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The Freedom to Make Mistakes

BalsamrootBack in the heyday of film, photographer Freeman Patterson famously said that "36 satisfactory exposures on a roll mean a photographer is not trying anything new." An analogous observation could be made of the digital shooter who doesn't end up with any shots that don't work out. In order to grow as a photographer, you have to be willing to try new things. In order to be at ease with trying new things, you have to allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes.

When faced with something you've seen before, do you take the same picture you did the last time? No matter how beautiful the subject may be, this probably isn't your best option unless there is something you feel you can improve on over your prior results. What if you already have a killer shot of whatever it may be in front of you now? Do you really need another, or should you push yourself to find a new way of capturing the essence of your subject?

The challenge is to continually let go of what you have done before so you can see something anew. If it's a new subject this sort of problem won't enter into things, but if you've shot it before — countless times before — what do you do now? BalsamrootOne of the biggest impediments to reinventing your creative vision can actually be your past successes. It's a natural tendency to go with what you know works, but this can get in the way of you creating something new. What we end up seeing is only what we approached the subject expecting to see.

Over the years, I've shot countless photos of mountain wildflowers. It's a favorite subject. But there have been times when I've found myself sitting beside a field of flowers struggling to come up with something I haven't done before. I mean, after a while, its easy to get into a rut even when surrounded by such beauty. The flowers end up looking almost otherworldly as I wrack my brain for something I haven't tried before. Sometimes it is at the point where I let go of trying that the spark of something new finally comes to me.

While not everything works out, the only way to find out what does is to try. Along your quest to come up with great images you are likely to come up with plenty of mediocre ones as well as some shots that are anything but great. This is part of the creative process and should be accepted as such.

BalsamrootBefore converting to digital, I can recall sometimes feeling like I needed to conserve film since I might need it later if the shot of a lifetime presented itself. But in time I realized that this just created an unnecessary barrier to being in the moment when I was shooting. Rather than paying full attention to what was in front of me, a part of my focus was always on what might come later that day or at sunrise the next morning. The answer of course was to carry more film than I could possibly use so that I could let go of worrying about my stock on hand. Whatever I didn't use would come home with me and get used first on my next trip. Today with digital, it has become even easier to let go of worrying about such things. Compact Flash card prices continue to plummet as does the cost of hard drive space.

Something else that has gotten easier with digital is the task of getting rid of those shots that didn't work out. Rather than feeling guilty for sometimes filling up a trash can with reject slides and only having a meager stack of winners to show for your efforts, you can quietly delete your less-than-successful efforts with no one the wiser. Allow people to see your best work and leave the rest undiscussed. BalsamrootSave a few for the blooper real perhaps, but don't dwell on them. And if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Or rather, even if you do succeed, try, try again. Don't let either your failures or your successes get in your way. As I said earlier, try to approach your subject as if for the first time when you go out to shoot. Let go of your successes and don't worry about making mistakes. Allow yourself to be creative with no strings attached. You may just surprise yourself.

It is said that after admiring an award-winning photograph hanging on the wall at a gallery show, a patron turned to the photographer and expressed how much she had enjoyed the image. After listening to her dote at length on its artistic merits the photographer was about to express his thanks for her kind words but before he could, she capped off her praise by saying "you must have a very good camera." While this may indeed be true, the essence of a great photograph is in the vision of the photographer, not the camera that was used to shoot it.

As we head into 2007, enjoy yourself, and explore your own creative vision.

Date posted: January 7, 2007


Copyright © 2007 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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If at First You Don't Succeed

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