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The Most Valuable Learning Technique That Most Photographers Ignore

For years now, I have been telling photographers “Don’t be afraid to suck”. Unfortunately most new and young photographers are afraid to suck, and they avoid the absolute best learning habit that exists — failure. Science has proven in numerous ways that embracing failure is a great way to fast track your learning process. I can tell you that it worked for me as a teenager and I have reconnected with that concept in the last few years as a photo educator and it has allowed me to create things that I never would have considered before.

Alas, most photographers it seems are not willing to accept the science, and while they won’t embrace failure, the fact is they still fail by producing images that they are not happy with or proud of.
So I want to suggest an alternative technique that does not require embracing failure. This option has existed for as long as photography has existed and unfortunately, still very few photographers make this technique a habit. I honestly consider this to be the most valuable technique that you can employ to improve your photography. However, just like anything else, it does require effort.

A normal workflow for most photographers, myself included, is to shoot images and then return home and download them to the computer. Then we eagerly cull through the shoot to find the best image or images. Then we process them and either deliver them and post them to social media. When we are done with this, we file the images away, sometimes never to be viewed again. That is a missed opportunity to improve your photography.

Photographers tend to do the shoot, find a few images they like, celebrate, and then file the images away and move on. They rarely take the time to consider the failures. To ask why they don’t like that image? They don’t consider how they could have improved it?

These are images of something that you experienced with a camera in your hands. These are images that didn’t succeed. You decided they didn’t succeed. This is not a response to a client not liking your work or to some jerk on social media. This is a response to you — the creator of the image who is not happy with the result.

Science tells us that this post shoot review will have a very similar learning effect as the actual experience.

Learning only has good effects when learners have the desire to absorb the knowledge. Indeed, in the middle of a shoot when you are paying attention to your gear and your subject and exposure and lighting and composition and posing — it is difficult to find the bandwidth to actually learn from that experience in real-time. But by making time, shortly after the shoot to review the images that weren’t selected and consider how they can be improved and what it would take to do that, you will make stronger memories and build better neural connections that will essentially rescue you the next time you come across that situation.

I like to refer to building these neural connections as building your visual database. We all have this experiential database that we have built through our lives. This is the massive database that reminds us of the consequences of touching a hot stove top or staying up too late the night before an important meeting or job. For photographers a visual database is what allows us to identify harsh light in a scene and alert us to the need to soften the light. The visual database makes sure that we don’t miss the twisted bikini strap or worse yet the hair band on the wrist of a model. The visual database helps us identify details both big and small that can have a negative impact on the outcome of our photographs.

These connections will pop into your mind faster the next time you have a camera in your hands — almost as if they had been an actual experience. You cannot get the same kind of recall from a YouTube video or book or conversation.

Science has taught us that as adults if we want to learn, we must be willing to be actively involved in the experience; and we must take the time to reflect on the experience. It is the reflection part that solidifies the learning and builds your visual database.

So my simple advice is to spend more time with your failed shots. Ask yourself some simple questions, like why don’t you like the shot? What could you have done to improve it? How would you go about accomplishing that? Reflecting on your shoot and your decisions while they are still fresh in your mind will build your visual database quicker and lead you to make better decisions in real time that will ultimately improve your photography faster.

This story was the TOG Topic of Episode #220 of TOGCHAT Live on October 7th, 2020.

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Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Olympus Visionary Photographer, Photo Educator and Model Mentor. Click Here to learn more about him and view his portfolio.
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