A Short Treatise on the Art of Failure


STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, CO—Late November, 2015. It’s one of my first days working as a photographer, and I’ve had little luck corralling anyone into my photo zone all day. When I do, I’m expected to be a consummate professional, fully in control of my subjects, the lighting, and the timing of the experience. Photography is unlike many other things in life—you are expected to produce a tangible piece of work that everyone will critique. The Emperor will have No Clothes; there’s no hiding behind the lens.


Chatting up a young couple from Denver, I convince them to pose for a few quick photos. He's taking her snowboarding for the first time; she’s never been on a mountain before and he wants to capture the momentous occasion. The light has been tricky all day—cloudy, with flat, even light permeating the slopes. Not something I’m used to when taking pictures. I constantly review the playback on my camera, checking to ensure that everything’s coming out OK, but I really don’t know what I’m looking for. The LCD brightness is bumped all the way up on my playback screen, skewing my perception of what’s overexposed and what isn’t.


I shoot a few simple poses of them—in front of the valley, holding each other, posing with snowboards—and call it a day. They ride off, and I review my photos in detail. I know something’s wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it. I really don’t know enough about cameras and photography to see that I’ve made a fatal error.


Reviewing my photos in the shop with my boss, he asks if I have my exposure compensation bumped up. I respond with a blank stare. Exposure means how bright the photo is, right? So the only way I can bump up my exposure is to change one of my three main settings—ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed—to alter the exposure, right? Wrong. Decidedly wrong. There’s a small button on the top of the camera which controls exposure compensation—an in-camera adjustment that allows you to increase the exposure of the photograph regardless of the aforementioned settings. I had mine set to +0.7, pretty much the highest you’d want to go in most conditions, let alone what I was shooting in—in this particular case, you wouldn't want to use it at all.


In short, my photos were hopelessly “blown out”—i.e., there was too much light captured for each of them, and the detail is obscured by the brightness. A shitty job. 


The couple came into the shop shortly afterwards, and were obviously uncomfortable when viewing their photos. They clearly wanted them—after all, it was her first time on a snowboard—but they sure didn’t feel like they were getting their money’s worth. It was a cringeworthy experience, and I couldn’t bring myself to assist them in sorting through their catalogue. They ended up spending $60 on one of the “better” shots.


I wanted to crawl under the rug and hide. It was a terrible feeling to have one job, and botch it so badly. As I said, there’s no hiding behind the lens. If you make an error like this, someone is going to see it, and they’re going to be disappointed in you and the job you did. It’s really a terrible feeling, and the best motivation to never do it again.


For the rest of the season, I checked my exposure compensation settings every morning, and diligently learned the ins and outs of my camera, fancying myself a solider oiling his gun. I wanted to know what every single button did, and how it affected my photographs. Today it was exposure compensation, but tomorrow it could be the aperture. I needed to be in complete control of my camera, and with it, my environment.


That day in late November, I failed. I failed in a pretty embarrassing fashion. Yet at that point, there was nothing I could do except to learn from my failure, and ensure that I never made the same mistake again; learning how that mistake was made and ensuring that I took the steps necessary avoid being caught flat-footed with a camera again. Failing at things sucks, especially when your shortcomings are so visible to others. Yet oftentimes the only thing you can do is buck up, recognize that you’ve made a mistake, learn from it, and try not to do it again. In life, it's a certainty that you will fail at things. What really matters is how you will take those experiences and learn from them, bettering yourself however you can.