Learning from Mistakes

We’re generally taught from a young age to avoid mistakes.  In early school you learn information and feed it back the same way you heard it.  For all the comments by parents about trying your best being the important thing, few people or places reward making mistakes no matter how much you tried or why the mistake happened.  Even fewer will ask what you learned from the mistake and treat that as valuable information.

In spite of this there is a long and storied list of inventions and discoveries that were the result of a mistake, error, or accident such as post-it-notes and penicillin.  In most of these case the mistake was met with someone working on a problem and instead of tossing the mistake out, they investigated it and found a use for it.

What does this have to do with photography?  I was reminded of this when processing some images a few weeks ago.  I’ve developed into a person who has little fear of making mistakes. It’s not that I don’t get embarrassed or frustrated at them or that I don’t want to do things as well as I can. What I’ve learned is that to progress in any skill from business to photography you have to push the edges of your abilities and in doing so you will make mistakes.

I think the key is that when you make a mistake, try to figure out what went wrong.  An example for me occurred in one of my early shoots with a model.  It was a disaster. We didn’t connect, the model’s poses came out looking stiff, and we had different expectations going in about what content we’d be shooting.  As frustrating and wasteful as that shoot seemed at this time, I learned the importance of establishing rapport and connection with the model and the need to ensure that we both had the same expectations before the shoot. That shoot didn’t work well at all, but from that experience I learned lessons that have improved every shoot that followed.

A mistake doesn’t have to be that dramatic to teach you something. It can be something that your initial reaction is to shrug off and just delete off the back of the camera.

At a recent shoot as part of the outdoor project that I’ve worked on most of the year I had two models posed on a waterfall. While zooming in to change the composition of the image my finger accidently hit the trigger. It was completely unplanned and the resulting image was a terrible jumble of blurring from lack of focus and bad exposure.

Except one thing about it appealed to me, a warping effect that had been created from the movement of the zoom while the shutter was open. I decided to try that effect intentionally a couple of times before moving on with the rest of the shoot. One didn’t come out well, but the other image was exactly what I wanted. When I showed it to the models on the back of the camera once they were back on level ground both liked the image and after I processed it, both loved the result.

If I hadn’t paid attention to my mistake, then I’d never saw the interesting effect and tried to replicate it resulting in an amazing image.

Pay attention to your mistakes, they may just create some of your best work.

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