How Cognitive Biases Hold Back Your Travel Photography

What’s the best way to advance faster as a photographer? It’s probably not buying a new camera or even spending more time on your photography.

The most important piece of equipment you travel with is not your camera, it’s your brain. And unfortunately, it comes from the factory with a few quirks called cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are errors in reasoning — and everyone has them.

You might not realize just how much they affect your travel and landscape photography. Cognitive biases — like the sunk cost fallacy, planning fallacy, or survivorship bias — can cause you to:

  • Waste time, money, and effort.
  • Miss out on better opportunities.
  • Advance more slowly as a photographer.
  • Make the same mistakes over and over again.

Thus, equipping yourself to identify and confront cognitive biases will allow you to:

  • Spend your time, money, and effort strategically.
  • Discover incredible landscapes sooner.
  • Grow exponentially faster than your peers.
  • Learn more with less time.

While preparing for a one-year travel sabbatical, I’ve had to confront my own cognitive biases, and what started as a dream to travel full-time ended up positively impacting every area of my life: photography, travel, lifestyle, relationships, and teaching.

Can you pinpoint a time when a cognitive bias caused you to miss out in your photography? Did you beat it the next time?

Jonathan Lee Martin's picture

Jonathan Lee Martin is a fine art landscape photographer, educator and globetrotting digital nomad. He’s traveling the world for a year to discover unique landscapes and help fellow landscape photographers lighten their load to go further.

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A nice example of the first one (sunken thing) was given recently by Thomas Heaton visiting Mesa Arch in Canyonlands near Moab. A lot of photographers had gathered here for sunrise and the "iconic" shot (not so iconic anymore...). But it's such a tight space, no one wanted to leave their spot once they realised the light was grey and flat, IE rubbish for the arch. Meanwhile Thomas and his group decided to explore the area around it and to find something else to shoot. It's where being British can help you : the "oh well, let's move on" attitude. Could it be why so many of them are successful as landscape photographers ?

😂 now I'm going to start saying "you should be more British!"

Another solution to this is Just don’t go to these places in the first place, TH was right in his video when he was dreading getting there before they even set off, that’s when to make the decision

I tend to shoot things that have not been shot a million times before. It's so much more interessting than shooting the Arc for the 1000th time. Sure, i did take a quick shot, but did not spend the time i do for a serious photo.

While I see your point, I think people tend to over-emphasize these kinds of things. Success is nice but it's possible to overlook the benefits of unplanned incidents. Some years ago, I read a book, "The Tracker" (1978), by Tom Brown Jr., a famous tracker. In it, he relays having been tasked to find a mentally challenged boy/man (I forget) and noted his target's haphazard ramblings through the woods. He admired his ability to be diverted by each new discovery on his journey. I think that has a lot of value. Will it help you to become a better photographer, traveler, whatever? Probably not. But you might just find something you didn't know you were looking for.

Totally fair, and that's an important shortcoming of calling a sunk cost "sunk" too quickly. Like anything, there's probably a balance, and in general we tend to err a little too far to one side.

I totally agree. Planned, strategic, grow faster than your peers. Mind our mental health, let life take you. One of my best trips was where my wife and I booked on our first night in Rome and ended up in all sorts or surprising places and meeting amazing people. Best week of my life. Fuck planning it on an app, look up and forwards. Photography is not just about having a camera. Actually leaving the camera at home might make you a better photographer.

Cognitive biases are not always errors.

Fair catch. I think we notice them most when they "cause" errors, but it's not exactly black and white. Some biases, like the observational selection bias, are actually really amazing for find new locations: imagine or "select" in your mind what your looking for, then drive and keep your eyes open!

Like looking for that perfect colored LEGO brick in a giant pile…

Nick B: I don't know if the "being British" argument is necessarily valid. I shot Mesa Arch a month ago, and got there a little late to get a prime spot. So, being creative, I moved up on top of the arch and shot timelapse until the mob left. I also got several really nice shots of the squirrels that live up there.

Then, I went down and shot the arch with the reflected light from below lighting the underside of the arch. It was not a good sunrise, so I didn't really miss anything, and the reflected light made for some great compositions.

However, I did live in the UK for a year, so maybe your argument is still valid. Cheers!

I guess the chipmunks in the UK look like squirrels! ;-)

That shot of the arch is pretty cool, you used the blue haze to your advantage well.

I think there is a certain aesthetic to photographs of groups of photographers attempting to capture the same "iconic" shot.

Sunk cost fallacy: Me contemplating getting an even faster M43 lens...

…and next week, the Anchoring Effect! 😂

A wonderful example of selection bias occurred during WWII. The RAF kept reinforcing the damaged areas of bombers in an attempt to help reduce loses. Then a statistician named Abraham Wald, who was asked to help, realised that they were analysing success instead of failure.

The only bombers they had to examine were the ones that got home despite being damaged. They were succeeding despite the damage - meaning that those areas weren't critical to success. Reinforcing these damaged areas would do less to reduce losses than analysing the undamaged areas to see which were most likely to cause a catastrophic failure when damaged.

Yes! I love that example 👍