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How Failure Leads to Success in Landscape Photography

Inspired once again by Seth Godin and a recent blog post titled “the difference between a failure and a mistake,” I wondered how I might apply it to nature photography and the issues we all struggle with in our attempt to make successful images. Of course this applies to life in general, as Seth so clearly explains, but I think it provides many paths of exploration fo those of us trying to be more creative with our photography.

Casscade Mtn, Adirondacks

 

Cascade Mtn fails on several levels, but mostly for me it lacks a clear path for the viewers eye to travel, which translates to a weak story.  A lack of textural contrast makes the image rather busy, and the light in the background competes with the details in the foreground. I was experimenting with trying to omit the sky and horizon in order to create a lack of perspective, but it didn’t quite work out as envisioned.  

As a workshop instructor, I work hard on trying to help students get beyond whatever is limiting their potential. Unfortunately the majority of reasons are due to mistakes and less often to failures. My goal is to reverse this and promote failure as a way to learning. Certainly I don’t want students strictly to fail as that would be rather frustrating and demoralizing in the long run. Who wants to come away from a workshop having only failed at their attempts?
What I mean is that by promoting failure as part of the process of succeeding, I can inspire students to take chances, try new things, and hopefully help them become more creative, successful photographers. It is so easy these days to stick to the tried and true, and get the predictable approval of those who view our images. But approval is not necessarily what we want as photographers if you want to stand out from the millions in the crowd. I much prefer making images that elicit a response or reaction, positive or negative, that keeps a viewer thinking about an image.

Partition Arch, Utah

 

Partition Arch was an attempt to bring together several elements in a harmonious composition, but doesn’t quite succeed. I was attracted to all of the various lines and how I would get them all to work together. Trying to balance the small trees in the foreground with the rest of the scene proved difficult once I started to work with my camera, and that is a good sign that what I’m feeling isn’t going to translate well to a photograph. I also couldn’t quite get the sky under control, and I feel it dominates the overall balance of the image. 

My wife says that she knows if a she really liked a movie if she is still thinking about it a day or two after watching it. I think we can use the same relative comparison in photography. I will often make a sale a few days after an art show because the buyer couldn’t stop thinking about a particular image. And almost always these images are ones I took a chance on and pushed my comfort zone. Perhaps a new perspective or composition, a location I have visited hundreds of times, or a lighting situation that has almost always led to failure in the past. Sure there have many more failures that successes, but what it taught me was worth the effort, and has led to insights I would not have experienced otherwise.
The common issues I see students struggling with usually have more to do with mistakes than with failures. Here are some common ones: lack of sharpness due to a multitude of mistakes ranging from a) improper focusing, b) wrong use of hyperfocal distance, c) improper aperture, or other common issues such as a) not eliminating distractions, b) not being aware of contrast limits, c) wrong lens choices.
These can all be corrected in so far as they do not become mistakes that are repeated. Failures however involve an understanding of these mistakes, and then breaking the rules in order to attempt something new and interesting. For example, using a narrow depth of field in order to eliminate distractions, using extreme contrast as a way to lead the viewers eye, or using blur as a way to convey motion and rhythm in an otherwise static image.

Hudson Highlands, New York

 

Hudson Highlands tries to blend both a strong foreground and depth in the background to convey the sense of surprise and mystery I felt on this summer day day while hiking along the Hudson River. I like strong and bold foreground elements, and I’m constantly trying find ways to create both visually compelling compositions that also feel fresh and different on some level – almost like using different instruments in an orchestra to play the same melody. Somehow the tree in this foreground dominates in a way that does not complement the image overall, as the tension created is too great for the feeling I wanted to convey. I tried several different compositions, but it never felt quite “right” when I reviewed the images back home. The small trees in the foreground disrupt the rhythm I was after, even though the attempt was to minimize them by trying to emphasize the larger trees on the left.

Sometimes it is not so easy to differentiate between a failure and a mistake when we’re trying to be creative. That’s where practice becomes a mandatory part of the process. I have spent weeks shooting the same tree in my backyard just to learn the characteristics of every lens I own, or to master the cameras controls so that I can make adjustments instinctively. This way the mistakes become less frequent, and the failures become a way of improving my technique and my vision.
Here’s the thing, the best part of all of this seemingly depressing and frustrating work is that the you will experience successes, more than you will remember the failures. Each success outweighs the many failures by an exponential factor. I see them not only as positive rewards, but together with the failures as part of the journey we call creative photography. So go ahead and fail, because it will lead to insights you will not gain any other way. Those who view and enjoy your work will only remember the successes.

Beacon Light, Hudson Valley

 

 As I mentioned above, I’m constantly trying to find variations on similar compositional themes, and here it works to my liking. Balance between the two dominant trees and the rest of the trees feels rhythmic and harmonious, the strong green color in the foreground is contrasted by the subtle blue of the sky in the distance and creates a pleasing diagonal, and the light adds the drama in a controlled manner that doesn’t over power the details. I can’t help describing these elements in musical terms, perhaps because they are ingrained in my psyche and influence the way I see the world. Hopefully you can appreciate these ideas and incorporate them into your views and feelings about your favorite subjects.

Thanks as always for reading, and feel free to share your opinions and questions about your failures and successes in photography.

This Post Has 9 Comments
  1. While I can not take credit for this statement, I did read this about another photographer. This person was talking to another photographer and said the only difference between you and me is that I’ve failed more than you. You are correct in defining the difference between mistakes and failures. Defining a personal style is fraught with failure and your 100% correct when the image is nailed it makes it all worth it. Failures should not be viewed as a negative but as a driving force at every level of shooting.
    For what’s it worth I think the Hudson Highland forest picture is very successful. Here’s why. I think the foreground tree is balanced well with the smaller trees on the right. I find myself looking around the tree to see the rest of the landscape. It’s difficult to do and easy to mess up but I think this works really well. The subtle atmosphere is what defines the image and isn’t forced. It is as if I’m walking on the path and I look to the side and thats what I see. Lastly, what I think is well represented in many of your photographs is that they are not only visual but also strangely audible. I can hear the sounds of the woods in the Highlands photograph. Clearly, there are shared experiences that help promote that but I do not get those feelings what so ever with an over processed or HDR’ed image.I think the simplicity and scope of the image contributes to that feeling.

    1. Thnaks Larry for your well thought out and very kind comments – I do appreciate the positive feedback. You do make a very important point which deserves a whole article on it’s own, which is the issue of knowing what a failure is in the first place, and how those decisions relate to the photographers perspective. Success doesn’t come from repeated failure ONLY, there must be some guiding vision that assumes there is a message to be communicated. I think that is part of the problem I have with “Hudson Highlands.” The particular emotions I wanted to convey didn’t quite translate, though that may not be the case to the viewer. This leaves us with some ambiguity that may or may not be desireable.

      Ultimately for me I need to have a gut, or insticntual feeling about an image before I feel it is a success. This is not just a question of “art is in the eye of the beholder”, but rather bassed on careful consideration om my subject, my goals and intentions, and what I want to say as a photographer, and as a person. You’re onservations have made me reconsider some of these issues, and I’ll have more to write about them in the near future. Thanks again and hope to see more of your comments on the blog in the future!

      RR

    1. Thanks for your feedback Peter, always great to have your input on the blog! Yes you are correct about not trying hard enough, and espoecially in landscape photography where it seems so many are not willing to fail as a way of learning. Hope to see you more on the blog in the future 🙂 Be well!

      RR

  2. Hey Robert, thanks for taking the time to share this. I can definitely relate. I have quite a few images collecting digital dust. Intuitively, I know they just don’t work. I think I will now take the time to articulate to myself why they don’t work.

    1. Hi Larry – thanks for the feedback and for taking the time to respond. You bring up another good point which I failed to mention in the article – 🙂 how articulating why you think an image doesn’t work is so importamnt in this process. Part of that involves study and practice, which I am a huge proponent of not only in the study of photography, but the other visual arts as well. Nothing has done more for my “vision” as the study of painting and music – and then applying those to my specific sensibilities – perhaps material for another article soon…

      RR

  3. Yes, thank-you, Robert, for a most important distinction — mistakes or failures. I’m thinking a good bit about the difference, having read Godin’s blog. I guess, I need to allow myself to fail more. But without the best understanding of why a particular composition is a failure, the process can be very frustrating! While I can do my best to analyze the failure, I think the role of a mentor cannot be overstated — at least for beginners and even intermediate practitioners.
    Happy New Year!

    1. Hillel – see my response to Larry, which is similar to your own comment about being able to tell when an image is a success from a failure. This is something that comes with study, practice, and learning to trust your instincts. Certainly material for future articles 🙂

      RR

  4. Finding this article is most fortunate timing for me as I am at a stage of frustration in my new found hobby. This definitely makes me look up and gives me fresh vigor.

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