Take Bad Photographs

Remember your first time taking photographs? I’m talking about before you joined Reddit, or a camera forum, before you started posting pictures to Instagram or sharing them with your friends. The time when you considered yourself a hobbyist, the time when you were considered a tourist in your own neighborhood. You’d walk around taking pictures of anything, the street lights, trees, the road, family members… People probably hated you at family gatherings. “Here he comes with his camera”, they would say. You’d take your camera with you to the mall or to the grocery store. You’d shoot at night and everything would be blurry and you just couldn’t figure out why… Yet you continued to shoot.

You ever realize that you no longer take those shitty pictures? Things are in focus now, even at night. Shallow depth of field is still your friend but you only hang out with her when necessary, street lights and photographs of nothingness are no longer the norms or interesting to you… And you still go to those family outings, but you dread attending these events because everyone wants you to take their fucking picture.

You learned from your mistakes. You realized that certain genres may not be for you, perhaps you were better suited on the streets. You enjoyed shooting those you don’t know vs those whom you do. You liked telling stories, or making them up through your photographs and you were solid at doing it. Through practice, you figured out your strengths, your weakness and what your photographic process was going to be.

Photography Is A Sport

I just coined this phrase, so don’t try and steal it! But it’s true, photography is a sport. Just like basketball, or football, or whatever sport you like you get better with practice. In practice, we figure out how we can improve our shot, our speed, or IQ. It’s the same with photography, those exact elements need to be refined, over and over and over again. See in sports practice never ends, but in photography, we lose sight of that. We get to the point where we can take a solid photo and once we reach solid photo status we’re afraid to take a bad one ever again.

Here’s a prime example.

When I went to Chicago for the first time I was ecstatic about the opportunity. It was my first time to the city and I was new to photography, so not only was I an aspiring street photographer, but a tourist as well. As you could imagine I took pictures of everything! I had no technical background or previous photographing experience, I was just a kid with a camera who wanted to document my moment in the windy city. I was fearless too, I took pictures of people from any distance, it didn’t matter if I was up close or 50 miles away… I SNAPPED! Out of a gazillion pictures maybe I kept 30, those 30 were the ones that really capture my Chicago story.

I told myself I would go to Chicago every year after that experience. It’s truly a joy to shoot there. I went back the following year. This time was going to be different though. I had a year’s worth of experience, a better camera, and a sharper lens. I understood what street photography was and what it meant to the general public, I understood composition better, I knew how to meter properly and most importantly I knew not to stop my lens down to f/2.8. I remember the entire bus ride there I was thinking about what I was going to photograph.

In my head, I had the idea of what a perfect photograph was, something Cartier-Bresson or Vivan would take… When I arrived I looked for those moments. I essentially wanted to recreate their work, just in a more modern way. People would pass me by and I would say this light is boring, or this photograph doesn’t provide any humor. I would think about the comments people left on my work and say to myself nope, this moment isn’t interesting enough or it doesn’t tell a story, the internet wouldn’t be impressed. I would think of Eric Kim’s blog post and remember not to get romantic with my photographs. I had to remind myself that the moments I thought were interesting weren’t, they only appeared that way because I witness them in real time, they wouldn’t speak well in a photograph.

For the first hour or two I honestly just walked around. I tried to my hardest to photograph, but because of all the rules and pressure I put on myself I felt as if nothing was worth the press of my shutter .I wanted to ensure that I went home with great photographs. I didn’t want to take any bad photo’s, I wanted perfect ones, thus, I didn’t take any.

Photography Is Nothing Like Sports

The thing about sports is that it’s super analytical. When you take a bad shot, it’s recorded, assuming you missed that shot you go 0/1, and if you continue down this pattern you’ll eventually be 0/2, 0/3 and so on. Statistically, this sucks, and it’s also quite embarrassing at times. This level of poor play can result in you being benched or cut from the team. It’s expected that you have a bad game a few times throughout the season, but for the most part, the team needs you to produce in order to win. Wins matter. But photography, photography is nothing like that. No on cares about your misses. You can go 0/1000, simply switch your SD card, then miss 1000 more shots. You can go 1/100 and still be a winner. People only care about your makes, but you’re never going to hit the game-winning shot if you aren’t willing to miss it.

Related: You’re Not Shooting Film!

“You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.”

— Wayne Gretzky

I’m not saying that you will take a great photograph once you miss 99 of them, but what I’m saying is that in order to capture the perfect moment you have to be willing to capture the bad ones too. Truth be told we don’t know which moments will be perfect, we can’t gauge that, we’re photographers, not psychics. We have to assume that every moment we have the slightest interest in will be great.

I’m not sure where I heard this, and I hope I don’t butcher it, but at some point in my life, I remember this statement capturing my attention. Remember I’m paraphrasing.

If someone told you that in order to be successful you had to fail 54 times you would fail 54 times with no problems. You’d go door to door, with the expectation to fail those 54 times, and when you were shot down, you wouldn’t have any worries, because you know that 55th door you knock on is going to be a yes, that door is going to be success.

That’s photography, it’s for damn sure street photography. Our number may not be 55, but we have a number. If we keep shooting, if we keep practicing, if we keep taking bad photographs then we’re bound to like how to capture a good one.

Related: The More I Practice, The Luckier I Get

Take Bad Photos

In order to do this, we have to get out there and take bad photographs. It’s okay! Believe it or not, we are human. After I wasted those first 2 hours of my Chicago trip I decided that I was going to revert to my old style. I was no longer there to take award winning photographs, but simply, to practice. I no longer wanted to Bresson… I just wanted to be that guy with a camera who documented his moment in the windy city.

I turned my camera on and I walked around and shot everything that looked interesting to me. No, I wasn’t praying and spraying (though at times I do), but if I saw an interesting face, or figure, or array of colors then I shot it. If my heart pounded when approaching a subject then I considered it a sign, that photograph had to be taken. I worked every scene and tried my best to capture the moment in the most pleasant way.

People Like Bad Photographs

Here’s a shot from my Chicago trip. The picture came out rather blurry, it was taken with the iPhone 6s+ case from Moment. I shifted my focus to the dinosaur figure but because of the minimal lighting in the bar you can see that it’s a bit out of focus. Initially, I was reluctant to even take the photograph, but I thought when will I ever see this again? Perhaps I was being “romantic” about the situation, but we have to remember to document our own moments as well.

I posted the image online and it was received rather well, no one cheered, I didn’t win any contest, but it was a photograph that required little thought, wasn’t sharp, nor did it have proper lighting, yet no one hated it. Until this day, it’s probably the most technically wrong photo I’ve posted online different, yet it remains one of my favorites.

To end this blog post popularly and make sense of all of this, here are 10 reasons why you should take bad photographs. This list came from nikondigital.org. Full disclosure, I didn’t read them all, so yeah..

“10. Wishful thinking. Probably the worst reason to take a bad photograph is because you’re hoping against hope that a miracle will occur in your camera and the image will come out looking great even though you know it has real problems. Trust me, when they invent a camera which can do that, we’ll let you know about it first thing!
9. I’ll fix it later. With the advent of ultra-high-resolution digital images and flexible Raw files, it is very tempting to capture images that aren’t right, knowing you can fix them later in the computer. There is a time and a place for that, but as you do it, make sure and ask yourself whether you’re doing it because it’s necessary or just because you don’t want to put the work in to figuring out how to get the shot right in the camera.
8. To break the jinx. For wildlife photographers each new species is a form of discovery. But, like many other superstitious groups, the first image of a new species is considered particularly elusive — especially if you’ve tried to capture it on film and failed before. So fire off that first frame to break the stress and the ‘jinx’, and then settle down to get the image of a lifetime.
7. For Mom. We’ve all been asked to capture some impossible scene or a group of relatives or friends in an impossible light. You are faced with the unenviable alternatives of refusing, making everyone suffer while you fix the light or the background, or just smiling nicely and saying “Sure!”. Sometimes it is easier to just take the image and move on. You don’t have to put it on your wall.
6. Planning. Often I see a shot I want to get but the weather or lighting is wrong or there is some extraneous element — often a car or truck — that I don’t want in the image. I used to make a mental note to myself to come back and shoot the image later, but I started forgetting them. I found it was more effective to take the photograph and then mark it in DigitalPro with a special priority and IPTC keyword so that I’d remember why I took it. Then the next time I’m in that location I can look for my “planning” images and try to capture them the way I’d like them.
5. Practice. When you’re out waiting for subjects to show up, rather than fret or get bored, its often a good time to practice your technique. With digital this works especially well as we can see the results and not waste money on film. What should you practice? How about panning that big 600f/4 to get flight shots of the passing Gulls, so that when the Pelicans come by you’ll be ready. Or for some real fun, use your hand held lens to see if you can get those acrobatic Swallows in motion. It’ll improve your flight photography and you might just surprise yourself with what you are able to capture with enough practice.
4. Because it is worth it. One day Moose and I were at the Baylands photographing the endangered and fairly elusive California Clapper Rail. They are often heard, but I had never been able to photograph one calling out before. Suddenly one raised its head and started making its distinctive call right in plain site of our cameras. The background was horrid. The vertical bill of the Rail was nearly lost in the vertical grass behind it. For an instant I froze thinking I shouldn’t take an image with such a poor background. Then I got that “What am I thinking?!” feeling as I remembered that with any background it would still be a unique shot of a rare bird and fired away. So don’t be so afraid of shooting that you deprive yourself of shots you may not be able to get again.
3. To teach. The next best thing to taking your own photographs is to see the results when others take them. If you teach photography — professionally or casually — be on the look out for images that illustrate a point. Best yet, if you can take an image the “wrong” way and the “right” way you have an excellent teaching tool. Just don’t make the mistake I often do and delete the “bad” image later after forgetting why you’ve taken it in the first place! Moose solves that problem by tagging his Red in DigitalPro so he remembers why he has them.
2. Because you want to. It’s your camera, and your time. Besides, if you’re like me, if you’re wondering about a shot and don’t take it it will bug you for the rest of the day. As Vincent Versace is fond of saying, “If you want to take the picture, take the picture.” No, the idea is not to fill your card with mediocre images, but sometimes there is a reason we want to capture an image that we can’t figure out. Take it, move on, and then when you look at it on the light table — digital or otherwise — see if you can figure out what appealed to you about it.
1. To learn. This is the very best reason to take a bad picture. Unlike many sports or professions where a mistake can be fatal, photographers are blessed with the ability to quickly evaluate their mistakes. Learn for yourself why birds don’t look good against a dead white sky, or how many stops of light are in a sunset, or why VR can’t freeze a bear’s jaws when its chewing.”