Things have been a bit quieter than usual on Dodge And Burn over the past few weeks, the reason being I have recently moved house. Amid the chaos of taking those first, tentative steps onto the property ladder, I haven’t been able to get out with the camera anywhere near as much as I would like. Instead, I’m using my time productively and have been reviewing my work from the past few months: editing images I didn’t find time for, re-editing those I was never quite happy with, and casting a critical eye over my own efforts.
It was during this process that I came across the shot below. I didn’t remove it from my Lightroom catalogue, despite all the signs pointing to it being a candidate for immediate deletion. It is a shot that had a huge amount of potential but, unfortunately, no amount of post-processing will save it. I look at it and see a wonderful photo that never was. This might sound morose but I’ve kept this image as a constant reminder – a lesson to learn from. Photographers strive to put only their very best work into the public domain, but I wanted to do something different and take a bold step and post a ‘bad’ photo in order to highlight my own mistakes. So here goes…
This photo was taken in Chinatown on the day of the Chinese New Year. I decided to head out with my Nikon and a 50mm prime and turn my hand to some street photography for the afternoon. Although subjects were plentiful, getting a clear line of sight through the masses of people was the biggest problem; even lifting the camera to your eye was an effort. It was later in the evening that the crowds started to thin out and I stumbled upon this spontaneous moment.
It is not a keeper, but there is something about the shot that keeps me returning to it. So I set myself four questions/objectives in order to determine what went wrong and to see what I could learn from it.
1) In a few words, describe why this is a missed shot.
The answer here is obvious: camera shake. Sometimes the answer might be more complex but don’t run the risk of over-analysing. I find that more often than not, a missed shot is caused by something fundamental such as focus, exposure, or composition.
2) Identify the underlying issue.
The short answer is negligence ;-) The practical answer is that the shutter speed of 1/30s was far too slow for a handheld shot. Search the web for “minimum handheld shutter speed” and there are many sites giving theories on how slow you can go. My advice is to experiment, as everyone is different. Over the years I’ve determined that I can handhold at 1/80s and get acceptable results at 50mm or wider. Any slower and it becomes more hit-and-miss.
3) Was this issue caused by human error or external factors beyond your control?
There’s no hiding – it was human error. I was shooting in aperture priority all day, at f/2.8, and was periodically upping the ISO level as the light started to fade. At some point I forgot to check the ISO and left it at 1600. Without increasing the ISO to compensate for the low light, the shutter speed dropped.
4) How can you best prevent this issue happening again?
Auto-ISO is probably the ideal solution. I’m not a huge fan of this function on any camera because I tend to find that it selects too high an ISO level, even in bright daylight. However, when the light starts to fade, engaging it and setting a minimum ISO of 3200 (or even 6400) should help to keep the shutter speed suitable fast. The other solution is more obvious: always keep an eye on your settings, especially in conditions where the light is changing/fading fast.
Every time I look at this photograph I feel a pang of regret and visualise it the way I wanted it to be. The shallow depth of field blurs the brickwork into a pleasing pattern; the lady has struck a very elegant pose and gaze; the angle of the parasol and the way she holds it adds balance; the texture of her coat; the gentle clutching of the panda toy. It has many ingredients for a great shot. Unfortunately, all of these things – which just happened to fall into place, as is so often the way with street photography – have been let down by my own error. Not every missed shot has to teach you a dozen lessons: one can often be enough, as is the case here.
We’re all human and we will always take dud shots. More often than not we delete them without a second thought. There’s nothing wrong with that and for the sake of your hard drive, it is probably advisable! However, the difference with this example is that it is not a dud shot that would have been merely ‘OK’ had I kept a closer eye on the shutter speed. In my opinion, this is a dud shot that could have been a great shot. It is a real missed opportunity.
I believe that reviewing your own work – truly analysing and critiquing it – is more beneficial than having a stranger do so. Sometimes the lessons you learn are simple and can be fixed immediately; other times they are more complex and require more hours of practice to overcome. I’d encourage everyone to take a look back through your own catalogue (preferably more recent work) and find your own missed shot – the one that got away. Analyse it, find out what went wrong, and most importantly of all, take something positive away from it. Ask yourself those four questions and be completely honest about your own shortcomings. It’s an extremely beneficial exercise and aids your development, even when you don’t have a camera in your hand.
“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.”
– Vernon Sanders