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It Was the Best of Photos, It Was the Worst of Photos

Not every photo you take will come out the way you want it to. Or at least not all of mine do. So what do you do with the bad ones?

In days of yore when cameras shot film, there was a great rule of thumb coined by Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson that "36 satisfactory exposures on a roll means a photographer is not trying anything new." I still like that quote, even if the reference to film is now somewhat dated. Photography is a creative art. To grow as a photography, you need to be pushing yourself to improve, to go beyond your boundaries. But the only way to know where those boundaries are is to occasionally try and fail. If you never fail, you are clearly remaining within your comfortable zone. Only by pushing up against your boundaries and running into new problems will you find out where those boundaries are. There are two sides to a boundary, and occasionally you are sure to land on the far side if you try hard enough. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Sooner or later, you will master each new problem situation, and that boundary will be pushed further out.

But in the process, you will end up with both good and bad photos. The natural impulse with regard to the bad ones is to delete them, keeping the good ones and getting rid of the bad. Some photographers do this on the spot, reviewing images on the camera back LCD. For each, they judge them to determine which are keepers. Those that fail to make the grade get deleted right then and there to make room on the memory card for more attempts. Other photographers perform a similar culling once they get back to their computer since this affords them the twin benefits of color management and a larger display.

Regardless of when and how they get deleted though, the general consensus is that these failed attempts should be deleted since they have no value. Keeping them would result from sheer sentimentality when ruthless objectivity is called for. But to me, there is value in those bad images. Each of those failed attempts holds within it a lesson. Why did it not turn out as you'd hoped? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Not everyone agrees on who first said this, but it's generally credited to Albert Einstein. Never mind the source, but the sentiment is relevant to our present discussion. Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This is paraphrased from George Santayana, although perhaps the most famous version is credited to Winston Churchill: "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it."

The point is, it's important to understand what went wrong with your failed photo efforts. Perhaps it was something simple, like forgetting to take the lens cap off. It does happen. But more than likely the problem will be less obvious. An image may be grossly underexposed, but why? Maybe composition just didn't work. In your mind's eye, it should have been glorious, but the results simply didn't measure up. It isn't easy fitting your impressions of the world around you through a camera aperture and doing justice to it once projected onto a flat CCD sensor. Perhaps it was something seemingly beyond your control such as a gust of wind at just the wrong moment. There could be more than one reason.

Maybe there was something you could have done to up your odds of getting what you want. A faster shutter speed can freeze motion even in a breeze. A different shooting position to refactor your composition. A higher ISO to improve exposure without having to alter either aperture or shutter speed. Each case will no doubt be different, so you'll have to study each failed image to find out.

When I first started trying my hand at photography, I had quite a few failures. Especially back when we all shot film, this was pretty much the norm for new shooters. I can remember waiting a week or more to get back the box of developed slides made from each roll of film I had shot. Sometimes the results pleased me, but it was not uncommon to go through a box of slides and find that every one of them suffered from exactly the same problem. Clearly, I had done something wrong when shooting them, but what? I tried keeping a notebook with details on each shot as I took it, but that proved cumbersome in the extreme. I usually ended up sacrificing the note taking in order to free up my hands and my attention for more shooting, only to later wish I had those notes once I got back my next installment of hit of miss slides. I tried using a tiny tape recorder since I could at least use it with just one hand rather than both. This proved an improvement over pen and paper when I was out in the middle of the woods, but the first time I found myself shooting in a public place I found that this too had a flaw. There's nothing that makes one feel more awkward than talking into your hand like a secret agent with those not in the know looking on.

Today, digital cameras make it easy to know what setting were used. They're recorded directly into the metadata for each image. But are you looking at it? Are you learning from it?

For some years now, I've kept all my rejects. Yes, I cull them into a separate bucket, but I keep them. I've found value in reviewing them from time to time to see what else I can learn from them. This isn't a one-time affair before deleting them. I've found there are new lessons to be learned each time I go through an old batch. Sometimes, I may finally realize what went wrong. Sometimes, I find a germ of a totally new idea hidden in a series of bad images.

Some of your worst photos may prove to be the source of some of your most helpful lessons if you are open to letting them.

Date posted: March 5, 2017


Copyright © 2017 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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