learning from the worst

Henri Cartier-Bresson was a French photographer who is considered by many to be the father of modern photojournalism. His famous quote, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst,” is one that I only recently heard of, but I think it’s definitely true in my case.

Recently my computer’s main hard drive crashed, so I lost all my Lightroom catalog files. Thankfully all my pictures were on a different hard drive (that’s backed up pretty regularly), so I didn’t lose any of them. But in losing all the catalog files I lost all the edits that I had done to my pictures. (Lightroom is a non destructive image editor, so when you make edits to your pictures it doesn’t actually touch the picture files, it just stores the edits in a catalog file.)

So anyways, I installed a new drive (finally had a reason to upgrade to an SSD), reinstalled Windows and Lightroom, and re-imported all my pictures. Because there’s no catalog file, all the pictures were as they looked straight out of the camera. I started looking through those pictures and I realized it’s definitely true that my first 10,000 pictures are my worst. And while I may be slightly better than I was before (and part of the reason for that is I rely on Lightroom so much nowadays), I still make a lot of the same mistakes. So in the interest of learning from my mistakes, for this week’s 7shots I’ve posted some of my worst shots and what I’ve learned from them.

IMGP2913Missed focus. I was probably using continuous auto focus on this shot without selecting an autofocus point. So the camera picked a nice piece of wood on the background to focus on, rather than the koala. Lesson learned: Select your autofocus points.

IMGP1706

Blown highlights. I seem to hike a lot in deep valleys, which tend to be areas that are challenging for photography, because there are often huge contrasts between the light and dark areas of the frame. And often if you meter for your subject in these situations you’ll blow out the highlights in large portions of the picture. The way I avoid this nowadays is to turn on the ‘blinkies’ (on my camera I can set overexposed areas to blink yellow and underexposed areas to blink red), and then dial in my exposure to minimize the blinkies. It usually means that I underexpose anywhere from 1/3 of a stop to 1 2/3 stop. Then in Lightroom I can usually bring up the shadows to compensate (you have to shoot in raw for this.) Lesson learned: Adjust exposure for the situation and shoot in raw.

IMGP1344Sufficient shutter speed. I looked at the EXIF data on this picture, and it showed that this was exposed at ISO 800 and f/4 for the aperture with a shutter speed of 1/8 of a second. That’s too slow a shutter speed for my shaky hands, and way too slow for an overly active dog like Annie. I should have raised ISO to get a faster shutter speed, even if it would’ve introduced more noise into the shoot. You can sort of correct for digital noise, but as far as I know Lightroom doesn’t fix camera shake motion blur. There’s actually a ton of things wrong with this photo– the white balance is off and it’s a bit underexposed, but those issues can sort of be fixed in Lightroom. It’s a throwaway picture because of the camera shake. Lesson learned: Make sure your shutter speed is high enough.

IMGP0315Skewed horizons and framing. I’m not sure how I ended up being so far off level for this shot. I should have taken the time to make sure the horizon was level, and I should have stood in the middle of the dock and pointed the camera straight down the dock. But I didn’t, so instead of a cool picture I have this off balance looking one. Slanted horizons are easily fixed in Lightroom, but crappy framing cannot always be fixed. Sometimes I can crop a picture that’s framed weirdly to get some improvement, but if it’s off balance like this I’d probably toss it. Lesson learned: Take your time and frame correctly.

IMGP2231Check the ISO. If you look at the EXIF on this picture you’ll see that it was shot at ISO 800. What a total n00b mistake, shooting at 800 in bright sun. (And there goes the slanted horizon again…) I think what happened in this shot was that I was hiking all day in a dark and shady forest, and when I emerged onto the beach all of a sudden I got so excited that I forgot to bring the ISO back down. Lesson learned: Adjust your ISO for changing light.

IMGP1974Crappy shots. Literally, metaphorically, photographically, this shot is crap. And it’s not even properly exposed crap. Actually there’s a lot of crappy photographs in my Lightroom catalog (not literal crap, but photographically crappy). Why is there so much crap? Perhaps I had an idea for a shot in my mind, but it just didn’t come out like I thought it would. Or maybe I took the shot to tell a story, but later forgot the story behind the shot. Or in the case of wildlife or birds I’ll often spray and pray and shoot a whole bunch of shots in the hope of getting one good one.

I once read that for every article published in National Geographic, there are 29,000 frames that are shot. Out of that 29,000 only a handful are published. So even the best photographers in the world have a lot of crap. Of course their crap is probably better than my pictures that I consider good. But I guess the lesson from this is: Keep shooting. Most of it will be crap. That’s okay. (And who knows, maybe that crap can be useful, say for example to write a crappy blog post about crappy pictures…)

the sign @ desert view-Diffraction, DOF, and hyperfocal distance. This was shot with the aperture set at f/22 on my ultra-wide 10mm lens. At the time I knew a little bit about DOF (depth of field), but didn’t know anything about diffraction or hyperfocal distances. All I knew is that I wanted enough depth of field to get both the sign and all of the Grand Canyon in focus and as sharp as possible, so I naively set my camera for f/22 to maximize depth of field.

What I didn’t know is that if you stop down past about f/8 you start to lose sharpness due to diffraction. And at the time I didn’t know about hyperfocal distances. I know now that the hyperfocal distance for my 10mm lens at f/8 is just over 2 feet away. I’m pretty sure my lens was more than 2 feet away from that sign, so at f/8 I could have had everything in focus without losing sharpness due to diffraction.Screenshot_2013-03-21-10-56-58

Nowadays, in the smartphone era, there are apps that you can use to calculate the hyperfocal distances. On old manual lenses there are DOF scales, so these calculators weren’t needed, but most new autofocus lenses don’t seem to have them anymore. But anyways for landscape photography I find it useful to memorize at least the hyperfocal distance at f/8 of my lenses at their widest focal length. So for my ultrawide 10mm I know it’s a bit over two feet, and on my 16-50mm (which is with me 90% of the time) it’s a little over five feet at 16mm & f/8. I guess the lesson from this is: Get to know your lenses.

worst2Leaving the camera at home. They say the best camera is the one that you have with you. In a lot of cases that’s the camera on my phone. But there’s been a lot of times when I’ve taken pictures with my phone and wished that I had a better camera with me. Sometimes I’ve left my camera at home because I didn’t want to carry it on a long grueling hike or a crazy long bike ride. Other times it’s been because of harsh conditions, such as snow backpacking. Over the years I’ve found that it’s often the crazy long hikes or bike rides or crazy conditions that make for the best photographs. So nowadays I try to bring the SLR (or at least my mirrorless or even my waterproof action cam) every time I’m outdoors for an extended amoount of time. The one main exception is on road bike rides because there’s usually no where to carry a camera. Lesson learned: Bring the big guns when possible.

One of the things I love about photography is that I’m constantly learning. Photographs 10,001 to 20,000 were hopefully a little better than 1-10,000. I still make a lot of the mistakes that I made during those first 10,000 shots, though nowadays I’m usually more conscious about how to adjust my camera to fix the mistakes for the next shot. So I guess I’ve learned a few things from my worst shots.

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