What Is the Worst Photography Mistake You Have Made?

What Is the Worst Photography Mistake You Have Made?

I have done some dumb stuff in my life — like really dumb. Ask any of my friends. And photography has been no exception. Here are some of the worst mistakes I have made as a photographer.

I guess I would categorize my mistakes into two categories: the worst errors of technique or creativity and the worst in terms of financial loss.  

Financial

I have been lucky not to have done anything too extreme when it comes to financial loss, though I have certainly tempted fate more than I should have. The worst came back in 2014. I had just become friends with three local photographers, and I was super excited to have new buddies with whom to go out to shoot. So, when they invited me out for a day of shooting the fall leaves, I was elated. I had not really outfitted my kit for landscape work that much, though, so I hurriedly purchased a new set of top-shelf ND filters and a very nice intervalometer and remote for my camera — had to impress my new friends! I am embarrassed to admit how much I spent, but I will tell you that the ND filter was a couple hundred dollars. Did I mention I wanted to impress my new friends? 

Anyway, it was a typical Ohio fall day — cold, cloudy, and wet. Have you ever tried to walk on ice? You lift your feet almost straight up and down and take tiny steps. That is how we had to walk on the muddy trails, and even then, we all took a spill. One of us bounced a lens off a rock. Another fell on his bag in the mud. Yet another destroyed his time.

So, when we came to a river full of very chilly water that was about four feet deep and flowing at a brisk clip, why I thought it was a good idea to get into it with all my expensive and fragile gear is beyond me. I figured shots with the river flowing right at the camera and the leaves on both shores would look super neat. And sure, it eventually made for some neat photos, but getting into the river and waddling out into the center while also trying to avoid slipping on the very slick rocks beneath the surface and dunking all my expensive gear was definitely gave me clinical hypertension for the following hour. 

 And sure enough, Mother Nature was about to collect her tax for my hubris. I managed to jam my tripod's feet into the riverbed and put my camera a few inches above the water for a dramatic effect. Next, I hooked up that fancy new remote and gingerly wrapped it around the camera body so it did not hang into the water. Finally, it was time to put on that top-of-the-line 10-stop ND filter and make that water silkier than chocolate mousse (sorry, I'm craving some of that as I write this). As I tried to take it out of its plastic case, there was a bit of tape on the case meant to hold it shut during shipping that I didn't expect, and the filter went tumbling out. "Clink," it went, as it bounced off a rock, making a sound like two champagne flutes tapping together. It bounced off the rock and splashed into the briskly moving river. While my reflexes were not fast enough to stop it from hitting the rock, I at least managed to fish it out of the water before it floated to oblivion, though it was a somewhat fruitless endeavor, as it had a pretty decent gash in it. Given the standard acceleration of gravity, the filter spent approximately 0.04 seconds out of the package before I destroyed it. That has to be a record.

The Worst Headshot Session Ever... Times Eight

Modern cameras have really impressive ISO capabilities. Crop sensor cameras from over a decade ago did not. Back when I was first really getting into photography, I bought a Canon 7D. The 7D came out in 2009, and its sensor behaved like it. That is not to say it was a bad camera; I learned a lot on it, but as it got into higher ISOs, sharpness and dynamic range dropped off very quickly, and a particularly ugly noise appeared — not something you would want to photograph headshots with. No problem, right? No one would be dumb enough to photograph eight headshot sessions in a row like that, right?

Guess who photographed eight headshot sessions in a row at that super-high ISO. I wanted to play with my new camera and lens, so I offered free headshots at my music school, and eight people signed up. The night before, I had gone out with some friends and taken my camera, where I had pumped the ISO up to 3,200. You probably see where this is going.

I remembered to check my settings the next time.

The next day, I shot all eight sessions without once checking my settings; I just turned it on and shot. Even though I noticed the shutter speeds were exceedingly fast, I did not stop to check what was going on, one of the many times in my life that I regretted not listening to that little voice in my head. I had no business shooting all those headshots.

The good news is that what I thought would be a huge amount of retouching turned out to be pretty much no retouching, because the amount of skin texture left in ISO 3,200 files from a 7D is essentially zero. Cue eight very awkward conversations and apologies. It did not cost me anything like my diving filter did, but if I could have traded the embarrassment for another filter, I would have gladly found the nearest river. 

The one real positive was that I have never forgotten to check my settings before I start shooting again. I also got a much-needed dose of humility that day. Thankfully, the majority of the people who signed up for the headshots were friends who were quite forgiving; if they had been paying clients, this story could have had a much different and worse ending. 

How About You?

What has been your most memorable mistake in your career? Share the story in the comments! 

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18 Comments

Robert K Baggs's picture

When I had just started taking photography seriously, I was fully invested in the belief that it didn't matter what kit you had, it's what you did with it. I'd had some successful shoots with a modest kit bag and overextended. I took on a shoot in a great (albeit dingy) location and I had big hopes. I did not, however, have big lights. My lighting equipment was so underwhelming that at full power that I could barely light the scenes from one side, let alone two. I bumped the ISO up as far as I knew I could without unbearable noise (like you, this was a few years back and the sensors weren't as kind) and did what I could. It's hands-down the least happy I've been with the results of a shoot to this day. I hadn't had the opportunity to scout the location beforehand which was one of the key takeaways, alongside "sometimes you really do need more gear."

Bruce Grant's picture

In 2018 I was working with one of the apps that contract with brands to do product shoots among its users. A tequila brand wanted shots of people living a luxurious lifestyle - suits, watches, cars, etc.
I had a trip to California already planned so I figured I'd take my gear and just shoot there.

The first couple of years using the app I had always shot in JPEG - being relatively new to photography at the time I never thought to shoot in RAW. And so went the tequila shoot. The brand loved one of my shots and selected it as the overall winner. Then I got an email asking for the RAW file. I had to explain that I hadn't shot in RAW. Never heard from them again and I never saw the shot used anywhere (I saw others in the wild), even though I was paid for it.

Robert Lype's picture

I accepted a request via an email to shoot a football game which I am very proficient at just to show up to find out it was a soccer game which I have no clue about the game.
I made it work but it was a struggle needless to say it was interesting

Lee Christiansen's picture

Checking how much memory of my card I'd used by accessing the "Format" page on my camera... and then my brain went into auto-mode and I pressed "go" only to see it wipe every image from said card.

And not just any shoot. halfway through a £500,000 private party where I was the sole invited photographer.

Fortunately I had a second card in the camera and I've never been so nervous having my assistant copy it to a laptop and verify every image whilst I continued to shoot without any backup card. (I now have more backup cards and I NEVER go near the format screen.

Or the time I started putting makeup on headshot clients, but I only had one powder. Then I noticed my mistake as I'd put a nice pink stripe across the forehead of a gent with the darkest Nigerian skin... My art director almost hid under the table as I commented, "I'll just blend that in..." changing our subject's appearance terribly and hoping we could get away with it.

(There could be other stories, but I'd not want my clients to think I could successfully mime a video shoot, just because I'd forgotten the tape... ahem...)

Dan Jefferies's picture

Forgot my battery, forgot my card, shot WITHOUT my card, didn't check my setting, took the wrong lens, didn't charge my battery etc. etc. etc. Ended up attaching a small bag to hold an extra battery and card. With the R6 I added 2 bags. Now when I grab any of my cameras I know I at least have a charged battery and card because they're in the bag instead of the cards being in my computer at home along with my battery in the charger. Also helps when you fill up a card or need a new battery. I also set the shutter to NOT fire without a card. Saved me more times than I can count,

Michael L. McCray's picture

My worse mistakes have been made from not taking the time to learn.
1. Going into a war zone with two new cameras that I had not taken the time to learn how they work.
2. Not taking the time to get a clear understanding of the object diamonds flaws, a huge opportunity lost should have passed. It is better to admit ignorance than lose trust.

Mattias Nilsson's picture

Howsabout going back to the early 90's, pre-digital era. I'm a concert photographer, and I had just come back from shooting Bad Religion and Green Day. Eagerly hopping along on my way to the lab to develop my films, i decided to take out on roll just to take a look at it (I knowwwww!). Needless to say, I dropped said roll of film on the street where it was quickly and rather roughly ran over by a bus. I wept openly.

Dan Jefferies's picture

lol... you win hands down... )

David Pavlich's picture

I climbed to the top of a lighthouse taking pictures along the way. Came down, left the lighthouse, got to the next destination and when I had to change rolls (Minolta X700) I found that there was no roll in the camera. Long climb, no results. :-(

Sam David's picture

I will two-up Alex's episode, and those reported by others so far. It was just over 10 years ago. I was photographing a young and beautiful nude model in and adjacent to the Saw Kill River, a tributary to the Hudson. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was leaving for our home in Maine the next day. Using a brand new (week old) Nikon D300 and a D200, I was able to work with her from the shore, as she made incredible moves through the rapids and up and down an actual waterfall. As we moved our way upstream, we saw that a tree had fallen across the stream, creating a beautiful pool just behind it. The model said she would love to be photographed underwater. I realized that the only way I could get to a spot to make the shot was to ford the stream. It was treacherous, with slippery rocks across the entire path, which was below the fallen tree, so there were rapids buffeting my legs. I got safely to the shore, shinnied out across the fallen tree and got some amazing images of the model underwater. It was time to cross back. I started across the stream in the rapids, felt my right leg get caught between two rocks, started to pull forward and, WHAM, face first with the two Nikons into the water. I pushed myself up, scrambled as best I could, fell again, scrambled some more until I was on the shore, and as the model put something on, raced for my car a few hundred yards away. Thinking more quickly than usual, when I got to the car I put the cameras on the trunk lid, and removed the cards and batteries. I had my laptop in the car, fired it up, and determined quickly that the cards were still good. I got on my mobile and called my camera dealer in Stamford CT, and told him what happened. He asked how long it would take me to get to him and when I told him 90 minutes he said he would stay opened. I got to the store and watched him take off the lenses from both cameras, making it clear they were both ruined. He drained the camera bodies in a sink, took industrial strength plastic bags, filled them with distilled water (to prevent the mixture of air and bad water from further damaging the wiring), and put one camera in each bag. He told me he would send the cameras off to Nikon, and in about two weeks he would have an estimate from Nikon as to whether they could be repaired and, if so, for how much. Given I was headed to Maine the next day, I not only OK'd this process, but also purchased a new NikonD700 and a used but refurbished Nikon 24-120 lens. Two weeks later I got the news in Maine that both cameras could be fixed for a total cost of just under $1,000. I OK'd it, and when I got back to New York three weeks after that, sure enough, both cameras were working and working well. Upshot and update: Ten years later I was working with the same model from that beautiful pool, who had actually started her own photography explorations, and I ended up giving her the D300 that had almost drowned photographing her ten years before. The D200 went to a woman in Maine also starting out in photography. Ever since, I have never even waded into water while working with models, and I even shook a bit photographing those who wanted their images made from bathtubs. The image is Underwater Dream at www.samdavidphotography.com.

jim hughes's picture

Spent an hour standing in the brush by the shore of a lake, hunched over a camera on a monopod, silent, waiting for that blackbird to look at me and deliver his call. GOT IT. The ultimate shot. Got home and found out I'd gotten it in JPG SMALL because I'd used my camera as a webcam the day before... which had changed some settings....

Dominic Deacon's picture

I hired a blackmagic cinema camera from a rental house to shoot some video. I was using an external harddrive to save the data to. I didn't have a cage for the camera so I very cleverly taped the harddrive to the tripods leg, ran it's cable up to the camera, taped it down so it was taut and wouldn't get caught on anything. Then gotthe shot.

The next shot I needed to do required the camera to be about 6 inches higher. Now this was a cheap, dodgy tripod and it had a crank handle which you could turn which would raise or lower a pillar in the centre of the tripod. I set to winding the crank. There was some unexpected resistance but I kept going anyway and then was surprised when all of a sudden the screen wentdead on my camera.

My heart stopped when I realised what I'd done. I'd forgotten the harddrive was taped to the leg of the tripod. As the pillar in the centre of the tripod had raised it had pulled the cable super tight and then, forcibly, ripped the USB port out of the camera. These days I believe the USB ports are soldered tot he mortherboard. The camera was a write off.

I was the first person to hire that camera and I killed it within an hour. Super embarassing taking it back to the shop. Super embarrassing explaining to my crew that one hour in we no longer had a camera. Short shoot day.

jim hughes's picture

I love this one. Now I resolve never to do it myself!

mark wilkins's picture

Shot a big out of state job with half a dozen models with a camera I bought used WITHOUT testing it out first. This was early 90s..so film days. Fly home...turn in the film...the shutter was broken. Every single shot was half black. Had to refund the several thousand dollars...and eat the expenses on top of that.
And....my biggest missed shot. I met Pearl Jam about a month before their first album was released. One of the band members was dating my roomate. At the time all I cared about was shooting the hot girls. I had them over to my studio twice just to hang and party. I didnt take a SINGLE PICTURE of them. At pretty much any point I could have said...Hey...stand over there and lets do some shots. And those shots would likely STILL be generating income almost 30 years later. DAMN DAMN DAMN.

Doug Birling's picture

This actually just happened last week... After reading articles on micro adjustment the lens focus and spending a great deal of downtime one day to do so, I had my first shoot and shot away... I was checking the images at various times and they looked great! I got back and opened them up and found that on the wide end the lens was focusing 5 feet behind the subject! My other lenses were fine and I still had a bunch of usable shots, but there were a bunch that were trash... So much for due diligence!

Reid Thaler's picture

Aside from shooting 39 shots on a roll of 36 exposure film.....

the answer would be using KINGSTON Compact Flash Cards. I had one fail on me, and of course, it wasn't just some shots of my kids on the beach, they were client shots. I paid $800 to have the images recovered, and don't even know if they were ever used.

I called KINGSTON, told them what had happened, and they said, "Oh, we replaced that card last year."

"You mean that card failed previously!?!" I lividly exclaimed. "Yeah, we sent a new one to you last year."

To this day, I rail against anything KINGSTON in my classes, and give it as an example if students need to justify a camera purchase to a significant other: "Hey honey, for the cost of recovering those images, I could've bought almost a 1/3 of a Nikon D810 that has dual slots."