Most photographers look back at their very earliest work and cringe; I am no exception. But what could I learn from harshly critiquing my earliest imagery and what value might it hold for beginners? Let's find out.
Armed with a weathered, secondhand Canon 350D (Rebel XT to some of you) and a kit lens that had been through the wars, I remember setting out with my camera to take my first ever photographs. Somehow, I still have this first ever shot. I hopped in my car, because after work, I could see a stormy sunset coming, and I drove out into the country. When it was at its best, I still didn't know where I was going to shoot it, so I jumped out of my car and rested my camera on the roof and fired off a frame. I didn't know much about photo editing, I didn't have Lightroom, and I was shooting JPEG, so I didn't do much to the image. If only I'd stayed that way.
Surprisingly, it's not bad! The heavy lifting is done by the incredible sunset and a large dose of luck with regards to whatever settings I picked (I refused to ever shoot on auto, so every image was a lottery at the beginning,) but as far as an absolute beginner's work goes, that's not too bad. Then, over that first year with my camera, my standard of work fell off a cliff.
Next up, we have one of my first proper outings with the camera; I was going to a location with the express interest of photographing it. I had heard about an abandoned military base that was due to be demolished, and off I went to sneak in and take some pictures. Unfortunately, I was already a fan of Urbex (urban exploration), and that niche had an unparalleled propensity towards HDR. The downloading of some crude HDR software was an upsetting landmark in my timeline as an early photographer.
Let's point out the obvious: the colors are ridiculous — the grass looks radioactive, for one, the building is on a tilt, I had a thing for adding borders in post, it has the soft, blurry quality that terrible HDRs all share, and I was now apparently watermarking my "art"; God forbid someone steals this masterpiece. The most frustrating issue with this photo is that the sheep makes me think there was a great photo opportunity with the decay and nature taking over. This shot, however, was not it.
Now, we have an image that's honestly a shame. I had awoken horrendously early, as I decided I wanted to drive to a part of the country that was famous for its deer population, called Ashridge Estate. I was there before sunset and excited to walk through the woods, ready to capture some National Geographic-inspired nature shots. And, you could argue, I was offered one or two opportunities, not that I took them.
This is almost painful. It was clearly a beautiful scene (I don't remember it, though, which is another discussion to be had!), and the lighting looks delicious. I recall the forest being really dark, even as the sun came up, so shards of crisp morning light cut through intermittently. It happened to highlight a deer grazing for breakfast, and I caught it. Except, I essentially didn't. I had no idea how to balance the vast dynamic range in front of me, and with my refusal to shoot auto holding strong, I exposed for... well, I'm not sure. I guess I exposed for the shadows, but not entirely, as the deer is underexposed. What's worse, the highlights are blown out beyond recovery (of the time and with JPEG only), and despite bracing myself, my shutter speed was not quick enough. I may or may not have had a full understanding of the exposure triangle or been unwilling to bump my ISO — a mistake either way.
Up next is a photographic staple, but one of the few I haven't grown sick of. Long exposures of moving lights are always fun to capture, and it was something I'd wanted to try for a while. After picking up a Gorillapod from Costco, I went to a local flyover and shot the rush hour road below at dusk.
Well, the pointless border is still there, and I'm pleased to see my work was worth protecting again with the infallible method of writing my name in a distracting way on the brightest corner of the shot. I can see what I was going for with this, and it's not a terrible effort, but I've missed the mark by some distance. The shadows are, well, pure black; this was not a stylistic decision. The colors of the sky look like that WordArt overlay, and the horizon is not straight again.
Ok, now we're cooking with gas. I had been stumbling up the HDR mountain for several months, but I had finally reached the summit with this one. I remember being pleased with this image and sharing it with some respected photographers on a forum. Most ignored it — a polite and diplomatic response — but one of them told me to please stop. In fairness, it looks like I did from this point onwards.
"Burn" indeed. This is so offensive to my eyes now I can't believe there was a version of me pleased with it. I knew it was a "bold" aesthetic, I just hadn't realized it was boldly wrong. Are those borders getting bigger? Awful. Worst shot of my first year without question.
So, what can we learn from my mistakes here?
- If HDR is obvious, it has not been well executed. HDR when subtly applied can be a superb and crucial tool to many photographers, but if it's a stylistic decision, you'll polarize the viewers, with most of them going one direction.
- Are your colors realistic? I wish I'd asked myself that when editing my earliest images. I was seemingly obsessed with "punchy" and vibrant results, but they all ended up looking like covers for bargain bin post-apocalyptic literature.
- Don't add borders unless you have a proper reason.
- If watermarks are distracting, they are a net loss.
- Learn how the exposure triangle works and practice shooting different lighting conditions, or you'll miss potentially great shots.
Fancy sharing your own earliest images? Put them in the comment section below. Would you like to see five more images I took that were terrible? Let me know and I'll write a part two. Feel free to let rip with your own critique of these images too.