WHY SHOULD PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHERS MAKE MISTAKES?
"The greatest mistake a man can ever make is to be afraid of making one.” – Elbert Hubbard
The idea of making mistakes causes professional and beginner photographers alike no end of anxiety. What happens if we miss focus, flub our camera settings, or show up to a shoot without a memory card? No one will ever hire us again. We’ll be shunned and our failure will become a proverb for future generations of photographers. None of that is true, of course. Making mistakes is actually an important part of every photographic journey.
The idea of mistakes being important seems counterintuitive. After all, we try to avoid mistakes at all costs. We make call sheets, create contracts, and have packing lists for every shoot precisely so we don’t make mistakes. But, as any photographer who has had a camera in their hands long enough will tell you, no matter how well you prepare, mistakes are inevitable. And, if they’re honest, they’ll probably also tell you they’ve learned more from their mistakes than almost any other lesson.
IT HAPPENS TO EVERYONE
Before we break down why making mistakes is so important, let’s get one thing out of the way: there is no such thing as a perfect photographer. No matter how skilled or experienced a photographer is, they are still regular old humans subject to all the capriciousness of the universe. Whether they've run a photography business since digital photography took over the industry or they're still in the process of learning portrait photography, they have made and will continue to make mistakes.
So, remember you’re not alone. Some intrepid photographer has probably already made the same mistakes you’re making now. That doesn’t make you a screw-up or a bad photographer: it makes you a normal person experiencing mistakes as part of the process of growth.
Mistakes are a normal part of the game, but they can also be our greatest avenues for growth.
Making mistakes keeps you on your toes. This might seem like a paltry offering on the alter of looking or feeling stupid, but it’s an important benefit of mistake making.
It can be easy for familiarity with our subject, skillset, or approach to make us complacent. We get so used to our routines that we stop being fully present, fully aware of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
Mistakes are wake-up calls that remind us to keep our eyes open and pay attention. Not only does this prevent more mistakes, but it reminds us to appreciate what we’re doing and helps us stay engaged with the process.
"If you're making mistakes, it means you're out there doing something."
— NEIL GAIMAN
SEE YOUR WEAKNESSES
No one wants to see their imperfections. It’s an uncomfortable proposition to say to oneself, “I’m not as good at this as I thought I was.” But sometimes that’s exactly what we need to improve ourselves.
Mistakes hold a mirror up to our weaknesses and say, “Hey, you need work over here.” That doesn’t mean we should seek out mistakes, but when they appear we shouldn’t hide from them or try to pretend they didn’t happen.
Instead, we should stop, examine them, and ask ourselves truthfully why they happened. With our weaknesses exposed, we’re free to make improvements and grow our skills. This extends to all aspects of photography, from photoshoots to running social media accounts and post-processing.
If these mistakes never happened, we would continue with our imperfections in-tact, not growing or becoming stronger photographers.
OPEN YOUR EYES
We often get so caught up in our ideas and vision for what a photograph should be, we cease to see what it could be. If you’ve ever had a strobe misfire and realize you like the accident better than the intended photo, you know how it feels to have a mistake open your eyes.
These kinds of mistakes are often less catastrophic than others, but they shock us out of our preconceived notions and force us to see things we would have missed otherwise.
Our expertise in a skillset can interfere with our ability to be creative and think outside the box. We know what works and what a photo should look like. We’ve mastered the use of depth of field, shooting in manual mode, and how to process RAW images to get the most out of them. We know how to set up our lights to get a pleasing photo every time. This expertise can get in the way of new avenues for photographic creativity...until a mistake happens, anyway.
These mistakes keep our eyes open and remind us not to get too comfortable, but to keep our eyes open for novel approaches and creative solutions.
KEEP IT LIGHTHEARTED
As artists, we can fall into the trap of taking ourselves very seriously. Of course, photography can be a very serious job. But mistakes are waiting just around the corner to remind us that we’re human, that we need to have a clear-eyed view of ourselves and save a little grace for ourselves and the people around us.
The ability to laugh at ourselves is something necessitated by mistakes. A little mortification of the ego is good for us because it keeps our egos in check. Approaching life and photography with a humble sense of humor is a benefit any photographer can use.
The only way to avoid making mistakes is to never try anything.
Even so, mistakes aren’t fun to make. They can be embarrassing, cost us money, and force us to come face-to-face with our imperfections. But they expose our weaknesses so we can tackle them head-on, learn to be better managers, and create solutions so we don’t encounter the same problems in the future.
The truth is that we will never stop making mistakes, but we can learn from them so we make them less often, less costly, and don’t make the same mistakes twice. We can be grateful for the moments that keep us humble, keep us awake, and remind us that there’s always room to grow.