Street Philosophy

Marginal Gains in Photography

“The doctrine of marginal gains is all about small incremental improvements in any process adding up to a significant improvement when they are all added together” BBC

I’m of the belief that whilst areas of major gains are where most of our fundamental improvements are made, marginal gains are what pushes your level that bit further and will be the difference between being a good photographer and an exceptional one. We go out and we spend time behind the camera photographing, that is our bread and butter and that is where we really learn how to see and shoot, that is the area of major gains for your photography. You cannot replace that time with something else and achieve the same level of success, it’s vital to becoming a good photographer. Everybody who wants good images needs to put the time in, not just the “feeling it” times. Shooting plenty of crap along the way is fine. However, if this is all you do you will never reach your potential as a photographer. To really reach your full potential as a photographer, you also need to spend time working on marginal gains, whilst they might not impact directly as much as time spent photographing they contribute to your overall photography.

What are the Marginal/Major Gains in photography

Marginal gains within photography are things like upgrading lenses and gear. Reading photography books and learning from them. Joining discussions and photography groups in which you can talk and share ideas about photography. Planning how you’re going to spend your time photographing is a marginal gain also. Marginal gains in photography can be very important to your development and by calling them marginal shouldn't take away from their overall impact and influence on your major areas for improvement. A clear example of this is that you can’t work on the major area improvement, going out and shooting, if you don’t have a camera/lens. Another less obvious example is completing a whole project on close up faces only to find out a guy named Bruce Gilden already covered that ground. You gotta know your history to be original and to bring original ideas and photographs to the table. But nonetheless these are still Marginal gains because they don’t actively improve your photography in the same way major gains on the street do. But paired with that major gain time photographing and you’re onto a winner. Practical hands on working, solving problems behind the lens, working through potential shots in your head whilst looking at the scene in front of your eyes, learning how to anticipate moments, and how to adapt to them quickly and on the fly are just a few of the many practical reasons why your time spent working with the camera photographing is absolutely the area of Major Gains in Photography (or assisting in the right circumstances, i.e carrying bags might fall into the Marginal gains category). Buying nonsense goods like fancy and needless camera straps and hotshoe covers are nothing but vanity purchases and dare I say take away more than they give to your “photography brain”. Instead of buying a fancy hotshoe cover you might be better served as a photographer if you put that money towards a photography book for example.

So why is knowing all of this worth it to you? For me it’s to illuminate and bring balance to my photography. It’s easy to get wrapped up in certain aspects of photography whilst neglecting other parts, or maybe wasting too much of your precious “photography” time on things that really don’t need much attention at that particular time. By understanding how you grow and in what areas we need to improve, then we can make gains and go further with our photography.

The Beginners Mind in Photography

Shoshin - The Beginners Mind

is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning "beginner's mind." It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.

Do you notice the difference when photographing in a new location compared to a location you know well? How much more aware you're in the new surroundings and how much that affects your productivity behind the lens. You’re experiencing the effects of the beginner's mind and it’s a wonderful thing, especially as a photographer as you can really capitalize on your hyper-awareness and eagerness to explore new streets. Naturally, though this feeling fades the more you visit the same location, your eyes wander less and your mind wanders elsewhere. You’ve gained too much knowledge of the area and the more knowledge you gain the less new knowledge you tend to take in. Our approach to the location becomes the same old routine, very static. Productivity goes down as we search for information that only goes to validate what we already know.

But you can work towards getting some of that beginner's minds back and approach these regular locations with the same type of enthusiasm as a beginner. Being actively aware of your state of mind is a big first step. Be a beginner and challenge your knowledge with your instinct. Here are some things you can do to start with, but I highly recommend assessing your own mind space and combating it in a tailored way.

Change your routine

If you notice that you walk in the same direction and down the same streets, then change it. Walk on the opposite side of the street or the next street down, anything to break your routine. Do you always visit in the golden hours? then visit outside of golden hour. Coffee breaks, lunch locations, and starting points change them all.

Challenge your focus

Do you tend to hunt for the same kinds of images? Consistency is important and you can still achieve it when you change your focus. Looking for smaller details if you’re usually shooting more topographical wider view images. Get closer and experience a different viewpoint

Know nothing about the place

Ask for directions, ask for a recommendation because you just never know what somebody else knows that you don't and what path that might send you on.

Embrace new

Who wants to photograph the brand spanking new buildings when you have those old places with character around the corner. You! Everything ages and whilst you might not want to photograph the new, being aware and challenging yourself to look for shots is a good way to gather new information.


For me, it’s about getting the most from my time photographing. Getting more from documenting locations and shooting street photography in these locations. I want to get as close to feeling like a beginner in a place as possible because I know just how much it impacts my images.

Knowledge is a great thing, but it can also be a bit debilitating. Being able to draw from your knowledge whilst viewing the world as a beginner is a recipe for success.