It’s ok to fail at photography

Let’s talk about failure in photography. I want to talk about why it’s ok and in fact why it’s important to always be failing in photography.

This week I experienced failure for the first time in a while.

I say the first time in a while because as a seasoned photographer I usually come home from photography trips with something that I am happy with and something that I will use to replace older works in my website portfolio.

So what happened?

Well I decided to set out on a mission to photograph a list of photography locations in and around the great ocean road in Victoria, Australia, About 3 hours drive from my home in Melbourne.

My plan was solid.

I had researched the locations well, I had looked at other photographers compositions, I had planned at what time of the day the light would be at it’s best for each location. I filled my van up with food and supplies. I planned to sleep rough in the back of my van for 3 or 4 nights.

This would be one of those trips where I would push hard for the images. I mean up at 3am,  sleeping by the side of the road well after dusk.

Day one started with a 4.30 am departure from my home in Melbourne. I would arrive at the first location, lake Elizabeth just after sunrise, It wasn’t ideal to arrive at this location after sunrise but I actually planned to shoot this location in the evening so I thought “let’s just get started early”. I had been tipped off about this location from a fellow photographer who lives down that way. I thought this was an inside location tip that I had been fortunate enough to receive and I was super excited.

2 hours later and I was there, deep in the Great Otway National Park in South West Victoria. Upon arriving I immediately completed the 4km lake loop circuit of the lake. Disappointingly I could not find a composition anywhere. So I moved onto the next location, Stevensons falls about 1 hour drive away.

The fact that many people were camping there made me think that there must be photo opportunities here.

The falls were a 2km walk into the forest from the car park. I thought I’d fill in the hours before sunset by doing a research walk first. Just before the falls the bridge crossing the river was obstructed by fallen trees from the recent rains. But I wasn’t going to let this stop me. I had come this far and the falls where so close. So carefully I made my way across.

Because of the recent rains the falls were looking great. The falls were full of water. This will make a great composition I thought.

So I passed the time waiting at the car park for another 11 hours until sunset. I returned at 5 pm, a few hours before sunset but as I’ve learnt before it gets darker a lot earlier in waterfall gorges.

After some careful composition planning I was able to pull off 1 shot that I was happy with. Unfortunately the foliage around the waterfall looked rough due to the heavy rains but I was still reasonably happy with this shot.

Later that evening I decided to drive to the next location in the hope that it would be a more quiet place to sleep in my van overnight. With the hundreds of tourists in the first location and me sleeping early I knew it wasn’t an option to stay there.

So 1 hour later I arrive at 8.30pm at Hopetoun Falls. There’s only minutes worth of twilight left in the day. This begs the question… Do I crash now in the back of my van or do I  push on and try for a composition right now? The answer came to me quickly. I always say “Never do tomorrow what you can do today”. So I threw my camera gear over my shoulder and walk down the steep decent of stairs into the waterfall gorge below. The only people I pass on the way are a pair of Indian tourists who give me that “What are you doing here this late” kind of look. I smile and wave as I rush by to the viewing platform nearby.

The view I wanted is going to take some work to get to.

After scrambling over some fallen trees, around large boulders and stepping ankle deep in a muddy pit I managed to find the composition wanted. Ok so that’s 2 successful photos from 3 locations now, not bad.

So now it’s pitch black. I decide  to drive to the top of the range where sleeping in my van by the side of the road in the small town seems slightly safer than sleeping in the back of my van, at the bottom of a gorge, next to a waterfall, with no-one around. I find my resting spot next to a public toilet and fire up my dinner of Aldi sausages .

Now that I’m 48 years old sleeping on a thin camping mattress in the back of my van is not as fun as it used to be.

These days before I sleep I need a shower, I need to feel clean, I need time to relax and everything needs to be just right before my super busy brain can switch off and allow me to sleep. But right now I’m sweaty, my body is aching and I’m generally uncomfortable. After a few hours of tossing and turning I manage to pass out for 3 hours. I wake at 3.30 am.

After a quick coffee by the side of the road I have 2 hours to reach my next location in order to capture the morning sunrise. So in the pitch black of night  I push on at the speed limit hoping not to have any suicidal kangaroos jump out in front of my van.

10 minutes before sunrise I arrive at the location. The sandstone cliff I found just past Port Campbell. It’s deserted from tourists and it looks amazing. I have the viewing platform all to myself.

I set up my composition and check all my camera settings carefully. I wait and wait, and then you guessed it…

A thin cloud band just wide enough to block the sunrise appears on the horizon.

So this shot is a fail. Another photographer turns up and asks me “Did I miss the best light”? To which I answer “No you didn’t miss anything, it was terrible”.

Ok so it’s back to Port Campbell to wait 14 hours until my next window of good light at sunset.

I pass the time by enjoying a cafe breakfast, (This gives me an opportunity to charge my camera batteries in the cafe). I edit my photos from the day before then do some work on my website until my laptop battery dies. I fill in the remainder of the day exploring the town and generally relaxing. If you haven’t been to Port Campbell in South West Victoria you need to do so, it’s a stunning stunning place.

I arrive at the next location 4 hours early. This is the location that I am the most excited about shooting on this particular trip. But now my mind and body are tired and aching. I need sleep. I try to curl up for a nap in the back of the van but the noise from all the passing tourists keeps me awake.

Soon it’s the golden hour. I have my shot planned. I’m right on the edge of the cliff past the safety barrier. I check my camera settings twice and I take my shots. I take a lot of shots, bracketed shots, panoramic shots, many many shots. I try to capture everything in the 10 minutes of good light. But with the sun in my eyes it’s hard to see clearly on the camera viewfinder. But after years of shooting I feel that I’ve done everything right and everything will be ok when I get back to the laptop later. After I capture the first view I run like a crazy man to the next location which is 10 minutes walk away. I get there and the sun is just where I want it but I need to be quick. I fire off a few frames then the light is gone. Everything looks flat now.

So I walk back to my van and contemplate another rough night’s sleep or do I take the 3 hour late drive home to my own bed.

I choose the later.

I arrive home at midnight, exhausted and broken. I kiss my wife, take a shower, have a beer and crash.

The next morning I can hardly contain myself. I fire up the laptop, throw in the memory card and dive into my images. OMG …!

My photos from last night look dirty, muddy and have no clarity at all. I immediately know what has happened. I left the ND filter on my camera from earlier in the day. This combined with the high contrast scene with the sunlight has cause the scene to become muddy, brown, low resolution and generally unusable.

I’m gutted. I feel like a broken man. All that planning, all that driving, all that waiting down the drain.

Whilst I’m laying flat on my back on the living room floor, my darling wife says to me something that put’s everything into perspective. “It’s ok to fail, just try again” she says.

Thats 100% right I think to myself.

If you’re not failing then you are not pushing to your limits.

As Winston Churchill said. “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

Every time I fail I try to learn something. In this case I have learnt to never put that ND filter on in that type of light again. Actually I already knew that but my tired mind didn’t register the error in my set up process.

I think we as photographers need to embrace the high probability of failure before we head out on our  photo trips. The majority of the photos that I am most proud of took multiple trips to the same location to perfect.

So what’s next? I’ve already planned my next photo trip to the same location. I will achieve the photos that I have in my mind and I will not stop until I do so. But this time I might book a  comfy hotel room first 🙂

If you have enjoyed this story please consider purchasing one of my photography books, photography maps or joining in on one of my photography workshops.

Thank you and keep on shooting.