Mistakes Are Good
There are two challenges facing anyone who sets a goal to improve their photography. One is to master the technical aspects of their camera, and the other is to release the creative potential of their mind. In both cases, the key to growing your ability is to make lots of mistakes.
There's an inherent trap when pursuing a creative endeavour, that we tend to focus on what we did right instead of what we did wrong. It's a natrual tendency. Who wants to frame and hang a photo on their walls that doesn't look quite right, or update their website with all the images they didn't like or set their desktop wallpaper to rotate through photos that really deserve to be deleted?
We create feedback for ourselves based on what we already know is good, and reinforce the style or technique that got those results. Even when we shoot great images there is a slippery slope here, as success can be myopic when it blocks your vision of new horizons. When we make strides forward in our creative abilities it comes from examination of what didn't work rather than what did work. We only get better when we embrace our mistakes.
My inspiration for this bit of philosophy was given to me by Jonah Lehrer, who has published books about the inner workings of the mind and how to explain some of the less 'rational' aspects of modern behavioural economics. His vision of how we sub-consciously adept our minds and build expert skills is fascinating, intricate and instructive. One of the most valuable lessons he shares is the value of examining your mistakes as often and as deeply as possible.
Take A Closer Look
Examination can take many forms of course. When I travel I make a point of reviewing my shots every night and taking stock of the collection. I'm looking for what's missing in the images, and asking myself what I need to work hard on tomorrow. Sometimes it's just a matter of snapping more texture, getting some variety into the portraits or putting away a particular lens that just doesn't fit the location. And sometimes, if I look really hard, it's a matter of accepting that I'm systematically doing it wrong and need to rethink my approach.
That’s a hard place to arrive at, and you may need help to get there. I had a good friend who repeatedly told me that I was cropping too hard on my frames, that I needed to pull back further and bring more elements into the shot. It took them a while, but eventually the message got through.
As you cultivate your skills it actually gets easier to spot your mistakes, and you start improving your photography at an even faster rate. Whether your friends are pointing out flaws or not. The more you can bring your mistakes back to your consciousness the more opportunity you have to spot something valuable
Looking for where you got it wrong after you shoot is one aspect of embracing your mistakes. The other is to be tolerant of your imperfections while you've got the camera in your hand, and hence avoid 'over-thinking' your photography.
While you're learning new techniques or struggling to adapt your reactions to different situations you may need to focus with all your attention on the task. With time your knowledge of that skill shifts from a laboured effort of the conscious mind and becomes second nature. All this means is that you've practised the technique enough to rely on your sub-conscious mind to execute with skill. As it happens all that learning committed to experience layer is actually faster and more effective too.
Not only does the 'conscious' mind have severe limitations on the depth to which it can analyse a task, but it also can actively impede the really valuable inspiration that comes from your sub-conscious mind. So not only do you restrict your opportunity to learn something new by 'over-thinking' the shot, but you put the brakes on letting your depth of experience from emerging to the surface where it can help.
This is where the "low-fi" technique is so good. It's a conscious method that lets you release some of those 'rational' shackles for a while and allow the creative self to emerge in full strength. Low-Fi shooting is my technique of intentionally down-gearing the camera so you're shooting without colour, without depth of field and without 'proper' exposure. As you physically gear down the camera in this way you are also gearing down your mind, throwing away the expectation of striving for perfection. In this new conscious space the goals of exact exposure and composition are discarded and you can shoot without the heavy expectations of purpose.
The idea is simple, remove the conscious narrative of your technical photography and start shooting only with the expectation that you probably wont keep the shots. The adjunct to this experience is to look back on those shots and see what unexpected results come of it. Most frames might be worthless, but within the series of Low-Fi images will be some ideas that bubbled to the surface while you weren't looking, and they are YOUR ideas.
By giving yourself the chance to make a heap of mistakes in Low-Fi, you discover they aren't always mistakes at all. The origins of such ideas may have been a magazine you read, an exhibition you attended or something totally irrelevant. In the moment of care-free shooting a bunch of neurons recall one part of your past and build a bridge to the present moment. This is the flip side of the sub-conscious mind, it's ability to throw up abstract ideas and creative genius.
Cervantes wrote of proverbs, and his words also hold true for photographs. They are short sentences drawn from long experiences. There is nothing truly new in this world, only new ways of looking at the world. That's really what creativity is all about. That's when photography becomes an art form.
By focusing on our mistakes we can learn new skills more quickly, and by not focusing on the technical matters we can make connections deep within the sub-conscious where all our experiences still live and breath. This is the essence of creativity, learning to be free of the rational and conscious thought processes and making room for what lies a little deeper. And it all begins by embracing the joy of mistakes.
According to Niels Bohr, an expert is someone who has made more mistakes in their field than anybody else. There's nothing here you don't already know on some level, it's just that few people actually take full advantage of our natural ability to learn from our mistakes.