Have you ever come back from a shoot and looked at the images and not been happy with what you had created?  I hope you have!  Oh don’t get me wrong – I hope you are happy with some of your images, most of your images.   But if you are happy with all your images, it probably means that you are not trying to improve your photography.

As with any skill in life, if we always stay within our comfort zones, we don’t improve.  But going outside our comfort zones comes with a risk – it is the risk of failure.  So it is with photography.

Our reaction to failure

It is how we deal with failure that makes the difference.  There is an easy way to deal with failure – that is to look at the images, decide that you can’t do it, and move on to something else.  In other words, the easiest way to deal with failure is to give up!

The better and more productive way to deal with it is to analyse what went wrong, learn from the mistakes and try again (and sometimes again and again).  How do we do this as photographers?

Firstly we need to be objective about our work – analyse the image what has worked?  What hasn’t worked?  Was the problem down to the camera settings?  If you used specific lighting did you get it right?  Was the problem with how you directed your subject?  It is surprising how many problems with studio images can be solved by just asking your subject to change their pose slightly.

Once you have identified the problem, ask yourself, with hindsight, what would you have done differently.  Be specific, actually answer the question.  Put it into words.  Identifying the problem in this way will help you remember to do it next time you are in a similar situation.

If you are new to photography and find it difficult to analyse your images in this way then look for opportunities to have your images critiqued.  For example, I try to build in time to many of my classroom based training session to provide feedback on images.  Also, did you know that members of our photo Academy can request feedback on their photos in our dedicated members only forum?

Time to fail

It is not only important to give yourself permission to fail but to give yourself time to fail too. What do I mean by this?  Well, it could be that sometimes you will decide to shoot a theme or genre that is not what you are used to.  For me, I set myself the goal of improving my wild-life photography skills, and I am setting aside time throughout the year to go out and try it.  Then I come back and analyse the images and work out where I went wrong and then go out again and try not to make the same mistakes.

Even if you don’t have the luxury of devoting an entire shoot to pushing your photographic boundaries, you can easily devote the last 10% or last 20% of a shoot to trying something new.

Permission to fail

Sometimes when you set aside time to experiment (full shoot or a percentage) will find that what you create in that time turns out better than what you did in the rest of the shoot.  This happens because you are giving yourself permission to fail.  There is no pressure to produce so you may find you are more relaxed and thus able to see new possibilities with your photography.  And if you do fail?  Well, it doesn’t matter this was experimental time, play time.  And actually, as we saw earlier the failures can actually be great opportunities to analyse and learn.

Even when working on a client brief I often use this approach to help me create images that go beyond what the client expects.  It works like this, I will shoot to the brief the client has given me, and I ensure that I have met the brief, if I can do this within say 90% of the time allocated for the shoot then I use the remaining 10% to experiment, to try out things that are outside the brief.  Those ideas may or may not work.  It doesn’t matter if they are failures; I have already met everything that is in the brief.  However, as is sometimes the case, these are the images that the client goes ‘wow’ over because it is the unexpected interpretation of what they are looking for.

The failure – development cycle

When you embrace failure as part of how you grow you can see it work in a cycle.  It goes like this:

  1. You try something new, something outside your comfort zone.
  2. You analyse the result of that experimentation.
  3. Did it work? Yes? Good, you have learned a new skill/technique.  Next time you need to push yourself a little harder.  Go back to step 1
  4. Did it work? No? What didn’t work? What lessons can you learn? Go back to step 1 and try again.  Repeat until the answer to “did it work?” is “yes”.