The Importance of Learning From Failure to Help You Grow as a Photographer

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There’s a scene in the 1995 movie Apollo 13 when Gene Kranz, flight commander of the ill-fated moon mission, tells his team that, “Failure is not an option” as they struggle to find a way to bring three astronauts home from the depths of space. While that moment certainly makes for dramatic storytelling, it’s often far from the case when photography is concerned.

I would even go so far as to say failure is not only an option but necessary for you to grow as a photographer. There will be times in your photographic journey that things just don’t go as you had hoped despite how much you plan ahead. While some of these instances might slow you down the important part is learning from failure, growing from your mistakes, and becoming a better photographer as a result.

This picture turned out great, but there have been plenty over the years that didn’t.

I would like to share some things I’ve learned over the years from times that I have failed. Hopefully, this will help you benefit from my experiences.

Know your gear well

On some of my first sessions with clients, I had a very difficult time getting my camera to do what I wanted it to do, and many of my images were ruined because of it. A few were too bright, others were too dark, and some weren’t even in focus.

Luckily I shot in RAW so I could fix some of the issues in Lightroom. But things would have gone a lot smoother if I had just taken the time to understand my camera, learned how to use it, and knew what to do when shooting instead of spending hours adjusting images afterward.

The Importance of Learning From Failure and Your Growth as a Photographer - DLSR camera

Your camera is loaded with buttons, dials, menus, and options. Do you know what they all do?

Example

To illustrate what I mean by this, take a look at the following image I shot almost five years ago. Thankfully I did this session as a favor for some friends of our family because looking back on it I would feel terrible if I charged them money for these pictures!

dark family photo (underexposed) - The Importance of Learning From Failure and Your Growth as a Photographer

I remember being frustrated at seeing the LCD screen of my Nikon D7100 as I took these pictures because they were all coming out so dark! I didn’t know what was wrong, and I didn’t know what to change on my camera to fix the problem.

Looking back there was any number of remedies for this overly-dark photograph that I could have used. Had I only known how to actually work the knobs and dials on my camera, simple things like the follow could have solved it:

Thankfully I used RAW and not JPG so the image wasn’t a total loss, but the skin tones are washed out and the picture is not nearly as vibrant and dynamic as if I had just gotten it right at the time of the shoot.

family portrait in the park - The Importance of Learning From Failure and Your Growth as a Photographer

Clearly, I had a lot to learn about lighting, composition, and why having clients sit on a canvas drop-cloth with their feet out is not a good idea.

This advice is not just for newbies

This advice isn’t just for professional sessions with clients either. Something happens when you get new gear and want to put it through its paces. I attended a wedding recently as a guest, not as the official photographer, but I had my shiny new Fuji X100F with me and even though I thought I knew how to operate it, I made a crucial mistake that cost me a lot of good shots throughout the evening.

For a good 20 minutes I couldn’t figure out why my camera wasn’t focusing right and all my shots were coming out poorly exposed. Finally, I realized that I had accidentally activated the built-in ND filter. There was even an icon on the LCD screen indicating the ND filter was turned on, but I didn’t see it because I just wasn’t as familiar with the camera as I should have been.

people dancing at a party - The Importance of Learning From Failure and Your Growth as a Photographer

Suffice it to say I felt like a complete amateur when I realized that a mistake I made had ruined so many good photo opportunities, but I quickly learned from it and hopefully now you can too!

Familiarize yourself with the location beforehand

Years ago, not too long after I got my Nikon D200 and 50mm lens, I thought I was a pretty big deal and knew everything there was to know about pictures. After all, I had a prime lens! What else was there to understand? (Spoiler alert: A lot. A whole lot!)

One of the biggest mistakes I made during this early period was to show up for photo sessions without ever having been to the location beforehand. This made it impossible, as any seasoned photographer would know, to plan out some of the basic essentials of a photo shoot and look for things like lighting, foreground and background elements, and even where to have my clients sit, stand, or walk.

Hard lesson to learn

The worst offender of the bunch was a session I did for a high school senior where most of the pictures turned out –  well, let’s just say less than ideal because I failed to plan ahead in terms of the physical location. We agreed to meet at a cross-country track, with almost no natural shade, at 5 pm. This is what happened:

portrait in the shade - The Importance of Learning From Failure and Your Growth as a Photographer

From one of my first high school senior sessions, and one I wish I could erase from existence altogether.

After searching for something, anything, to block the sun so he wasn’t squinting – I finally found this set of metal bleachers behind a tree. But because I didn’t understand how to operate my camera to get the exposure right (see failure tip #1) I got shots that were lit like some kind of circus act and were far too over or underexposed.

If I had taken some time to visit the location first I could have at least mentioned some alternative places at the track, or even suggested a different location entirely. Instead, I got out of my car and met the client and his mom with the kind of overconfident swagger that only a new wet-behind-the-ears photographer has, and ended up biffing most of the shots.

I did scrape by with enough competent shots to make it worth their while, but nonetheless, I walked away having learned something I will never forget.

senior portrait - The Importance of Learning From Failure and Your Growth as a Photographer

This was from one of my more recent high school senior sessions. I think it’s just a bit better, don’t you?

A few more for good measure

There are a host of other times I have failed as a photographer but each time I have tried to engage in some self-reflection and understand where I went wrong, As well, I tried to talk with other photographer friends, so I don’t make the same mistakes in the future.

My work has grown, and so have I, as a result of these failures. I would almost go so far as to say that failure is downright essential if you want to refine your craft as a photographer.

dogwood flower - The Importance of Learning From Failure and Your Growth as a Photographer

It took years of poor decisions and overlooking the obvious for me to learn enough about photography to take this simple picture of a dogwood flower.

Without going into too much detail, here are just a couple of other times I have swung and missed, photographically speaking, over the years along with a bit of caution for others thrown in for good measure.

When in doubt, take more photos

I was born in 1980 and grew up in the era of physical film, so when I got my first digital camera I carried that mentality with me. As a result, I missed out on a lot of good shots, especially with clients, because I thought I already had enough and didn’t want to fill up my memory card.

With the price of memory cards being so astronomically low, there is no excuse for not taking enough pictures, and you can just delete them later if you need to.

Control your depth of field

After I got my 85mm f/1.8 lens I took it out to a photo session with clients before thoroughly using and understanding it, which is always a big mistake. I also thought that I could shoot everything at f/1.8 because it gave me such a cool background blur!

What I didn’t realize at the time was the extra-large aperture was also causing half the people to be out of focus due to the insanely shallow depth of field. Just because your lens has a super wide aperture doesn’t mean you should always use it. When in doubt, stop it down a bit.

family portrait outdoors - The Importance of Learning From Failure and Your Growth as a Photographer

I focused on the mother, front and center, and shot this with my 85mm lens at f/1.8 to get a blurry background. What I didn’t realize was that also meant the husband was out of focus as a result.

Know when enough is enough

This one is going to vary depending on the type of photography you do. But as someone who takes a lot of family and child photos, it’s important to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.

Kids, and even parents, can be fickle and there were times early on when I would drag out photo sessions long after I should have called it quits. “Hey let’s get some more shots over there!” I would say. My clients would begrudgingly oblige while I scampered off ahead of them in a vain effort to capture authentic smiles and emotions.

Dragging out a photo session won’t help you get better pictures. But it will make your clients roll their eyes and think about booking someone else next time. Someone who will take a hint and pay attention to their needs!

family photo - The Importance of Learning From Failure and Your Growth as a Photographer

I learned over the years that kids just don’t last long at family photo sessions, so I took a ton of pictures and tried to keep things interesting by switching up the poses. 20 minutes later these kids were ready to be done, and I could have tried to stretch things out further but it would have only led to frustration.

Conclusion

These are just a few of the many lessons I have learned over the years that, while painful at the time, have served me well in the long run.

What are some of the ways in which you have failed, fell down, or otherwise came up short and what did you learn from it? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below. Hopefully, we can all learn from each other’s mistakes.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

  • Pamela Pattison

    Guilty of all the above and more! Just yesterday, up early, gorgeous 5am light, delicate clematis in flower, needed to stay away from manual as the light was so low to see to focus- oh no, my lens is broken, no AF! ……Except I didn’t think to check if it was already on manual, which my OH had switched it the day before!

  • Thank you for this brave and honest article. It’s not just me, then.

    I am guilty of all of the above, your honour, but perhaps a plea in mitigation? There are shoots you can control and shoots you cannot control. I have found it very difficult to organise people, or get a handle on their self-image, and I could do with a few lessons in subject expectation management.

    My tip, from recent personal experience is:

    Don’t send photos of a 24 year old James Dean to a septuagenarian rock star and ask, “Something like this, maybe”?

  • C.R. Bennett

    This is certainly an interesting enough article to put in my “best practices” file, with the zillion others I can’t always attend to. Yes, I’m guilty as charged of being so afraid of making the mistakes I need to get better, that I continually find myself in the “amateur” and “hobbyist” columns instead of where I belong.
    Studying writing, photography and horticulture most of my adult life, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to pay attention to the smallest details of any subject matter: Pretty picture, but not of a Dogwood. It’s a Magnolia.
    Thank You for lessons learned and taught.
    Have a great day !

  • walwit

    Thank you Simon for this great article.

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