The Value of Failure

When I was younger, I was fascinated by the work that went on in my father’s darkroom.  He was an avid photographer, and shot weddings, and some commercial work in engineering workshops.  I would go with him sometimes, on these outings, and carry gear.  Sometimes I’d get to do exciting things in the workshops – like driving the overhead cranes and watching steel plate being rolled.   I think that the health and safety people would be wringing their hands in despair nowadays.

I would watch in fascination later, as images miraculously appeared on sheets of paper in developing fluid – I spent my childhood surrounded by bottles of developer, fixer, film canisters, and rolls of drying film (pegged up in the bathroom)………

Funnily enough, I hated the entire process – the smells were horrible – sitting in a dark room (maybe with a red light for company) – no ventilation (well we were sat in what amounted to a large cupboard, converted for the process).  It was hot, sweaty and uncomfortable.  It was the image making – the appearance of the darks and lights on the paper that was the fascinating part.

Later on, even in the digital era – I had to relearn how to process both film and pictures at college.  It slowed me down, but I still didn’t like the smells…….

What film taught me, was how to be patient, and how to slow down, and how to work towards a goal that may never be fully achieved.

I’m constantly looking for that one picture, the one image that will set me aside from everyone else, that will allow me to be ‘discovered’ – so as film processing has influenced my photographic journey, so digital processing has allowed me to make more mistakes, faster than ever…….

Even those who make mistakes, and fall flat on their face, are at least moving forward.  It’s productive in photography to experiment, to try different media, and be willing to fail. I would go so far as to say that the most fascinating photographers I have met, have all been experimenters, and have all failed at something.


The photographers who are the least interesting, in my head, are the ones who are doing exactly the same thing they were doing 10 years ago.  They are the ones who are least willing to fail, the ones least willing to experiment.  The ones least willing to stray outside their comfort zone.  It’s a great idea to introduce randomness in your life.

A photographer said to me recently – “It’s great working with you, you have so many zany creative ideas” – which was lovely to hear, as it means I’m moving forwards, and not backwards, or worse, standing still.

The thing is….. it doesn’t matter if I fail… it really doesn’t matter if the experiment, the idea, the trial, doesn’t work – what have I lost?  I’ve probably gained some different ideas, maybe even worked out what I can do to make the next shoot successful.  Maybe it didn’t work THIS time, but maybe it will work next time.

Go out in the wrong weather, with the wrong gear, the wrong location, the wrong mood.  It will introduce randomness into your life, encourages discovery – takes it outside your comfort zone.

The idea of failure should push us forward as photographers. Failure can lead us to success as photographers and we (deep down) know that it’s true.

The image below, has been a successful one for me – it was an accident.  I’d seen similar images and with some research worked out pretty much how they were done.  Following the idea through, resulted in this image.  It’s won a number of competitions, and involved me in a lot of conversations about ‘how it was done’ (and if you want to know how it was done – just drop me a line – it’s a bit long to ramble on about here).


Introduce some randomness into your creative process – it will increase the number of ‘failures’ but, if we pay attention to them, we will find more potential that would normally come our way.

Could you not have moved three steps to the left?

We’ve all heard it……  the judge looks at the photograph and calmly states that if you’d moved about three steps to the left or the right, the composition would have changed for the better……  and we all know, that in moving those three steps, the photographer would be heading, head first, down a flight of steps – falling off a cliff – stepping into deep water – or stepping into something unfortunate.

We all laugh, but what should we be really be expecting from our judges…. ?

To quote one example ”

‘To judge and criticise constructively, demands a depth of knowledge, at least equal to that of the author of the work.  In the case of a competition, the judge’s expertise should at least be equal to that of the best exhibitor”

So, what is the judge looking for?

  1. Focus – it’s vital that the relevant parts of an image are sharp.  In portraiture, it’s usual that the eyes are focal part of the image – they should be the windows to the soul, and therefore the sharpest point.  The eye is drawn to sharp parts of an image.
  2. Crooked Horizons – especially where there is water – if the horizon is off, then it just looks like the water is about to flow out of the image.
  3. “Flat” colours – images that have been processed to bring out detail in all the shadows and highlights – this can leave a  washed out looking image, with ‘muddy’ colours.  This can be unattractive to the viewer.
  4. Blown out highlights – whites with  no detail are a huge distraction. Clouds, water, white clothing.  It can be used effectively sometimes, but please use with great care.
  5. Black black shadow areas – similar to blown out highlights – areas with no detail, just blocks of black – for example in a treeline, that unless in silhouette could have some detail in there.
  6. White halo round edges – usually caused by over sharpening – or HDR toning – found sometimes around the tops of hills, or mountains which encroach into sky.
  7. Cropping – too tight, too loose.  If there’s a moving ‘thing’ bus, train, plane etc – leave it room to move into -same applies to people who are moving. Don’t be tempted to cram too much into an image.
  8. HDR (High Dynamic Range) – this can be great when it’s done correctly, but terrible when it’s not.  Images can look over-saturated, and flat.
  9. Sensor Dirt – please don’t leave it on the image – spot it out – make your images clean and presentable.
  10. Converging Verticals – can work well sometimes – and can add drama to an image, but please check that if everything else is straight you don’t leave buildings at a lean, where there is no need.
  11. Colour casts – try to make  your white balance as it should be – ensure that skin tones are accurate. Check that white areas are actually white.  Learn to use the white balance tool in camera RAW, or in Lightroom, or other software. Don’t try to correct by eye.
  12. Bright areas on the edge of pictures – the human eye is generally drawn to the brightest part of an image – if that part is on the edge -then it’s hard to draw your eye away from that to the main subject.  Don’t give the judge a chance to be distracted.
  13. Bits of object (usually trees) encroaching on the edges of images – I’ve seen half a person, or just a few disembodied tree branches.  In then end it looks careless.
  14. Mounts – judges generally don’t like coloured mounts – try to keep your presentations clean and professional looking.  That purple mount may look great, but does it compliment the picture inside?  If it doesn’t – then don’t use it.

If you’re not sure how an image looks, get a friend to look at them with you – a second pair of eyes can make all the difference.  If you are a member of a camera club, show your images there before you enter a competition.  I’ve been told that if you turn your photo upside down and look at it, you’ll see more errors – personally I’ve not tried it, but it’s worth a second of your time.

And finally – enjoy your photography – I tend to think of photography competitions a bit like taking your dog to a dog show.  When you lose,  you bring your dog home, and you love him all the same.  Similar with photographs…  let the judge see it – take the critique in a good spirit, bring it home, and maybe still love it for what it is, and the fact that it means something to you -but also learn from the comments – you just might be surprised……