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

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.

Mistakesphoto1 1

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.

Mistakesphoto2 1

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.

Mistakesphoto3 1

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.

Mistakesphoto4 1

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 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.

Some Older Comments

  • Tasha June 23, 2013 10:37 am

    I actually think you're very brave to do this newsletter with all the negative feedback going on here.

    The house shot is drab and nothing special. The shot with the trees is like a photo gone wrong but the other shots are fine and fun. Photographing so many people and dogs would be challenging for anyone I think but these people are smiling and the dogs are all behaving so I think that would be a mean feat in itself. I think that photo would be more difficult to take than kids rolling around in a park. It would have been interesting to see the before and after shot of the little cutie in the hat and blue singlet.

    Thankyou for being brave enough to share.

  • Faith June 10, 2013 06:36 am

    Lynsey, I don't often comment on this website, but reading your article and some of the more critical responses motivated me to applaud you for writing this piece. It is not easy to share your work to begin with, knowing that the simple act of doing so inspires so much judgment (some of it not at all constructive) from others. You took your post one step further and used it to admit something that we all have in common, but none of us like to reveal - that you are not perfect and that your work doesn't always turn out the way you hoped or planned for. The important thing is that you're capable of reflection and of learning from your mistakes. It's easy for others to judge your work here, but people seem to be missing how much courage it takes to post work you aren't proud of - trust me, we all have lots of those photos. Keep up the good work, and as much as it is beneficial sometimes to be your own worst critic, try to acknowledge your talents equally. Thanks for sharing!

  • Melanie June 4, 2013 08:14 pm

    I agree with Sarah. It's not meant to be technical wisdom that you're imparting, but bigger picture stuff. Not a time waster for me at all. Thank you Lynsey.

  • Vivian Bedoya June 3, 2013 10:36 am

    Talk about a time waster! The title and the content couldn't be more disparate.

  • Tina June 3, 2013 06:33 am

    I love photography, but with only 3 college photography classes under my belt, I'm hardly a professional. But I'd like to be. I looked at the photos and honestly didn't see anything very wrong with them. As a photographer, professional or not, I believe we all tend to be overly critical of our own work. I see my final prints and see so many mistakes yet my husband or sister will look at them and see nothing wrong with them at all. I enjoyed the article and didn't see any reason to critique the author's work.

  • Lisa June 3, 2013 01:47 am

    Thank you for sharing?

  • Mike Harris June 1, 2013 12:48 pm

    It does remind me that getting "that perfect shot" is certainly in the eyes of the beholder. Sometimes a shot that I hate is loved by others. The little details I see are missed by others. Don't look too closely and keep it simple.

  • Deb Scally June 1, 2013 08:07 am

    @Jan, no i disagree with your comment. Lynsey herself was the harshest critic--we were just chiming in that she needed to be more specific about what she didn't like or what was "missed." In doing so, we wanted to understand what the "lesson" was she was writing about in each example. In fact, if you read most of the comments, most readers actually felt she was too hard on herself!

  • Jan June 1, 2013 01:58 am

    I think everyone who critiqued Lynsey's photos may have missed the point of the article. I don't think the article was intended as a request for critique but to help others avoid the same mistakes. I enjoyed the article and think it's a good message to all of us who aren't perfect but the point is likely missed by readers who think they are perfect ;)

  • Aditya Marathe May 31, 2013 06:59 pm

    I am a wedding photographer in India. I often get the feeling that the author has written about here. The feeling of not liking your shot but the client being totally satisfied about it.

    In my opinion, when I shoot weddings, I think my shots become repetitive or mundane and then I try to find mistakes in them. Yes, mistakes happen, but the mundanity of the task may lead us to think that a good shot is not so good.

    What I do to come out of it is to shoot a different genre for a day, for example, I shot a timelapse the otherday and it really helped me learn and appriciate what I am good at :)

  • Lynsey Peterson May 31, 2013 03:08 pm


    Thank you so much for the candid comments, constructive criticisms, and kind words. I am not able to respond to every point and question, but I will take a second and mention what I didn't like about each shot below since that came up quite a bit. I think it's important to point out that we often hold ourselves to impossibly high standards and I am as guilty of that as anyone. The point of this article (Thank you Chad Moore!) was that each of these images taught me a lesson that I have taken with me (these are highlighted as "the lesson")--sometimes simple like I don't want to ever shoot real estate photography, and sometimes more complicated like learning to slow myself down and see the moment with my eyeballs instead of my camera. It's easy for anyone, including myself to nitpick and find something wrong with every image I have included here. It's also easy to find something fine or even good about every image. We all see things differently. My hope for myself and any photographer is that when looking at an image we have taken that isn't up to our own set par, we take a moment to figure out why and learn from it.

    As a few requested, here is what I felt were my errors:

    1.) house shot: I shouldn't have even attempted this. Never mind if I could have Googled real estate photography and learned ways to make it better. There was no need for me to do this myself and I didn't enjoy it (for the record the reason I tried was because on that ONE day my tulips bloomed and I thought that would be nice to have in the picture. It rained on that day and i can't help that:) It was a waste of my time (beyond learning the lesson) and only served to further prove me a photographer of people and not things. It's as easy as that. I don't know what I don't like about this image, I just know it isn't good enough to use to sell a house.

    2.) upside-down kid: As many of you said, this is a perfectly fine shot. My client loved it and that's what really matters. What I don't like about it is only that it feels a bit complicated and in the moment, I could have slowed things down and gotten another shot that doesn't have as much going on in the one small area that keeps pulling my eyes in.

    3.) family in trees: What I don't like about this is only that I was there and know what I COULD HAVE gotten and didn't, again because I didn't take the time to slow down. This is a "what could have been" shot.

    4.) kiddo in hat: I can't show the unedited version, but it is very different. The client ended up with a version that was much more "toned-down" and that's what matters. What I don't like is that I used so much editing only because I could, and not because I needed to and lost the original look in the process. This was corrected but it's a lesson nonetheless.

    5.) 8 dogs: Again, perfectly fine shot that a client was totally happy with. What I don't like is that I let the situation get the best of me. It was total chaos and had I prepared more and come in with ideas, I feel I could have done better. I would have loved every dog either looking at me or interacting with their owner. I realize this is a tall order. ;)

    Again, this was about shots that I know I could have done better (or passed on completely) and much of that is because I was there and I know what was happening while I was shooting. Each one of these "okay" shots (and a million others) taught me something important and made me a better photographer. The misses are just as important as the hits.

    Thank you again!

  • Sarah May 31, 2013 11:07 am

    I know exactly what you mean, especially about the house thing. My husband once asked me if I could take photos to showcase his engineering firm's work. I actually considered it but decided against it. I take good pictures of my children, but I have no idea how to take a picture of a structure. If I had done it, it would have made me feel like a failure, and like you said, it's not even something I'm interested in. I just have a camera.
    Some of the comments make me think nobody really got your lessons. I understand you weren't going for a critique, but rather what you could have done differently in these situations - not necessarily a technical aspect of the picture.

  • James Lau May 31, 2013 10:30 am

    DPS has been bringing out lots of useful tips and insights which I would clip and forward to friends. The caption for this article is captivating but I was totally let down. This one is unfortunately too cryptic and counter-intuitive. Does the writer like his own work? What would he have done otherwise to correct the mistakes? All these are absent and not addressed in the write-up or the comment.

  • Allen May 31, 2013 08:55 am

    Such an interesting article and some great comments too but I would like to add a few of mine.
    The house is crooked because the camera is tilted back and there is too much sky and too little foreground as house buyers don't buy sky.
    The two kids are fine but a bit to one side of the photo is what I thought.
    The family one is once again too much sky but apart from that a bit scattered around.
    I don't like "Photoshop" and try and get stuff right "In Camera" and a image straight from the camera of the child with the hat would have been nice to see.
    The family with eight dogs is a bit "Cropped" at the sides but apart from that if anyone has tried to photograph more than one dog at a time then you will agree that it is a mighty fine result. Thank you.

  • Christel May 31, 2013 08:50 am

    I also agree with Trialex. I am a complete novice at photography and would have hoped to learn a bit from your mistakes but you don't explain why you think your photos aren't as great as you hoped they would be. I also can not see much wrong with your photos. Apart from the photo with the kids needing straightening. I like the soft focus in both photos, the playing kids and the little girl with the back to front hat, you might have added the soft focus with photoshop. I don't find the shadows that the hats create in the dog photo disturbing, or the fact that the two end guys are chopped off a bit. Your house photo, I can't find anything wrong with it. The family, ok it was just a point and shoot photo, may be not even point:), but I also guess you picked that out deliberately.

  • Shar May 31, 2013 06:57 am

    Gigi is right! Often photographers are their own worst critics. But I see that as a good thing...

  • Chad Moore May 31, 2013 06:07 am

    I really enjoyed this article and understood what you were saying. It is about growing as a photographer and artist. To do that, you have to learn lessons. I learned from this article. Thank you!

  • Selena May 31, 2013 05:19 am

    Kudos to you Lynsey! Kids and animals are by far the most challenging to shoot, and you jumped in with both feet and camera. The photos of the kids, and the dogs made me laugh and smile. One must have a lot of patience to shoot either subject and a little "I can do it" attitude is extremely helpful to pull off the assignment. I probably wouldn't put a ladder in the dog photo, but rather something unexpected - did they hunt with all those dogs? Perhaps something subtle that represents the family and their dogs.
    thanks for sharing :)
    P.S - perhaps putting a dog/cat in the photo of your home would jazz it up?

  • Gigi May 31, 2013 04:01 am

    I may be in the minority here, but I personally love the 8 dogs photo. Besides, clients don't see all the technicalities that professional photographers see anyway.

  • Cathy Moen May 31, 2013 03:20 am

    I actually like all the shots, except maybe the house. Wish you would have been more specific as to why you don't like the photos.

  • Shar May 31, 2013 02:05 am

    I actually like the family shot with the dogs except that I would have probably gotten the guys to take their hats off (to avoid the shadow) or use some lighting or a reflector. I agree with the poster who says this would have worked if all the dogs were looking in different directions - but you can't plan that, so the next best thing is to get them to look straight at the camera. I would have barked myself to make sure the dogs were looking at me! Dogs look straight at a human that barks. Simples.

  • AJ May 31, 2013 12:58 am

    I pretty-much agree with everyone's statements.

    I loved the kids photo. What you captured was LIFE. Two adorable kids playing around - just as my little 6 and 4 year old cousins do all the time. As a parent, that is the kind of photo a parent loves because you took a moment from their real life actions and froze it in time. As a customer, I'm not looking at anything but the beauty of my kids playing that captured. I'm not over-analyzing it because I'm not a photographer.

    I also really like the 8 dogs photo. If all the dogs were looking into the camera (with the smiles like the Pedigree dog commercials) would've seemed to staged, too perfect. Animals move, they interact with their owners.

    And let's not leave out the cutie in the hat! LOVE it!

    I do agree that I wish you would've indicated what you thought your error s were or shown a before and after (in the case of the little girl with the crocheted hat).

  • Mridula May 30, 2013 12:58 am

    One person's bad shot could be another one's wow?


  • kub May 29, 2013 03:03 pm

    Lynsey, dont listen to others much. Listen to yourself and look at photos you love. Osmosis, not stealing.

    That said, I dont agree with any of your assessments, but they are the way YOU see, at present.

    Remember, if you're aiming for a certain standard of 'great', a photog can miss the story in each picture, and the stories of the people's hearts and minds in the pictures.

    I'm a forensics specialist re photos. There's one subtext that runs through all your photos that I hope you will delve into far far more deeply throughout your life. Because you told the story of each photo, they are highly relational, meaning YOU relate to each as more than just hands/eyes fine motor skills. More than just an image of objects and animals and people.

    Relational is heart, soul, spirit, embodiment. Even the pix of your house, is relational for all the reasons you mentioned.

    Many many persons as you know, take pictures to make pretty pictures-- and they often all look like clones of each others' works. Relational images are an art, esp when it's NOT carnival in Rio or Tibetan farmers in regalia which are easy 'stunning' subjects, but just everyman, everychild, everywoman. I often think of Picasso who said technical skill was a rote skill like following a recipe, but creativity was the heart on fire -

    Courage. You have the inner longing. Follow it.

    As always, just my .02

  • Charlie May 29, 2013 03:16 am

    Come on.

    House photo seems almost a joke. But you don't understand your mistake. All you had to do was look at a few real estate, then figure out how to shoot in that style.

    Dogs. Agreed. It's all about planning.

    Kid in hat looks fine. But how can I tell w/o the original before you 'ruined' it?

    Family in the trees? Bad for many reasons which have nothing to do with kids looking away. But I'll bet you picked your worst shot, which looks accidental.

    As others have said, the kids playing is an arresting shot. You got it right. But, somehow, you don't realize that. You think people will critique this as if it were a still life. You nailed the moment, the joy, pure childhood play. Whose arms are doing what is as important as why the sky isn't a deeper blue. This shot justifies your session fee, even if every other shot in the session is like the family looking for planes. This shot will have every parent in the neighborhood calling you. This shot makes me happy. It should hang in nursing homes and hospitals. It should lead your stock footage collection.

    It's easy to sit on the sidelines and offer advice. That said, what could work with the dogs is having each owner quietly say something. Then you'd have a portrait of dogs looking at their owners.

  • Deb Scally May 28, 2013 10:22 pm

    I agree with Trialex above, and would encourage an addendum addressing those questions--thanks!

  • trialex May 28, 2013 08:58 am

    Besides the "kids in the grass" photo, you haven't actually explained WHY they are bad photos, or what you have learned from the so-called failure (note that I'd be happy with all of them).

    - What is wrong with the house photo? You can't have a single photo showing every aspect of the house, so what is wrong with this photo of the front? What would you have done differently?

    - What is wrong with the "kid-on-shoulders" photo? Just that the kid is not paying attention?

    - What is wrong with the "cute beanie" photo? You imply it's "over photoshopped", but in what way? did you remove too many skin details? If so why? Why not "undo" some some re-do it?

    - What is wrong with the "8 dogs" photo? To me it's the fact that the two guys on either side are slightly chopped off, and that a few off the dogs are looking off camera in the same direction (if they were all looking in random directions that would be better)

    Without identifying the mistakes that were made, it's hard to learn from them (and therefore to learn anything from the article)

  • Susannah May 28, 2013 08:46 am

    I absolutely loved the upside-down shot. I didn't see the confusion until you pointed it out; my first impression was of those delighted smiles. I could almost hear the boy giggling. And the confusion of limbs just adds to the fun, once you get around to seeing them.

  • someone May 28, 2013 07:29 am

    I understand to an extent what you are saying when you critique your own photos, but then again I think you are thinking a bit too much and becoming a bit paranoid. There is a fine line to draw when reflecting on your own photos, but in some cases I think you might be going too far.

    For example your photo of the siblings upside-down; I love it. As you said, it gives a different perspective; it's different, it's quirky and it's fun. Isn't that exactly what you are trying to portray though, alongside the green grass in a large space in the bright sun? Is it then too much to think why one is upside down but the other is not? Why are their limbs muddled, mixed and intertwined? Does it matter at all? In a sense all this adds to the sense of wild fun they are having. I'm not sure simplification would have improved this photo

  • GradyPhilpott May 28, 2013 07:11 am

    Well, as for the house, you actually ignored every rule in the book, so it's no wonder that it's drab. Regardless of your interest in real estate photography, I can't believe that a professional photographer wouldn't look for a clear day in the golden hour to attempt the shot.

    The picture of the cute child in the hat a damn good shot, I think. I haven't seen the original, but if I were the parent of that child, I'd put that picture in a prominent spot at home and in my office.

    Again with the family and dogs, I think that the issue is lighting more than anything else. I think possibly a ladder might have been good to get a more interesting perspective, but a ladder wouldn't fix lighting.

    As for the others, I can't imagine that any photographer wouldn't take some duds on any shoot and I think those pictures represent duds. I would hope that you took enough picture on either shoot to increase the odds of a few great ones.