We all know, and most would agree on this, that learning from our mistakes is an invaluable way of improving our photography skills. Many – and I agree – say that failures and mistakes are a necessity for us to reach some sort of level of perfection. These days – everyone that shoots digital – has access to all the information you need in the EXIF data, or more correctly, most information. For example, if you load your RAW’s into Lightroom, there’s no way to tell exactly were you focused before taking your shot. This you will have to try and remember, the best way to do that is to have some sort of methodology when you do a shoot. Say you shoot landscape, you could decide that during the whole shoot you will focus at the hyperfocal distance. There are numerous apps for both Android and iPhone that you can download for free. If you don’t have a smartphone, download and print a chart that you take with you.
Now to let’s get to the point of this article. What category of your photos is most important to study in order to optimize your learning curve? The ABNQS’s, Almost But Not Quite Shots. Which are these, what constitutes them ? They are real easy to classify, they are the ones that, you at first love, but fairly quickly do not because there’s something that isn’t quite right. Almost perfect but not quite, you nearly nailed it but it has a flaw that you just can’t ignore or fix in post production. You will have to surrender, archive them and move on. But before you do, study them hard and really try to pinpoint why the don’t work. Since they are almost perfect, if you pinpoint what’s wrong, in that process, you also unconsciously register what is right, what made you like them in the first place. This is why they are the best photos to study, you see both positive and negative aspects in one process.
The process of pinpointing the issue with a photo can sometimes be very hard and take a lot of effort. The EXIF data and your recollection of the actual shoot is your best friend, if you did shoot with a strategy, it will of course be easier to remember how any given photo was made as opposed to if you go out and just shoot totally without a plan.
Even though the EXIF data is invaluable, it will not always be the key. Sometimes you simply will have to analyze your photo, looking for – sometimes – subtle things that make it fail. Let me give you a couple of examples. At one point I did a lot of shooting out walking in the woods on trails or dirt roads, using them as a way to create a focal point and leading line. The ones that didn’t work had one thing in common, a very distinct dark – almost black – branch right at a top corner of the frame or close by. This simply didn’t work at all, it looked liked someone had taken a marker and drawn thick a line for some mysterious reason… The composition was totally of balance, the eye drawn to the corner constantly. Imagine the photo above with a black branch creeping in at the top left corner of the frame, it wouldn’t work would it ? After pinpointing this issue, I started to pay very close attention to the corners and edges of my frames out shooting. A slight adjustment of the composition in most cases, solved the problem. On some occasions I did however have to adjust my position by several meters.
Putting the finger on why the shot below is a ABNQS was very hard.
My conclusion is that it is too flat and lacks depth, the reason for this is the very dull even light from an overcast sky, not a hint of highlights and shadows. What can be done about that ? Not much, almost nothing in fact. The only thing I can think of is that I should have stayed around for a while in the hope that the light would improve. The conclusion of the analyze of this photo, shooting impressionist photos like this doesn’t work in this kind of light. If you don’t ‘feel it’ when you look in your viewfinder, trust that feeling, let it be and move on.
Before I go – I almost forgot – about the EXIF, an example when looking at the EXIF data is a good idea. Perhaps the most obvious and first thing that comes to mind is camera shake. The camera shake doesn’t have to be extremely bad in order for you to end up with a ABNQS. If you find yourself with photos that has a slight blur, check your shutter speed. Chances are that you will see a pattern and learn that most photos with a longer shutter speed then -for example- 125th/sec is too slow for you to hand hold. Knowing and acting upon this fact, you can eliminate your ABNQS caused by camera shake. One more thing. Whenever I get a new lens, I make sure that I have a really high shutter speed when I start testing it, all in order to make sure that I eliminate camera shake as a factor, if the photos don’t come out sharp, it’s not because of camera shake. After the initial testing at – say – 500th/sec I work my way down to slower shutter speeds until I find the point were I can’t hand hold anymore. It is always good to know your limitations.
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