Picture: Photographers standing on the rim of Horseshoe Bend at dawn over the Colorado River, near Page, Arizona
On Screwing Up: For every photographer coming up through the ranks of learning, or who thinks professional photographers always get it right, have I got news for you. Yes, even professionals screw up and make mistakes. Just because we’re a professional in one area of expertise doesn’t mean we don’t experience our own trial and error learning curves in other areas. We may not brag about it in public, but rest assured, we make mistakes just like everyone else.
In my last post, I mentioned several “bumps” during my trip. This is Bump # 5.
The photo above may not look like a total screw-up,… but it is. This image was taken on my recent trip to the Southwest. It’s actually a multi-row, nearly 40-frame panoramic image shot with my Nikon D800. Because it’s a screw-up, I only processed a low-res version, outputting each of the frames at 1600 pixels on the long dimension at 72 dpi. Still, even at this low resolution, the composite was well over 100Mb in size.
So how is it a screw-up? Well my learning curve in this instance isn’t from the mistake I made on this particular morning, nor was it my first time making the same mistake. But having made the same mistake before, it’s a lot like sticking your hand back on a hot stove after you’ve already been burned. But it’s the repetition of the mistake which so brutally reinforces the need to learn; the screaming in your head as you tell yourself not to make the same mistake again in the future. Nope; my mistake happened the night before. You see, I don’t do a huge amount of night photography. It’s relatively new to me, and to which I consider myself still just learning. My mistake, discovered at the end of this morning’s shoot, was that I forgot to reset my ISO the night before. I’d shot nearly everything that morning, including my big multi-row pano at 3200 ISO. The lesson; ALWAYS set your ISO back to normal when you put your camera away that night, before you put the camera back in the bag; ‘cuz at the end of shooting the next morning is too darn late.
This second-time burn on my hand serves to remind me that I still walked away from this morning having gained something; a reinforced lesson. Did I mention that it’s a good idea to check and change your ISO back to normal immediately after you finish shooting your high ISO night shots?
On Loss: Now Horseshoe Bend is one of the Southwest’s great “Me Too” icon locations. Everyone goes and gets their shot, and in terms of individuality or uniqueness, it’s one of those “low-hanging fruit” locations that is pretty near to the bottom rung of the ladder. Often the difference between a decent shot and a great shot boils down to the lighting conditions. My traveling buddy had no interest at all in going to Horseshoe Bend, and my interest was purely a business consideration. I was so close, camping at Lake Powell with my new(ish) D800, and the last time I’d been to Horseshoe Bend I was shooting 35mm film; circa pre-2006. I figured a large multi-row panorama would simply be a good addition to my files. Nothing more, nothing less. I had Zero intention of thinking I was somehow going to create some grand composition that no one had ever seen before. I knew the weather called for a clear and cloudless sunrise; a zero on the atmospheric specialness scale. I was just going to get my shot and meet my buddy in Page for breakfast by 8:30am.
While I was shooting, I noticed a guy setting up an 8×10 field camera. Once the sun had risen and we were packing to leave, I stopped to chat with him for a moment. It turns out he never even put a piece of film in his camera the entire morning. “It just wasn’t what I wanted or was looking for,” he said. By that time, I’d already realized my own mistake, and had considered the entire morning to be pretty much a total loss. But hearing he hadn’t even loaded film into his camera suddenly made me realize that I was feeling absolutely no sense of “loss” regarding losing the shot. Why? Because there was absolutely nothing creative or any truly unique personal vision involved with just getting another “Me Too” shot of a place I’d already been to, if even a decade ago with only some 35mm slides to remind me of my previous visits. I was far more upset with myself for not having remembered to change my ISO than I was coming home with a ‘ruined’ shot. I guarantee I would have felt far more devastated if I had made the same mistake at a less-photographed, more personal location, or yes, even at the same location if there had been some really special lighting conditions.
Picture: Morning light on the Colorado River at Horseshoe Bend, near Page, Arizona
All during breakfast, I kept slapping myself for my ISO mistake, but not once did I feel upset for losing that shot. Don’t get me wrong. It was a nice morning, and I was happy to be there in that beautiful place, and someday I may even return. But I find it telling that so many shots of this beautiful place (and other similar icon locations) have become so commonplace as to not even evoke much of a feeling for me as a photographer; not one of passion, or even one of loss. To evoke those feelings, especially in a “Me Too” place, you need some special ingredient, something your personal vision can latch on to that is unique, something to trigger that passion which comes when you know you’re connecting to something special. It doesn’t need to be big or grand; often it’s a small detail; something you alone see, even when you’re standing in a crowd.
I should mention that once I had realized my ISO mistake, I did quickly try to reshoot a pano, but the light was already too harsh. But just as I was putting my gear away, I noticed one little area where the light had a special look to it down inside the canyon, so I quickly fired off a bracket of three frames before dropping my camera back into my pack. On looking back over my entire set of images I took that morning, it’s that one last shot which held far more personal meaning for me than any of the larger overall scenes. It may not be much, but it’s what I got. Maybe I did wind up getting something personally gratifying after all.
Got a great “screw up” story of your own you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about it if you want to leave a comment and tell us about it. If you have an image posted online that goes with your story, please feel free to add a link to the photo.
Image ID#: 131105c_AZUT-0598 (detail)
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