How Making Horrible Photos Will Lead to More Keepers

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I make a lot of really, really, horrible photos. It’s an odd thing to say isn’t it? But I do. Thousands of them every year, and that is totally okay with me.

I know that most (even all) of those really terrible, poorly composed, exposed, or focused shots, are just practice. They are practice for the next image, and the next, and the next, each building until I find that one keeper in a long string of wasted pixels, and more keepers overall at the end of the day.

As I scrolled through my Lightroom catalog looking for images to accompany this piece, I found in my unedited photos many near-lookalikes. As I edit, I scroll through them one at time. Some get deleted right away because they are soft (out of focus), or the exposure is too far off the mark. Others get deleted because the composition was clearly wrong, unbalanced, or awkward. I often wonder, “What was I thinking?”

Chiloesketch

Sometimes, it takes a lot of shots to find the one you are looking for. I was shooting the sunset on Chiloe Island, Chile, and eventually I found two that made the final cut (below).

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Most of the time the answer to that question, is that I wasn’t thinking at all. I had found a subject that intrigued me, and I started making photos, and thought had not yet worked its way into the equation. Scroll a few images further into the series, and things start to come together. The distracting elements, one at a time, disappear from the image. The exposure and focus are corrected, and by the time the last shot in the series appears, it’s technically decent, and maybe even a good photograph.

aerial sketch

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Shooting out of the window of a small airplane flying low over the coastal mudflats of Cook Inlet, Alaska made exploring a single view difficult. But as I shot the first few images, I got a sense for what I was looking for, and when it appeared a few moments later in my viewfinder, I was ready for it.

Those first shots are sketches, and they happen when my mind is still at play, too immature to recognize the scene for what it should be. Eventually, as I settle into the moment, the scene evolves and matures, as I begin to recognize what should and should not belong in the image.

The Freedom of Digital

With digital cameras, there is no harm in playing with a scene this way. Pixels are free, and we can shoot and shoot until our fingers are sore, or we get the right photo. When I’m shooting film however, (which believe it or not, I still do occasionally), there is no such luxury. Every time I release the shutter it’s a few bucks in film, processing, and scanning fees. If I shot with my film camera the way I do with digital, I’d be broke inside of a month.

brookswintersketch

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This contrasty Brooks Range scene, made finding both the proper exposure and composition a challenge. Many images later, I settled on this one. I still think I could have done better.

Instead, when shooting film, I’m forced to make those sketch images in my head, and in my viewfinder. I adjust tripod heights, I inch forward and backward, I focus and refocus, and I watch my light meter like a hawk. Then, once I’m sure I’ve got what I need, I click the shutter, and cross my fingers that I’ve got it right.

antlersketch

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Above are just a small number of the preliminary images this final shot required. At one point I even hiked off from the scene, thinking that I’d captured it. When I realized 10 minutes later that it could still be improved, I ran back, found the spot again, and made the image I should have made the first time around. My clients were less than pleased. (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska).

Whether you make the sketch images as a digital file, or as a mental one, the result is the same. Those preliminary frames, are just that, preparatory. Embrace them, but most importantly don’t stop at the first, or second, or even third shot. Keep exploring your subject, and you may find something you weren’t expecting.

Patagoniasketch

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I often find myself playing with both vertical and horizontal compositions as I sketch my way to a final composition. In this case, a horizontal one. (Chilean Patagonia).

Exploring

A few years ago, I was approaching the end of a ten day wilderness canoe trip in Gates of the Arctic National Park in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska. I was guiding, and so I was mostly concerned about keeping my clients safe, warm, well fed, and helping them make their own photos. My photography took a back seat. But after dinner, as my clients were heading off to their own tents on the tundra, I would often wander off with my camera and tripod. On that evening, as the trip was coming to its end, I ambled up the gravel bar away from camp. It was mid-August, and for the first time in months, the sun, for an hour or two each night, was actually dropping below the mountains that surrounded us.

The river flowed past in a gentle riffle, washing over the stones with a shushing sound, that hushed my thoughts as quickly as librarian with a finger to her lips. As the sun made its long low dive toward the mountains, the light grew sweeter, illuminating the tundra and mountains in light so beautiful I could hardly bear to look at it.

noataksketches

Though several of the images I made as the evening progressed are good, they more importantly allowed me to get comfortable with, and involved in the changing scenery.

Slowly, and it took a long time, I started making images. For a while, I let my myself play with the landscape, making photos here and there, pointing this way and that. I made images of a tributary river flowing over the rocks, the winding cut gravel banks, bear tracks, and sedges growing along quiet shores. Some of those images are decent, even good, but they were still leading me somewhere. Eventually I found myself by the main stem of the river when the sun was about to disappear behind the silhouetted mountains. There, after an hour or more of play, I found the image that I had ventured away from camp to make.

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Be There-There

I got it right, because I was there-there. I wasn’t just existing with a camera in my hand, worried about f-stops and ISOs. I was present, because all those previous images over the past hours allowed me to put aside the technical worries, and permitted me to focus on the scene at hand – the way it felt, the way the breeze moved the surface of a quiet backwater, the sound of the water hushing over stone, and the way the river’s edge wandered away toward the setting sun.

All those sketch images not only gave me permission to focus on the scene the way it needed to be, they gave me access to the moment when I needed it.

As you can see, perfecting exposure and focus is just one part of what it means to work through your practice photos. These preliminary images allow your mind to get away from all that other stuff, and concentrate on what matters. Like me, you’ll end up with lot of really horrible photos, but occasionally, they will lead up to something meaningful. 

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David Shaw is a professional writer, photographer, and wilderness guide based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in hundreds of articles in more than 50 publications around the globe. He is currently accepting sign ups for an aurora photo workshop in September of 2018. Find out about  the aurora workshop and other tours, his photography, and read his science and nature blog.

  • Thierry Van Biesen

    Great point,
    Practice does make perfect. But I believe it does more than that. I’d love to add to your article that the best way to grow as a photographer, and develop your own personal vision is to always look at your images after you shot them. Ideally print them and post them around your home. By continuously interacting with them, throughout your many different moods, you will notice that one day, almost magically, your images will have taught you why you shot them, shown you what you like in each image. And this will train your eye, refine your vision, to bring you closer and closer to mastery of your image production process. From your mind, to the pixel.

  • Great examples of the development of a photograph, thanks! Then there’s that feeling where you know how much time you spent getting just the right photo and someone looks at it at a gallery and says “oh, yeah, my cousin went there, I hear it’s beautiful, you just can’t take a bad photo there”… and you just smile and thank them for the comment, ’cause they don’t realize how insulting that is and you can’t explain without sounding defensive… (if someone has a good retort I’d love to hear it…)
    In the Alaska photo caption you wrote “My clients were less than pleased. ” Did you really mean that? They were not happy? I would think they were very happy with the photo…

  • Norman Lee

    I highly recommend checking out Magnum Contact Sheets. See the entire roll of film that produced iconic images, such as the Tank Man on Tiananmen Square. It gives you a better understanding of how each photographer approached the subject of each two-page spread–were they working the scene and looking for just the right angle, or was it a serendipitous “decisive moment”?

  • Anne

    Thank you so much for this. I sometimes feel, when I’m around “professionals,” that my middle-beginner photography self is laughable to them – especially when they as me for the lingo words (ISO, etc.). Now I know that I’m on my own path; I’ve always been an experimenter (teacher – 40 years), and I love the digital permission to play, to discover, and to try things I’ve not tried before. Not saying it’s not important to learn the “big-boy stuff.” Just saying I’m happy to have my lucky shots or beginner’s luck pictures that I treasure, regardless.

  • Great

  • What do you do with your really horrible images?

  • David W. Shaw

    They get deleted. Eventually.

  • David W. Shaw

    Thanks Saad!

  • David W. Shaw

    What matters is that you enjoy it and that you make images YOU care about. Explore, enjoy, and don’t worry too much about what others think.

  • David W. Shaw

    Great resource! Thanks for reminding me of that. It’s been a while since I’ve browsed some of those.

  • David W. Shaw

    Thanks! And yes, I’ve heard those comments too. It really is amazing how boring an image of beautiful place can be, (and how beautiful an image of boring place can be). And my clients were less than pleased about the 20 minute extra hike, but yeah, I do think they liked that I gave them copies of the shot!

  • David W. Shaw

    That’s exactly it. Thanks for the thoughts and comment!

  • Vidal Brownlee

    Apologies. Don’t get it. Don’t see any keepers here. Try reviewing Flickr to get an idea of what really works, some amazing images are posted daily. Try different angles, f-stops and breaking rules. Then you will really see some images that can grab attention. Good luck and keep persevering. It only takes one or two breakthroughs to start the ball rolling. Best wishes.

  • Thanks. I do the same but wondered if you had some great use for them that I hadn’t come across yet.

  • pro_artz

    I’m a retired art educator. Like you, I love having the ability to experiment without wasting materials. I can make 1 or 100 versions of an image. I carry my digital camera and take photos everywhere and of anything that catches my eye. Some I enhance with a few tweaks, some I make look like handmade art, and some I use to create abstracts. I love the post-processing more than the actual photography. It’s where my inner artist can shine. And, then, sometimes I go full-circle by using my photographic creations to produce handmade art.

  • pro_artz

    This is what I do with duds: Although I delete my very worst photos, I have hundreds of blurred images, those I took by accident, poorly-composed images or ones with “off” color, over or under exposed. Some are fine, but not the best of the ones I took of that scene. I love creating abstracts, so I use poor images as part of the image, as a textural overlay or even a color overlay. One of my favorite things to do is find a dud of a photo and attempt to make it into something great —and I’m usually successful.

    Another possibility:
    I’ve heard that some photographers take their not-so-great shots and put them on disks to sell on auction sites. They are generally fairly small images (4X6, 150ppi, jpg) so no one will get a good print from them, but they can be used for school projects or on a blog. I saw one with 5000 photos for $10 a while ago. If I were doing it, I would not add any “horrible” photos, but SOOC ones I didn’t want or thought I would ever use. And I wouldn’t attach my name to them.

  • Anne

    Thank you for this. I was an English teacher for 40 years, and so I never thought I could “do” Art, although I taught Cultural Arts to SE Asian gang members for some time, and art always played an important part in all curriculum I shared with my students. I just learned at age 73 or so that I can, indeed, “do” art, in the form of photography and now also watercolor painting, although it is true my efforts are not professional looking and have many errors easily discernible by the pros. I like using my photographs for painting inspiration, because the vision is uniquely mine – what I chose to see. I like that a lot.

  • Ah, I didn’t realize that they were there with you and had to put up with the extra hike, I can see that. Still worth it for the extra shot! 🙂

  • Rd

    The Pro has spoken…………………

  • Jamie

    Very rude comment. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  • I love your “Zen” approach to making your images. I teach an Intro to Digital Photography course and I always tell my students that you learn more from your bad shots than you do from your good shots. Study them; analyze them, and figure out why they are bad and that will aid your learning in creating better photographs. As for my bad shots -I keep them. If it weren’t for my bad pictures I would not have had any material to create my photo course! 🙂

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