Learning From Your Worst Photographs


The refinement of an art form requires a bit of humility on the part of the artist. Mistakes will be made and errors will arise. The average artist will be quick to erase any trace of a bad photograph, or at least not give it a second glance. But a great artist is one who will analyze and scrutinize these works, sometimes more than a great photograph. A great artist is one who realizes there is more to be learned from one’s mistakes than from their greatest works. I hope to help you analyze your own failed attempts.

The first challenge in analyzing your own work is that you will feel an emotional connection with your work. This is a stumbling block that must be overcome. The good news is that there isn’t any reason to share your findings with anyone else. You can keep your worst works a secret from everyone. Remember this when you examine your photos, and you will have an easier time being brutally honest with yourself. The next challenge lies in determining how to correct the problem. Identification of a problem is the easy part. Trying to figure out what cause it is sometimes a little difficult. Sometimes, there may be more than one possible solution. The key to solving the problem is only going to come with experience. Thanks to the digital world and the EXIF data saved with your photos, you have a few tools to help you figure out the best way to correct a solution.

With all this in mind, I am going to swallow my pride and share with you a few examples of my own failed attempts. Below I will share with you a series of images and explain what’s wrong with them. I will also provide some possible solutions. As I am not a professional, I don’t claim to have all the answers. I don’t even claim to understand all of the errors that I’ve made in each of these photos. So feel free to post your own thoughts as well.

Example I:

[singlepic=186,300,,,right]This photo was taken at Lake Naomi on a somewhat overcast day. I had no intention of taking Landscape photography that day, so I didn’t have a tripod with me. That was my first mistake. I also didn’t frame the photo very well which obscures the actual intent of the photo – there is no clear subject. You will note that the image is a little dark, but I performed no post-processing on this image so that you can see exactly what the camera spit out. The darkness of this image can easily be overcome with some curve and level adjustments.

If I were given an opportunity to re-shoot this photograph, I would make a few changes. For starters, I would have my tripod with me. This would allow me to use a much slower shutter speed so that I could get a proper exposure. But I would also frame the shot better so that my subject is much more apparent. The reason I took this shot is not evident. I took it because of the clouds in the sky. With that in mind, I would have framed the shot with the horizon within the bottom third of the image. I would have lowered the tripod to get the camera closer to the ground. That way the water doesn’t take up as much of the image and I still get the sand in the frame. The shot would still have perspective, but more of the sky would be visible. You’ll also note that the clouds lack some definition. I would use a Circular Polarizer filter on this image so that the shadows in the clouds would pop out. With these adjustments, my subject – the sky – would be more apparent. If I had done all that in the first place, this may have turned out to be a great photograph.

Example II:

[singlepic=185,320,,,right]This is a photograph of an Iris, always a great subject for photography. But this photograph has a few problems. The first problem is the framing. This a problem that can easily be fixed by cropping the image in Adobe Photoshop or another photo editing software. Unfortunately, that’s not the only problem with this photograph. The real problem is the very sharp shadow cast by the flower itself. The cause for this problem is partially my setup. I didn’t have enough light to properly shoot this shot, so I had to use my on-camera flash. The sun was up, so if I had a reflector, I would’ve used that to divert some of the natural light into this area. Alternatively, if I had a remote flash and a diffuser, I would’ve mounted the light-source off-center from the shot. The diffuser would’ve softened the edge of the shadow.

As I do not yet have either of these setups, there is a slightly less ideal alternative. I could have an exposure compensation to slow the shutter speed, or I could switch into manual mode. The longer exposure would result in a darker photo that could be corrected in Photoshop. I would risk losing some of the color saturation, however. Additionally, the rain drops on the flower petals wouldn’t make the cut, because the flash is what brought them forward in the first place.

The lesson to be learned here is that you may not always have the proper equipment to snap the perfect photo. In this case, I was surely lacking the equipment to do it properly in the camera. In Photoshop, I may be able to turn this into a pretty decent photo. But a lot of work and hours will go into making this one perfect. This happens to be for a commission for a family member, so the time will be well spent. Knowing that this photograph was going to have such problems, I actually took a few shots both with and without flash. My goal is to layer these photographs together and use the background without the harsh shadows. Problem solved. But solving these problems in the camera will save you tons of time.

If you think that this is the extent of my bad photography, stay tuned.  Every so often, I intend to post more failed attempts under this new column category, Educational Failures. I still have a lot to learn, after all.  But I figured, since I’m learning…it doesn’t hurt to help you all learn as well.  I hope you enjoyed my first installment of this new column.


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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