Chris J Wilson

Krakow Street photographer

When Quantity Beats Quality in Photography (and Life)

Man lying on the ground next to the wisla river in krakow

Do you focus on producing Quality work or a large quantity of work? Well this study may surprise you. In a book called Art and Fear, it discusses an experiment a pottery teacher conducted. For half the students, he said they would be assessed on a single final masterpiece. They just had to produce one single great piece of work and that would count for all their grades. The other group had to produce fifty pounds worth of pots, and so their grade would be based on the quantity of their work. The end result was that the second group (the group assessed on their quantity not quality) produced the best work.

The conclusion from the study was that the students who had to produce a large quantity learned from their mistakes and corrected their errors as they went along, which helped them create better works. The group who focused on quality didn’t have the same drive to get out and produce work. This meant that they were less creative and risk taking and ended up producing both less high quality work and less quantity.

If you look at the great street photographers from the past, there is that common trend as well. Garry Winogrand left thousands of undeveloped rolls as he was so busy going around shooting. Vivian Maier likewise didn’t bother developing and left a huge legacy of film to be discovered. And it wasn’t just those who left undeveloped film either.

Quantity beats quality because it leads to quality

Maybe you’re not surprised hearing this outcome but I suspect that even if you acknowledge this as a truth, you probably focus on quality over quantity in your photos in practice. This could be subtle in that you choose to go to “better locations” to take photos or decide against shooting at certain times because “the conditions aren’t right”. Maybe it’s just a case of stopping after you’ve taken a good shot or deciding against taking a shot as you are waiting for a “non cliche” or “perfect” shot. Whatever it is, it is valuing quality over quantity.

Just keep shooting

One thing I keep trying is to “take at least one street photo a day”. It’s a simple axiom and it’s something I can always do. Even when I have a really busy day and I forgot my fuji x100t, I can pull out my iPhone on the way home from work and snap a moment. It might be bad (it almost always is in those situations) but it’s my way of “doing a push-up” as Todd Henry describes it in Louder than words. It also encourages me to spend some time shooting every day and helps me to “create my own luck” because by shooting more I have more opportunities to capture that moment and I am trying to value quantity over quality.

Quantity helps you get over the fear of needing quality

By focusing on producing a higher quantity it doesn’t matter if something is good or bad, you just need to produce. This frees you from the sense of fear and guilt when you go out and don’t get a good shot, or if you want to try a new style you don’t feel bound by the need for it to be good straight away. Instead you can make mistakes because the quantity is what matters.

Other ways to focus on quantity over quality

Focusing on quantity isn’t only about going out shooting more though. It is also about making sure that you make the most of the time when you are out shooting

  • shoot that cliche moment (that you think you shouldn’t bother with)
  • shoot the photo that might not work (that you won’t “get to in time”)
  • shoot something which scares you (that your not sure if you have the guts to take)
  • shoot the boring or mundane (sometimes they magically become beautiful)
  • shoot in a way you wouldn’t normally (using a tele lens, getting really close, taking a few steps back, not holding the camera to your eye, with a slower shutter speed, with flash etc)

These will all boost the quantity that you are shooting and that will in turn lend to boosting your quality. To be honest it is something which I haven’t done enough of recently which is why I have vowed to shoot more (and perhaps write less).

Don’t spray and pray

Even though you should shoot more, don’t spray and pray. In fact, I recommend turning your camera onto single shot or at most low speed burst mode. Spraying and praying can not be replicated. You won’t be able to identify what went right/wrong afterwards. It can also make it harder to get “the decisive moment” (some cameras take time to buffer and this can mean that you get either side of that moment) plus it slows down your editing time when you have to compare two almost identical images.
Spraying and praying is a mindless way to boost your quantity and if you really want to go that way, why not just tie a GoPro to your chest and then take stills from your video.

Use a digital camera

Although I appreciate the process of shooting film and I have experienced many of the advantages of Film, digital is better for focusing on quantity. When you shoot digital, you can shoot for in effect free. You just need to pay for electricity to charge your gear and possibly your cloud storage system and hard drive. Even if you keep all your SD cards, it’s still a fraction of the cost of shooting film. You don’t have to worry about running out of space in your roll, or having enough film on your walk, just delete a couple of bad shots.

Don’t share everything

Another vital point is that you shouldn’t share everything. Just because you boost your quantity doesn’t mean everything will work (that’s good. Failure shows you are growing) or that everything should be shared. The better you get, the more selective your editing can be and the more selective what you show should be. That’s one of the prime reasons I don’t show much of my work here, I am trying to be selective and share work when it’s ready. I show my work to a few close friends who give honest critiques which I value.
If you want to talk about the pottery example again, it wasn’t that the quantity group had the same quality of pots every time, they learnt and improved overtime allowing them to do more complex and better quality work.

Choose Quantity not Quality

I’ve been stuck in a stupid mindset of needing quality and that’s held me back. I’m choosing quantity, I’m choosing to fail. I won’t show you all my rubbish photos though. Will you do the same?

Also published on Medium.

About Chris Wilson

I'm an English as a Foreign Language teacher in Krakow, Poland in my spare time I love taking photos. This is my blog.

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