Why Street Photographs Fail

Anyone who has made a serious attempt at street shooting knows that failure is our nourishment. It is a brutal diet sustaining yourself on your own dashed hopes and broken dreams. Lighting fades, people blink, you miss your focus – poof – that moment is gone forever. Worse maybe, everything in the moment will be perfect except for that one thing which absolutely ruins it – a special type of failure which is acutely painful. These times when you think you’ve captured a moment, but later in editing a fatal flaw is revealed, it is demoralizing. I try to not edit on the same day I shoot because it can be fairly depressing when you’ve had a bad day shooting, also the passage of time creates some objectivity when you edit your own work.

Trial and error isn’t always fun process, especially so if you are not adept at recognizing errors. But how to do so? What’s a mistake anyway? Art is a world where you create your own rules and define your own mistakes, so what might be acceptable to you is intolerable to your contemporary in their own work – it would be antithetical to their style. Is there even such a thing as an objective error here? It seems like the answer is no. That is a daunting place to begin decision making.

But don’t for a moment pretend that you aren’t making decisions. Picking up the camera is a choice. Every single time you press the shutter button it is a choice. Where and how you point the camera is a choice, how you edit and crop your photos is a choice. Street photographers have an almost unbelievable amount of choice compared to any other type of photography, where “good” might be easier to define or a “bad shot” is objectively quantifiable. The problem is that successful street photography looks like flight of fancy, despite that fact that it is usually careful consideration combined with a splash of luck.

Missed focus? Guy staring into his phone taking up half the frame? Glaring technical problems or gross compositional mistakes are more obvious. Those are easier choices, simpler decisions. But how you present a subject is a difficult choice. Whether you share a photo of that subject, when, where and how, are all choices. Just because you believe that free will is an illusion, “thats just how things are,” doesn’t mean you aren’t choosing. We are all making choices constantly, and the sooner you realize that both for life and photography and apply a consistent behavior to those decisions, the easier it all becomes. The hardest part is actually accepting your own role in determining the outcome, accepting the responsibility that comes with the acknowledgement of choice.

When you choose one thing it means by definition you are also not choosing something else. That thing could have been great! What if we pick wrong!? It is what makes decision making so difficult and why so many people seem to either postpone and avoid decision making or just ignore it and pretend that they don’t have a choice at all. Choice can be paralyzing. Kierkegaard summarized the difficulty of successful street shooting in 1844:


“Freedom succumbs to dizziness.”

Søren Kierkegaard



All of the photos in this post failed, for one reason or another. I’m showing you photos that were fatally flawed, had boring lighting or simply were not an interesting choice of subject to begin with. But they taught me about what I am trying to show. These and countless others showed me how close you could get to perfection and still totally fucking blow it. They taught me about the practical application of the law of large numbers – hit the shutter less. They taught me to not always trust autofocus, to be wary of my surroundings, and dozens of other lessons small and large which if I enumerate might ruin some of the magic, also this is not going to be a technical blog. I’d like to write a bit less and post more photos, because I have so many that I do want to share. This post is a bitter pill, but I’m trying to prove a point: failure is our best, and harshest teacher. Just like everybody else, Ive shot countless failures.

These photos taught me something I liked to think I already knew: if you do not study, practice, pause, reflect, and repeat, you cannot improve and more importantly you should not have an expectation of improvement. If you keep doing the same things, you cannot expect different results. You have to look inside yourself to decide when, where and why you’re pointing the lens. But the single most important lesson Ive learned about street photography cannot be viewed – it is the camera being in my hand at all times.

Let us take a moment of silence, and some blank space, to consider all the great photographs that were never taken, all the amazing moments that were missed and never recorded, and all the choices that were not made or maybe never even considered.