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Learning From Your Mistakes

Hopefully, with luck and skill, some of your images will be true winners, meeting or exceeding your wildest expectations. But what should you do with the ones that don't quite measure up?

Typical first reactions to images that don't come out quite right fall often in in the realm of frustration and disappointment. Darn it. That one would have been so good. Understandably, we get happy when we shoot good images and sad when we take bad ones. Here's to hoping for more of the former than the latter.

So long as we don't take too many bad ones, that's mostly where it ends. Other than that, we ignore our failures and revel in our successes. "There's no sense dwelling on them," we tell ourselves. But I think that's a mistake. There's a great deal we can learn from our mistakes.

I may not scrutinize every blurry shot I have of the same subject. Yes, I get it. My camera was on manual focus, and I forgot to readjust after moving closer for a better angle. I'll make a note to double-check that next time. But I will keep enough copies to reinforce the importance of checking focus. It only takes a moment, yet it's odd how often such simple things get overlooked.

We can grow complacent and tired of looking at most anything. Admittedly, we may never see the day when people complain about yet more photos of Bigfoot or Sasquatch. What's that you say? Well, OK then, I'll give you that one. Most of us are well past that point. But we can also grow weary of many profound yet objectively real subjects, including hurricanes and wars. And apparently pandemics, for some of us. Learning can be difficult if you choose not to look.

If we take enough terrible photos, we may consider giving up, deciding to move on to another subject instead, one that may prove easier to conquer. That's alright. You can return to your original subject another time. It's important to enjoy the journey.

I've noticed that some photographers don't get full value from their successes. They aren't just something to hang on a wall or share on Facebook. The results we get contain lessons on both what to do and what not to. Many of my best images surprise me upon detailed inspection. Often, I find subtleties of composition I wasn't fully aware of in the field. If you're fully open to the process, you can make choices simply because they look better than the alternatives. Sometimes only later do you understand why they looked better. Look at that? See how the shape of the subject repeats there in the pattern in the background? And in that one, the notable elements all fall precisely at the intersection of thirds lines? I must remember to look for such opportunities next time. Lessons like that can be invaluable. How do you think people came up with the rule of thirds, anyway?

There's no getting around it. You will make mistakes. If not, you aren't really pushing yourself, now are you? Growth only happens near the edges, and you'll never know what your boundaries are unless you occasionally exceed them. Please don't do something unsafe, mind you. But it can be well worth it to try something new otherwise when the inclination strikes you. Somewhere between your successes and failures lies your moment of opportunity.

Some aspiring photographers can feel as if they're making too many mistakes at some point along their learning curve. It may seem like you'll never get the hang of it. But rest assured, you aren't alone. Some photographers may avoid some mistakes along the way, but most of us make them all, eventually. You're better off giving up on scorekeeping and take each lesson as it comes. What matters is what you take from each one, not necessarily just the pictures you end up with. They're all part of the process, too. I've taken a reasonable number of lousy photos over the years, never bother the gory details. But I prefer to keep some things to myself if you don't mind.

I delete some of my failed experiments, but I keep what may seem to some as an excessive number. I've realized before there can be more than one lesson to learn from any given frame. Overwhelmingly, great images can still have room for improvement, just as fundamentally flawed captures can still contain the germ of a great idea. It's a matter of degrees. Maybe all I need is a slight change of approach next time. Or another check on the focus. Yes, I get it.

Years later, I can review images from a trip and see something noteworthy I've never noticed before. Such avenues for retrospection are cut off if I cull problematic attempts too aggressively. Back when I shot on slide film, there was always the question of space. Deleting enough bad images gave me back enough room to file away that many new ones without finding room for another storage cabinet. But we've been relieved of such mundane concerns in the digital era. No longer are there any artificial limits to collection size. But there's also no longer anything forcing us to plow through the depths of our past meanderings. It can be more efficient to file the good stuff separately or rate everything with stars and ignore the ones that didn't live up to potential. Film storage forced us to go back through things, eventually. Digital makes it easy to forget what initially seemed uninteresting. I think it's incumbent upon us to make time to dig in and see what awaits us.

Date posted: August 29, 2021


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The Freedom to Make Mistakes
The Biggest Mistake an Aspiring Photographer Can Make

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