Failure: The Key to Learning Photography


Fifteen years ago, I just completed my second of two formal introductory to photography classes.  I thought I knew everything I needed to know.  I thought I was good.  I believed that the only thing holding me back was my somewhat dated equipment.

I was wrong.  I still had a lot to learn.

The more I learned, the more I realized how much I didn’t know.  There’s a point in everyone’s skill level where you can see exactly where you stand.  You’re at the top of the hill, and suddenly you can see the valley before you:  You have a long way to go.

Now, fifteen years later, I look back at what I’ve learned and my experience.  Now, I look back at those two photography classes and realize that I was barely scratching the surface.  I couldn’t put numbers do it, but I would go so far as to say that what I learned in those classes makes up less than 2% of the photographic wisdom I know today.  The rest of my wisdom comes from somewhere else.  So the questions arise:  How do I continue to learn after taking formal classes?  What helped me get to where I am today?  What single thing could I recommend to help emerging photographers grow?

The answer to all of those questions is the same:  Failure.

I want to see you all grow as photographers.  I want you to be better than me.  I want you to become truly great photographers.  But first – I want to see you fail.  I want to see you fall on your face several times.  There should be bruises, scratches and scuff marks.  Your spirits should be destroyed more than once.  And on hundreds of occasions, I want you to ask yourself why you do all this to yourself.

But I also want to see you get up for more.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not a sadistic person.  I do relish the idea of my pupils falling to my feet in agony.  I do not wish physical or mental pain upon you.  But in order for you to grow, you need to be knocked down several times.  You need to fail.

What does failure teach us?  It teaches us a lot, actually.  Learning the wrong way to do something is far more useful than learning the right way to do something.  Learning the right way limits you.  If it works, you don’t have need to test other theories.  You are paralyzed by your own success.  Whereas if you failed at an attempt, you’ll try and try again until you figure out a way to do what you want.  Along the way, you’ll learn a few other things as well.  You’ll learn about your camera’s limitations or your own limitations.  You’ll learn a trick that might not help you now, but may serve a purpose down the line.  All because you messed up.

Failure is also grounding.  Once you are aware of the pain that can be inflicted and you get through it, you no longer fear it.  You become desensitized.  But you also never forget, and that’s important.  Knowing what it’s like to fail helps you understand and respect your work and your peers.  You are not infallible – not in photography, not in anything – and failure is the best way to learn that very impotent lesson.

When I look back at my past fifteen years, I feel that I can attribute my growth entirely to failure.  I have endured and, in the end, I feel that I am a better man.  I’m not the arrogant kid I was back then.  I am aware that my limitations are not my equipment.  And I have learned lessons far greater than I learned in the dark room at school.  I am not afraid to experiment – more than 2/3rds of my photos are failed experiments that will never be seen by anyone else’s eyes.  So when you ask what advice I have for you?

I suggest that you fail.


About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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