What to Do When You Take Photos that Suck

Teton Storm by Jay Goodrich

You may find this hard to believe, but there are times when every photographer struggles with what to do when their photos suck. I struggle with it, Art Wolfe struggles with it, and you can even bet early photographers like Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson struggled with it. The difference here is that pros typically take so many photos that the bad ones just get tossed into the trash can. These days, that’s a virtual one found on our desktops. We don’t dwell on it, because frankly, we don’t have time.

Bad photos come when your mind is distracted, the weather isn’t cooperating, the subject matter isn’t as strong as you would like, when you try forcing things a bit, or you are on a mission to take a photo and there isn’t one present where you are. I always remember one of my first Tai Chi lessons…my instructor told me that our focus was always going to be about balance. Balance of life. Balance of energy. And balance within our surroundings. If you can find that balance, then when you need to, you can disrupt it. So how does this statement convert over to photography?

For me it is about knowledge. It is about learning to achieve something. Learning to focus on photography, or any discipline, to such a degree that you can limit or negate external distractions. When that knowledge is so ingrained, it becomes automatic; you can stand outside of it and learn how to disrupt it, to ‘toy’ with it, manipulate it. One cannot become an amazing photographer without practice, knowledge, patience, and the ability to translate your surroundings into something that your viewer can relate to or understand right from the beginning. For me it has become about the concept of producing the story. The story in a single frame, and then expanding to a series of frames. I want to show you something that you have not seen or show you something that you have seen in a different way than you are used to seeing it.

Where do we go from here? What can we do to relieve ourselves from our photos that suck?

Shoot Something Different

“It all became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I've ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be…If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.” - Dialog between George & Jerry in Seinfeld

How simple is that. If you keep producing photos of bland sunsets, maybe you should try shooting a portrait or two. Or if your heart is just completely into sunsets, maybe you should try shooting at different vantage points for those sunsets. Or maybe go to a new location to shoot sunsets. Change it up, do something crazy, try something new.

One thing you should NEVER do, is shoot anything for money. Don’t try to become a nature or adventure photographer and shoot weddings to pay your bills. Shoot weddings because you love it. Shoot weddings because you get to experience and highlight a very special day for two people. Don’t shoot weddings because you need the money; the second you fall into the money trap you are done. Your photos WILL suck. Shoot what you love with passion and it will all work out in the end.

Now, on the other hand, if you decide that trying to shoot a wedding because you are struggling elsewhere may help you, then by all means go full throttle in that direction.

iPhone - Simplify

Simplify your life. Put that twenty thousand dollar boat anchor of a camera down for a little bit and go exploring with only your iPhone. Or your basic PHD point-and-shoot-fits-in-your-pocket camera. In any case, use that simple little device (iPhone preferred) to focus on one thing, your subject. Look at what is on that screen and then move in closer. Closer than you have ever felt comfortable with and see if that changes things. I will almost guarantee that using your iPhone will be a liberating experience. Yes, still look for amazing light. Yes, still go out at the golden hours, but use this simple camera to produce a new and different perspective on your surroundings. Really look at what the world has to show for itself and then snap a photo of it in its simplest forms. Also, remember that the iPhone lens translates into a 35mm focal length in 35mm DSLR world. Understanding that single fact will overcome half the battle. Every photo you take will need to focus on moderate wide-angle. And yes there is a digital zoom there, but I really try not to use it. At the default zoom, the images have more information and look better from a technology standpoint.

Buy a Book

I am not talking about some how-to eBook that almost every photographer has in their sales kit these days (including me - go here for my selection). I want you to go out to an actual book store. Go to their photography section, spend about an hour looking, and buy something that actually INSPIRES YOU! It should be some coffee-table-styled, ten-pound, $100 purchase. Then take it home and study it. Look at the nuances of light the photographer recognized and chose to highlight in this book. Where did he or she go to produce the monograph? What is the subject matter? Why do you like it? If it is getting your juices flowing, it is in fact working.

Take this emotion, hold on to it, grab your camera and go. Outside. Downtown. Uptown. The local park. And shoot a subject that comes close to the look of that book. Then begin to tweak that look into your own.

Take a Class

Take a class from one of your favorite photographers. And make sure you engage with that person. Stand by their side while you shoot. Ask them questions. Specific questions on how they look at creativity and how they continually shoot images that inspire. Don’t be star struck. Don’t let yourself be tongue tied. Use that person as a professional knowledge base. I know it’s not cheap, but you’ve paid good money for that class and you should get as much out of it as you possibly can. If you choose someone who is truly focused on their clients, you will walk out of that class with more fuel in the tank than you have ever had before.

I know this because it happens to me on a regular basis. And in turn, it is those clients who do this very same thing to me in my workshops that produce the best images in the critiques and who are the ones who continue to inspire me to move forward. The teaching/learning experience then becomes a win-win.

Focus on a Project

Think about a concept. An idea. Something you have never tackled before. Something that would make you think not about only creating an image, but creating a series of images that all correspond to a similar story.

Last year I came up with a project in a New Year’s ‘celebration’. As I swallowed my twelfth beer, I thought “My New Year’s resolution is to shoot at least one compelling photograph every day for the month of January!” The crazy part about this whole idea is that I actually pulled it off. 31 Days is a little Jay Goodrich introspective that covered the month of January 2014 in Jackson, Wyoming. The beauty of the project is that I didn’t just focus on skiing or nature, I focused on the concept of the compelling photograph. It is the focus of this project that truly lead to some photos that I would have never taken otherwise.

Put it to Rest

Yep. Give it all up. I am not saying for ever. Nor am I saying to sell any of that precious camera gear you own. Take a break. Walk away. Free your mind from it for a while. Tune your bike. Build a rocking chair. Read a novel. Hell, write one. Sometimes the very act of creation is stifled by over thinking and obsession.

When you do give it up for a bit all that knowledge you once had will come storming back with one exception…You will forget all of your bad habits. You will look at your surroundings differently. And hopefully you will begin to create with the eyes of your six-year-old child.

Stand in Front of More Interesting Stuff

I am going to leave you with some thoughts from National Geographic Photographers whose photos definitely do not suck.

“The moment you think you’ve got it, you’re dead I think.” - Michael “Nick” Nichols.

“To take great photographs you need time.” - Stephanie Sinclair

“Find things you genuinely care about.” - Ed Kashi

And finally, my personal favorite… “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” - Jim Richardson

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10 Comments

    I am 58 & have been taking photographs since I was around 14 years old & did my own B&W darkroom work until my early 20’s. Throughout my life, people who have seen my photographs have commented that I should be a professional photographer, but have never had a single photo published or won or placed in a single photo contest of the hundreds I have entered in my lifetime. Oh well…

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelkim724/

    Last fall I did the book “Photography and the Art of Seeing, a Visual Perception Workshop” by Freeman Patterson. ‘Not a coffee table book (which I also love), but a program you can do at home. $8 at half.com.

    Jay:

    I loved your article on ‘What to do When You Take Pjotos That Suck.

    I am editor of our camera club newsletter. The camera club has 60 members. The newsletter only goes to our club members. I would like to include this article in our next newsletter but will only do it if I get written permission from you.

    Would you consent to my including your article? I’ll be happy to send you a copy of the newletter when the next one is published in April.

    Please send me wpermission to include in newsletter.

    Jeffrey Berman

    Arlington Camera Club – Arlington Heights, IL

    bermfour@aol.com

    847.403.3100

    Jay – I just read your article on what to do when you take photos that suck, and it really struck home. I recently retired and started making images full time. I often get discouraged with my results, but I know I have lots to learn so I don’t dwell too long on the bad. Your article is very encouraging, and provides many coping mechanisms, especially for those of us who are taking our ‘hobby’ to a new level.

    Thank you – Photorogr

    I appreciate the comment about reading a real book. I love to go to used book stores and browse their photography section. At one store I discovered a treasure titled, “A Presence Behind the Lens” by Nicholas C. Hlobeczy. He studied with Minor White and taught photography at the university level. If you keep checking the mine, you will discover gold from time to time. I’m 73 years old, been taking photographs for over 50 years and still look forward every day to learning something new.

    Years ago after a workshop, I bought a couple of big coffee-table books by Galen Rowell (both autographed), another photographer who definitely did not suck. I need to get them off the bookshelf and look at them again. Along with the ones by Tom Till, DeWitt Jones, David Muench, Ray Atkeson, George Lepp, Eliot Porter, and others. Gotta get back out there with my iPhone and P&S and look around. f8 and be there.

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