Beware the Focusing Illusion in Photography

Mumbai, 2013

I’ve just re-read “Thinking Fast, and Slow” — essentially the bible of personal psychology, and how our brains work (sometimes ‘irriationally’).

Who is happier?

One of the lessons I learned from the book is called the “focusing illusion”. The concept is that things always matter more when you think about it.

For example, as a quiz— who do you think is happier? Californians with their pleasant weather? Or people living in Michigan, with the often brutal winters?

Does weather really matter?

When they did a study, they found out the subjective well-being and “happiness” between Californians and Michiganders were negligible. Why? Because people over-estimate climate as being an important determinant for well-being.

In-fact, most Californians (myself included) never think about the weather, unless you ask them about it. As human beings, we adjust to almost anything. Therefore even if the weather is very nice and pleasant, you will sooner or later take it for granted or never even think about it. Even when I lived in Michigan for a year, you eventually got used to the hot (or cold) weather.

Will buying a new car make you happier?

Going back to the “focusing illusion”— let’s take cars for example, an obsession for most Americans.

Take this following question:

“How much pleasure do you get from your car?”

The problem is that we never think about how much pleasure we get from our car, unless we actually think about it. When we buy a new car, we will feel elated for a few weeks, then it soon becomes another box with 4 wheels to get you from point A to point B.

Then take the following question:

When do you get pleasure from your car?”

Then this helps you focus on the exact time when you get pleasure from your car. This changes your perception.

Follow this up with the last question:

How much pleasure do you get from your car *when you think about it?.

This of course, changes your perception as well.

We over-estimate the joy our cars will bring us

Like most Americans, I am obsessed with cars. I always have the wrong idea that suddenly buying a new fancy car will make me happy for the rest of my life.

They call this “affective forecasting” — the false belief that buying something (or doing something) will bring me a lot of happiness in the future.

Because the problem is that us humans fall into the “hedonic treadmill” — that whenever we upgrade our lifestyle, our cars, our homes, our neighborhoods, or smartphones — we will soon adjust to it. And then like a treadmill, we need to keep running faster, and upgrading, to just stay on track.

Will buying a new camera make you happier?

To take the example of cars and other things — let us apply this to our photography, and our cameras. The same questions, but this time changed a little bit:

  • “How much pleasure do you get from your camera?”
  • When do you get pleasure from your camera?”
  • “How much pleasure do you get from your camera when you think about it?

For me, I rarely think about my camera. Even when I’m shooting on the streets, I don’t think about my camera— I think about shooting.

I only think about my camera when I’m comparing my camera with other photographers’ cameras. Or when I’m going on a camera or gear review website. Then suddenly I start to see the downsides of my cameras, and wanting to upgrade to the newest version, or a more expensive model.

We often fall into “affective forecasting” with our photography and gear. We think that by buying a new camera, lens, or setup — we will suddenly become more inspired, creative, and encouraged.

In reality, whenever you buy a new piece of gear, you will get used to it after a few weeks, and your gear will end up collecting dust, like all your other neglected gear on the shelf.

What really brings us happiness in photography?

We over-value cameras, equipment, and lenses in photography. But what brings us true happiness, joy, and pleasure in our photography? Some ideas:

  1. Experiences: We love experiences in photography, because they stay with us forever. This can mean going on a photography road-trip with your buddies, it can mean traveling and taking photos, or having the experience of attending a photography class or workshop.
  2. Buy books, not gear: Books are a much better investment and bang-for-the-buck than any photo gear. Photo books will actually teach us to become better photographers, or inspire us with great images. Not only that, but photo books tend to rise in value over time, whereas the value of gear tends to decrease over time.
  3. Social interaction: I’m the happiest in street photography when I’m chatting with random people on the streets, when I’m socializing with other photographers, or outside of my apartment. I love how photography has helped me become more social, and these social interactions are what make me feel fully-alive and human.


Don’t desire what won’t really bring you happiness and joy.

Invest in experiences, other people, and yourself.

And never forget, photography is an art of documenting your own life, your own experiences, and how you see the world. The tool isn’t so important.


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