Why It’s Best to Have Low Expectations in Street Photography

On the day after Twelfth Night the weather was dull, the light fading, and the Christmas lights had just been switched off. People seemed not to have recovered from their New Year’s hangovers. The chances of getting a good street photo in these circumstances were low, to say the least.

I was quite right. People were scurrying home when I walked into town. The High Street was forlorn without much illumination and getting a shot seemed all but impossible. Then I spotted someone loading a large chair into a vehicle, with two girls sipping drinks nearby, staring wistfully into the distance.

I crossed the road for a better angle, waited for passers-by to catch up — and took the shot you see above. It’s not perfect, but I like it. Somehow it seems to fit the mood and the moment.

Try “No Expectations”
So is it better to have low expectations rather than high ambitions when you go out to take some shots on the street?

Never mind “low expectations,” it’s best to have NO expectations in street photography. It’s the only way to avoid disappointment when you return home without the perfect shot.

Frankly, I never have any expectations of getting a decent shot on a quiet day in my home town, but one time I chanced upon five men in motorcycle outfits walking side-by-side. I’ve always valued this shot because I didn’t expect it.

Five men in motorcycling gear

I’m not suggesting street photography is a hit-and-miss activity. It isn’t. With flair, skill and lots of experience you can go out and give a wonderful performance. It’s the rest of the cast — the world at large — who may be having an “off day.”

It’s possible you’ll find yourself asking, somewhat ungrammatically: is it me or is it them? (‘Tis I? Nay, ’tis they!) In other words, have you failed to get the perfect shot because:

1. You didn’t try hard enough.
2. You weren’t looking properly.
3. You missed golden opportunities.
4. You didn’t use the right camera settings.

Or did you fail because:

1. The weather was too gloomy.
2. There were too few people around.
3. Those who were around were too gloomy.
4. No opportunity presented itself.

These two sets of possible reasons tend to play off each other. You start mixing them together. For example, you may think that no opportunity presented itself because you weren’t in the right place (very likely!) and therefore you weren’t trying hard enough.

However, you’d be wrong to beat yourself up. You were trying hard to be in the right place, but it didn’t work out. At that exact time, somewhere else in the world, another photographer was getting (and perhaps fluffing) a better opportunity. You just didn’t know where to go.

Empty Hand Syndrome
I’ve spoken with other street photographers about the “empty hand” syndrome — of returning home with nothing worth sharing — and I think it may affect the experienced photographer more than the beginner. It happens when nothing you see fits perfectly with your style. Beginners have not yet developed a style, so they can feel reasonably satisfied when returning with just a few visually interesting shots.

When you develop a style — when you start to notice certain configurations of people in the street and photograph them in your own particular way — you begin to have expectations which are not fulfilled every time. That’s why you should be prepared to have a post mortem analysis when you return home.

Was it I? Or was it the world? Just possibly it could have been both.

1 thought on “Why It’s Best to Have Low Expectations in Street Photography”

  1. Hi John
    We have a quirky Art Centre in Colchester ( Firstsite ) I am sure you have enough Quirky images to cover one of their sloping walls.
    Some inspiration could be well received.

    Best Wishes


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