Why Successful Photos Are Alluring, but Teach Us Nothing

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.

Learning Strategies

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.

I’ve driven past Loch Garry in the Scottish Highlands four times, and each time was unable to produce a keeper. But by breaking down what didn’t work in previous shoots, I finally got a compelling shot I would have otherwise ignored if I focused on only successful images.

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!

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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Abraham Wald's story is my favorite involving survivorship bias: https://medium.com/@penguinpress/an-excerpt-from-how-not-to-be-wrong-by-...

Yes! That article was my first introduction to survivorship bias as well — fantastic read. But I had no idea it influenced how we learn until some recent shoots and bootcamps.

A 7+ minute shot of a guy talking about photography without pictures....show us the crappy pix that you took before you applied the survivorship bias and created a photo that you like.. Videos are visual medium...use it.

On the list =) I'm a Premiere Pro n00b, so overlaying pictures in a video is new wizardry for me.

Better yet, skip the video and include the pictures in the article.

You kept missing twilight because you had to hike out before dark?

You mean it didn't occur to after the first failure to purchase and pack a head torch?


Sounds like a typical Lessons Learned document.

Maybe I should make Lightroom Collections called "Do more" and "Do less" and crop to the areas that were good/bad.

The way this guy reads from a makeshift teleprompter is kind of creepy

I still have bad photo misses from 7 years ago. They are a great reminder to pay attention to the small details and to keep trying to improve. I also keep all the "almost" shots as a reminder of the mistake I made and also to encourage me to keep going back in order to try and get the shot right (so I can replace the "almost").

I like his methodology of actions to reflect and take actions. My perception is not survivorship. The relationship with “survivorship bias” and fear of failure are notable. For me, to cut to reality is thinking way to much of myself and willing to fail. I have hated failure until I realiszed failure is my friend and I had way to much investiment of my identity in what I do, rather than who I am, Taken 30 years to have this understanding. Like someone said to me, “Ken I hope you have a reasonable day.

I like this good advise [by just simple reading this post without even playing the video].