How to learn from your mistakes (or, why no photo is a wasted photo) :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to learn from your mistakes (or, why no photo is a wasted photo)

by David Peterson 0 comments

This might have been a harder sell a few decades ago, when a ruined photograph meant some sort of financial cost. Back in the day, if you ruined a whole roll of 36 exposures, you’d be pretty annoyed it yourself. Not only would you be out the cost of the film, you’d also be out of the cost of the development and the time that it took to take your film into the photo shop or pharmacy and wait around for it to come back. And after all of that, you might not be inclined to look at those exposures and try to figure out what went wrong. In fact, you might be annoyed enough that you just throw the whole lot in a trashcan and try to get on with your life.

Today, things are different. Today, we don’t have to pay for every exposure, so we can shoot 36 of them, or even 100, get them all completely wrong and not have to pay a dime. Of course, you might argue that there is a loss of time to take into consideration, but my counter argument would be that the time hasn't really been lost. Because whenever you make a mistake of any kind, there is an opportunity to learn from that mistake. And these days we also have a little something called EXIF, which helps make it even easier to look at those failed photographs and judge exactly where they went wrong. Read on for more.

What is EXIF?

EXIF is the data file that is attached to every digital photograph you shoot with your camera, whether it is a DSLR, a point-and-shoot camera, or a smartphone. Depending on your camera’s model and manufacturer, the EXIF data may contain different sorts of information, but it's pretty standard for it to capture basic data such as aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Those three pieces of information alone are enough to tell you a lot about what may or may not have gone wrong with your photograph.

Let's say, for example, that the landscapes that you're shooting in landscape mode are coming out blurry. You have no idea why—if you're in landscape mode, shouldn’t your camera be choosing settings that will produce perfect landscape images?

  • Konica Minolta KD-500Z
  • 100
  • f/2.8
  • 0.125 sec (1/8)
  • 8 mm

20070519 Sierra Nevada: mountain pass 5 by Flickr user Wild Guru Larry

If you take a look at your EXIF data, you should easily be able to find the reason why. If your camera, for whatever reason, decided to select a slower shutter speed, you may be getting some camera shake in your photos. Generally speaking, if you're shooting in low light, your camera is probably going to choose a slower shutter speed, especially if it also has to also select a narrow aperture to capture that landscape. So if you check out your EXIF and find that it has recorded a slow shutter speed, that is an indication that you need to mount your camera on a tripod in similar shooting conditions.

Now let's say you're getting a lot of noise whenever you shoot photos in low light. A quick check of your EXIF will give you the reason why—your camera is likely choosing a higher ISO, which can produce noise in some cameras. Once you know which ISO your camera has chosen, you will be able to choose an alternative—for example, you could add an external flash and bounce it off of the ceiling, or you could use a lens with a wider maximum aperture.

Remember that you can use the EXIF of both as a way to diagnose a problem photograph and to reverse-engineer a photograph that worked. When you shoot a photo that you think is absolutely stunning, have a look at the EXIF data so you can make note of what you did and why it worked so well. The same is true for images shot by photographers you admire—if you have a Flickr account, have a look at the EXIF data for images you think work really well, even if they are not your own. The nice thing about Flickr is that (for many though not all photos) the EXIF data appears right there on the photograph’s page, so you don't even have to download the file and check out the information in your post-processing software.


Your EXIF data is a really useful way to look at your photos and determine which settings work in which situations—if you spend enough time studying the aperture of different photos, for example, you're going to discover that narrow apertures produce photos with very broad depth of field, while wide apertures produce images that have very shallow depth. You cannot, however, use EXIF data to help you with composition. Only your instincts can tell you what went wrong with a poorly composed photograph. And if you really don't feel like you have well-developed instincts, that's where crowdsourcing can be helpful.

  • Sony ILCE-6000
  • 100
  • f/1.8
  • 0.001 sec (1/1000)
  • 85 mm

22/52: Flowers by Flickr user hehaden

Now I don't necessarily mean to say that you have to put your photos on Flickr or Facebook and ask the world what they think, but it can be an extremely helpful exercise. If you're still a little shy about your work, you can simply show some of your less-than-perfect photographs to your friends, especially your photographer friends, and ask them what they think might have gone wrong. The feedback you get from both photographers and non-photographers alike is going to give you some really useful insight into why any one particular photo might not working.

[I usually try to avoid shameless self-promotion, but if you join my Dash photo sharing website, you’ll get this kind of feedback from a tight-knit community of photographers all stages of the learning process. I cannot even begin to express to you how valuable this resource can be, especially if you are still in the beginning stages and you're just not sure why your photographs aren't working.]

Another way you can diagnose your composition without really putting yourself out there in a vulnerable way is to simply learn about some of the rules of composition. Now, it's important to say upfront that even though they are called “rules,” they aren’t really rules in the strict sense of the word. For example, you have probably heard people talk at length about the rule of thirds and why you should use it in your photography—but just because it's a rule doesn’t mean that every single photograph you shoot must be composed in thirds. However, a basic understanding of what the rule of thirds is and why it works is it going to help you understand the best times to use it as well as the times when it may not be appropriate.

The rule of thirds is not the only photography composition guideline, of course, in fact there are dozens of them, and it is worth spending some time trying to discover when you should use them, and perhaps most importantly why they work. Remember that if they didn’t work, they wouldn't be called “rules,” so even if a certain technique doesn’t really fit the way you tend to compose your photographs instinctively, it's definitely worth understanding why people use the technique. So let's take some examples of composition mistakes you might make and how you can learn from.

For example, this photo contains a few quite common mistakes that I often see beginners make:

  • Pentax Optio 555
  • 64
  • f/5.0
  • 0.004 sec (1/250)
  • 7.8 mm

Golden girl by Flickr user Paula Satijn

This is a portrait of a beautiful young woman, and yet it's just not very compelling. Why do you think it might not be compelling?

First, the photographer did not fill the frame. When you fill the frame with your subject, you eliminate distractions such as the ones that you can see in the background here, including a pair of bushes and a distant building. Second, the background is too sharp even though the image was shot with a fairly standard portrait aperture (f/5). Why? Because the subject is too close to the background. Ideally, you want to move your subject away from the background so that there’s some blur on whatever is behind her. Third, the subject is more or less centered in the frame, which creates a static composition. Finally, the photo was shot in full sun, so the hat she’s wearing has cast a shadow on the top half of her face. Although the shadow isn’t dark enough to obscure her eyes, it’s still not very appealing—a better choice for this image would have been to shoot at a time of day when the light is softer and less direct, such as the late afternoon.

So let's see what happens when we apply these lessons to a similar photograph:

As you can see, in this image our subject is the filling the frame—instead of her whole torso, we are seeing her only from the shoulders up. So our eyes are immediately drawn to her, and because we are close to her, we feel like we are more connected with her. Like the first subject, this one is also standing in front of bushes, but the background is blurry so there’s some separation between her and the elements that are behind her. And instead of standing mid-frame, she’s oriented to the right, so the composition just seems more active and dynamic. Finally, the light is not coming from directly overhead, so even though she’s wearing a hat, we aren’t seeing any shadow on her face.


You can only really start to take advantage of all of these compositional rules if you understand what they are, and one way to learn from your mistakes is to know what the rules are and then for every photo that’s not a complete success, ask yourself how you might have been able to use those compositional rules in order to create a more compelling photograph. This does require some time, effort, and thought but I think you will discover when you do it systematically your photographs are really going to improve as a result.


  1. What is EXIF?
    • EXIF can tell you what settings were used to take a photo
    • That information can help you pinpoint problems
  2. Composition
    • Don't be afraid to crowdsource
    • Know your rules, and why they work

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14 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.