How Failure Leads to Success in Landscape Photography

January 4th, 2012 by Robert Rodriguez Jr.

Inspired once again by Seth Godin and a recent blog post titled “the difference between a failure and a mistake,” I wondered how I might apply it to nature photography and the issues we all struggle with in our attempt to make successful images. Of course this applies to life in general, as Seth so clearly explains, but I think it provides many paths of exploration for those of us trying to be more creative with our photography.

Casscade Mtn, Adirondacks

Cascade Mtn fails on several levels, but mostly for me it lacks a clear path for the viewers eye to travel, which translates to a weak story.  A lack of textural contrast makes the image rather busy, and the light in the background competes with the details in the foreground. I was experimenting with trying to omit the sky and horizon in order to create a lack of perspective, but it didn’t quite work out as envisioned.

As a workshop instructor, I work hard on trying to help students get beyond whatever is limiting their potential. Unfortunately the majority of reasons are due to mistakes and less often to failures. My goal is to reverse this and promote failure as a way to learning. Certainly I don’t want students strictly to fail as that would be rather frustrating and demoralizing in the long run. Who wants to come away from a workshop having only failed at their attempts?

What I mean is that by promoting failure as part of the process of succeeding, I can inspire students to take chances, try new things, and hopefully help them become more creative, successful photographers. It is so easy these days to stick to the tried and true, and get the predictable approval of those who view our images. But approval is not necessarily what we want as photographers if you want to stand out from the millions in the crowd. I much prefer making images that elicit a response or reaction, positive or negative, that keeps a viewer thinking about an image.

Partition Arch, Utah

Partition Arch was an attempt to bring together several elements in a harmonious composition, but doesn’t quite succeed. I was attracted to all of the various lines and how I would get them all to work together. Trying to balance the small trees in the foreground with the rest of the scene proved difficult once I started to work with my camera, and that is a good sign that what I’m feeling isn’t going to translate well to a photograph. I also couldn’t quite get the sky under control, and I feel it dominates the overall balance of the image.

My wife says that she knows if a she really liked a movie if she is still thinking about it a day or two after watching it. I think we can use the same relative comparison in photography. I will often make a sale a few days after an art show because the buyer couldn’t stop thinking about a particular image. And almost always these images are ones I took a chance on and pushed my comfort zone. Perhaps a new perspective or composition, a location I have visited hundreds of times, or a lighting situation that has almost always led to failure in the past. Sure there have many more failures that successes, but what it taught me was worth the effort, and has led to insights I would not have experienced otherwise.

The common issues I see students struggling with usually have more to do with mistakes than with failures. Here are some common ones: lack of sharpness due to a multitude of mistakes ranging from a) improper focusing, b) wrong use of hyperfocal distance, c) improper aperture, or other common issues such as a) not eliminating distractions, b) not being aware of contrast limits, c) wrong lens choices.

These can all be corrected in so far as they do not become mistakes that are repeated. Failures however involve an understanding of these mistakes, and then breaking the rules in order to attempt something new and interesting. For example, using a narrow depth of field in order to eliminate distractions, using extreme contrast as a way to lead the viewers eye, or using blur as a way to convey motion and rhythm in an otherwise static image.

Hudson Highlands, New York

Hudson Highlands tries to blend both a strong foreground and depth in the background to convey the sense of surprise and mystery I felt on this summer day day while hiking along the Hudson River. I like strong and bold foreground elements, and I’m constantly trying find ways to create both visually compelling compositions that also feel fresh and different on some level – almost like using different instruments in an orchestra to play the same melody. Somehow the tree in this foreground dominates in a way that does not complement the image overall, as the tension created is too great for the feeling I wanted to convey. I tried several different compositions, but it never felt quite “right” when I reviewed the images back home. The small trees in the foreground disrupt the rhythm I was after, even though the attempt was to minimize them by trying to emphasize the larger trees on the left.

Sometimes it is not so easy to differentiate between a failure and a mistake when we’re trying to be creative. That’s where practice becomes a mandatory part of the process. I have spent weeks shooting the same tree in my backyard just to learn the characteristics of every lens I own, or to master the cameras controls so that I can make adjustments instinctively. This way the mistakes become less frequent, and the failures become a way of improving my technique and my vision.

Here’s the thing, the best part of all of this seemingly depressing and frustrating work is that the you will experience successes, more than you will remember the failures. Each success outweighs the many failures by an exponential factor. I see them not only as positive rewards, but together with the failures as part of the journey we call creative photography. So go ahead and fail, because it will lead to insights you will not gain any other way. Those who view and enjoy your work will only remember the successes.

Beacon Light, Hudson Valley

As I mentioned above, I’m constantly trying to find variations on similar compositional themes, and here it works to my liking. Balance between the two dominant trees and the rest of the trees feels rhythmic and harmonious, the strong green color in the foreground is contrasted by the subtle blue of the sky in the distance and creates a pleasing diagonal, and the light adds the drama in a controlled manner that doesn’t over power the details. I can’t help describing these elements in musical terms, perhaps because they are ingrained in my psyche and influence the way I see the world. Hopefully you can appreciate these ideas and incorporate them into your views and feelings about your favorite subjects.

Thanks as always for reading, and feel free to share your opinions and questions about your failures and successes in photography.

Check out Robert’s website for images, workshops, webinars and more: LINK



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