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If at First You Don't Succeed

There's an old adage that if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Clearly, everyone would prefer to nail each shot on their first attempt, but let's look at the situation when things don't work out so nicely.

So, you think you've done your homework. You believe you're in the right place at the right time. You have the right lens to frame your intended subject the way you want to. Your camera is mounted firmly on a tripod. When the decisive moment arrives, you strike. Click goes the shutter. But when you look at the image on the camera back LCD, something isn't quite right. For now, it doesn't really matter what it might be, but the image you see on the monitor doesn't look like the image you had in your mind. You may be close, or you may be way off. But you judge the image to not be as good as you'd hoped.

One possible reaction would be to conclude the shot was harder than you initially judged. You did your best, but it just wasn't possible to capture the shot the way you envisioned. Not every shot can be had. Depth of field has to live by certain rules of optics. The brightness range of a scene can exceed the ability of a camera to record. The wind outdoors does occasionally blow even on otherwise calm days. Things move. Perhaps some shots just aren't meant to be.

Another possible conclusion would be that you simply aren't good enough to get the shot. A better photographer might be able to, and some day you hope to be up to the task. But you're still learning (aren't we all) and you just can't do it — yet. Perhaps for now at least, you should concentrate on easier subjects so you can hone your skills and improve.

Then there's the possible option of blaming your camera. The shutter jammed. The meter read the exposure wrong. The lens focus is off. The tripod head wouldn't tighten solidly enough and the camera drooped. You reason that you should take the offending piece of equipment to a repair shop and get the problem attended to. Until then, it will be holding you back since otherwise you surely would have gotten the shot.

Then there's the luck of the draw. Perhaps this just isn't your day. "Better luck next time," you mutter to yourself under your breath. You knew you'd gotten up on the wrong side of the bed when the alarm clock didn't go off and the car didn't want to start. Surely, circumstances must be conspiring against you. No matter what you do at this point, you simply can't win.

Who knows? Perhaps one of these rationalizations has some basis in fact. Perhaps none of them do. I'm not saying it really doesn't matter what went wrong, and if there is some contributing factor that needs to be addressed. If so, it obviously makes sense to see about remedying it. But right then and there, when you're standing there on site with your camera gear, realizing you didn't get the shot you were after, there's another element to factor in. And it's worth paying attention to, regardless of whether other factors may or may not be present.

The way you react to the situation, regardless of cause, matters. If you get frustrated or discouraged, it can only make things worse. In addition to the original cause or causes, you'll be adding one more. Now you'll have to overcome that frustration or discouragement when you take your next shot. And if that one doesn't work out either, you'll only be compounding matters yet again if you continue to react negatively.

Clearly, you can't go back in time and take that specific shot over again. What's done is done. If you want to maximize your chances for getting the next shot, it's best to dwell on what happens next not what has already happened.

Learning from your successes is easy. If you feel good about something, the experience reinforces your desire to repeat that success. If you feel bad about something though, it can sometimes be difficult not to allow that to negatively reinforce how you feel. Try to take each shot as it comes. Each shot captures a moment in time. Nothing more, nothing less.

Back in the days of film photography, I can remember the mounting sense of anxiety that would come from having shot after shot not work out. A roll of film had only 36 frames, and I didn't have an unlimited supply of film with me. Each press of the shutter release consumed a precious commodity. And I couldn't even see the images I was taking until I later got that film developed. But sometimes I just knew things weren't working out — or at least I suspected as much.

But these days, things are quite different. Not only can you see your images sooner, you're far less likely to run out of space for more images unless you're prone to holding down the shutter release just to listen to the machine gun chatter of a shutter firing away nonstop. Clickity clack, Ratta-tat tat. But even then, you have the option of deleting images that don't work out to make room for new images. It's really not possible to run out of room when you can prioritize which images you keep and which you delete in-camera.

Some photographers don't like resorting to this though, deeming it to be the sign of an amateur. Truly good photographers don't make enough mistakes, they reason. But I have news for them. The mark of a truly good photographer is what the images they keep look like, not how many they delete nor how bad those deleted images were. In the final analysis, it simply doesn't matter.

As I said at the outset, all of us would prefer that each and every image they take turns out to be a winner, but that simply isn't realistic. Indeed, it would be my contention that if someone truly can say their images are all perfect, it means they aren't being daring enough in their photography. Only by risking failure can one learn just how good they are. And only by occasionally failing can one truly improve. Limiting yourself to images you know you can get right is a form of treading water. Pushing yourself to get more difficult images means you will indeed sometimes fail, but those successes you do have will potentially be that much better.

No one ever has to know how many images you delete. My advice would be to go for it. Only then can you truly lean what you are capable of.

Date posted: December 20, 2015


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