10 Huge Mistakes I Made In Photography

So you don’t have to.

Photo by Josh S. Rose. Los Angeles, 2017.

People say things like, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes.” But you don’t really get to hear what they were. Well, I’ve made a few — and I’m all-too-happy to share them. And I’m not talking about putting my camera bag down in the sand or trying to mouth-blow dirt off my sensor, though… check and check. I’m talking about the stuff that stunted my growth along the way, pretty badly. I’m 35 years into shooting and I’m okay, but I should have been at this level about 20 years ago. So, allow me to save you a little bit of time by explaining the top things that kept me from progressing faster:

  1. I was a generalist. I took portraits, landscape, artsy black and white, street, editorial, sunsets, macro, kid photography, strobe photography… you name it, I tried it. It took me almost thirty years to find a kind of shooting that felt personal, unique and specific to me. And it was torture to let go of the other accumulated knowledge. I’d have saved countless years of meandering through the world of photography if I’d just committed to one style over all others. Even if only for a year or two. Do one thing great, not a bunch of things well. You’ll grow 10x faster than I did.
  2. I didn’t really understand the differences between lenses. I shot for years on a 105mm lens. It happened to be the one that was given to me and I just figured, hey, it takes pictures. Not fully comprehending what different lenses were great at limited my range for years. Hell, I shot landscapes with that thing! If I had it to do over again, I’d probably start myself off with a 24mm. I know it seems wide for a beginner, but it would have forced me to have more of an opinion in my work, much faster. With mid-range and longer lenses, the crop is determining so much already. With a wide angle, you must make decisions. I’d love to go back and force myself to work that way from the beginning. Do yourself a huge favor and once your decide what your thing is, pick the perfect lens for it, not some kit lens with variable aperture. One good solid lens that will help you be great at your area of expertise.
  3. I never had a mentor. I studied fine art, so I had a lot of pride in my art. By that I mean I was a complete recluse. Sure, I’d show people my work and ask for feedback, but I never fully committed to learning the craft from an expert, the way I did in my professional endeavors. In fine art, you spend an inordinate amount of time in your own head, discovering your themes. It’s an echo chamber that doesn’t help you grow. I mentor students now and they all start out in a similar place, just kind of traipsing around in the medium. I make it my mission to push them toward something they can call their own as quickly as possible, so they don’t tread water for as long as I did. No matter who you are, you should have a mentor.
  4. I never pre-planned my shots. Going out shooting has always felt kind of therapeutic to me, and for most of my life I’ve gone out with only that purpose in mind — to walk, enjoy my time and wait for something to come to me. That means tons of days where little happens. And I’ve watched other photographers go out for an entire day and not shoot anything. I’ve come to realize what a waste of time that is. Meander or shoot, but don’t meandershoot. While you’re out waiting for the muse, a million shots are being missed. And life just isn’t that long. More recently, I’ve started going out with a specific kind of shot in my head. I pre-plan my location, time of day and go with just the one or two lenses I need and with much more purpose. And the results are far better (even though it sometimes leads to something different) than anything I happened onto in my old way of shooting. Should have taken this approach so long ago. You can do it well ahead of me and start building a better portfolio in no time.
  5. I cropped my images. I always liked to crop my images, but I didn’t know why. It was Mary Ellen Mark who first called me out on it (with emphasis, I might add) only a few years ago, letting me know that I was doing it as a crutch for not having the ability to frame my shot correctly to begin with. I’ve since been able to see not just the advantage of framing things well, but also just how bad cropped images really end up looking. I see a cropped image now and it just looks unrefined to me. I’d go back and un-crop all my photos one-by-one, if I thought they were good enough to spend the time on it. As James Dean said to Dennis Hopper, “If you’re going to take pictures, don’t crop them.”
  6. I don’t tag my photos. This is a mistake I’m currently making that I just can’t get the energy to fix, probably because I didn’t start it from the beginning, so it doesn’t really help me with a global search until I tag them all. But still, I have to pull up images all the time. I use them in storytelling, articles, contests, for work, for treatments, to pitch and as reference, constantly. I can see the image in my head (though that’s getting tougher and tougher over time, too), but finding it is just too long a hunt. I have separate folders for every shoot I do and they are numbered and described as best you can in a folder name — but I don’t tag them. If I did, I’d probably cut hours of search time from my week. Not only that, I’d probably end up using more of my images for a larger variety of things. If you can, don’t be lazy like me — tag your images now. As many tags as you can muster, so you can look things up quickly, by descriptive terms. This will help you immensely down the road.
  7. I obsessed over hardware. We all do this, up until the point that we have equipment that is so obviously amazing, and beyond you, that replacing it would be ridiculous. I did this as much as anyone. But the worst part of it is how much of my sense of what I was capable of as a photographer was deferred to the obtaining of that equipment. You know the story — when I get x brand camera, then I’ll be able to get the really good shots. It wasn’t until I could finally afford to get my hands on a (used) Leica that I was able to let go of that feeling (I mean, if you can’t get good shots with a Leica…). But it wasn’t the equipment that enabled me to get better images, it was letting go of the excuses and getting to work. Don’t wait until you have a great camera to go take great shots — they have very little to do with each other. But do get the right lens. :)
  8. I relied on auto focus for way too long. Ironically, I started in manual focus, so many eons ago, but I bought in so heavily to the idea that new technologies make for better images, that I happily jumped onto the AF train, as early as I could. What a mistake. Unless you’re shooting kids or sports, manual focus is where it’s at. Auto Focus makes you lazy and it leads to a center-first approach to composing your subjects. The act of manual focusing frees up your mind to compose more creatively and that is everything in photography. The last two years, reverting back to manual focus, have been directly related to a steep increase in the quality of my work. Learn manual focus. It has actually advanced every bit as much as auto focus has, with focus peeking and indicators in camera that can give you great confidence in your focusing.
  9. I over-processed my images. HDR is the devil in a red dress with a weird white glow around it, as far as I’m concerned. It pains me when people who are so obviously using structure or HDR to enhance their images try to convince people that they don’t use it. More pain for those who rely too heavily on major editing techniques, like reflecting, retouching, or *gulp* the adding of moons and birds and I don’t even know what, in order to make an otherwise normal image look like something special. Heavily-processed images can be stunning — worthy of awards and attention, and I do my own bit of processing, sometimes, too. But I started doing it before I was really good at photography, as a shortcut, and that kept me from really focusing on making my photography good without it. Don’t let the allure of an easy editing trick keep you from doing the much harder work of making sure your images can stun people without any of it — as fun as it is to do, and as much as people will tell you how awesome it is, it just postpones your own personal growth.
  10. I thought I was better than I was. Here’s the thing — people told me I was a really good photographer. That’s the hardest thing to overcome for growth because it makes you safe. Anyone who is actually trying at photography is going to get positive feedback, if you believe that means you’ve “arrived,” then you’ll stick to what got you that compliment, rather than move past it. And that will make you just good. Thank people for their positive comments but do not internalize them. Unless your work is hanging in the Broad, you’ve probably got a bunch of work to do and more than a few reinventions of yourself before you’re ready to believe the headlines. I’ve sat in my pocket for too long, too. Years, even. I’m back to being a full time student of the medium and realizing just how much further I still have to go before I deserve any kind of real recognition. I’m just hoping it happens in my lifetime. That approach is helping me grow much faster now. I wish I’d never stopped seeing it that way.

Hope that’s of some help. As always, feel free to give the article some love and follow along the daily photo journey at @joshsrose

A deep dive into photography, with professional photographer, artist and director, Josh S. Rose. Top Writer: Photography and Creativity.

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