Don't Delete Your Failed Images - Instead Learn from Your Mistakes with These Tips

Don’t Delete Your Failed Images – Instead Learn from Your Mistakes with These Tips

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I know you’ve done it. It’s okay to admit it. I’ve done it too! We all have! You’ve shot some terrible photographs.

Perhaps you shot the whole time in the wrong white balance, or you didn’t pay attention to shutter speed and everything is blurry. When this happens it’s incredibly disappointing. Frustrated and angry with yourself, you consider the experience a write-off, and delete the images. Then you head for the snack cupboard searching for some kind of solace.

But, everyone makes mistakes when they shoot, even professionals. There are times when we get excited and forget to check our settings, or make sure we are using the right lens for the right moment. It happens.

Image 1

We were canoeing and in my rush to get an image of a small bird I underexposed the shot.

These failures don’t have to be a complete waste though. There’s nothing negative about making mistakes. Willie Nelson once said, “Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.”

So with that in mind, start looking at every photograph you take, as a step forward. Don’t delete those mistakes right away. You can learn a lot about taking good photographs from the missteps you make. I’ve met some photographers who have created a special file for all of their failures. Then when they have a little bit of time, they peruse through the collection and reflect upon them. This type of exercise can help you grow as a photographer.

There are lots of ways to reflect on your images. Some people make mental notes about their images. Others like to use a written journal format. I know of a few photographers who use the keyword section in Lightroom to make notes. I’ve even seen a detailed scrapbook in which the photographer printed out his failures and scribbled notes beside each. Just be sure to pick a format that works for you. Regularly reflecting on your work is important.

To start you down the path here’s a list of questions that you can use to help you reflect on your images.

Reflection Tips

  • In the first few seconds of viewing the photograph, what was the first emotion you experienced? Why? Now let it go. Detach from the emotion and be critical.
  • Why do you consider this image a failure? Don’t analyze too much just scribble down the first thought that comes to your mind. Try to make this part of the analysis a stream of consciousness.
  • What were your goals or intentions when you shot this image? Why were you unable to meet those goals?
  • If you could turn back time and reshoot the image what would you do differently?
  • Think carefully about the image and come up with one key piece of learning that you can take away from this experience.

Now let’s practice your reflection skills. It’s not easy to analyze your own photographs; it can take some time to perfect. Let’s analyze some of my failures, and some successes.

View each image, and really look at it in a critical sense. You can use the guiding questions from above to help you. After you’ve finished your reflection, scroll down and take a look at my notes, see if you agree with my thoughts. Perhaps you noticed something different then I did.

Image 2

What did you come up with? Keep in mind there’s no right or wrong to this whole process. Some people might argue the image isn’t a failure. I personally, hate it.

Notes about the image

  • I cut off the hockey stick, it’s bad framing.
  • She’s looking down at the puck, there is no eye contact.
  • Loss of impact or connection with the viewer.
  • The edge vignette makes it too dark.

Ways to improve

  • Mark out the ice and give players a guideline for where to stop.
  • Remind players to look at the camera at all times.
  • Remove one complication by having kids skate without the puck (Photoshop the puck into the image in post-processing).

Image 3

Compare the shot above, with the previous image. It was taken in the same arena a few months later. Do you think there’s a difference? The framing is certainly better and he makes eye contact with the camera. Have I improved over the first shot?

Let’s consider another mistake. This image was shot for a magazine article. Can you tell why it’s a fail?

Image 4

Notes about the image

  • Her face is slightly out of focus.
  • The client wanted a unique angle for the shot but the focus is on the ball.
  • The houses behind in the background don’t suggest or support that we are on a soccer field.

Ways to improve

  • Ensure the focus is on the correct part of the scene by using back button focus.
  • Always take the time to set up the scene. Remember that the background is as important as the foreground.
  • Direct the player more to remain in a certain area.

Here’s the image the magazine chose to use for the article. You can see how the background gives this image more context than the previous shot.

Image 5

The more you reflect upon your images, the more you will grow as a photographer. If you find you are stuck in a rut, this kind of activity may just be a way to move forward. Coming back to images after a few days, or weeks, is always a good idea. By separating yourself from the image it will help you to analyze it more carefully.

I’ve posted a few more images here for you to reflect upon below. Once you’ve finished analyzing my work, try it on some of your own shots. Leave some examples in the comments below, and include your reflections.

Image 6

Image 7

Image 8

This is an opportunity to grow and become a stronger photographer. I expect that everyone who shares will be heartened by the fact that they are not the only ones to have taken a bad photograph. If you choose to reply to other people’s posts, please be kind and be constructive. This is all in the name of learning, we are not here to criticize each other.

Keep in mind, even geniuses have some failures!

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Erin Fitzgibbon is a freelance photographer, writer, and teacher, from Ontario, Canada. She specialises in portrait, sport, and fine art photography. In her free time, she escapes to the backcountry or the beach with her family.

  • Helen at Stockafe

    I like the approach here, to take a more formal, thoughtful approach to learning from your mistakes. Writing down your observations does so much to help cement learning and helps you learn how to effectively critique your own work. Thanks for this!

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    You are most welcome. I’m glad you like the post. Hope it helps!!! Consider showing us some of you thoughts about your own work or mine!!!

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  • Jschneir

    One of the first rules I learned about composition was action moves INTO the picture, not out of it.your hockey picture needs more image on the right side. The stuff on the left is a distraction. My beginning photo students at EMERITUS college in Santa Monica know that rule by the 4th week, why aren’t you teaching and demonstrating that. The hockey player is almost dead center.

    Jerry Schneir

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Hi Jerry,

    Excellent question!!! I’m so glad you asked. Generally, that is the rule. Although I like to break rules but that’s another story.

    In this case the images were designed as unique portraits. The clients wanted an image where the kids came right towards the camera and looked at it. There are lots of pro-players in this same kind of pose. They were looking to emulate that. Searching the web will show you lots of similar portraits.

    They wanted the snow spray. The idea was to do something different from the traditional yearly portrait in which a child stands against a background in their hockey stance. You know those shots. Stand and look at the camera while bending your knees and leaning on your stick:)) Sometimes you need to fulfill the needs and desires of clients.

    My goal in showing the photos was to show the evolution of my photography and how we can reflect and improve. Compare the first shot to the second has the worked evolved after reflection. It will never be perfect but has it evolved?

    There are lots of times in sports where the action leaves the frame some would argue it creates tension. I’m tend to use rules loosely and focus on whatever creates emotion in an action shot. Consider some of these images from one of my idols. Rich Moll http://www.richmollphotography.com/#!/page/259539/sports-action.

    Thanks so much for your question. Please keep the comments coming:)

  • Good article. I particularly like your encouragement to analyse your own pictures for their strengths and weaknesses – personally I have learned a great deal over the years from taking part in photography critique sessions run by my local photography club. Not only how an understanding of photographic aesthetics can enhance your technique, but sometimes how rejecting conventional aesthetic points of view (perhaps the most overused being the rule of thirds) can add a stamp of individuality and emotive power to an image. But you always need to be aware of the technical structure of an image to make such a decision and I strongly believe every visual artist should be aware of such issues. Learning from your mistakes is a very good way of getting there.

  • Some great points in there and a great article! Although, there is a difference to deleting images that are clearly bad (ie, completely wrong WB, too over/under exposed as in the examples you outlined) that you cannot really learn from and deleting images that you can learn from.

  • That’s a very lose rule, that action moves in to the frame and is definitely not something that has to apply to every action image around. Just have a look around at many of photos on websites like Getty and you may find that with the majority of them, the action is not moving in to frame; the players are in the centre.
    What placing the subject in the centre of frame gives is a more dominant presence in the image.

  • Jschneir

    The picture I was referring to was a scenic type shot where the soccer player was only a small part of the scene. The part of that picture on the left did NOT add to that scene. The player was not centered but moving out of the frame to the right. You could have cropped the left hand out and ended up with a much better shot.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    I guess that’s where the confusion comes in. Above you mentioned the hockey player was dead centre. The above soccer shot was made like that to frame her against the net.I played with a million different shots. Close up and wide angle. In the end the editor chose that shot because they could fit writing beside the player. I learned a lot from that experience. Having a few images that leave them room for design is important. I was sure they would have taken on of my close up images for the mag. Here’s my favourite from those shots. I love the facial expression and how her body was in an unusual position. They choose what they choose.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Lol Daniel I agree. If we kept everything it would get overwhelming. I think the main point is don’t write off the experience completely. From failure can come good things. I’ve learned a lot about metering from looking at my under exposed images.

  • kristi.turpin
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  • Rod Fleharty

    Thank you for the wonderful ideas on how to improve. I try to do these very quickly as I am shooting then really take a close look at each shot when I download them. I find that as I shoot now my mind has started to recall the things that I don’t like while I am shooting and my errors are becoming less obvious and I correct them, I now can start working on more fine detailed issues that, hopefully, will take my shots to a new level. Thank you again for the great article!

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    So glad you like it. Thanks so much Rod.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    How cool is this the article has made it into the weekly round-up for the professional photographer of america. http://www.ppa.com/ppa-today-blog/weekly-round-up/male-perspective-on-boudoir-photography-roundup-729.php

  • yen kumaran

    Ah that explains. I like this shot best.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    I’m so glad you agree with me:)) As photographers we never know what people will choose.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    I once had a friend say to me. I think about the rule of thirds. I compose my shot using the rule of thirds and then I break that rule. There’s so much photography out there we need to focus on creating emotion in our work. Thanks so much for your thoughts.

  • Janice9631
  • robsdisqus

    Erin – Great article – and super advice… thanks much..
    Image attached – shot the whole afternoon with the wrong white balance – made for some very interesting photos as you can see…

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    it definitely makes for an interesting photo. Sometimes these accidents can lead to some neat ideas though. From an art perspective something like this could be a part of a monochromatic series of arches. Something to think about. I hope that you were able to walk away with some positives from this experiment.

  • Rick Kuhn

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ed97c4c479042daa3ef5ccf32ff0856e81273f8de84fa9cd7cb69b227163fef1.jpg Learned to not move camera up quick.. She changed her expression and blew the shot, as had the cigarette hanging in her mouth with a blase’ look and then the mom comes by to contrast

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Excellent point. Sometimes it’s all about timing isn’t it. Thanks so much for sharing.

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