The Expectation Trap And How To Stop It Ruining Your Photography (Or Anything Else)

When I started shooting film with a Holga 120N, the film and processing costs were considerable, so I expected to have a high hit rate, ie the number of photographs that I was happy with, proud of and wanted to share.

This didn’t happen.

It’s unrealistic to expect such a primitive, and often unpredictable camera, to deliver time after time, even if every composition you present it with is a masterpiece (which they certainly weren’t).

With 35mm film – and especially with SLRs when I had extensive control over how the images would look – again I expected to have a decent proportion of keepers. Perhaps 12 out of every 36 exposure roll of film I shot.

Even with the vastly improved control of an SLR compared with a Holga, the superior optics and objectively more consistent performance, I was still disappointed that I was often nowhere near my one out of three success rate. Sometimes not even a single frame from a roll of film was worth sharing.

Again, in retrospect, there is still considerable inconsistency with 35mm film, plus my skills and vision as a photographer were not (and are not) sufficient to meet this ultimately unrealistic expectation.

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I often write blog posts in the evening, between the time the kids go to bed and the point at which my wife and I retire, usually around two or maybe three hours later.

I often expect to be able to sort through a batch of photos, upload the best to my Flickr, write (or at least the first draft) a new blog post, enjoy a final snack, and have some quality time with my wife in this time.

A sizeable blog post probably takes me a couple of hours to write, and another hour to edit and add photos. This alone I would struggle to fit into the time I’m allowing, let alone the other things I want to squeeze in.

Again, my expectations are way off what’s realistic.

I recently bought a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, which I’ll post a review of here soon. It’s been on my wishlist for the longest time, and I hoped it might be my ideal camera.

Shock horror, it’s no better than my “holy trinity” of the Ricoh GX100, Ricoh GRD III and Pentax Q, and in some ways I like the Lumix less.

For other reasons, I’d rather pick up either of my recent 4MP acquisitions, the Sony DSC-L1 or Olympus C-4040, which cost me about one eight and one quarter of what the LX3 did respectively.

The Lumix hasn’t set my photographic life alight, or suddenly made my photography world class. I’m not sure quite what I was expecting from the LX3, but again it was beyond what the reality has transpired to be.

As you can see, there’s a pattern here, and a lesson to be shared.

If you expect too much, you will always be disappointed.

The danger then is that this disappointment overshadows what you actually have experienced and gained and enjoyed and achieved.

All you focus on is the hole in the middle of the donut, rather than the tasty bit with plenty to get your teeth into.

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One area where I do feel I’m on top of this now is with my hit rate expectations.

With any photowalk, whether I make 12 pictures or 120, if at the end I have just one photograph that’s a keeper, I’m happy.

Half a dozen, and I’m dancing in the streets until 3am or when the neighbours call the police again, whichever comes sooner.

I plan to continue to try to manage my expectations better in other parts of my photography life.

Like thinking there is one perfect camera.

Or believing that I can write, edit, add images to and publish a new blog post in 30 minutes.

How about you? How often do you feel disappointed with your photography in some way, and that it’s fallen far short of your expectations? What can you do next time to be happier with the outcome?

Please share your thoughts and experiences with us below (and remember to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too. If you’re interested, this is what my photography life looks like right now.

22 thoughts on “The Expectation Trap And How To Stop It Ruining Your Photography (Or Anything Else)”

  1. I have tried an instant camera twice; I got on as a gift (Instax) and I bought one (Polaroid). I was always impressed by other people’s instant photos (cool! creative! lo-fi at its best!) and I expected that I could do that too. But I failed miserably. And I just felt very uncomfortable walking around with such a camera – it screams “I am a photographer”, and I hate that. I have sold both cameras after a month or so, and I now know that it is not my thing (no matter how tempting that new Diana Instant Square looks like).

    1. I had a Fuji Instax Wide, I think it was. Really impressed with the photos actually, and the colours it could produce. But far too expensive for me to justify using regularly so I sold it after a few packs of film.

  2. You do like to pressure yourself don’t you 😀. I am a crap photographer. I know that no matter what camera or film I use, my pictures will be crap. I look at magazines, books, blogs and photo websites and see the most fantastic images. I know I will never have anything even remotely comparable in my “portfolio”. You know what? I don’t care. I am too lazy to spend hours perfecting an image in Photoshop and too poor to buy flagship gear. But I still take photos whenever I fancy with no expectations of getting a single keeper. I enjoy my hobby, until I don’t, then the camera stays in my bag. See, no pressure at all 🤣.

    1. Jay, thanks for your thoughts. I think unfortunately I have a larger ego than you, or it needs more massaging!

      Whilst the main appeal of photography is getting out in nature and exploring, plus the pleasure of using the cameras I love, there is a part of me that wants to make genuinely great photographs that inspire other people.

      But yeh you’re absolutely right, I do put too much pressure and expectation on myself in many areas of my life…

    2. Jay, I must disagree with the thought that you are a “crap” photographer. I’ve just been looking – again – at your “green & rust” series, and I think that you most definitely have the critical ingredient: the discerning “eye” for composition and color. These are simply luscious.

      I think that this “eye”, this somehow innate ability to pick-out a a composition from the swirling world around us – drives one to pick up a camera in the first place. That “talent”, whether vestigial or somewhat realized, is key and nothing else will serve – certain principles may be learned, but it is by-and-large (I think) “born”, a thing one “has” or does not. You do.

      We are most of us unhappy with our “hit” rate, but when *use*, the practice of it, is exercised, the innate vision more often conjoins with the technical wants and produces images like these. Scenes, tableau, arrangements of striking beauty and harmony are rare in the cacophonous, kaleidoscopic world. The even-rare ability to pick them out – or to construct them – is the thing.

  3. off topic quickly here…
    that 2nd pic wit the diagonal trunk – do you have a colour version of it?
    curious about the colour of those petals.

    Oh, and yes, not realising our expectations is the fuel to progress through life…
    Image if everything was easy? ne day we awake from the haze to realise that what we thought would never come together is now easy as pie. And then we expect a bit more. And we’ve moved on to the next phase or challenge.

    1. Anton, no I don’t have a colour version, straight out of camera JPEGs my friend! : )

      These were pure white rose petals though, so colour wouldn’t have made much difference in this instance, except for the green of the grass.

      I see what you’re saying about progression and motivation. I think too often I get stuck on the disappointment of my expectation not being reached, rather than seeing how much progress I have made along the way anyway.

      Always good to see you, what/how are you photographing at present?

  4. This has me thinking about writing a post about the pleasure of the aimless photowalk. One camera/lens, a place you’d like to explore, and a couple hours to just stroll around and photograph whatever feels good.

    I think that if we spend too much time always trying to Create Art, we miss two key things: simple pleasure of photomaking, and the ability to experiment and try things freely.

    1. Oh please write that post Jim, I’d love to read it. I do this for most of my photowalks, as you describe.

      I agree to an extent about “art making” but surely we all hope that each photograph we make has some value as a picture at the end of it too? Whether it was taken to capture a memory, a beautiful flower, a gorgeous car, whatever.

      With experimenting I think sometimes that goes hand in hand with the more artistic end of photography actually. Though we can take very “straight” photographs that are artistic, often the ones of mine in the past that have felt more arty have been those where I’ve experimented with filters, redscale film, cross processing, modified lenses and so on.

  5. I’m pretty pleased with my “hit” rate, but then I mostly shoot the same kind of stuff over and over, and have done it long enough that I’ve got myself pretty well trained now 😀

    I find I fall down best when I’m shooting with an unfamiliar film or a new-to-me lens. I have discovered that my 50mm f2 lens definitely needs a lens hood, and that my 50mm f1.8 may have much better colour rendering and contrast than the former, but I need to put a roll of Portra through my FM next just to make sure!

    I actually think I get a lot more keepers when I’m shooting digital, even though I don’t spend ages taking photo after photo of the same thing to make sure it’s right; usually it’s a maximum of 3 each time, then I give up and hope one of them looks perfect on a bigger screen. I do this especially with my D50 because the LCD screen is pretty rubbish so cannot check focus on it.

    My disappointment mostly stems from me not pushing myself more. I enjoy the photos I get but I know I could do far better.

    1. So what would “far better” look like? When you say “I know I could do far better”, what do you envisage and how is it different to what you’re doing now?

      Shooting familiar places and subjects versus pushing ourselves to photograph different ones is a very interesting subject in itself. I sometimes wonder if I do experiments like my recent ones with 4MP cameras as a way to keep things challenging because I’m bored with taking the same pictures with the same cameras. I don’t feel bored at the time, but I do certainly enjoy the adventure of using a new camera, and the challenge of making something I’m proud with less capable tools than I’m used to.

      I need to talk to you about micro four thirds cameras. Might be looking at an early Lumix like a GF1 with the 20/1.7, or an early Olympus. I recall you have a Lumix (GX7?) which you like and had an Olympus which I believe you couldn’t get on with?

      1. Just look at Jacky Parker and Mandy Fisher’s flower photography. They go beyond just photographing a flower and I would love to do the same.

        I do get a bit bored of shooting the same thing, but at the same time I love the results. I guess that’s why I like shooting film as well, it makes it a bit more exciting because you’re never 100% sure you got what you wanted! Occasionally I will take my GX7 out with my 15mm body cap lens and take photos on the streets of London but that hasn’t happened in a while and it’s really not my preferred form of photography.

        I had the Olympus EM10 Mark II. A great camera but I really hated the menu system, had to relearn it everytime I picked up the camera. Thought it was just me but I found a lot of people complaining online about how rubbish Olympus’s menus are lol. The GX7 is much simpler to use but doesn’t have as many features as the Olympus; you can’t customise the presets for one. However, I don’t think the Olympus had focus peaking, which is so useful when you’re using manual focus.

        1. Hmm, I looked at Jacky Parker and it’s all too “hyper real” and processed for my liking. I prefer your more organic and natural looking captures.

          Thanks re the cameras, I thought you had issues with the Olympus interface! I’m not sure I want to get into another interchangeable system either (too much temptation to buy new lenses!) but I like the look of something like the GF1 with that 20/1.7, then treat it as a fixed lensed compact. Do you have that lens?

          1. Thank you 🙂 I prefer her earlier stuff, it seems to be getting more processed now which I dislike a little.

            Nope, I only have the Olympus 9mm f8 and 15mm f8 body cap lenses, and a 14-42 that I never use and will probably sell soon because I don’t like it all that much! The first time I owned the GX7, I think I had the 20mm f1.7. If I did, I thought it was a very good lens 🙂 lol

          2. What’s the Olympus one that you said you regretted selling and was one of your favourites lenses ever?

            I have a limited tolerance with digital, as soon as it gets too clean and processed looking I dislike it. Probably why I’m shooting with 7-17 year old digital cameras! 🙂

          3. Ah yes. Looks special, hope you can get one again one day. I had a Minolta 50/2.8 Macro which I used on a couple of Sony Alpha DSLRs. Absolutely stunning results.

          4. I can not stress enough how bad the Olympus interface is. And what makes it worse: the behavior of the camera (I also had the EM10 Mark II) is so unpredictable and inconsistent that you constantly have to tinker with the settings. For something trivial like the brightness of the EVF, I sometimes had to dive into the menu several times during shooting to adjust this. Unworkable, for me.

          5. Robert, thank you that’s very helpful to know. As you know I love the Ricoh compacts for their fantastic design and user interface. I value this really highly and couldn’t be bothered with a camera like these Olympus ones sound. I expect if I did go micro four thirds at some point, a Lumix sounds a far more appealing prospect. But maybe a Fuji X100 even more so!

  6. I mostly have the opposite feeling. As I buy junk cameras, I am sometimes convinced they are not going to work. They just don’t sound or feel right. Then I get the film developed and they are great. Buying junk means I am nearly always surprised and happy with the results. I am more disappointed with cameras that are not junk. I expect more from them. So I suppose it is all down to our expectations.

    1. I used to do the same thing all the time, and lost track of the cheap film cameras I bought purely for the challenge of getting something half decent out of them. I must’ve owned 300 cameras or more. Yes, when you don’t even know if they fully work, it’s a surprise and a pleasure when they do, and you get some satisfying photos.

      On the flip side, I got tired of having to always remember/ figure out how to work a new (to me) camera, and felt by using a much smaller selection the camera(2) would become more familiar, more invisible, the whole experience would be more fluid and meditative, and my photography would improve. Which I think has happened.

      It’s a bit like people, it’s fun to meet new ones, but you still want longer term friends and family that you have a deeper and more rewarding relationship and history with.

      Though I do still experiment with a cheapie now and then, like my recent 4MP challenges!

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