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Personal experience is the very best teacher. Reading tutorials, studying the professionals, and mastering the fundamentals will certainly incrementally improve your photographic skills, but you’ll grow exponentially when learning from your photography mistakes. This is most true when you study your mistakes. You only learn when you make a mistake and know why.
Conversely, if you don’t seriously study the shots that you captured from each outing (both good and bad), you’ll be more prone to make those mistakes again and again and never clearly understand why. Discovering how camera settings and scene lighting produced specific results can give you real insights that even a private tutor may not deliver. You are your own best teacher because this kind of lesson is concentrated on you alone and concerns you alone. You aren’t competing with anybody else, nor are you being judged by anyone else.
Metadata is the techno-term for the settings your camera uses to capture digital pictures; which includes File Properties and Exif (camera capture data). Every camera collects facts that describe just about everything your camera knows about the pictures it takes.
Metadata and Exif information accompanies every image captured and is disclosed by a variety of different software applications, and it is exhaustively disclosed in Adobe’s Bridge software. The illustrated examples in this article have were captured from Bridge. While Lightroom delivers a small subset of this information, Bridge lists virtually everything and acts as a “bridge” (clever name) between the files and other Adobe software to catalog and process the images.
Get hard on yourself and discover what works and what doesn’t. Then try to repeat the results you received from your best shots. If you make this exercise a habit, and seriously analyze why some shots worked, and others didn’t, you’ll improve with every outing. Learn to appreciate the “keepers” but don’t view the rejects as failures… they are merely lessons from which to learn.
Note the difference that the time of day makes and the angles (and severity) of the shadows produced during different hours of the day. Take notes on why some shots are 5-star picks, and some others are rejects. Become a student of your work and watch your learning curve shorten.
This metadata also teaches you the limitations and restrictions of specific settings. Sometimes processes that fail are caused by equipment failure rather than judgment error. Here’s an example of the camera being set up for a flash image but encountering an entirely different lighting condition when the flash failed to fire. The ripple effect of a flash misfire caused a massive failure in the camera’s exposure, focus, and color.
Develop a routine and a personal discipline that forces you to shoot during the same time of day for a full week. Note that I said “force,” rather than try. Personal discipline is a wonderful trait and one that can improve your photographic skills very quickly. Who knows, it might actually affect other areas of your life that need improvement too.
If you only shoot occasionally, you’ll develop skills at a slower pace. Moreover, if you only critically review your work occasionally, you’ll learn at a snail’s pace. Make the review process a regular exercise, and it becomes habit… a good one. I once had a professor who stated in almost every class, “repetition is the exercise of your mental muscle.” The advice sounded strange back then, but it makes perfect sense now.
Every session you shoot produces winners and losers. Make it a habit to examine all metadata from your session to deduce what went right and what didn’t. More importantly, you’ll learn why. Take ownership of your mistakes, especially errors in judgment. You only grow when you recognize a mistake and work to overcome it. While you’ll always be very proud of the great shots you take, you’ll learn more from the shots that didn’t work!
More often than not, this examination shows you how your camera reacts to specific lighting in a scene. It sometimes produces profound shifts in exposure from small differences in the framing of a scene. Weird but true. While cameras are thought to have “intelligence,” in reality they have no intelligence or no judgment capabilities of their own. They’re merely algorithms that affect settings based on the lighting observed in the scene.
There are many ways to learn. Taking courses online, reading tutorials and technique books, and tips and tricks columns all teach us a little something more. Years ago I decided to learn how to play the game of golf. After shooting some very embarrassing and humbling rounds, I realized that I desperately needed help. I bought many golf magazines and tried to mimic the stance and swings pictured in the exercises. I watched a large number of video tutorials and listened to advise from everybody, but my game remained poor.
Nothing improved and I only became discouraged. It was when I practiced the disciplines on a regular basis and took serious notes on what worked and why that my game began to improve. I continued to fail simply because I didn’t analyze (and learn from) my mistakes. You learn a lot when you expose yourself to the valuable experience of others, but you’ll only truly grow in your photography skills after you study your own results. So here’s an exercise:
Open any of the excellent software packages that display both the Metadata (aperture, metering type, ISO, color mode, and shutter speed) and Camera Data, or Exif information (exposure mode, white balance, focal length, lens used, light source, flash behavior, etc.) from both RAW and formatted photos.
Set the View in the software so that you can observe the images in browser or catalog mode, allowing you to see thumbnail views of the files in each session. Also, set the window to display the settings for each image as you step from one image to another.
Whether you shoot in Manual, Aperture or Shutter priority, or even Auto mode, the software lists the individual camera settings exhaustively for each image.
Next: note the variations in lighting between the images and recognize what changes in the camera settings cause the small shifts in the results. Each variation gets linked to one or more of the camera settings; sometimes just a small shift in ISO.
If you allow Auto to control any aspect of your shots, the camera makes subtle changes to shutter speed, ISO, or aperture. Using Auto can be very beneficial in this learning stage because you’ll see how each of these controls affects the appearance.
Make a short columned note card and enter the basic settings for the keepers. Add the weather and lighting conditions that existed at the time of the shot.
Keep this note card in your camera bag and try to replicate the results from the keepers.
Repeat this exercise regularly and watch your results, judgment, and predictability improve.
You are your best teacher and your camera’s metadata and EXIF information recorded automatically with every shot is the notebook recording detailed information about every shot. Your confidence and efficiency should improve along with your photography when you study your notes. Who knows, this could be the shot-in-the-arm that pushes you forward.
Share with us how you have learned from your own mistakes in the comments below.