing the world, having novel experiences, and meeting interesting people. However wanting to always travel is a huge source of dissatisfaction. We can’t take unlimited time off of work, we have obligations at home, and we have limited funds and resources.

The solution to wanting to travel? Explore your own small town or neighborhood.

Personally I have a lot of jealousy of people who live in San Francisco. I live in Berkeley (also an interesting city), but it doesn’t seem as interesting or exotic as San Francisco. Therefore whenever I am not in San Francisco, I feel dissatisfied. I think being a part of the big city will make me feel more inspired, and help me make better photos.

However some of the best street photographers in history have been able to make really interesting photographs in their own small town or city. William Eggleston and Mark Cohen are two photographers who really made interesting photos in their own small, and “boring” towns.

So think to yourself— rather than being dissatisfied with not being able to travel, how can you become a tourist in your own city or country? How can you make more interesting photographs in where you live?

If you want to learn more philosophy about traveling and street photography, I recommend reading my article: “On travel and street photography.”

8. Not knowing other street photographers in-person

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Another source of dissatisfaction I know that a lot of photographers have is this: we don’t know that many other street photographers in-person, or who live in our own city or neighborhood.

It is nice to know other street photographers “in real life”. It is good to meet up with other photographers, share and critique our work, and also get feedback from one another. It is good to have one another to stay inspired.

But at the same time, remember that we live in the most amazing time and age in which we can connect with anybody in the world. This is really the power of social media— we no longer limited by space or location.

So if you want to “meet up” with other photographers, perhaps message other photographers whose work you admire, and start sharing emails with them. If you build up a good enough relationship, perhaps you can give them a Skype call and chat with them more.

For me when I was living in Michigan, I didn’t know any other photographers in my city. However I was able to link up with some great local street photographers, like Brian Day. He lived about an hour-and-half away in Detroit, but I would try to meet up with him.

When I couldn’t meet with Brian, I “spent time” with other photographers by studying their work. I wrote a lot of articles for my “learn from the masters” series— and I feel that by reading interviews with other great photographers that I felt close to them. I felt that they were my virtual mentors, who would help guide and inspire me with my work.

So if in theory that you literally don’t know any other photographers “in real life” or on the Internet— you can always learn from the masters of street photography by reading their books, reading interviews with them, and by joining online communities.

There are always opportunities— you just have to look deep enough for them.

9. Not becoming “recognized” for your work

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I know a lot of photographers who depend a lot on external recognition— and who work their entire lives hoping to become “discovered” or “recognized” for their work. They want to be represented by famous galleries, they want to have their works bought and displayed in museums, and they want to enter the canon of famous photographers.

However once again, being “recognized” for your work is an external thing. No matter how hard we work in our photography, no matter how talented we are— there is so much luck that is involved in being “discovered” as a photographer. It is probably about 99% marketing.

Not only that, but how much “recognition” is enough? Is it enough to have your work published on a blog? Is it enough to have your work published in a print-based magazine? Is it enough to have your work exhibited at a coffee shop? Is it enough to have your work displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City? Is it enough to have your work written about in photography history books after you die?

For me at the end of the day, the only people whose opinion matter to me is the opinion of my close friends and colleagues. As long as I am able to get “recognition” from them in the sense that I am making progress in my photography, I am happy.

To take this even further— even if I had no friends or photographers to get recognition from, I would try my best to recognize myself that I am improving as a photographer.

Progress is happiness. The moment we stop growing is the moment we start dying and atrophying.

So rather than worrying about gaining more recognition of your work, think how you can continue to improve your work and continue growing and evolving as a photographer.

10. Not always improving

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Ironically enough the last point I want to discuss which causes a lot of discontentment in photography is the feeling that you aren’t always improving.

I’m a self-described “self-help junkie”. I constantly read self-help books, trying to learn of ways that I can “improve” myself and to always become better.

However this has also lead to a lot of discontentment. If I am not always “improving” I feel discontent.

I have recently been reading a lot more Zen Buddhist philosophies— which focus more on self-compassion and appreciation (than simply achieving more).

The ultimate source of happiness I feel is simply appreciating what you have. Appreciating your life. Appreciating the camera gear you own. Appreciating the city you live in. Appreciating the photos you make. Appreciating the opportunity to be alive. Appreciating your eyesight.

So the last point is be self-compassionate. Don’t take yourself and your photography too seriously. Focus on having fun. Focus on enjoying the process, and not feeling that you need to always become “better”— because you already perfect the way you are.

If you are interested in Zen Buddhism, I recommend reading my articles:

  1. Zen in the Art of Street Photography
  2. 15 (More) Lessons Taoism Has Taught Me About Street Photography

Conclusion

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In this article I talked about some major sources of dissatisfaction with our lives. These sources of dissatisfaction won’t apply to everybody. I write this all from personal experience.

One of the best things I learned about “happiness” was from Nassim Taleb in his book: “Antifragile”. He pretty much says the following: the secret to happiness is to simply avoid what makes us unhappy. So all the sources of discontentment I write in this article— simply inverse it, and do the opposite.

Avoid discontentment, and you will become content (and therefore happy).

Related Articles

If you want to learn more about contentment in photography (and life) I recommend reading these articles:

  1. On Jealousy and Street Photography
  2. How to Be Grateful For What You Have
  3. 12 Scientifically Proven Ways to Have More Happiness in Street Photography

What are some other sources of unhappiness, discontentment, and dissatisfaction you experience in your life— and how do you overcome it? Share your thoughts, experiences, and opinions in the comments below!

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