Bad mistakes make good photographs

When you make a photograph you are trying to control the elements in that picture. Framing and composition, colour, capturing that decisive moment, correct exposure – for most photographers, these come into mind in some cases months and in some cases seconds before the shutter is released.

The photography community at large admires hard work, careful planning, and technical mastery – and it is right to do so, for many of the best pictures are taken by masters having carefully planned and arranged their shot months if not weeks preceding, or when it comes to street/life photography the very skilled can capture every element of the photograph perfectly with only a fraction of a second for forethought. Such genius comes after decades of dedication and experience.

Mastering control over an image is all well and good. But for the casual amateur, I would argue the case for releasing some of that control and allowing things to take their course.

For me it isn’t even a matter of shooting differently. As a dedicated yet dim novice I get my share of horrible mistakes back from the lab. What counts is how you look at your photograph: instead of saying:

Did my photograph turn out the way I hoped/planned/expected it to turn out?

Instead say:

Do I ‘dig’ this photograph regardless of what I thought before even seeing it?

I’m not sure how far this extends in terms of skill level, but for a novice like me, the right mistakes are a godsend – they help me develop in my largely trial-and-error attempt at learning photography, and they help bring me out of my comfort zone when appreciating an image: my preconceived notions of what such and such a photograph should look like. In short, such mistakes help me avoid the clichés I was trying to follow, and from this I can adapt and learn to take more innovative, interesting pictures.

For example:

Image

Did my photograph turn out the way I hoped/planned/expected?

No. I was just trying to get the guy running for his bus – entirely in the frame. That’s all I was aiming for.

Having mistimed/misframed the subject made it seem initially that this photo was a write-off.

Also there is some motion blur, and a faint scratch on the negative.

Do I ‘dig’ this photograph regardless of what I thought before even seeing it?

Yes. Having the guy run half-out of the frame is far more interesting for composition.

The colour tones go well together which was entirely unplanned (no edits were required). The abstract, uncomplicated architecture works perfectly as a backdrop which was also unplanned.

The image is sharp at the top but becomes blurry at the bottom – this is because the shutter opened down-wards (holding the camera for portrait mode) and the shutter speed was probably around 1/60th, and at some point in this fraction of a second I started to pan the camera to keep him in the frame.

If I had taken this photograph on a digital camera I would immediately have ‘chimped’ it (viz., looked at it on the screen) and deleted it. Don’t delete photographs on your camera!

Image

Did my photograph turn out the way I hoped/planned/expected?

No. This was shot with horribly expired Fuji ‘Press’ ISO 800 film.

As such all of the shots were all-grain, and most were quite underexposed (expired film loses its sensitivity over time).

Do I ‘dig’ this photograph regardless of what I thought before even seeing it?

think so. I think I got an unusual portrait – one where shadows dominate the frame and the subject appears to loom out of the dark film grain.

The indoor lighting and the sparse, mirrored daylight adds compositional interest.

Image

Did my photograph turn out the way I hoped/planned/expected?

No. It was really just an amused, spur-of-the-moment snapshot of someone who wears a shirt that says “HEY FUCK FACE”.

Do I ‘dig’ this photograph regardless of what I thought before even seeing it?

Definitely. Various elements in the photograph – the setting, the colours and tones, the people – came together to make this weirdly anachronistic image, which looks like it came straight out of the 50s or 60s.

Image

Did my photograph turn out the way I hoped/planned/expected?

No. The toy camera this image was made with had a broken film advance mechanism.

Do I ‘dig’ this photograph regardless of what I thought before even seeing it?

Yes! Because the film didn’t wind on properly, I got some beautiful, abstract, unpredictable multiple exposure photographs.

So those were some examples – as you can see, various parts of the photographic process can go ‘wrong’ to create interesting mistakes:

  • Unusual framing can defy compositional clichés.
  • The right unexpected things present in your photograph can enhance or change the impression an image gives.
  • Damaged/expired/faulty equipment, such as camera mechanisms or film, can have surprising results.
  • An image with some parts over/underexposed might be way more interesting than a fully properly exposed image.
  • Motion-blur/camera shake in moderation can add a sense of liveliness to an image.
  • And so on…

But isn’t depending on mistakes just a creativity crutch?

Not at all – if you are looking at photos that didn’t turn out as you planned them in a new light and trying to figure out if they are good images nonetheless, you are already thinking creatively.

Thinking about these things and making these discoveries increase creativity and skill whilst using the camera – and help you learn what pictures you like and you care about making.

I’m not saying don’t try to create the image as you envision it. After all, I’m sure that is what it means to master photography.

Just don’t immediately be so strict with your images, and don’t immediately discount any mistake photographs which might actually be your favourites one day.

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