Principles of Photographic Improvisation – There Are No Mistakes
Here it is almost the end of August and I haven’t posted since mid-July. How easy it is to get out of the blogging habit. Even staying mostly home during the pandemic, it is easy to get wrapped up in things and forget to post. Well, I probably should finish the series I started on the Principles of Photographic Improvisation from the book The Soul of the Camera by David duChemin. My previous two posts covered the first three principles Saying Yes, Contribute Something, and Try Something. The fourth principle is There Are no Mistakes.
Wow, there are no mistakes. Seriously!. I have trouble with this one. It seems like I make mistakes all the time. I use the wrong f-stop or ISO, I try to hand-hold at too slow a shutter speed, or I focus on the background instead of the subject. I delete a lot of images after I download them. Not just ones with bad exposure, but also because I typically shoot multiple shots with the same composition with slightly different exposures or trying to capture the “right” moment. For example, I shot my niece’s socially distanced wedding last weekend, taking around 1,500 images. I’m slowly editing those down, and will probably delete 1,000 to 1,200 of them.
DuChemin talks about how photographers often talk about their “keeper rate” as if photography is “a baseball game and someone out there is recording our stats.” Guilty as charged, Mr. duChemin. I mentally think about my keeper rate, not so much as how many I keep (I probably keep too many), but how many are worth keeping and turning into something other than a raw snapshot. DuChemin continues, describing how his own language is often littered with negativity, for example, saying that he went out shooting and “every frame was crap.” (Another admission, I’ve said that too.) He says such an attitude suggests that “we should go out, press the shutter, and end up with a great photograph. As if musicians sit down at the piano and come up with a finished piece the first try. They do not. But they might find a few melodies or harmony that provides clues about the rest of the song the will, eventually, become a classic.”
He asks, “there was a reason you pressed the shutter; what was it?” He’s right. Every time we press that shutter button, we do so for a reason. Our eye saw something and we tried to capture it. Our capture may have been imperfect, or even plain bad, but there was a reason. You need to explore that reason, examine why you tried, and learn from the experience to, perhaps, do better next time. DuChemin suggests those imperfect frames are “part of a process. If you discard them without first giving them a chance to speak, you’ll miss whatever possibilities they were just about to whisper to you. That’s how the creative process works…”
If you are like me, you might come upon a great scene and you start shooting. But as you shoot, you change up the composition a little, or pick a different aperture, or move over ten feet, or get down low. As you explore the scene with your camera, you might learn from you earliest shots, and the images grow better. When I’m editing, most often the earliest shots in a series of images of the same subject are the ones that I throw away. Why, because they often they are bad. But also because I learned as I shot, and the later images are better. I might not keep them, but they are useful to me. In that sense, he is correct, there are no mistakes.
In several posts ago, I mentioned how I’ve been trying to get a shot of Mount Rainier with the moon rising behind it. I tried in June without much success – while you could see the moon and the mountain, the light didn’t cooperate with my vision for the image. I tried again in July. This time, the mountain and the rising moon were covered by clouds. I tried again in August, and this time, I was successful (I’ll post those images in my next blog). Were those two earlier attempts mistakes? Were the images I did take not worthwhile?
The ones I took in June I will probably not do anything with. But I did learn from them; the experience helped me with my technique, and therefore, did help with my successful shots from August. And going out to shoot in July wasn’t a mistake either. I didn’t come home with any images of the moon, but I did shoot the three images featured here, as well as several other “keepers.” And I certainly wouldn’t call any of them mistakes. (In case you are wondering, all three were taken from Dune Park here in Tacoma.) So perhaps there are no mistakes, the only true mistake is not learning from our imperfect attempts.