How to Stop Sabotaging Yourself as a Street Photographer

How to Stop Sabotaging Yourself as a Street Photographer

Reading tips for creative inspiration can be helpful but what happens when you set yourself up for failure before you even step a foot out of the door?

Street photography is such a diverse field that can be approached in so many different ways. This may appear to be a positive aspect of doing this type of photography because you have the opportunity to express and reinvent yourself every time you go out in the streets. The downside is that it is easy to get lost along the way and feel like everyone else is surpassing you, leaving you disappointed with yourself and your work. How can we deal with this mind set?

Set (Realistic) Expectations

In street photography you do not have any clients to please. You are the only driver in this type of photography, therefore it is up to you to set realistic expectations of what you want to strive for and what you can achieve. Undoubtedly, social media has expanded our horizons but it has also made us set the bar higher for ourselves. Seeing other people’s work from all corners of the world can make you feel inferior. For example, I would thoroughly enjoy photographing the streets of Tokyo or New York, but I know it’s something I cannot currently achieve due to my circumstances. I remind myself that I have a completely different city scene available at my disposal and as such I need to adjust my expectations in line with what I can achieve with the type of places I am able to reach. 

Furthermore, when I create personal street photography projects I prefer to choose a more simple theme which then allows me to make the most of my creativity in shooting it instead of picking something that is convoluted and hard or impossible to keep up with. Understandably, we all have dreams for where we want to be and what we want to be creating today and in the future, however, you also need to be realistic in your photography because otherwise you are bound to be disappointed when you are unable to reach unattainable goals. 

Two young people relaxing in the street

Give Yourself a Direction

Whenever you wander outdoors, give yourself at least a simple project or theme. Whatever you choose to shoot, it does not mean you will miss out on all the other random or humorous occurrences and moments in the streets. However, if you start feeling like you are not achieving anything purposeful with your street photography, you may need to remind yourself what you intend to shoot in the first place. I often travel around Europe photographing the streets for a few days at a time. During these trips, I am not very strict on what I intend to shoot but I do have several ongoing themes that help me enjoy street photography more because I have a loose idea in mind of what I want to photograph. 

Aimless street photography can only work for so long until you are ready to put your camera down for good. Don’t let yourself become disheartened with your street work just because you never considered shooting more purposeful. We can’t always know what we’ll end up shooting, especially during random and unplanned trips. However, when we set time aside for street photography, there is no reason why we shouldn’t set a moment aside for deciding on a loose plan for our photography trip or walk. It’s likely that you will deviate from your idea, but it is that initial plan that gives us a reason to go out. 

A city reflection in Parisian cafe window

Forget Masterpieces

If you start feeling like your work is not progressing, you need to remind yourself that you cannot create a masterpiece every time you go out. The reason is that there are no masterpieces. Just because you created an image that received 500 likes on your social media profile, it does not determine its value. What happens when you receive 500 more likes the next day? Has the image suddenly grown in value and meaning? Of course, it has not. Equally, if you were to create an image you would deem as "groundbreaking", what happens when you create another one? Does the first one lose its status?

It is easy to fall in a self-loathing cycle where you become blind to your own progress if you rely on external praise to guide you. Instead of aiming to create “groundbreaking” work, try and compartmentalize your current and past work. We often ignore our early work because we think it does not represent who we are today. This is true, however, the only way to follow your progress is to review what you have done and what you are doing today. Over time your work may improve in its technical ability but both past and present work still signifies who we are and how we see the world in different periods of our lives. 

Sunlight hitting a street wall plaque

Good Work Takes Time

Social media and other external factors might make you feel that you have to create every day to stay relevant. This may be true for brands who are constantly looking to attract new customers but, regarding street photography and other types of personal photography, you can only create so much work of substance. If you want to follow trends then you need to become a machine that constantly creates new content but if you want to create original work, time and dedication are your best friends. Original work does not happen randomly or quickly. Today’s society is heavily focused on easily digestible content that receives short span of audience’s attention and then gets discarded in favor of the next new thing. 

You have to ask yourself – am I shooting for myself or for the audience? Once you know the answer, you will be able to adjust your shooting habits accordingly. Be wary of relying too much on your audience because if one of your heavily used portfolio apps or websites were to crash one day, you will be left with large amounts fragmented work and be required to rebuild everything from the ground. 

A man and two women in a rainy Venetian street

My advice is to examine your reasons for pursuing street photography and your goals if you want to maintain your interest and passion for this type of photography. You should never feel ashamed of focusing on themes and projects that you find interesting just because it may not be what others are doing or what social media favors. The more you shoot what others may want or expect from you, the quicker you will put your camera away for good. Give yourself challenges but don’t set yourself up for failure with unrealistic and unattainable goals.

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Jeff Walsh's picture

"good work" in this article is saying that it takes time and effort to create substance rather than churning out trendy work which is just uninspired trend chasing. It seems the context is saying "good work" is more about the pursuit of meaningful work, photos that have meaning and depth to the photographer, rather than trend chasing for likes from strangers.

Anete Lusina's picture

I couldn't have put it any better than you did, Jeff! :-)

Alexander Ramos's picture

I needed this article, thanks! Your point about social media is valid to me. I don't hate IG, but it's grating at times to try and keep up with the Joneses there. I prefer my Flickr and Deviant Art accounts. People there are generally more constructive in their comments, and I don't have to reduce the quality of my photos to 'compete' as I seem to have to at IG.

To be fair IG has its uses and does expose one's works more easily to a wider audience. I just don't care for its whirlwind expectations, I suppose.

B Young's picture

Excellent article. Some great points and ideas. The photo of the man in the street with the raincoat poncho on is very nice. Well done.

Anete Lusina's picture

Thank you so much! Glad you enjoyed the photo, too!