Bad images. We've all taken them. Perhaps we were just starting out and learning about camera settings; after all, nobody was an expert in the beginning. Or maybe a scene just didn't turn out the way we had pictured it mentally. Perhaps the scene's dynamic range exceeded the camera's capabilities. Whatever the reason, we've all captured some real duds in our photography careers.
Making bad images is all part of it, and a bad image is not necessarily a bad thing. If you go back and study the image, try to learn from it, then it can be a positive experience. Mistakes are great learning tools. It becomes a problem when we take bad images and don't learn from them. And the real tragedy occurs whenever we make a bad image...and think it's good. This is my story about a bad, no TERRIBLE, image that I thought was good.
Let's rewind a little over 3 years. At this point in time I don't even know what the term large format means. I am, however, an experienced photographer having shot and assisted on several weddings. My wife and I also shot families from time to time. So I knew my way around a camera, albeit the digital variety. However, even at this stage what I'm really drawn to is landscapes. I have no idea how to shoot them, but the thought of being out in nature is alluring. This is the area of photography I would like to explore more.
It's 2011, and I'm about to turn 30 on Christmas Eve. And I don't like this...not one bit. Therefore, at my request our families decided to take a trip to Hawaii instead of doing the usual Christmas and birthday thing. As it is really the first time I have been to a location that I consider worthy of shooting landscapes, I was very excited to get out and try to capture something "epic!"
We stayed on the island of Maui, and very early on Christmas Eve morning, as a birthday present to myself, I decided to drive around the eastern side of the island to see if I could find something good to shoot. That's when tragedy struck and I took the worst image ever in the history of the world. Not exaggerating. I'm about to show it to you.
First though, a few words of warning. What I'm about to show you, you cannot unsee. I cannot be held responsible for any night terrors you may experience. Second, I'm pretty sure the saturation slider on this went beyond 100. Apologies in advance if your eyes bleed. Finally, as a disclaimer, this is NOT who I am as a photographer anymore...please no judgements! :)
And just for even more grins, here is the RAW file it came from. It's practically monochrome...
My gosh, it's been years now and I'm still embarrassed to show it. This is unquestionably the worst image ever taken. However, it's only a real problem if we don't learn from it. So let's look at everything that went wrong so that this mistake will NEVER be made again!
First, I felt like I had to bring back and "epic" image from Hawaii...regardless of whether or not the scene actually looked good. For starters, this scene is not terrible. I parked on the side of a pretty much deserted road and hiked about a half mile to the coast. I was greeted with a somewhat subdued sunrise, but the overlook was quite nice. A very expansive view, and large areas on breaking water. Armed with a ND filter, I knew I could get a long exposure to really enhance that water.
However, when I returned to my computer and loaded it into Lightroom, I was greeted with something decidedly NOT epic. Hmm, this simply would not do as I absolutely needed a trophy shot to return home with. And this is where I murdered this poor, innocent image.
While the LR XMP files have (thankfully) been lost over time and computer transfers, I'm pretty sure the saturation was cranked to 100. I'm sure there were Clarity and Vibrance shenanigans as well. This is really where it goes south, and I promise I'm not making a single bit of this up. As I was STILL not satisfied with my less-than-epic, I ordered Nik Software (back when it was still expensive) to see if I could throw some filters at it!!! I don't remember what concoction of filters and sliders I threw at it, but I do know at some point, the sky literally started to fall apart. Unable to hold the weight of so many filters and saturation boosts, it became a blotchy mess. No worries though, because I ADDED A GAUSSIAN BLUR MASK TO TAKE THOSE AWAY!!! Again, you just can't make something this bad up.
After several tries and combinations of garbage (err...Nik filters) I finally had it, my EPIC shot! Super proud of how good a landscape photographer I was, I immediately posted it to social media. As expected it received rave reviews and tons of "likes." I did it; I was finally a good landscape photographer!
Thinking my image would dominate all on a National scale, I entered it into Popular Photography's annual Reader's Contest. Sadly (and shockingly?!) my masterpiece did not win. Peter Lik did (more about that at this link). However, even though it did not win, a few months later Pop Photo used it online to promote next year's contest. It was uncredited, but I didn't care. My image was on perhaps the largest photography website in the world! I was amazed at how great a landscape photographer I had become in such a short amount of time. Of course I posted the PopPhoto link to the expected congratulations. It's literally the most famous I've ever been.
An image this famous MUST be printed and displayed large, so that's exactly what I did. I sent the file off to (what I now recognize as a lower end) lab to have it printed. I chose all of their best finishing options and anxiously awaited its arrival in the mail. Thankfully, this is where I came out of my delusional bubble...the print was terrible.
It was a grainy, dark mess. The manipulations had obviously taken their toll on the file. Also, at the time I knew nothing about printing so my uncalibrated monitor gave me a dark print. Slightly dejected, I chalked this one up to just not knowing about printing yet. Surely the actual image was still good. Maybe I just needed to study printing more. Yeah, that's got to be it.
Only I couldn't shake this nagging feeling. What if my masterpiece was actually just not good? Hmm. Surely that couldn't be the case. I mean, people "liked" it on Facebook; a magazine used it for a major online promotion! Despite all of that, the more I looked at the image, the more it literally made me want to vomit. It didn't represent what the scene looked like AT ALL. While the actual scene has long since faded from my memory, I am confident that what came out of my computer did not represent reality.
This is not at all who I wanted to be as a landscape photographer. It was at this point in my photography "career" that I made some choices, which in a roundabout way led me to large format. First of all, no more trying to randomly come up on a scene by chance. I would have to scout everything out first. This would definitely reduce the number of images that I took, but it was worth it to me. This also led me to the conclusion that the only way I was going to be able to seriously do this was to take dedicated, repeated photography trips so single locations. That way I would be able to become familiar with areas and more importantly the light in those areas. After searching some online forums, I found an image of Ben Horne's from the Virgin River Narrows and the rest is history.
Speaking of forums, it was time to join one that I felt offered some honest critiques by photographers whose work I aspired to. I found Fred Miranda, and while I'm not as active as I would like to be, I feel that there are several people on there that I can learn from. Also, I've tried my best to swallow my pride and genuinely learn from the critiques given there.
Thirdly, I wanted to be the type of photographer who captured a scene as honestly as possible. Now this is open to HUGE debate, and I'll discuss it more in-depth in a future blog, but I wanted the majority of my work to be behind the camera and not in front of a computer. To that end, I've taken a few steps. First, I use my cell phone as a serious photographic tool. After I've taken an image on film, I'll take the same image on my cell phone. I've got a pretty powerful editing program on there that I'll use to edit the image on site to be able to represent the scene as closely as possible. (I'll make careful notes of screen brightness during this process as well.) This allows me to pull up the image on my phone while I'm scanning the film to get it as close as I possible can. This is absolutely crucial for color negative film as there is no way to look at the film and know what the scene looked like. However, it is also important for Velvia as this film tends to make water go REALLY blue and this must be corrected after scanning.
Also, I learned how to print. Even on a calibrated monitor, sending an image off to print was more trial and error than I wanted it to be. Therefore, I read A LOT on the subject and ordered several (ok, about 75) paper samples. I narrowed it down to my 3 favorites (matte, a sort of glossy but not annoyingly so, and a special one for monochrome images) and learned every nuance of those papers. I now can say I can print with complete confidence and am fortunate enough to be able to do so in house up to 44" wide.
Finally, I NEVER want to be so overtly heavy handed while editing...EVER! Now this is still a learning process. When I went to Zion in 2013, I shot digital mostly and looking back there are several of those images that are on the unrealistic side. I've used my 2014 trip as a guideline and have reopened those images in order to hopefully obtain something more realistic. But I've added a constant reminder to myself. Remember that horrible print I ordered? It's on the wall about 2 feet to my right as I type this. I decided to go ahead and hang it next to my computer as a constant reminder of what NOT to do. In this way, my terrible image ends up not being so bad as I'm doing my best to learn from and not repeat my mistakes.