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Learning From My Mistakes: 5 Okay Shots That Could Have Been Great

I am incredibly lucky. It’s taken me a decade, but I have built a portrait photography business that depends solely on word-of-mouth marketing and stays plenty busy that way.

If there was a magic 3 step process for this, I promise I would share it.

I’ve learned a ton along the way: treat your clients like gold, be generous whenever you can, and everyone should blow their nose and empty their pockets before a single picture is taken. Yet……..I still learn every day. Which is odd because every day I am also pretty sure that I couldn’t possibly know more than I know now or be presented with a situation I have yet to encounter. Then again, sometimes my ego and I have trouble fitting thru doorways together.

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See that? It’s a house. It’s actually my house – which I am putting on the market soon.

My wonderful realtor who knows I’m a photographer, asked if I wanted to go ahead and take the pictures myself to save time and money instead of bringing in the trained and experienced real estate photographer she usually uses.

Now, I am asking a little more than my hourly rate for this house. In fact, I am asking like a thousand of my hourly rates for this house. 999 of them are going to pay off the note with the bank, but I’m pretty excited about that one I might get back – and I don’t do real estate photography. I’m not even really sure how to go about it if we are being honest. But, hey, I have a fancy camera and an expensive lens and how hard could it be, right?

If you have those fore mentioned things, you are going to be asked at some point to shoot something that you don’t have any interest in shooting. Maybe it’s a house. Maybe it’s food. Maybe it’s dirt in a fetching abstract pattern. And it’s tempting to say yes, because after all…..how hard could it be? The answer is hard. The longer answer is that every time you shoot something subpar, if only because you don’t have the experience, training, and interest in shooting that, you are taking away from the work you do want to shoot. I get it. I really do. Favors for friends, good money in the off-season. But it’s rarely worth it.

The lesson: Stick with what you know. If you don’t have any desire to do it or learn how, don’t take it on.

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I love photographing people upside down. It’s unexpected and quirky and different and fun. And, and, and. It’s also complicated and only works when the rest of what the viewer’s eye has to process is simple and easy. If I had stopped for a moment and viewed it without my camera, I would have seen how hard it was to take it. Why is one kid upside down and the other not? Who’s arms are those? How did they get like that? The cuteness of siblings rolling around in grass and beautiful light gets lost trying to understand the whole picture.

The lesson: Simplify.  If it takes you a second to process what is happening, it will take the viewer of the future photograph much more than a second and your concept could be completely lost….no matter how “perfect” the shot itself is.

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When a plane went by, causing most everyone in this family to look toward the sky, I though I had hit pay dirt. I quickly envisioned them all looking up in amazement and excited baffle. Instead it only served as an interruption to what we were doing. At the moment I remember thinking I should encourage them to watch the plane. But I was so caught up in the moment passing us by that I didn’t think I had time.

Even if the plane had long passed by the time I conveyed what I meant, I still could have gotten the shot I imagined. But I didn’t say a word about it and therefore didn’t allow them their own moment, which would have produced an amazing shot. Instead I have this: everyone a bit thrown off by the interruption because I didn’t ease the situation.

The lesson: Take your time. No matter how tight the schedule, you always have 30 extra seconds to make a fun situation into a great shot.

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Oh this picture. It was such a beautiful shot…………two hours of Photoshop ago. I love MORE. I’m a fan of bigger and better and faster too. When this cutie showed up with this adorable hat,

I got an idea. A crazy/complicated/fun idea.

I. Was. Going. To. Get. This. Shot.

We were going to stay here all day if that’s what it took. And I got a great shot (without the whole day bit luckily). However left to my own devices, I wanted to do everything I could to make it THE shot. What’s post-production, if not to enhance right? I felt it was a Gap Kid’s moment, what with the cute kid and fun hat and all. Deserving of the kind of “enhancement” ready for a catalog cover. Never mind that I don’t shoot fashion, that I rarely shoot commercial, and that for this shot I was being paid to shoot a portrait and nothing more.

The lesson: Less is usually more. There’s a fine line between giving an image a little editing love and turning people into plastic.


Now I knew going into this shoot that I was photographing a large family and 8 dogs and you’d think that I would have come with my pockets full of dog treats and spent the hour and a half drive there practicing my whistle. But, alas, I did not.

This particular client was a referral who lived really far from me and was willing to pay me a significant travel fee to come to them – and their 8 dogs.

Admittedly my ego got the best of me here. There are hundreds of photographers closer and cheaper. Maybe even some with experience shooting 8 dogs. But they wanted me. And instead of saying, “do I really want to shoot this?”, I happily fed my ego a big serving of “I’m So Wanted” with a side dish of “How Awesome Am I? Answer: Really Awesome”.

Here’s the problem with that: this shot is forever my body of work. Even if I had never shown it to anyone, the client might. And it’s not my greatest work. Yet it may be the only work of mine someone sees.

This isn’t the shot I want to hang my hat on or be known for. I’m not embarrassed about it, but I do get a little bummed about the idea that a viewer may see this and think it’s the best example of my skills.

The lesson: Get over yourself. This shot doesn’t need to be in my body of work, but it is. I could have done more research and come in with better ideas for this 8 dog craziness and by not, the take-away is a shot that could have been so fun and different and interesting and…… isn’t.

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Lynsey Mattingly
Lynsey Mattingly

photographs families, kids, couples, and other groups of people who, for whatever reason, kind of like each other. Her portrait work has been featured in People Magazine, Us Weekly, BBC Magazine, and on national TV including CNN, Oprah, and Ellen, but most importantly, in the personal galleries of clients across the country. Her photography can be viewed at www.lynseymattingly.com or on Facebook.

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