Why Making Mistakes is Good for your Photography

Why Making Mistakes is Good for your Photography

A Guest Contribution by Draycat

It is said the longest journey starts with a single step. The unfortunate part of life is that sometimes that step will cause you to fall, or you may even find you are walking in the wrong direction. But such things are normal and natural in life, and these are often the experiences that we learn the most from. A baby will fall down many times as he/she learns to walk. The falling down is part of the process of learning to walk, and without it the baby will never learn.

It is the same for photography, from the first day you pick up a camera you will make mistakes.

  • You may spend a day shooting only to realise that your camera was on the wrong setting and instead of shooting full size RAW you’ve been shooting the smallest size jpg
  • you may leave the house with all your equipment prepared only to take the first shot and realise that you forgot to put a memory card in the camera (and find the nearest place to buy one is miles away)
  • you may take lots and lots of pictures which look good in the camera’s LCD, only to find they are all soft when you see them on your computer screen – you didn’t realise at the time because you didn’t zoom in and check on the camera’s LCD.

These are just a few of the mistakes that I have made since I’ve been shooting, and after each one I generally felt foolish and sometimes demoralised. I felt like my photographic journey had taken me no where while everyone else flew past me with their great camera skills.

But if you speak to any of the great photographers in world, present or past, they will smile and tell you that they made exactly the same mistakes, and many more besides.

They will tell you that they often learned more from their mistakes than from their successes. Often when we make mistakes we are too hard on ourselves, and beat ourselves up about how stupid we were, or how foolish we feel. This photographer or that photographer would never do such a thing, but the fact is that we all do.

The truth is that it isn’t about the mistakes you make, but rather about how you deal with those mistakes.

If you look at them and work out how they happened, what you did wrong, or what you forgot to do then it becomes a learning experience – something that will ultimately help you to be a better photographer. In a shoot I once wanted a little motion blur in a dance section.

I shot at 1/15 of a second, and on my small LCD camera screen the images looked ok. When I got home and put them on my main monitor, they were all a little too blurred. The next time I shot in a similar situation I set my camera to 1/25 of a second and made sure I got what I wanted by zooming in on the LCD on the camera, and I got exactly what I wanted. It was a learning curve and now in that situation I know exactly what to do or rather what not to do.

On the other hand, if you make a mistake and beat yourself up about it constantly it becomes something negative. It will create fear and actually stop you from moving forward. When you encounter a similar situation instead of going in there with a good idea of what not to do, you will instead do everything possible to avoid the situation altogether. Can you imagine a baby thinking ‘this walking stuff is just too difficult and falling down is painful. Who needs walking anyway, crawling is perfectly good enough. I’ll just stick to this crawling stuff in future.’

Being a good photographer is as much about learning what not to do as it is learning what to do.

Without making mistakes we could never become well rounded photographers, so the next time you make one when you shoot and you feel frustrated, walk around for a while and think about learning to walk. Then, get up, work out what you did wrong and then go and try it again.

Draycat is British photographer, teacher and writer currently based in Tokyo, Japan. See more from him at his Website on Twitter on Facebook and on Youtube.

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Some Older Comments

  • Rob July 24, 2013 09:58 am

    Excellent article.. quick add to -- was doing a shoot for a class on composition and forgot to reset my white balance back to outdoors from tungsten... so, I got some great shots - all of which were blue -- and did I learn from it... sort of - this year on a trip to New England.. shooting outdoors- Oh, guess what?... yep you guessed correctly... great shots all in blue again.... oh well... live and learn

  • Edmund Sykes March 19, 2013 08:35 pm

    It used to be much easier with a manual camera. Focus was instinctive with a split image microprism, many zoom lenses were push-pull so you zoomed and focused with the same ring, a simple dial allowed you to adjust the automatic exposure and the f-stop was set on the lens ring where there was also a depth of field guide. Whatever film you used had a fixed ISO unless you decided to push the whole roll. Really, I think that too many choices on today's cameras make photography so difficult and auto-focus / auto exposure takes away the need to think carefully about every subject. I certainly get more duds in the digital age than when every shot counted.

  • Pops March 19, 2013 06:33 am

    I have a class session where I explain this to my students. Basically, "You can take the most perfectly posed, well lighted, properly focused, depth of field emphasized photograph of the most marvelous subject you have ever seen in your life and not learn one single thing from it. You learn from your mistakes, so that you will be able to take that 'PERFECT' picture when it presents itself."

  • Cathy March 19, 2013 03:23 am

    I made a check list when I first started shooting weddings. Always zero your camera settings from the last shoot so you can adjust for our new location.

  • ROY March 17, 2013 09:11 am

    What a wonderful letter how absolutely true of life and Photography This thinking should be taught to all youngsters in the schools and passed on to every living being for always

  • Duke March 16, 2013 01:49 pm

    Especially those of us who "converted" to the digital medium, most of the common mistakes are, well, common. I got so fed up with "settings neglect" (pick one) I forced myself to an identical routine before ANY shoot. I start at the right front side of my Nikon D300, and step-by-step, work my way over, to the back, and around the entire camera. If there's a switch, I check it, a setting, I check it, a dial, I read it. And I use all four shooting banks, where up to 156 different settings can be set for different scenarios. I've got one for point and shoot, flash, tripod, and action. That's a lot of settings to keep track of, but having the majority pre-set for different scenarios is a life-saver. It takes seconds to go from one type of shooting to another. My goal is always to get all the variables "out of the way" so I can take some pictures. Simple, but oh so complicated at times!

  • marty golin March 16, 2013 03:42 am

    These mistakes of technique are actually the easy ones in my view. The mistakes of the decison-making process are a bit tougher.

    Example, shooting a flower against a wall w/ a graphic shadow backdround, clear distinct edges of bright & dark. My first shot, when the sun was bright, gave me what I envisioned. However as I was taking a second shot (to ensure sharp), the sun suddenly went behind a cloud & the shadow became very muted, with a gradual transition from a mid-tone to dark.

    The second shot was the better one, even though technically it was a mistake & not at all what I envisioned. The gradual transition of the shadow gave the background a fuller, more textured feel. The real mistake was in my head, not the photo.

    Learining to see what isn't immediately visible requires many mistakes.

  • Leisa March 15, 2013 08:08 pm

    It's quite ironic that I just came across this article, although I've had an interest in photography for over 20 years, it's only recently I've commenced a Diploma in Photography. I've been reading lots and lots, from my course, online information, magazines and practising loads! But just feeling like I'm not getting very far. I can't thank you enough for this article!

  • AndyP March 15, 2013 06:12 pm

    My big learning experience was shooting a friends 50th birthday and sticking a bit too much to my preferred style - documentary and without flash. Result was pictures with too much noise and which were salvagable only to a certain degree. Should have ensured I got more posed shots with flash to ensure clean sharp pics. I actually loved the photos but my friend expected more traditional shots and I felt pretty bad about it.

  • Tracer March 15, 2013 09:39 am

    We were hiking near albuquerque, NM and there in the shade under a large flat rock was a huge rattlesnake. what a great shot. I was a 'rookie' and my d80 has no live view. Alas, when we got home and put it on the computer, i found that auto focus locked on some grass in front of the subject which was quite fuzzy. Ouch!

  • Amy Greener March 15, 2013 03:25 am

    Thank you, Draycat, for reminding me that we all make mistakes. I had a nice job lined up last weekend--three vacation rental cabins to photograph over 2 days. The clients were a joy to work with, the weather cooperated pretty well, my gear was all in order...life felt good. Until I downloaded all my images and realized that I had not paid a bit of attention to my aperture and shot everything at f/4. While most of the images were decent enough and the client loved them, several of the shots were definitely compromised and blurry in the distance. I felt so stupid for not being more attentive but I sure learned a valuable lesson to check everything TWICE.

  • Beth @ Trove Photography March 14, 2013 07:29 am

    This is so true. My favorite photographer/teacher, Roberto Valenzuela, also challenges photographers to spend time with their rejected images from a project. Looking for the things you subconsciously did wrong shines light on what you need to pay attention to fixing. It's forced me to take my emotion out of it (because we all take critique on our work personally, right?) and to scour my rejects with objective eyes, searching out what not to do next time! It's so valuable!

  • Bob Simmons March 14, 2013 04:14 am

    Something ROTC taught me 35 years ago was that you never learned from doing something right. I have to admit that, in my photography, I made the same mistakes as the other commenters; some on multiple occassions. I guess that means that I've learned quite a lot over the years.

  • boloto March 14, 2013 03:50 am

    Thank you for the article! what you are referring to - happens to me all the time! Next time instead of just get frustrated i will turn it around!

  • Rhonda March 14, 2013 02:22 am

    Thank you for this article!! I got up early one morning to take pictures of the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean.....there was a storm off the coast and the waves were huge...seagulls were loving the waves too!!! I checked my LCD they looked pretty good and I was so excited.....got home put them on the computer and they turned out to dark, and the color was red and orange, with not even a hint of blue sky. Sad part is I still can't figure out what I did wrong!! I'm an amateur, and I obvioulsy have a LONG way to go! :-(

  • Stacie Jensen March 13, 2013 11:36 pm

    I have to agree with this! My style has been built by mistakes and learning. I love this article, great job!

  • Edmund Sykes March 12, 2013 06:41 pm

    When using my new Panasonic G3 I was treating it like a stills camera to take movies with the camera in portrait angle. Idiot that I am, I lost a lot of good footage and the alternative chance of taking lots of good stills. So yes, we live and learn!

  • Stanislawa March 12, 2013 06:35 pm

    When you start to shoot, take about 40-50 pictures and realize that you're ran out of free space - 'cause you didn't empty your memory card after the previous photo shooting.. That's one of my common mistakes:)

  • Billy March 12, 2013 04:23 pm

    I once took an hour long drive to a specific destination only to discover I left my battery back home on the charger. Now I never go anywhere without 2 batteries.

  • Mridula March 12, 2013 03:45 pm

    I am very good at beating me up bit :D But I do pick myself up as well and move forward.


  • George March 12, 2013 02:09 pm

    Seems lately my biggest mistake has been not having my camera with me. So I have had to play the should'a would'a could'a game and settle for the"mental picture".

  • Barry March 12, 2013 10:44 am

    I have spent a few ours down at the beach taking pics only to discover later that the camera was set on the wrong white balance, luckily i was shooting in raw so easily fixed.

  • Michal France March 12, 2013 10:41 am

    Beautiful philosophy, not only for photography. Thank you for this article!

  • Fais March 12, 2013 10:02 am

    Hei man, i love this articles.

  • Scottc March 12, 2013 07:34 am

    One of my "mistakes" turned out to be one of my favorites photos. I only had one chance to get it and was certain it would not turn out.


  • Joachihm March 12, 2013 06:38 am

    Perfect timing. I spent yesterday with my girlfriend at the zoo taking a ton of pictures only to find out after about 2 hours that I had my ISO set way to high. Half of the pics are noisy and pretty much garbage.