How Making Mistakes Can Improve Your Photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

How Making Mistakes Can Improve Your Photography

by David Peterson 4 comments

Your mom probably told you, "We all learn from our mistakes." And then, you rolled your eyes and went back to whatever it was you were doing incorrectly.
Now I'm going to tell you the same thing. Please don't be tempted to roll your eyes!

Mistakes are good for you! Really. Without making mistakes, we have no opportunity to learn from them and improve our photos. Mistakes are what make you a much better photographer. But only if you look for them and learn from them. Let's see how.

Everyone makes mistakes, even dumb mistakes

Have you ever shot a bunch of pictures only to discover that you didn't put a memory card in your camera? (Frankly I don't understand why some cameras will let you do this, but there you go.) Have you ever forgotten to lower your ISO the day after you shot a bunch of indoor photos at ISO 3200? Or how about those less obvious mistakes? Centering a subject that should really have been on one of those rule-of-thirds intersections, for example. Or shooting a backlit subject without fill flash.

  • Canon EOS 40D
  • 100
  • f/6.3
  • 0.002 sec (1/640)
  • 10 mm

Oops! What's wrong with this photo? Including your own shadow in an image is a common mistake made by beginning photographers.Zaha Hadid: Vitra fire station by Flickr user Dom Dada

Ask anyone who takes photos - even professionals - if they've ever made some or all of these mistakes and chances are the answer will be a resounding "yes!" And if it isn't, that photographer is either lying or thinks way too highly of himself (probably both). Every photographer makes mistakes, even great ones. The difference between them is that the great ones learn from their mistakes.

Step one: learn how to recognize your mistakes

You can't learn from your mistakes if you don't admit that you make them, and you'd be surprised how many people in general like to just pretend that mistakes aren't a part of what they do. Most photographers who fall into this category are mediocre photographers. They don't recognize their mistakes, so they keep repeating them.

  • Olympus E-M5
  • 320
  • 0.003 sec (1/400)

Lens flare: it can happen to anyone. Sometimes it looks cool but more often than not it can obscure important parts of your image.Liz on Royal by Flickr user Brother O'Mara

Step two: self-critique

You can avoid falling into this trap by doing plenty of self-critiquing. Start by making sure you keep every photo you take, at least temporarily. Unless you have limited memory card space and you plan to take a lot of photographs (which should never happen to you anyway; always pack plenty of extra cards), there is no reason to delete photos while you are out in the field. It can be tempting to flip through the images on your LCD screen and just delete the ones that you don't think are quite right. But until you look at those images at full screen you may not even know what it is about them that isn't quite right. Your DSLR may have the largest LCD screen on the market, but it still isn't going to show you as much detail as you need to make a true judgment about what went wrong.

Now I know that you probably take thousands of photos, and if you're like a lot of photographers you probably take hundreds of photos at any one event. And not all of us have the kind of time it takes to self-critique every single photograph. But if you delete those images before you even have a chance to page through them at full screen size, you're missing an opportunity.

Sometimes overexposure can add cool, artistic effects to your photograph. But most of the time...home made bike ( my brother took these pix by mistake overexposed ) by Flickr user v i p e z

When you get home from your photo shoot, copy all your images onto your hard drive and then flip through them. You can skim over shots that are similar and/or those that are technical failures (very overexposed, very underexposed, very out of focus). But make sure you pause on those images that are just OK, or not quite right. Ask yourself what might have gone wrong with that particular image - is it the perspective? The subject's position in the frame? The lighting? Is there too much background noise? Motion blur? Would the shot have benefited from greater depth of field? Or less? If you can pinpoint what it is that makes that particular image less than perfect, ask yourself how you can avoid making that mistake again. This simple exercise with any one particular image may not prevent all further transgressions, but if you come to the same conclusion about more than one image eventually that mistake - and how to avoid it - will work its way into your subconscious. The end result will be better photos.

  • Canon EOS 30D
  • 160
  • f/8.0
  • 0.004 sec (1/250)
  • 149 mm

Blown-out skies and other exposure problems can be corrected in post-processing, but it's much less time-consuming to get the correct exposure in-camera. In this photo, Liz has used Photoshop to replace a colorless sky with an image of house 2009 by Flickr user Muffet

Step three: don't over edit

Post processing is a great way to correct those one of a kind shots that you'll probably never get again, but try not to overuse it. Editing can be a great way to become aware of your errors, but if you start to depend on it as a way to fix all of those errors, you may not take steps to avoid them in the first place. And the additional drawback of course is that you'll be wasting time in front of that computer when you should be out in the field behind your camera.

If you aren't making mistakes, something's wrong

Nobody is perfect. If you are taking only technically perfect images and you truly can't identify anything wrong with them, then the reason is not because you are a perfect photographer. Quite the opposite, in fact: the reason is because you're a boring photographer. Your pictures are perfect because you aren't thinking outside the box, you aren't taking chances and you aren't being creative. But if you are in fact doing all of those things, the end result is going to be a few great images and a whole lot of flops. If this is you, you can be proud of the great images and you can learn from the flops. That's how great photographers become even greater.

Don't know what's wrong with your photos? The Deluxe edition of Digital Photo Secrets Video Course comes with 5 critiques of your very own photos provided by professional photographers.

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  1. Nancy says:

    Ugh! The first list of mistakes made me realize why my shots were not working with the backlit background! I forgot the fill flash. I use to be guilty of deleting pics before looking at them on the computer but not anymore. Composition is my next worst enemy. When taking babies and kids pics I get excited for that perfect smile that I forget to check the comp of the rest of the photo. These are all great tips, I try and read as many tips as I can the night before going out on a photo shoot.

  2. Marg says:

    Love reading your articles & I often take one tip and play with that until it becomes second nature. I do struggle as a new be with "get it right in camera" would I be driving myself crazy to do this or am I looking at this statement all wrong. I shoot with a Nikon D7100 & I strive for the perfect shot all the time. I keep using your tips to help me do that. Is there such a thing as "perfect"?

  3. Denise Veiser says:

    This was such a good article, very interesting and with some very good tips on how to improve on my own photography. I think most of us are striving, or at least those of us who are amateurs are trying to get to that place where it becomes intuitive. to dial in the right aperture, shutter speed and iso for the exposure we are attempting but the road seems to get longer the more I add to my store of information. On the bright and shiny side of this is that I have recently managed to use what I've learned about photography from you on-line tips among others to take a number of photos that turned out exactly as I had envisaged and the thrill is something that keeps me reading photography books, studying photos from other photographers and tracking down information on-line. So thank you for sharing your time and knowledge with all of us who are trying to learn something new.

  4. Tadeu de Lira says:

    Ask David, compact flash card, digital photo storage, Jpeg, memory card, photography troubleshooting, post processing, RAW
    Categories: Tips

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