Unrealistic Photographic Expectations

Desert Mountain Rain – Fort McDowell, AZ – Fujifilm X-E4 – “Kodak Tri-X 400

Have you ever embarked on a photographic excursion with high expectations of the pictures you’re about to capture? Perhaps upon returning home you believed that you had some amazing images sitting on your SD card, but, upon reviewing the exposures, you’re left disappointed? I know that I have. Sometimes our expectations of how things will go doesn’t match reality, and it can be discouraging.

It’s easy to believe that I am a better photographer than I am. This is pretty common—I’m certain I’m not the only one—and it’s easy to spot in hindsight: I thought some certain photographs of mine were really good, but reviewing them years later I realize that they were mediocre at best. I’m biased about my own images, and it takes some time to view them through fresh (less-biased) eyes for what they really are. Besides, I hope that I’m constantly improving, so my photographs today should be better than they were years ago. Years from now I’ll look back at my photographs that I think are great today, and I’ll realize they’re not nearly as good as I once perceived them to be.

Still, I have some expectations—prior to even pulling out the camera—of what I will capture. I also have some expectations—before I even have a chance to review them—of the exposures that I did capture. It’s only later, after returning home and viewing the pictures, do I really begin to process what I actually have, and very rarely does it match those expectations. Kyle McDougall talks about this in his video below.

I think sometimes we expect—or at least I do—to have a whole crop of wonderful pictures from each photographic outing. Our social media feeds demand a steady stream of fresh pictures to keep our followers engaged. Our relevancy relies on an abundance of images to showcase our talents. But it’s all unrealistic.

Ansel Adams stated, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” That was the expectation of one of the greatest photographers of all time: one great picture a month, on average. Maybe one month had three, and two months had none—however it worked out, twelve a year was a good year.

How many have I had this year so far? Not 10, I can tell you that. Maybe five or six. I’m no Ansel Adams, so perhaps twelve in a year is an unrealistic goal for me. I think if I captured a half-dozen photographs in one year that I’m really proud of, that’s a good year. I definitely shouldn’t expect any more than one good picture at most from one outing with my camera. More than one would be an extraordinarily successful—and I’m sure exceedingly rare—event.

Oak Autumn – Pine, AZ – Fujifilm X-E4 – “KodaNeg VC

So that brings me to the pictures in this article, which were captured while on a weekend adventure to the Mazatzal Mountains in central Arizona. These three images are my personal favorites from the trip. I don’t consider any of them to be “significant” or “portfolio worthy” pictures. In the moment that I captured them and a number of others from the trip, I thought they were. I thought I had five or six frames that I was going to love, but upon reviewing them, I had maybe close to 50 decent frames, and five or six good pictures, but no great photographs. I was disappointed with myself, because I thought I had done better.

Then I watched that Kyle McDougall video, which was exactly what I needed to see. I had unrealistic expectations for myself, and that led to disappointment. Instead, going forward, I should hope to come away with just one picture that I’m happy with—anymore than that is a bonus—and perhaps if I capture one significant picture within a month, that’s something to be ecstatic about.

I think it’s easy—thanks to social media—to think we need to capture a handful of portfolio-worthy pictures each time we go out with the camera. That’s being completely unfair with ourselves. If you capture one, celebrate that. If you don’t capture any “significant” pictures, don’t fret! That’s normal. That’s to be expected. Just try to learn and grow and become better in some way, so when a potential portfolio-worthy picture opportunity presents itself, you’re fully prepared. That’s the expectation you should have for yourself, and nothing more.

Yellow Cactus – Tonto Natural Bridge SP, AZ – Fujifilm X-E4 – “KodaNeg VC”


  1. SergeTremblay · October 14, 2022

    It seems to me that our expectations were higher at the time of the film 36 poses. We were careful with the film and we were eager to see our photos printed by the lab. Nowadays, in the digital age where we shoot our surroundings with our camera, it’s really another way to take pictures!

    • Ritchie Roesch · October 17, 2022

      I used to have, in the film days, the expectation of one successful frame out of every 12 exposures (3 for 36 exp roll). Sometimes the hit rate was better, sometimes not. I shot a lot of slide film, and did a lot of bracketing because you had to nail the exposure.

      I’m reminded of this impressive story of photographer Ray Manley. In 1939 he spent all of his spare money on 10 8″x10″ sheets of Kodachrome. He had very little photographic experience, and no prior experience with color film, but he was determined to launch a career in photography. He was super careful and deliberate with those 10 frames. Three of those 10 frames would be printed on magazine covers, and two others would also get published. And, yes, it launched a very successful photography career for Ray. Amazing!

  2. randomguineapig · October 14, 2022

    There was an Ansel Adams original at a fee use darkroom lab in Dallas–40 years ago. Was it 2×4 or 3×6 feet? For sale at $10,500 (I remember that clearly!). A Yosemite print. As awesome as you can imagine.
    My favorite recollection of seeing this icon of photography was being able to look at it close-up. I know he used a setup for burning and dodging his prints. I did think to myself: I can see your burning and dodging, dude.
    I’m not deluded that I will take those kind of monumentally iconic pictures (to spite my high school photog teacher insisting they be called “images”).
    Over my life I have never taken enough pictures of friends and especially family. I have never taken enough pictures of my everyday surroundings. They may not be The Range of Light, but I find my everyday pictures mean the most to me.

    • Ritchie Roesch · October 17, 2022

      This is what Troy Paiva talked about in my interview with him. Some of the pictures that we might not think of as important now are the ones we most cherish later. You cannot have too many pictures of family and friends and those little life moments that are easily forgotten. It’s also easy to disregard those as not portfolio-type pictures because they’re not furthering our art and/or career. I appreciate your input!

  3. Albert Smith · October 15, 2022

    One thing that I learned is that you need some separation from taking the image(s) and being able to judge the image… don’t be so quick with the delete button.

    I shoot JPEGS and I have a couple of dozen SD cards, so after an outing I do my download to my computer but then I take the card and put it in my card file and forget it.

    Every so often, I grab two or three cards, plug a Fuji body into my large TV and play the card as a slide show. I can’t tell you how many times that I was surprised at an image that I didn’t even remember and one that made me happy even if I didn’t appreciate it initially. Time can give you fresh eyes.

    Don’t delete and revisit old work that you have felt was not good enough at the time.

    • Ritchie Roesch · October 17, 2022

      I remember reading about a photographer, and I don’t remember who it even was, who would put his SD cards away and not even look at the exposures for six months after he had captured them. I sometimes wish that I had that amount of patience! I do think six months is a minimum for properly judging your pictures, but a year or more is even better. I appreciate the input!

  4. Chris · October 15, 2022

    Excellent post and very true. Progress and not perfection is the maxim relevant to so much of our lives — anything we endeavour in, basically. Honing our photography skills is really the most important thing too, let’s not lose sight of that and put our time with our cameras in perspective. Thanks!

    • Ritchie Roesch · October 17, 2022

      I think, even if all of the pictures are a bust, if one learned something, then it was a success. The more we practice, the more we learn, the better we get. I appreciate the input!

  5. rabirius · October 15, 2022

    Somehow I never have unrealistic expectations. I sometimes notice that something impressive that I see doesn’t work as a picture. So I either skip the photo or try to find a different angle that works as a photo. And I think that is what I usually do. I think what would work as a photo, and knowing my camera it usually does.
    I noticed that when I see something impressive, like a building for example, and I just snap the building I have a boring photo. So I always look for the special angle. And if I would to a picture of the building I already know that I have taken a boring picture and I’m not disappointed.
    I usually have the problem that I want do do everything manually and that mostly takes too much time for snapping something that moves fast for example. That is when I’m disappointed because I wasn’t able to take a picture at all…

    • Ritchie Roesch · October 17, 2022

      What I think I get disappointed about is that the feelings and moods I experienced while in the moment aren’t fully conveyed through the photographs. I’m sure it’s due to a lack in my own skills.

  6. Taigen · October 15, 2022

    Great thought provoking post.. I’m also of the opinion that it can be subjective on the day. Depending on one’s mood, even blood sugar level, it’s possible to write off a days shooting as rubbish, on another day they all glow with magic! I’m all for revisiting them at a later date. Of course for the best of the best photos there might only be 3 or 4 in a lifetime regardless.

    • bart1965 · October 15, 2022

      I know this feeling…if I have about 5% of reasonable photographs after a day of shooting…I’m satisfied…if I have between 5 and 10 showable photographs after a day of shooting for my portfolio…I’m satisfied.
      Anyway there aren’t even 5 persons who have seen my portfolio so …why worry…I got to the point that I’m doing it all just for myself…kind of Vivian Maier, ofcourse I’m not talking about her quality nor quantity…just feeling a loner like her doing my thing for my own
      The guy in the video took a break of 3 months…I took a break of almost 2 years because of the pandemy…I used to go by train to nearby cities for streetphotography but I didn’t feel comfortable traveling “masked” and shoot “masked” people .
      I also felt frustrated by watching all those beautiful photographs on instagram which were like a dream to me, a dream I can never reach…
      You know, I have my photographs but you, you have a wonderful blog, website whatever you name it and you inspire lots of people …I’m one of those peope ..who got interested in photography again after reading all this recipe stuff for fujifilm and you’re making my day again and again…
      So don’t worry if your photographs aren’t always as good as you would like them to be…you’re not the only one

      • Ritchie Roesch · October 17, 2022

        I appreciate the encouragement! I’m always honored and a little bit shocked to have made an impact on another’s photography. So many have helped me over the years, and it brings me a lot of joy whenever I can give back to the continuum. Thanks so much for your comment!

    • Ritchie Roesch · October 17, 2022

      That’s very true! I’m not sure that I’ve captured any of those yet 😀

  7. Ryan Long · October 16, 2022

    I think expectations, and goals, should vary. Is it a photo to share with friends or family, is it meant to be 1 out of 70 photos in a photo book, or is it meant to be printed and hung on the wall? I realized that some of my most interesting photos today were basically throwaway snaps from my first digital camera twenty years ago, because they document things (or a time) that might be long gone. As a result, my goal with photography is to document daily life as “artfully” (or technically, graphically, geometrically etc.) as possible, instead of seeking out only artful moments. If I stumble across such an artful moment, I certainly attempt to capture it, but that is not presently my primary goal.

    • Ritchie Roesch · October 17, 2022

      I think it’s easy to overlook those “daily life” moments. They’re the ones that will matter most in time. Thank you for the reminder!

  8. Francis.R. · October 19, 2022

    I am quite happy you don’t mention viewer feedback nor trying to be as “x” photographer, rather the best of yourself. Social media put much pressure in people for fear of negative feedback I think, when they simply should have waited for the audience to build upon the images and storytelling they shared. Being the best of oneself is a consequence of not focusing in viewer feedback to the point of not being oneself. I like much to see your photographs because they are yours and when you want you can photograph with the style and even themes of other photographers while explaining your recipes.
    As a disclamer I am not a photographer, never took a class although I read many articles and practiced. Professional photographers have other rules but, to be honest, I almost don’t follow professional photographers. Many times I feel they go to a place to get a perfect photograph, while the place is a medium to achieve that goal; it can be an unfair perception, and probably they perceive the beauty but the rules of composition maybe distract me from feeling it. Instead a traveler take a photograph and I can feel how the photographer felt the emotion to be in the place, even if the photo is not perfect or even taken with a cellphone. In your case I feel you enjoy many things in your trips, including the adventure of discovering with you recipes that express something unique. ‘Desert mountain rain’ makes me feel like witnessing something eternal, a cycle before mankind; ‘Oak autumn’ is like the autumn extracting from the tree a crown of fire; and ‘yellow cactus’ is the light that is kinder after been so harsh to have mastered rock and armored cactus. Maybe is not what you intended, but it is expressive and elicits these interpretations in me.

    • Ritchie Roesch · October 19, 2022

      I always appreciate your poetic comments! I try to convey what I feel in the moment, but of course that is sooo hard to do, and most often I’m not successful. But I will continue to try and try again. Expressing one’s feelings in the moment through a photograph should be the ultimate goal, no matter the photographer. When one succeeds, it is truly magical. Thank you for all of your kind words!

Leave a Reply