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:
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:
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:
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:
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.