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10 Reasons to take a bad Photograph

Perhaps the most common piece of conventional wisdom quoted by photo instructors is that 'a professional photographer knows when not to take a picture'. This truism, usually attributed to John Shaw is brilliant in its simplicity. I've heard dozens of different replies, both witty and not, from the erring photo student about to capture some dreadful image of a bird against a dead white sky or a sunset with far too much contrast for their camera. But the reply I have been waiting to hear is, "But how did they learn?"

The truth is, as much as many pros are well read and often well schooled, most of us learned by taking a lot of pictures, both good and bad. In every walk of life instructors and coaches have learned that doing is the best way to learn. And frankly, if you only take photographs you're already sure of, you're not learning anything new. So I've devoted this issue to learning by doing.

10 reasons to take a bad photograph

10. Wishful thinking. Probably the worst reason to take a bad photograph is because you're hoping against hope that a miracle will occur in your camera and the image will come out looking great even though you know it has real problems. Trust me, when they invent a camera which can do that, we'll let you know about it first thing!

9. I'll fix it later. With the advent of ultra-high-resolution digital images and flexible Raw files, it is very tempting to capture images that aren't right, knowing you can fix them later in the computer. There is a time and a place for that, but as you do it, make sure and ask yourself whether you're doing it because its necessary or just because you don't want to put the work in to figuring out how to get the shot right in the camera.

8. To break the jinx. For wildlife photographers each new species is a form of discovery. But, like many other superstitious groups, the first image of a new species is considered particularly elusive--especially if you've tried to capture it on film and failed before. So fire off that first frame to break the stress and the 'jinx', and then settle down to get the image of a lifetime.

7. For Mom. We've all been asked to capture some impossible scene or a group of relatives or friends in an impossible light. You are faced with the unenviable alternatives of refusing, making everyone suffer while you fix the light or the background, or just smiling nicely and saying "Sure!". Sometimes it is easier to just take the image and move on. You don't have to put it on your wall.

6. Planning. Often I see a shot I want to get but the weather or lighting is wrong or there is some extraneous element--often a car or truck--that I don't want in the image. I used to make a mental note to myself to come back and shoot the image later, but I started forgetting them. I found it was more effective to take the photograph and then mark it in DigitalPro with a special priority and IPTC keyword so that I'd remember why I took it. Then the next time I'm in that location I can look for my "planning" images and try to capture them the way I'd like them.

5. Practice. When you're out waiting for subjects to show up, rather than fret or get bored, its often a good time to practice your technique. With digital this works especially well as we can see the results and not waste money on film. What should you practice? How about panning that big 600f/4 to get flight shots of the passing Gulls, so that when the Pelicans come by you'll be ready. Or for some real fun, use your hand held lens to see if you can get those acrobatic Swallows in motion. It'll improve your flight photography and you might just surprise yourself with what you are able to capture with enough practice.

4. Because it is worth it. One day Moose and I were at the Baylands photographing the endangered and fairly elusive California Clapper Rail. They are often heard, but I had never been able to photograph one calling out before. Suddenly one raised its head and started making its distinctive call right in plain site of our cameras. The background was horrid. The vertical bill of the Rail was nearly lost in the vertical grass behind it. For an instant I froze thinking I shouldn't take an image with such a poor background. Then I got that "What am I thinking?!" feeling as I remembered that with any background it would still be a unique shot of a rare bird and fired away. So don't be so afraid of shooting that you deprive yourself of shots you may not be able to get again.

3. To teach. The next best thing to taking your own photographs is to see the results when others take them. If you teach photography--professionally or casually--be on the look out for images that illustrate a point. Best yet, if you can take an image the "wrong" way and the "right" way you have an excellent teaching tool. Just don't make the mistake I often do and delete the "bad" image later after forgetting why you've taken it in the first place! Moose solves that problem by tagging his Red in DigitalPro so he remembers why he has them.

2. Because you want to. It's your camera, and your time. Besides, if you're like me, if you're wondering about a shot and don't take it it will bug you for the rest of the day. As Vincent Versace is fond of saying, "If you want to take the picture, take the picture." No, the idea is not to fill your card with mediocre images, but sometimes there is a reason we want to capture an image that we can't figure out. Take it, move on, and then when you look at it on the light table--digital or otherwise--see if you can figure out what appealed to you about it.

1. To learn. This is the very best reason to take a bad picture. Unlike many sports or professions where a mistake can be fatal, photographers are blessed with the ability to quickly evaluate their mistakes. Learn for yourself why birds don't look good against a dead white sky, or how many stops of light are in a sunset, or why VR can't freeze a bear's jaws when its chewing.






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