“Failure” is a necessary part of the creative process…

DSCF5654(Fuji X-T1 with the Fujinon 18-55mm lens)

I recently had a discussion with a photographer who said they felt like a “failure”.   They told me  about how they saw amazing photographs online, yet whenever they went out to shoot they rarely came home with anything they loved.

Welcome to being a creative.

I think it’s important to remember that when you look at someone’s work online you are really only seeing their highlight reel… you will never see their garbage.  This is why it is so important to edit your work with a critical eye and only keep your strongest work.  It teaches you what works, what doesn’t, and it strengthens the quality of your portfolio.

During the conversation I was reminded of this quote from Thomas Edison:

“I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.

This is the way we need to look at being a creative.  We should embrace our “failures”… they are what make us better at our craft.  It’s kind of like this:

11083859_10152629066621266_5962543645877297089_n(Author unknown)

Some days we make images we love, other days not so much.  All photographers go through this.  Let me tell you about a recent experience I had shooting in Seattle…

Over the holiday season I spent 4 nights staying with my family just outside of Seattle.  I was very excited to have one of these days completely free for a day of photography in Seattle, a city I love very much.  I mean a full 10 hour day:  Getting up at 5am to be on deck for a sunrise, shooting street throughout the day, then being on deck for a fabulous sunset photograph.  My camera bag was packed with my beloved Fuji X100t and Fuji X-T1, my batteries were charged, and in the black of night I hit the road for the 90 minute drive to Seattle.

I shoot in Seattle often, but have never shot the quintessential view of the city skyline from Kerry Park so this was my planned starting point (see the photograph at the top of this post).

The first thing I noticed when I set up my tripod was the cold.  Bitter cold.  Like shaking in your bones cold.  A significant wind only made it worse.  No worries though, I’ve shot in much worse environments before I thought.  As the sun rose it became clear that the sky was bare, not a cloud in sight.  This was nice in the sense that you could clearly see the sunrise glow behind Mount Rainier, but it also meant there would be little colour in the sky as sunrise hit.  Sure enough, that was the case.

I continued shooting through the changing light, hoping maybe the sun would rise behind the buildings of Seattle’s downtown core and perhaps I could do something cool with the backlighting.  Sadly, the sun rose in a different position, and by the time it came out there were no lights in the buildings:

DSCF5747(Fuji X-T1 with the Fujinon 18-55mm lens)

Just… ok.

Next I had planned on shooting at Gasworks Park.  I’ve seen this park many times from across Lake Union, but have never shot at it.  I blasted the heat during the short drive from Kerry Park to Gasworks Park, but never warmed up.  Truth be told when I got out of the car I felt even colder than I had before the drive.

I walked around the park for a few minutes like I usually do before I start shooting:  Trying to find the best shooting angles, the best lines, watching where the light was falling, and looking for my composition.  I was disheartened to see fencing around the main structure in the park, the light contrasty and hard even though it was still early morning, and a pair of people that seemed to instinctually know where to stand to be in my frame:

DSCF5810(Fuji X-T1 with the Fujinon 10-24mm lens)


I decided to regroup and warm back up.  I drove downtown and went for breakfast.  I spent an hour having a delicious meal, reading a good book, and finally warming up.

Warming up, that is, until I went back outside.  🙂

How could it be getting colder as the sun rose overhead?  Shouldn’t it be getting warmer?

I started moving through the streets shooting street photography, but I could never find my groove.  I don’t think I was the only one freezing:  People were bundled up and seemed to be moving fast from point A to point B.    I eventually found one spot I liked, where the hard light breaking between the buildings backlit people walking down the street.  After a long (and cold) stay at an intersection I got this:

DSCF4980(Fuji X100t)

Finally, a frame I really liked.

But I was cold, I was miserable, it felt like everyone on the street was miserable, the sky was bare, and the light was harsh.

Years ago I would have persevered, tried to force something to work, and spent the day getting more and more frustrated with the lack of results.

This morning though I shrugged, realized it wasn’t my day, and got back in the car for a 90 minute drive back to my family.   That last photo was taken at 10:28am, on what was supposed to be a full day of shooting.  Instead, I called it quits 4 hours into the day.

And… I’m ok with that.

There was a time when I would have viewed this day as a failure.  I drove 3 hours roundtrip for a day I eventually abandoned, and only got 1 photo I would put in my portfolio (and maybe 2 or 3 others that were just “ok”).

You can’t look at it like that though.  Photography isn’t a sprint, it is a marathon.  Every time you go out there you will learn something, even if it is one of “10,000 ways that won’t work”.  You can’t force it.  There are environmental factors outside of your control when you are shooting landscapes and cityscapes, and mindset is huge when shooting street.

I am happy that I was able to grab one nice frame from this day.  If you only get one good picture from a day you should be happy too.  Eventually, if you keep going out, all of those “one good pictures” will add up to a nice portfolio.

I’m sure I am going to butcher this, but there is a Japanese phrase, “Ganbatte kudasai”, that roughly translates to “Do your best”.

And that just about sums it up.  As photographers we need to embrace our “failures”, learn from them, keep going, and “do our best”.  After time, even if it is just one photograph at a time, we  will become better at our craft and build portfolios we are proud of.





18 thoughts on ““Failure” is a necessary part of the creative process…

  1. didiergm says:

    You are not only absolutely right but 100% spot on. Another thing I learned is (hope the translations will be meaningful in English) “Don’t be complacent with oneself but show yourself a little sympathy”

  2. Jim Sollows says:

    I think this is one of my favourite articles you’ve written. As a photographer I often feel inadequate when I look at the works of others like your own. In fact I think you and I have talked about this topic. I always settle myself by saying, I shoot for me, I’m not a pro and shoot purely for my own enjoyment. If I enjoy myself, I’ve succeeded.


    On Tuesday, 19 January 2016, Ian MacDonald Photography wrote:

    > Ian posted: “(Fuji X-T1 with the Fujinon 18-55mm lens) I recently had a > discussion with a photographer who said they felt like a “failure”. They > told me about how they saw amazing photographs online, yet whenever they > went out to shoot they rarely came home with a” >

  3. Ian says:

    Bang on Jim. We all struggle with it… I have many days of shooting where I just want to delete the card and start again.

    That, right there though, is the important thing: Start Again.

    As long as we keep going out there we will all slowly get better and better.

  4. thefujifreak says:

    Fine shots, Ian! I like your flow chart, too – we all have that creative block from time to time. I got mine during December. I’m out on the other side again but the weather here is not conducive to good photography. Indeed, I’ve only taken images on three days this year. Champing at the bit? You bet! Regards, Tony

    • Ian says:

      Hey Tony,

      Totally. I’ve learned that it isn’t a case of “giving up”, it is a case of learning how to work through the blocks without it being “a thing”. It is all just part of the creative process.



  5. Archie MacFarlane says:

    Very nice article Ian.

    I definitely agree – we all go through peaks and troughs creatively. Some days we’re totally ‘on ‘it’ and others are a disaster.

    Re the photographer who felt like a ‘failure’ – much as I love the amount of great and inspiring photography out there on the Internet, it can get a little overwhelming sometimes. I used to love (and still do) looking through photography books. I’d spend time looking at each image, taking everything in, and often feel inspired to go out and create better work myself.

    This still happens to a point while viewing work online but because there’s so much photographic work online it’s all too easy to view 1000s of great images (and not so great sometimes too of course) in a very short space of time, not really spend long with each individual image, and end up with the realisation that there’s tens of thousands of great photographers out there in the world. Previously, our only frame of reference would be the published ones (who had to be decent to be published in the first place) and perhaps a few local ones or a handful featured in photography magazines. I suppose what I’m getting at here is that it is easy to get down sometimes about your own creative output when you’re exposed to such an almost infinite amount of great photography daily.

    As you point out Ian, it’s important to remember that an online folio will only feature a photographers best work- it’s not a representation of that photographer’s every shot taken.

    And yes, of course, the most important thing is to realise everyone has bad days- in work, in life, in photography. We just have to remember they won’t all be like this.

  6. Mac Sokulski says:

    Very good article. I often have issue with this, specially when the Alberta prairies get really really boring. Thus I gave up going on 500px and looking at the images posted there, because I get jealous of the locations, to which I have no access to. So I do what I can with what I’m given, and try hard to be different. That’s all one can do….

    • Ian says:

      500px is a good example of tight curation: They want people to post their best, not 50 frames of the same scene. It is fabulous for that, but it also can leave you feeling overwhelmed if you try to compare that work with your own.

      This: “So I do what I can with what I’m given, and try hard to be different. That’s all one can do….”

      Is bang on. Keep going!

  7. Rick Ruppenthal says:

    Another thought provoking article Ian. Ralph J Marston Jr, a business and motivational writer wrote that excellence is not a skill and more an attitude coupled with the commitment to do the very best with what you have.
    When you see great works of art or those successful athletes performing amazing things, eon forgets all the struggle, practise and ‘failures’ that went on in the background.
    Even Ansel Adams considered 12 signifant photos per year as a good crop.

    • Ian says:

      Thanks Rick. I re-tweeted something recently that (paraphrased) said:

      “The only photographer you should compare yourself to is the one you were yesterday”.

      This can be extremely difficult in today’s world of mass consumption (Twitter, IG, 500px, Flickr, etc), but it really is the only way. You just need to keep going out there and trying.

  8. Matt says:

    As someone mentioned above, it’s easy to get down on yourself when exposed to 10s of thousands of great images at the click of a button. Also, we’re our own worst critic. I could feel ‘meh’ about a family session but get positive reviews from them after they see their photos. I guess it’s all apart of growing as a photographer, and like you said, finding what works.

    Anyways, nice images and blog. I bookmarked it and will go through it when I get some free time.

    • Ian says:

      Thanks for your kind words Matt, much appreciated. I completely agree with your thoughts too. I often love an image when I first take it, then a few days later fall into the “meh” category. I’ve come to accept this as part of the process.

    • Ian says:

      So true. I find as time goes on that I am somewhat stabilizing in my photography (or at least becoming more accepting of the times where the juices aren’t flowing), but I still have many peaks and valleys with my writing. Just have to keep plugging away at it!



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