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.
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.
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!