When you set aside time to learn as a photographer, how do you spend that time? Do you peruse your portfolio or browse through a respected photographer’s portfolio to break down why some photos “worked”? You may fall prey to a cognitive bias called Survivorship Bias.
I instruct 16-week coding bootcamps for noob developers. In software, it’s common to learn from tutorials or other people’s working code. The reasoning is that new developers can analyze working code, break down why that code works, and then pluck out the underlying principles to apply to their own solution.
It’s a nice theory, but sadly, it doesn’t seem to work that way. Like blacksmithing or surfing, programming is best learned by doing and not by reading through solutions or watching tutorials. Newer students often code for too long without testing it, only to find their solution didn’t work. But rather than search for the issue methodically, their first instinct is to throw away the code and start over. They couldn’t take an almost working solution and make it work with some debugging: either they landed on the correct solution outright or they started over.
Debugging Your Photography
Ironically, we take this approach all too often in photography: when we get back from a shoot, we spend our time editing photos that look successful, and filter out the rest behind flags and stars. Consequently, we never revisit photos that didn’t quite make the cut.
And those successful photos? They were “successful” because they resembled a similar photo that worked in the past. Rather than discover the underlying techniques to generate a successful image, we can only recognize successful images. Our portfolio becomes an echo chamber for uniformity.
This issue is a prime example of Survivorship Bias. If your goal is to keep growing as a photographer, you want to adapt your shoot techniques and editing style so that more photos “make the cut” next time. To figure out what it takes, you need to spend your time analyzing photos that didn’t make the cut. Photos that do make the cut provide almost no new feedback for improvement because they are already good.
Beating Survivorship Bias
Any time you invest in your growth as a photographer is worthwhile, but recognizing survivorship bias will take linear growth and turn it into exponential growth for the same time investment. Who wouldn’t want to learn more for less?
You can start today: go through your latest shoot and turn off any search filters, then pick a handful of photos that weren’t quite good enough. Next, grab a notebook and jot down why you think they don’t quite work and hypothesize what you can do next time to make a similar shot successful. On your next shoot, whip out your notebook and keep it handy so you can adjust in the field.
It’s humbling to see how stupid I can be, but it’s part of being human. So long as we learn from this incredibly rich data source, stupidity isn’t so stupid after all!