Want to Improve Your Compositions? Stop Ignoring Your Bad Photos

How do you level up your photography skills? The obvious places might be to peruse work by other photographers or watch some YouTube tutorials, but these are actually the least effective ways to learn: your best learning resource is your own library of bad photos!

The adage “learn from your failures” will always sound cliche thanks to a cognitive bias called Survivorship Bias. After all, given the choice between analyzing portfolio images versus analyzing bad photos, it seems like we should spend time learning from the portfolio images we want to imitate. It’s exactly the reverse: photos that didn’t work well contain the most applicable lessons, while portfolio images give next to zero actionable insights.

In his refreshingly honest vlog, Nigel Danson walks through some photos with compositions that simply didn’t work out and turns them into learning material for preventing the issue in the future. To get the most from his vlog, I strongly recommend repeating the process with your own library.

Turn filters off. Here be dragons, and the best learning material you’ll find, especially without an Internet connection.

The key to learning from failure is to perform a photography retrospective; that is, set aside time to step through all the photos you’ve probably filtered out, and analyze what about each image doesn’t work well, why it doesn’t work, and how you will change the circumstances of your next shoot to prevent the issue. It’s easy enough to identify what went wrong, but much harder to come up with a game plan for addressing the issue next time.

Despite the name, an effective retrospective is forward-looking: it produces actionable steps for how to get to where you want to be based on where you are now. It takes a lot of discipline to conduct retrospectives on a regular basis; my first instinct when opening Lightroom is to spend my time editing shots that I like, not to step through all the images I don’t like. But if you want prioritize your learning, there’s no substitute quite as effective per unit of time!

Do you regularly facilitate retrospectives in your photography? Has it helped you improve your compositions faster?

Jonathan Lee Martin's picture

Jonathan Lee Martin is a fine art landscape photographer, educator and globetrotting digital nomad. He’s traveling the world for a year to discover unique landscapes and help fellow landscape photographers lighten their load to go further.

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