Let's Tear Apart My Earliest and Ugliest Photographs to See What Beginners Could Learn

Let's Tear Apart My Earliest and Ugliest Photographs to See What Beginners Could Learn

Most photographers look back at their very earliest work and cringe; I am no exception. But what could I learn from harshly critiquing my earliest imagery and what value might it hold for beginners? Let's find out.

Armed with a weathered, secondhand Canon 350D (Rebel XT to some of you) and a kit lens that had been through the wars, I remember setting out with my camera to take my first ever photographs. Somehow, I still have this first ever shot. I hopped in my car, because after work, I could see a stormy sunset coming, and I drove out into the country. When it was at its best, I still didn't know where I was going to shoot it, so I jumped out of my car and rested my camera on the roof and fired off a frame. I didn't know much about photo editing, I didn't have Lightroom, and I was shooting JPEG, so I didn't do much to the image. If only I'd stayed that way.

Surprisingly, it's not bad! The heavy lifting is done by the incredible sunset and a large dose of luck with regards to whatever settings I picked (I refused to ever shoot on auto, so every image was a lottery at the beginning,) but as far as an absolute beginner's work goes, that's not too bad. Then, over that first year with my camera, my standard of work fell off a cliff.

Next up, we have one of my first proper outings with the camera; I was going to a location with the express interest of photographing it. I had heard about an abandoned military base that was due to be demolished, and off I went to sneak in and take some pictures. Unfortunately, I was already a fan of Urbex (urban exploration), and that niche had an unparalleled propensity towards HDR. The downloading of some crude HDR software was an upsetting landmark in my timeline as an early photographer.

Let's point out the obvious: the colors are ridiculous — the grass looks radioactive, for one, the building is on a tilt, I had a thing for adding borders in post, it has the soft, blurry quality that terrible HDRs all share, and I was now apparently watermarking my "art"; God forbid someone steals this masterpiece. The most frustrating issue with this photo is that the sheep makes me think there was a great photo opportunity with the decay and nature taking over. This shot, however, was not it.

Now, we have an image that's honestly a shame. I had awoken horrendously early, as I decided I wanted to drive to a part of the country that was famous for its deer population, called Ashridge Estate. I was there before sunset and excited to walk through the woods, ready to capture some National Geographic-inspired nature shots. And, you could argue, I was offered one or two opportunities, not that I took them.

This is almost painful. It was clearly a beautiful scene (I don't remember it, though, which is another discussion to be had!), and the lighting looks delicious. I recall the forest being really dark, even as the sun came up, so shards of crisp morning light cut through intermittently. It happened to highlight a deer grazing for breakfast, and I caught it. Except, I essentially didn't. I had no idea how to balance the vast dynamic range in front of me, and with my refusal to shoot auto holding strong, I exposed for... well, I'm not sure. I guess I exposed for the shadows, but not entirely, as the deer is underexposed. What's worse, the highlights are blown out beyond recovery (of the time and with JPEG only), and despite bracing myself, my shutter speed was not quick enough. I may or may not have had a full understanding of the exposure triangle or been unwilling to bump my ISO — a mistake either way.

Up next is a photographic staple, but one of the few I haven't grown sick of. Long exposures of moving lights are always fun to capture, and it was something I'd wanted to try for a while. After picking up a Gorillapod from Costco, I went to a local flyover and shot the rush hour road below at dusk.

Well, the pointless border is still there, and I'm pleased to see my work was worth protecting again with the infallible method of writing my name in a distracting way on the brightest corner of the shot. I can see what I was going for with this, and it's not a terrible effort, but I've missed the mark by some distance. The shadows are, well, pure black; this was not a stylistic decision. The colors of the sky look like that WordArt overlay, and the horizon is not straight again.

Ok, now we're cooking with gas. I had been stumbling up the HDR mountain for several months, but I had finally reached the summit with this one. I remember being pleased with this image and sharing it with some respected photographers on a forum. Most ignored it — a polite and diplomatic response — but one of them told me to please stop. In fairness, it looks like I did from this point onwards.

"Burn" indeed. This is so offensive to my eyes now I can't believe there was a version of me pleased with it. I knew it was a "bold" aesthetic, I just hadn't realized it was boldly wrong. Are those borders getting bigger? Awful. Worst shot of my first year without question.

Takeaways

So, what can we learn from my mistakes here?

  • If HDR is obvious, it has not been well executed. HDR when subtly applied can be a superb and crucial tool to many photographers, but if it's a stylistic decision, you'll polarize the viewers, with most of them going one direction.
  • Are your colors realistic? I wish I'd asked myself that when editing my earliest images. I was seemingly obsessed with "punchy" and vibrant results, but they all ended up looking like covers for bargain bin post-apocalyptic literature.
  • Don't add borders unless you have a proper reason.
  • If watermarks are distracting, they are a net loss.
  • Learn how the exposure triangle works and practice shooting different lighting conditions, or you'll miss potentially great shots.

Fancy sharing your own earliest images? Put them in the comment section below. Would you like to see five more images I took that were terrible? Let me know and I'll write a part two. Feel free to let rip with your own critique of these images too.

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24 Comments

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

I think they're gorgeous. Be kind to yourself.

I'm not much of photographer ... well, OK, I have my moments. Mostly I agree with you, but in the first one I would have cropped the heck out of it, as is my wont from an artistic point of view. It seems there is something interesting in every landscape.

Tom Reichner's picture

Here is one of my earliest "decent" photos, taken back in 2008 when I was starting out.

Similar to your sunset image, the hawk provided me with a wonderful opportunity, so because of dumb luck, it turned out pretty good. He had just gorged on a Snow Goose, and his belly was so heavy with fresh goose meat that he couldn't fly. So all I had to do to get close and frame him the way I wanted to was to walk out across the field until I got right up by him.

Even as a rank beginner, I knew to get low so that the background would be nice and smooth, so I laid down in the mud and found him in the viewfinder.

BUT ...... even though it is a decent image, I could have done better. Because he is leaning from viewer right to viewer left, I should have placed his head off center to the right of the frame, instead of off center to the left.

I also should have used a smaller aperture, so that his bill wouldn't be so blurry. I was shooting wide open at f5.6 - ugh! With the background so far away and so smooth, I could have shot at f8 or f11 or even f16 and still had the background rendered just as smooth and creamy.

I also should have zoomed out a bit and framed him more widely. This would have given me more "canvas" around his head so that I would have more options when it came to aspect ratio and image usage. That negative space is what often sells an image, because it provides room for text. Framing more loosely would also have helped give me more depth of field. By shooting wider AND stopping down, his beak would be nice and sharp, and I would have a much nicer, more useful image.

Lastly, if I was shooting this hawk today, I would be hyper-conscious of the light on his eyes, and acutely aware of the fact that his left eye had more light on it than his right eye. I would have circled around and back and forth, all the while looking sharply at his eyes, waiting for the moment when the light was falling evenly on both eyes. Then I wouldn't have ended up with a photo where one eye is less illuminated than the other eye (which can look okay in some situations, but definitely not in this particular scenario).

I think it's a good photo, especially for a beginning bird photographer, but it could have been so much better. Today, if I found a similar opportunity, I would do all of the things I should have done, and I would have done them all automatically, without having to think about them. Do something often enough and it becomes a conditioned response.

I have lived, and I have learned. Now I just wish I could find another Red-tailed Hawk that ate so much it can't fly!

Just going back to have a look. This was my very first edited photograph, recreating noir scenes in my longue with my girlfriend. Cliche for sure but I don't hate it even now. Just having a look through other early ones I do get worse before I get better. Definitely had a tendency after learning a new effect to push it as hard as I could. Results in some terrible stuff. It took me about three years to realise I needed to sharpen my RAWs so the main issue with my early images is they look soft. After that there's a brief period where everything looks to have the clarity pushed up to ELEVEN and then it settles into basically what I do now.

Fun post, and fun idea. Thanks for sharing

Jordan McChesney's picture

I’m honestly surprised that these are your “worst”. I did a series on my short lived YouTube channel where I tried to find my worst photograph by reviewing blind selections of my old photos. My images were so bad that I’m pretty sure the videos constitute as a hate crime against photography.

These ones aren’t great, but they aren’t the worst I’ve ever seen. I see plenty worse on Reddit on a daily basis, and my old images make these look like award winners.

That being said, going back and critiquing your own work is such a great way to not only reflect your own growth, but also to understand where people with less experience are coming from. Understanding not only that my old work was bad, but why it was bad, helps me give meaningful advice to people seeking constructive criticism.

This is one of the images I took within the first week of getting myself a Fuji XT20 for Christmas. This is the first image I took with intention, as all the others had been family and just snapping left, right and centre. I had yet to discover RAW and there is not that much to be done with the image now and obviously technically alot can be improved, but I still think that I got the image I wanted at the time: it was new years eve and I wanted to show the midnight fireworks together with the party frenzy on a nearby rooftop terras.

This is an interesting thought experiment because when I think of my worst images, I don't think of my first ones. I think of the ones I took after I started thinking I had some talent in photography. My early shots actually look remarkably similar to ones I take today 20 years later. Those early shots were pretty decent because they relied on my natural talents and because I didn't have any illusion of being good at it, I just carefully leveled my horizon and waited for the right moment to squeeze the trigger.

My equivalent of the HDR phase was thinking that photography was about being as abstract as possible. Once I started getting in my head that I was actually kinda good at this, I stopped focusing on the simple and tried to find something absurdly obscure (because that meant you were profound or something).

This isn't to knock people who take photos of the crack in the wall. I actually like that genre. It's just not something I'm naturally skilled at. You have to know how to frame that crack and I was terrible at it, yet for several years, I thought that was where it was at.

I think some of our most cringeworthy moments come not from sheer inexperience, but from wanting to be something without first understanding what it is that we want to be.

Very good point. Early does not always also mean ugly. As Robert had mentioned in the tittle " earliest and ugliest", I focussed on my earliest images. As you suggest, they are probably by no degree my ugliest.
Having said that, I can not look back at my images the way you do as I only have had my camera for 2 years so one could argue that all my images are still "early". I am by no stretch of the imagination a good photographer, not even a good amateur, but I feel I have improved and learned along the way.
While looking at somebody elses "mistakes" and "successes" can give us pointers and ideas, without knowing what the idea or thought process behind those images is, I think we are better of looking at our own work and reflect on what we were trying to achieve in the first place. While trying to be something without understanding what that something is, might lead to some horrible images, the act of trying could (or will) point us in the right direction.

I find what you said about other people's mistakes to be so true. I went about looking for a few bad images I could share, but refrained from doing so because there's just no context. I'd have to show you sample images throughout my journey for it to make any sense and that progression would only be interesting outside of the boundaries that ended at my skull if I were some reknown photographer... or maybe my wife, but she'd probably be like, "cool, but why are you showing me this?"

Robert, the HDR sins you're showing these photos are pretty mild. I'm just curious what it is about HDR that so revolts experienced photographers like you. I've never liked that style much, but I've never been able to identify exactly why I find it so offputting. I get that uncanny valley feeling when I see an over HDR'd image, but I have difficulty explaining why that's my reaction.

Greg Milunich's picture

I did this comparison recently with a local photo group. I too was guilt of over processed HDR.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Damn, some of your guys earliest worst is pretty good.

I bought a Sony NEX-5N back in 2012. I'd practice on 5k/10k events and such.

I've heard there are something like 300 million photos uploaded each day. Many of them are what you hope to never see. Like these. (smile)

Ted Mercede's picture

Wow, your work has definitely progressed, and for the better! Never would have thought so from looking at these.
Great portfolio here...

Odyseusz Koskiniotis's picture

If that were your early shots - you had so much drive. Most of beginning photographers nowadays are too bored to go the city and usually bother themselves with cat photography. I was shooting on my phone half of my life before I even grabbed my first camera, so Im sure both in terms of composition as well as uniqueness - my shots for the first 2 years were pretty much snapshots haha

Dan Marchant's picture

Every year around New Year I do a review. I go back through my old images and look at the bad ones. I do it to remind myself to pay attention and to keep working at getting better. In addition to the annual review I have now started taking and old and new image and doing a "Then and Now" comparison. I write a blog post about why I took each of the images and how my thinking has changed over the intervening time. I find it very helpful as the act of writing it down help to clarify my thinking.

Tom Reichner's picture

Robert, I like what you wrote, and it all makes sense to me.

But, I think that perhaps the best part of this article is the photo at the very top. That woman really catches my eye! I find her quite attractive.

Is she a model that you hired for the shoot? Or, is she a friend, your daughter, your wife? If she is a model that you hired, I would appreciate a link to her website or Instagram, as I would enjoy seeing more images of her.

Thanks!

Rod Kestel's picture

I think we should start a support group. "My name is Robert, and I took a bad photo once."
Actually I still take lots of really bad photos. Occasionally I get a good one.

And yeah, totally lose the "it's all about me" watermarks, pointless borders and heavy HDR. But mistakes aside, you can still see when someone has a natural eye for a photograph, which you obviously do.

Anyway, this is great, we get stronger by sharing our mistakes.

I used to love all of my photos, and now I wonder why? Bad focus, bad lighting, bad white balance.

Haha great article.

I have on occasion gone back through some of the earlier work I used to be really pleased with. Some of the images hold up actually, although several have now been re-edited now that I know a bit better what I'm doing. What has changed though is the ratio of "garbage" images required to get a keeper. I think a big part of photography is knowing when not to click the shutter. I achieved some good photos in an "accuracy through volume" kind of way back when I was a beginner. I'd like to think my images are getting better and I'm spending less time culling now though.

Matt English's picture

Great info, and well-written humor!!! :)