Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs


Essay #006

"Mistakes For New Possibilities"

by © Thomas D. Hill Jr. <2001>


On a popular nature photography message board, a good observation was made by someone concerning mistakes and how they lead to learning. Even though the person was an accomplished photographer, a recent experience opened up a whole new direction for him to follow in his photography.

He had inadvertently made a mistake while shooting an entire roll of film and produced images that were unique to his own, already well-developed style. Not all the images were keepers but some sparked very interesting insights into his photography. His follow-up observation was he that had previously spent extraordinary efforts avoiding mistakes! And that through careful analysis of every scene, he had maximized his results and minimized his mistakes. However, when this unfortunate—or was it fortunate?—incident produced some fairly positive results he started to question his previous zeal to eliminate mistakes and shoot in one particular way.

Readers who are familiar with my photography know that I don't restrict myself to shooting only during the 'magical hour'. I like using different compositions and doing different types of photography - even portrait, or wildlife photography using a wide-angle lens. I've even used—dare I say it!—a telephoto lens to shoot landscape images.

Most learning photographers limit themselves to a few specific tools for very specific situations. I believe this is directly related to our entire western learning process. Though the process works great initially, I think there are serious limitations to this 'standard' learning technique if it's continued past the initial learning stages. I'll talk more on this in a bit.

Suffice it to say, our hero who made the fruitful mistake had his eyes opened to new possibilities where none previous existed. Something unexpected happened and it never would have been discovered without making the mistake in the first place.

Let's talk about how we learn. In our society, we teach kids most things by showing them specific techniques and then grading their abilities (i.e., rewarding them) to duplicate what they have been shown. I almost hate to say this but it's a "monkey see, monkey do" approach to learning in my opinion. I have to ask: When does rote duplication end and independent thought begin? We'll ddress this a bit further on as it applies to photography.

At a most basic level in our society there is a need to understand specific parameters to be able to communicate. I acknowledge this and my discussion isn't meant to attack all of our learning techniques; my discussion is really about opening our eyes when we think we have everything handled. This becomes steadily more important as the subject matter becomes more complex and creative, like with nature photography.

My experience is that even during advanced stages of learning, teachers still attempt to guide learners to match the approaches and techniques of themselves or of their most famous predecessors.

"Match this style and you will be rewarded"

This technique of "match this style and you will be rewarded" hardly supports creativity and it clearly re-enforces students to follow specific paths that were pre-ordained by untold millions of previous followers - which leads to students that don't think out of the "box", who are regulated to mainstream thinking, and who routinely march to the same tune of mediocrity that is heard 'round the world.

These kinds of learning techniques just aren't working for anyone beyond basic photography abilities. This idea may be unconventional and perhaps even controversial but busting open traditional thinking is a required step, in my opinion, to truly being creative.

There are tons of examples in history where conventional thinking flowed against what we now take for granted, so maybe there is hope.

Let me use some non-photography examples to describe how conventional thinking became so entrenched in society that it turned into a kind of psychosis that prevented any contrary thought.If you remember, the world was considered flat until a few hundred years ago. No amount of thinking could describe it any other way.In fact, sailors were fearful if ever they sailed beyond sight of land. That theory, of course, went "bust" once Columbus landed in the New World.

At one time, too, the western ideal was that the Earth was the center of the universe. The Catholic Church directly forbade any thought contrary to that, if you will recall. Indeed, Galileo was forced to recant his discoveries and theories of orbital mechanics at the risk at suffering at the hands of the Inquisition. We now know that the Earth is not flat, and that is a medium sized spherical plant in an average sized solar system, in a normal sized galaxy, somewhere in the universe. Not exactly what the Catholic Church was saying several hundred years ago, hmmm?

A more recent example, and perhaps a less commonly known assumption, concerns our basic modeling of the physical world. It is commonly assumed that Newton's laws absolutely describe the mechanics of everyday life. The first Newton Law of physics states that "For a given reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction." His second law states: "A body at rest, tends to stay at rest". In order to quantify these laws, a series of equations were presented that still today are used by all basic physic students to describe life's motion occurring around them.

These basic laws introduced in High Schools are assumed to be the ultimate truth and the basis upon which higher forms of physics are developed, and as such they are followed blindly. It is an extremely orderly arrangement and it works for most of life's applications but what if I were to say that Newton's formulas are nothing but really good approximations? In actual fact, Newtonian physics begins to lose its relevance when applied to extremely massive bodies or to extremely tiny particles like sub-atomic particles.

The point for us is that all extremely entrenched assumptions, even assumptions as important as Newton's, don't necessarily mean that they are the ultimate truth.

How does this apply to photography? A new photography student has literally millions of samples to guide them in formulating a photography style. The traditional approach, indeed, is to review thousands of images to gain insight into proper techniques and procedures of photography. At the beginning or entry level, this learning technique results in fairly efficient learning and a gaining of photography's basic skills; however, originality isn't one them.

Still, it is entrenched in our educational system that efforts to match or copy the masters will quickly lead to mastery itself but that really couldn't be further from the truth.To go exactly where the masters have been is not the method of choice if creativity is the goal. Or, to say it another way, to place one's tripod in the same well-worn holes as Ansel Adams or others did will only make poor copies at best, or unflattering knockoff's at worse.

I say all this with the knowledge that even if I could convince all of you to stop producing images just like the masters, there will still be plenty of people out there doing exactly that. Don't worry, we wouldn't be taking a less traveled road if everyone were doing it. My only hope is that it will at least open up some possibilities for images that normally would have made the "round" file. Some of those mistakes may actually be the gems of your collections.

I say embrace those unexpected gifts! At least think about this when given the opportunity to critique images - don't automatically dismiss those that may be off the beaten path. They may have something else to offer that with a little bit of consideration may actually reveal a unique quality that is missing from most photography today.
Here is a news group for discussing the Outback Photo Essays.


For Comments post in our News Group

© 2000-2007 Digital Outback Photo