Friday, March 7, 2014

Failure & Photography

Every photographer fails. In fact, everyone in the world fails. Multiple times, over and over, we fail.

Failure is a part of life. It's a guarantee. As certain as the sun will set tonight and rise in the morning, you, I, and everyone else will fail at something.
Big Bear Sunset - Big Bear, California
In a post yesterday I shared an article from The Huffington Post about creative people. Something in it stood out to me that inspired today's post. Under the title "Fail Up" the writer, Carolyn Gregoire, said:
"Doing creative work is often described as a process of failing repeatedly until you find something that sticks, and creatives--at least the successful ones--learn not to take failure so personally."
The author then quotes Steven Kotler from his article on Albert Einstein's genius. He said, "Creatives fail and the really good ones fail often."

Einstein said, "Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work." And, "You never fail until you stop trying." And also, "Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them."

Failure is good. Failure is where you learn. Failure forces you to become better.

I personally have failed over and over in my photography. But I'm better because of it. My photographs are better because I failed. Failure has made me a better artist. Below are some examples of my failures and what I learned from each experience.

Failure To Photograph
One Tree - Tehachapi, California
I almost didn't bring along a camera, and if I hadn't, the image above wouldn't exist.
I have failed to go out with a camera in my hand and capture photographs. One cannot be a photographer unless that person actively photographs. Pictures don't create themselves.

I have actually gone many months in between capturing images. Back in my younger days, life seemed to get in the way of photography. Job, family, hobbies, budgets were all higher priorities to me. I made excuses. I made choices that created this failure.

This is a common failure among non-professional photographers, and even professional photographers can get caught in the trap. It is easy to be an armchair photographer, but armchair photographers aren't actually photographers. Owning a camera and using it on rare occasions doesn't make one a photographer.

The lesson I learned from this failure is that if I wanted to be a photographer, I needed to actively photograph. I had to make time to go out with a camera. I learned that there are choices in life, and that those choices shape the future. I learned to make better choices.

Failure To Capture An Image
Wrong Way Alley - San Diego, California
It's easy to be nervous when you are photographing strangers without asking permission first.
Sometimes I have had a camera with me and an opportunity to capture a scene that was before me, but for some reason I didn't. I failed to capture an image.

There are many reasons for this. Perhaps the subject was a person and I was afraid to capture the image for fear of his or her reaction. Maybe I was with some other person and didn't want to bother him or her with a side trek. Perhaps I hesitated and the opportunity simply came and went. I can think of several specific experiences where I made the excuse of not having the "right" camera with me.

What I've learned from this failure is that one must be bold and decisive when photographing. There is no need to be timid. Certainly be careful, but don't be fearful. Also, excuses are barriers between yourself and a great photographs. Excuses are like walls that must be torn down.

Failure To Create Great Photographs
Cathedral Rock at Red Rock Crossing - Sedona, Arizona
I cringe every time I see this image because I know I could have done much better.
There was a time that I thought my photography was really good. I thought I was creating some interesting images. Then I looked at the work of others, and realized that my images were pretty crummy compared to theirs.

The failure to create great photographs was an important failure for me. It was in the realization that I wasn't very good that I first began to understand photographic vision, which is the single most important aspect of photography.

I was a snapshooter, and perhaps even a "good" snapshooter, but I did not become an artist until I began to understand what all of this meant. Vision and creativity are what matter, and that's what I needed to focus on.

Failure To Follow Through
Salute To Freedom - Tehachapi, California
This is from a project that I worked on for a few months then abruptly stopped. 
I've started so many different photography projects over the years. Very few of them have I ever followed through with. It is difficult for me to stick with something when my photographic interests are pulled all over the place. In some cases, the images that I was creating were not particularly good, so I gave up.

Following through is a difficult lesson for me. I have to trudge through times when I don't feel particularly inspired. But what I have learned is that sometimes my best photographs are created right after a period of being uninspired. As Einstein said above, the only time that one truly fails is when they give up completely.

So I have learned to not give up, even if I really feel like it. I force myself out of my creative slump, or at least try and try and try again. Eventually there is a breakthrough.

Failure To Be Popular
Surfboard and Color Sand - Stallion Springs, California
This photograph was created for a photography contest. I did not come close to winning.
It's easy to get a big head when I get a bunch of "likes" on social media and friends and family gush over how great some photograph is. Sometimes I've been disappointed when a photograph that I thought was great received no attention from others.

Sometimes I've thought that my self worth as a photographer was tied directly to how much people liked my photographs. And when an image failed to be popular, I also failed.

That line of thinking is ridiculous. I've learned that what others think of my art is not important. You cannot please everyone, and sometimes you cannot please anyone. Yes, I'd love for each of my images to be wildly popular. But I'm ok if I'm the only one who appreciates it. My success as an artist is not tied to how many compliments I do or do not get.

Failure To Be Successful
Powers At Sunset - Goodyear, Arizona
A Sentiment Image photograph.
I started a photography business a handful of years ago called Sentiment Image. I made every business mistake possible. I really didn't understand what I was doing. I was unorganized, I had no vision, I had no business savvy. If someone wanted to write a book about how not to start a photography business, Sentiment Image would have been the perfect example for them.

Sentiment Image failed pretty quickly. I failed as a professional photographer.

What I learned from this failure is that being a professional photographer is hard. It takes a lot of work, but more than that it takes a fundamental understanding of how to run a business. Being business savvy is more important than being camera savvy. Its even better if you are both.

I was not ready to be a business owner, but I learned what it takes to get there should I ever want to try again in the future.


Failure is inevitable. The key is to "fail up" when it happens. Learn from mistakes and try to take something positive out of the experiences. Never give up, because that is the only way to truly fail.

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