Category Archives: Tips and Techniques

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:

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

Do you take without giving?

On the back of my mind whilst using my camera on the street is a balancing act between giving and taking.

I have strong feelings about not using the people around me. I feel that if I’m often gaining something from a person, but not even making a gesture of giving something back – I am probably using that person.

It is worth mentioning that I very much dislike the argument that street photography is exploitative. As Ansel Adams put it – you don’t take the photograph, you make it. If the argument that street photography is exploitative is based on meaningless semantics and loaded words like “take” and “shoot”, well, I don’t think much of it.

That said, it needs to be considered that if you take make street photographs, you are getting something out of the community in which you’re photographing.

So what does giving back entail? Well, you don’t have to be a major philanthropist. Maybe money is scarce, or you don’t have any time to spare for volunteer work, or something like that. But I think that if you shoot within a certain community, you should at the very least try to be a part of that community.

For example:

  • If a pensioner starts a conversation with you, take an interest.
  • If someone asks you about why you’re taking pictures, take time to explain properly. If they’re not confronting you, ask them about their hobbies.
  • If someone asks you to take their picture, do so and print it or e-mail it for them.
  • Get an instant camera (you can find Instax 100 cheap online now, and the film isn’t too expensive to use occasionally) and offer/give out photographs. This is a particular favourite of mine in a small town, you only have to do it occasionally and your kindness will be remembered next time you’re seen with a camera.
  • If someone displays displeasure at being in your photograph, apologise, remember their face, and respect their wishes next time you see them (this is important in a small town).

So my main tips would be:

1. Take an interest in your community and the individuals in it. Treat people as family or friends. You don’t have to do it for everyone – I should know, having lived in southern England for nearly a year now, that not everyone wants that – but maybe the ones who take an interest in you.

2. Be generous with your materials – give out photographs to anyone who wants them. You never know when someone might vouch for you in a sticky situation, people will remember your kindness and that you’re not making photographs for immoral purposes next time they see you on the street. I recently discovered that an instant camera is a fantastic opportunity to give away photographs that people will love and remember.

3. Be generous with your time – If a stranger (or regularly-seen local) stops me for a chat, I don’t mind spending ten minutes or even half my lunch break talking, because I know that I have helped my community become a little more tighter-knit than before – there is one less stranger out on the street. Being friends with a stranger is difficult, for sure, but it may help you take better pictures in the future, and it will help you feel less isolated from your community and even help you get a better feel for the subjects of your photographs. It might even be important to the person who just reached out to you.

4. Be the best you can be – not everyone is going to like that you’re carrying a camera around on the street. Even less people are going to like that you’re including strangers in your photographs “without their permission” (although many people will exaggerate this – I personally have found <=0.5% – or 1 or less in 200 – to be the magic number for confrontations). But that doesn’t stop you being as friendly as possible. Smile at people. Ask how they’re doing, or just say hi. Do small favours for people, and remember that what’s good for your community is probably also good for you.

5. Embrace being the village idiot – it’s all well and good in the city, but you need to put some of your pride aside in a small community (where there is less – if any – anonymity) so that you can 1) continue to take photographs and 2) not develop a chip on your shoulder and become “edgy” about “doing whatever you want to do”. To make this balance, sacrifice just some of your self-consciousness and pride: make pictures and be a good character – doing both to the best of your abilities.

You might argue that by making photographs of your community you are doing them a service – portraying them in a good light, communicating their way of life to the world, allowing them to become part of your art, whatever. I find that the best policy is not to flatter yourself.

To summarise: Try to make the world a nicer place to live in – after all, what else would you want your pictures to reflect?

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