Pros do it too; on screwing up and loss.

Picture: Photographers standing on the rim of Horseshoe Bend at dawn over the Colorado River, near Page, Arizona

Image: 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

Image: Photographers standing on the rim of Horseshoe Bend at dawn over the Colorado River, 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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16 Comments on “Pros do it too; on screwing up and loss.”

  1. Richard Wong Says:

    That sucks Gary but I think that last ditch shot is much more compelling than the vista. Nice work.

  2. Richard Wong Says:

    Oh and regards to screw ups, the ones that gnaw at me the most are the photos I didn’t take more than the technical mistakes though I have my fair share too. One of the more recent ones was on the Backroads trip from last month. We were at that dive bar at Point Reyes Station and I was shooting much of the dancing and drinking. But at the height of the action, everyone that was dancing formed a conga line that went all the way around the bar and I had a prime view of it standing on a bar stool. The bar was going nuts! I guess by that point I had too many drinks as my brain froze and I left the camera in the bag. I did get some nice shots on the trip but I think more of what I failed to shoot.

  3. Rachel Cohen Says:

    What a great story and lesson Gary! Like Richard mentioned, the missed shots are killers, but as for screw ups….Well.. Recently while doing some long exposures on the Great Lakes. I had my camera on a tripod, of course with the image stabilization turned off. It was crazy windy, and cold, so when I finished and headed for the car, I saw some beautiful plants among the underbrush along the shore. I happily got off many frames and headed back to the car. It wasn’t until my next location did I realize my mistake! Had it not been so windy, it probably would have been ok anyway. But as it was I had a bunch of blurry plant images! Lesson learned! 🙂

  4. Michael Russell Says:

    I have certainly left my ISO on an undesirable setting before!

    I think the screw ups that bug me the most are opportunities that I did not seize when they were presented. I have seen what looked to be a promising location with good light out the side window of my car, only to keep driving hoping for something better which never materialized. I try to always turn around if I think I’ve seen something now, when possible. There is one photo I never made of Mount Rainier with a red barn on a farm, some low lying fog and great sunset light that still haunts me a few years later. I should have turned around immediately.

  5. Greg Edwards Says:

    My biggest photographic mistake was when I was in the USCG on Marcus Island. The LORAN-C transmitter was offline for yearly maintenance and I was able to climb the tower one afternoon to take pictures. I didn’t change the film in my camera before climbing and after reaching the top (1350′) and taking three pictures I ran out of film. I was so nervous that I didn’t load the new roll of film correctly and none of the pictures were ever taken…

  6. QT Luong Says:

    Anybody beats formatting and reusing a 32GB card – while in a hurry to set up a timelapse at 11pm and getting up for sunrise, thinking erroneously that it was backed up, wiping out three days of shooting 3,000 miles from home in the process, since of course the timelapse overwrote almost everything ?

  7. Greg Russell Says:

    Sorry to hear about your screw-up, Gary, but it sounds like you reconciled it well. Like the 8×10 shooter you met, I find myself taking fewer and fewer images, being content just to be outside. Even though electrons are cheap, I save them for the images that I think are more personal. On a recent backpacking trip in the Sierra, not an easy place to get to, I think I only made about 60 frames.

    Your words are lessons to live by: always reset your camera before putting it away! Do I do it? Not always, but not on purpose either. I try to remember, but sometimes it slips my mind. I did shoot a lovely sunrise on the above-mentioned backpacking trip only to realize that my lens was still set on manual focus from the night before. Fortunately it was wide enough that the focus wasn’t *that* off for all the images, but talk about kicking myself! If I hadn’t been so bleary-eyed from sleep, I probably would have noticed that something didn’t seem *quite* right.

  8. Chris Barton Says:

    I have made exactly the same mistake a few times after night photography. What I want to know is why digital cameras (or at least my Canons) don’t display the ISO on the top display and in the viewfinder? It shows all the other important info, so why not ISO?

  9. Gary Crabbe / Enlightened Images Says:

    Thanks for all the comments. @ Chris; I know the Nikon lets you choose Frame Count or ISO; at least I know how many frames I have left. @ QT – OUCH! I once lost 40+ rolls of film on a book shoot due to a shutter that wasn’t raising, so I know the pain. Hard to beat that.

  10. John Wall Says:

    Stitching a pano with the wrong ISO immediately reminded me of several times doing a long focus-stack at a high ISO (after shooting wildlife) and realizing it only later, when I couldn’t go back to reshoot. Not as critical as when you’re trying to make a huge print of course. Because I often go back and forth between macro and wildlife on the same trip, my “favorite” mistake is to get, for example, the coyote trotting across the landscape, seeing him in just the right spot, right light, right background, etc., perfect focus and shutter speed, only to trip the shutter and realize I’m still in mirror lock-up mode….

  11. Jim Stamtes Says:

    Ha Ha. Love it! Isn’t it funny that our screw ups increase the longer we shoot? I’m talking age, here. I make more mistakes now then I ever did when I could remember stuff.
    At least now it doesn’t cost us a ton of money on film. Maybe that is adding to the problem.

    Great post!

  12. Jim Lundgren Says:

    Great post Gary…and I think the final image is far more unique and interesting but I understand your pain. My photography screw ups are too numerous to mention but my favorite to tell was the time I drove from the Bay Area to the White Mountains only to find out I left all my camping gear at home. That was one cold night 🙂

  13. David Leland Hyde (@PhilipHydePhoto) Says:

    It’s a good thing all of us shoot with cameras and not guns. Great post, Gary. Reading the comments has me thinking I should have made a lot more mistakes by now… ahhh… but don’t let me fool you. I don’t limit my mistakes to small things like erasing hundreds of prime photographs, nope. I try to limit my mistakes to things that will ruin me or my entire career or cost literally hundreds of thousands of dollars. I won’t bore you with the details, but my wise father, who also made a lot of mistakes, used to quote Buckminster Fuller who said this is the mistake planet. The beautiful part of your post and the stories above is the humility involved in admitting we are human. There is much arrogance these days in all walks of life and way too much perfectionism, though that can be an asset if handled well. These stories of course also give hope to those just starting out that they can succeed even though they don’t have it all right.

  14. Mark Says:

    I think the ISO one has bitten probably most of us so much that it deserves a t-shirt, or at least a special flashing text warning in the viewfinder on startup. But I will give the biggest screwup award not to myself, but to our wedding photographer some-teen years ago who forgot to bring his film to our wedding. Missed a good majority of the pre-event opportunities while he sent his assistant out to try to find a shop close enough to replenish it.

    I also have a bit of sadness about such scenic views like this – that they have been photographed so much by so many people, that it does have the exact impact (or lack thereof) you describe, the lessening of the personal satisfaction in being there. I have never been there personally, and yet I don’t have much desire to go out of my way to visit because I have seen so many photographs of it. We see photo workshops going to the further and further ends of the Earth just to get away from these spots and take in something unique. You can’t help but wonder how it turns out in the end – all of us taking virtual trips to imaginary places because that is all that is left to inspire?

  15. G Dan Mitchell Says:

    Gary, I made essentially the very same mistake a month or so ago while doing street photography in San Francisco. I was shooting with my “street camera,” the Fujifilm X-E1, and prior to that had used it in tandem with my main camera to photograph classical musicians in low light. The X-E1, which works nicely at high ISO by the way, was set to 3200. You know the rest of the story… which inevitably ends with the discovery of the mistake after finishing and leaving and making some photographs that can’t be repeated.

    I consoled myself by adopting the point of view that this gave the images a nice, gritty, film-like quality… 😉


  16. John Schlichte Says:

    Thanks for the great insight into accepting and avoiding mistakes and dealing with lost photo opportunities.
    As my interests into nature photography have escalated I’ve had to deal with a number of missed opportunities for a great photo. Over time, I learned to be more appreciative of what I’ve captured in my visual experience of great memories, and to do less kicking of myself for missed opportunities. I do try to avoid making similar mistakes in the future, but what a fantastic world of opportunities there is for those willing to explore and do a bit more.
    Have a great day! And thanks again for sharing.

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