Mistakes are good because they teach us what not to do. Photographers, like any other people, make lots of mistakes. Here are three I see time and time again. Which ones are you most guilty of making?
I live in Japan, where students are very often so mindful of not making mistakes that they dare not take many chances with their answers. It can be an endearing quality at times, until you’re trying to draw out a response or an opinion, at which time you want to scream to the heavens that mistakes are good and necessary for progress. Whatever it is that you’re doing, whether it’s learning in a formal setting such as the classroom or just taking up a new hobby that interests you, part of the learning process is getting things wrong. We make mistakes as beginners and we continue making mistakes even if we reach the very top of our chosen fields. No-one is immune to mistakes. What we can do, however, is recognize our mistakes so that as time goes by we make fewer of them. In this article, I’ll share three of the most common mistakes I consistently see photographers make.
Being Too Precious
This is perhaps the biggest mistake I see many beginner photographers make. Very often they are far too precious with their compositions and the elements in the frame that they want to include. So many times I look at an image and scan across the frame and see lots of different things that just don’t need to be there. Whenever you’re composing a photo you need to think about which elements to include and which ones to exclude. Ones that you don’t need simply end up as distractions that take the viewer’s attention away from the subject. That’s the last thing you want to do so always ask yourself before you click that shutter button: “Do I absolutely need this in my frame?” Chances are your answer will be no, and in that case, you have to be ruthless. Get rid of whatever it is you don’t need.
This is where cropping comes in so handy. When you take your shot it’s fine to go wider than you need because you can always cut things out later, but you can never get things back in if you miss them in-camera. However, you need to remind yourself of what it is you’re trying to convey in the image, and if some elements in that image don’t help to convey your intentions, crop them out. Indeed, some of the most interesting books I’ve ever read have been from writers discussing what they included and excised from their final manuscripts. Incredibly beautiful writing ended up on the floor because it didn’t serve the writer’s overall purpose. It’s the same with music or film, as well as photography. Don’t get emotionally attached to parts of an image. If it doesn't serve your agenda, scrap it. Take a look at the images below for an example.
When I took this image I wanted it for two reasons: firstly because my eldest daughter seldom looks into the camera without an expression bordering on devilish, and secondly because at that moment there was some beautiful light coming in through the window which was bouncing gorgeously off her hair. For this shot, I used the Canon RF50 mm f/1.8 lens and it got more in the frame that I needed, which was fine because I knew I could crop it out later. But that’s the important thing, I knew I was going to crop and I had absolutely no problem saying goodbye to my daughter's legs or to other parts of the frame that might have taken away attention from her eyes and her hair. The final shot is below, which is much more powerful and alluring because you’re not looking out the window at the cars or the street, nor at her outstretched leg.
Not Being Experimental Enough With Editing
And that brings me to digital photography. When you take a digital photo and bring it into Photoshop or any other form of software that you are using, there are no limits to what you can do. That’s why I never really understand why people don’t experiment more in the post-production stage of their photography. It’s digital, which means you can make as many edits as you want. Turn it green, turn it red, or remove the head. Turn it colorless, crop it out, crop it vertically, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t cost you anything except time but with that time comes greater understanding and experience about what you might like and what you might not like. Without experimentation, it’s very hard to find your own voice or your own unique style.
Take a look at the image above to see what I mean. In this image, I have quite obviously cranked up the saturation slider. It’s rather disgusting and offensive how colorful and overdone it is but it only took me a second or two to crank that slider up and then realize how ridiculous it looked. However, by doing so I could quickly get an understanding of how understated colors can often be far more pleasing.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to colors, it could apply to composition, too. In the first example above with my two daughters, I played around with different crops in order to find a composition that I liked. In the world of digital photography and post-production editing there really are no limits except for your imagination. Thus, it’s crazy not to fully use the tools that are at your disposal and try out everything available. Even if it looks terrible, you'll soon understand that it looks terrible and, in turn, have more of an idea about what pleases your eye.
One and Done
Finally, I think many photographers fall into the trap of going to a location once, taking some shots, and then crossing that location off their list of destinations forever. Whether it’s local, interstate, or international, people have a tendency to shoot something once then delete it from their minds as though it’s some kind of bucket list achievement. That's a big mistake because conditions and light and colors are so variable that you can get so many different shots from a single location.
A good example is a bay that’s not far from my home. In certain, overcast conditions you get a beautiful layer of mountains that softly recede into the background. The foreground has a lovely body of water that is usually placid but when the typhoons come that bay turns into a treacherous place where giant waves break across volcanic rocks. I've shot many angles of that spot when the ocean's been flat and calm but I know from living here twelve years that with the right winds, tides, and swell direction this place would make an absolutely wonderful shot if I could get all of those elements coming together at once. I must’ve been to that place 30 to 40 times during typhoons over the years always to be greeted by winds that weren’t quite right or swell direction that meant the waves were big slabs of whitewash closeouts. That never deterred me, however, because I knew there was always potential, and finally last year everything came together and gave me the shot I had always envisioned. Perseverance pays off and it's something I always press into my students.
Mistakes are a huge part of the learning process no matter what you're trying to do. What's most important in hastening your improvement is recognizing mistakes quickly and eliminating them from your process. The three mistakes I've listed here to day are by no means exhaustive, but they are some of the most common I see time and again.
What are your thoughts? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.