To Become a Better Photographer, Learn from Your Failures

We all have good days and bad days in our photography — successes and failures.

By failures, I don’t mean commercial failures. In fact, when I was shooting a lot of assignment photography, I never lost a client because I delivered photos I didn’t like. Typically, what I thought was crap, the client loved.

We are often harder on ourselves than others are. Sometimes, we need to give ourselves a break. But we should also use our dissatisfaction as motivation to get better.

A Day at the Beach

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Hampton Beach, N.H., shooting one of my favorite subjects — beaches.

When I got back home and downloaded my images, I was disappointed. After looking through all of the photos, I found very little that interested me. There were plenty of scenic images, but nothing that stood out.

I confess that this is not the first time I have come up short. In fact, it’s happened enough that I’ve developed my own little system for dealing with it.

My Four-Part System

Here it is, in four parts:

  1. Be honest with yourself. This is often the hardest part. Don’t tell yourself that a photograph is a success simply because it is technically perfect. Is the picture actually interesting to you? Does it have a spark? After my Hampton Beach shoot, I had a lot of pretty shots — but that was all. It was hard for me to accept, but that’s photography sometimes.
  2. Study the near misses. Now it’s time to get to work. Look at the images that you almost like. What would it have taken to make them better? In assessing my Hampton Beach near misses, I realized that I did not stay in any one place long enough. I was always on the move that day, searching, but never showing up at quite the right time. There is nothing wrong with staying put; the image will eventually reveal itself.
  3. Identify bad decisions. When I was at the beach arcade, I focused my attention on the colors and blinking lights. I thought that this would add interest to my images, but I was wrong. It’s always the people in my photographs that add the interest. I got distracted.
  4. Use Photoshop to work out issues. There’s no substitute for getting the shot you want in camera, but Photoshop is a great tool for experimenting. Does changing the tone, switching to black and white, or (God forbid) cropping give your image more impact? Sometimes, I revisit photos in Photoshop weeks or months after the shoot. I recently tried this with some rejected images I shot in France last year — and was pleasantly surprised by the results.

Kenji Miyazawa said, “We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” In the same way, we must embrace our failures and learn from them.

Photo © David Saxe

11 Responses to “To Become a Better Photographer, Learn from Your Failures”

  1. Hey. Your absolutely right about moving around too much. I think its one of the biggest mistakes I and other photographers make. Do you ever notice that interesting visual things pop up when your not out photographing? Maybe just parking your butt on a bench somewhere to read a book?

  2. Hi David,

    Great post. When I took up photography a couple of years ago I found it really disheartening to get home from a photo-walk to find I didn't have any "keepers". Now I just accept it as part of the photographic process, and you're also right about trying different processes - a good B and W conversion can make all the difference!

    Cheers, Rob

  3. Good points. I wrote a similar blog a couple of weeks ago about the importance of taking bad photos as part of the process of improving your work.

    I strongly agree with the point about staying in one place and waiting for the scene to compose itself instead of rushing from one point to another.

  4. Thanks for this. I'm often at a stage where I dislike large parts of my past work, and it's nice to know that other people feel similarly at times.

    It's also nice to get some thoughts on how to deal with it 🙂

  5. Crop! Crop! Crop! It's not a religious experience.

  6. yeah, he's right. No format is perfect, and sometimes you just have to whack away what you don't want. I broke a camera once and had to use a tlr on a job, deliberately cutting the negs to fit a 35 mill mount so I could print what I wanted.
    Bit extreme, maybe, but I was on a tight deadline. Shoot twice, butcher one neg any way you want, keep the other pristine. Digital isn't much difference other than no physical need to shoot two frames...

  7. Often the photos from an outing can be disappointing. But we were able to go on the outing - that's a blessing we often take for granted.

    Lots of people never get the opportunity to get away from their work desks or homes.

    Frank Nowikowski

  8. For me there is never a failure or mistakes - its a learning curve! And I love to learn new things every day.

  9. Thomas Edison said it well, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

    So, when you have those images that don't work, you keep going until it clicks.

  10. The point about critically reviewing my work to assess why I 'almost' like it is a good one - I'll keep that in mind in future. The really interesting thing here is the discrepancy between what motivated you to click the shutter in the first place and how you regard the image afterward. To me this is the 'visualization gap' we all have, and something that's high on my list of priorities to get better at.

  11. "Sometimes, I revisit photos in Photoshop weeks or months after the shoot. I recently tried this with some rejected images I shot in France last year — and was pleasantly surprised by the results."

    I've found that it's often days, weeks or even months that pass until I see the true potential in a photograph and begin to edit it in post-processing.

    I'll download images after a shoot, and delete the ones that are obvious garbage. And of course at that time there are some photos that I recognize right off as being good shots.

    Then there are those photos that I just have a gut feeling about.

    They are not perfect photos, but for some reason I'm very reluctant to delete them. There's something hidden in that photo that's telling me it has potential. And often times it's not until days, weeks or even months later, in a couple instances....years later, that suddenly that potential hits me.

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