And I’m glad I took it. They say the only sure things in life are death and taxes. Personally I’d add one more: You are going to screw stuff up. That’s life, that’s being human, and that’s ok. Now when it comes to photography screwing up can be one of the most important things you do. If you do it in the right way and for the right reasons and take the right things away from it. First a little back story.
Last week was not a very successful one for me, photographically. I found myself faced with assignment after assignment that was either rushed, mundane, had horrific lighting or all three. I’m a staffer at a daily newspaper so shooting mundane assignments where the lighting is bad and you have very limited time to get a good frame is pretty much par for the course, it’s why I get paid my extravagant salary. I’m not writing this to bitch and complain about it, quite the opposite, I LIKE it. One of the things I love about photography, and photojournalism in particular, is that it is a constant challenge to find that special moment in an otherwise mundane event, to overcome lighting and logistical challenges and to do so on deadline. That is part of the fun.
Wednesday the district softball playoffs began in our area and I was assigned to shoot several games of the Class 4 District 1 softball tournament in Jackson over the course of the week. While I had covered several games at this field, this time it was going to be different. The first two games I was assigned were going to be played after dark. I had only been there in daylight so I was a bit flummoxed when I arrived to see what the light was like. I was getting exposures ranging from 1/60 to 1/200 2.8 at 6400 iso depending on where on the field I was trying to shoot.
In fact that is well below what I’d need to consistently get a sharp frame from someone standing still using my 300 2.8 lens, much less someone running the bases or diving to make a catch. Motion blur was going to be a big problem, I knew that getting a sharp game action photo was going to be extremely difficult. Making things even more fun the low light would be extremely taxing on the auto-focus system on my D700 and then there are the grain issues of shooting at a high iso, the white balance issues of the lights, etc. etc. etc. I had a whole boat load of things working against me making some good frames.
Now none of these are going to be finding their way into my portfolio or a clip contest but they got the job done, I got a gallery of usable frames, the sports desk got all the photos they needed and everybody was happy.
Mission accomplished, right?
I’m not looking to make adequate photos or good photos, I want to make GREAT photos. You know how you make great photos? You make a bunch of really shitty ones.
Now here is where we get to why I think it is not just important to fail, it’s essential. I’m not talking about “I messed up the white balance” or “I blew the focus” types of shitty photos, though I make plenty of those to. I’m talking about finding new and interesting ways to mess things up. Trying off the wall compositions, shooting with the “wrong” lens, position, camera settings, etc. You know being CREATIVE.
I try to some execute some form of lame-brained, 99% chance of failure photo idea every chance I get. I’m not kidding about the 99% failure rate either, they almost always don’t work. So why do I keep doing it? Because sometimes they do work.
I’ve been playing with this shot for over six months. I tried it at almost every baseball and softball game where I could get the angle. I have two frames that I like from that. Two photos from six months of attempts, failures and adjustments. As much as I hate failing I accept the part it plays in the PROCESS of creating great photographs. I might not get it right the first or second or hundredth time but I almost always LEARN something from each and every one of those attempts.
It would be easy to stay in my comfort zone, make the photos that everyone expects, the photos I KNOW I can make. Easy doesn’t equal satisfying. Good enough isn’t good enough for me. I firmly believe that if I’m not failing I’m not pushing hard enough, I’m not getting out of my comfort zone and I’m not learning.
That was the mind set I had when I went out to night two of district softball, this time lugging a tripod with me. If I couldn’t reliably stop the action I decided to try and make the low shutter speeds work for me. They didn’t.
It quickly became apparent that I didn’t have the conditions needed to execute the photographic vision I had. That’s ok. I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t tried. Now motion blur of a pitcher isn’t exactly a new idea and that wasn’t exactly where I was trying to go that night, but what it comes down to is I had an idea, I tried to execute it, it didn’t work. I might come back to this someday or I might not. I learned a few things that I might be able apply to to some other stuff down the road but what is most important is that I know I was pushing to go beyond adequate.
I failed and that’s never fun but it’s just part of the process. It’s going to happen. Over and over again. What I keep in mind is that just because this photo is a failure doesn’t mean that the experience was. The experience of trying to make those photos may spark another idea, improve my technique, increase my understanding of light, who knows. This idea didn’t work this time. It might work next time. Or the next idea might work, or the one after that. The important thing is that I tried and that I’m going to keep trying. Every time I fail I’m reminded of that.
Oh and in case you’re wondering what I did do that night here are a few from the game. Like the Rolling Stones said, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might just find, you get what you need.” I didn’t get what I wanted that night, but I covered my assignment and got what I needed.