Terrible Images

Blowing grass by old shack

This is a follow up to my previous post “Kill Your Darlings“. It is too big a subject to let go that easily. There is a time and place for making terrible images. Even to seek to do it. Terrible images can be a springboard to new insight and growth.

One of my heroes I quote often, Jay Maisel, said

“I used to tell my classes when they raved about my work and compared it to theirs, ‘Believe me, I’ve taken more terrible images than all of you put together.’ The trick is not to show them to people.”


I believe that experimentation is one of the most common and valid reasons for making terrible images. Many of us photographic artists spend a long time trying to discover our style. But once we have done that, I believe it is a mistake to settle down and only shoot to that style for the rest of our career. We need to push ourselves is different directions. View the works of other artists. Do things to make ourselves uncomfortable.

I am always reading articles and looking at videos to get new ideas. Making myself get out and try some of these ideas I pick up is necessary to see if they work for me. Sometimes they do, but sometimes I just make terrible images.

I have determined for my own values that if I am not growing in my concepts and techniques there is no reason to keep going. Keeping an uncomfortable edge to my work keeps me asking questions. It keeps me fresh. I do not want to keep shooting the same picture over and over.

Shoot a lot

As Jay Maisel hints in the quote at the start, shooting a lot of images is one of the keys to having good ones. The reality is that for even the best of us, the percentage is depressingly low.

No, just walking around and pressing the shutter every few seconds will not lead to some gems. It might make a mildly interesting time-lapse video.

Doing good work in any field takes practice. The infamous 10,000 hour rule is not a truth, but it is generally true. Any discipline takes uncounted hours of practice in addition to formal training. I believe it is certainly true for photography.

It is important to get out every day and practice. Practice seeing, discovering subjects, planning shots, framing compositions, executing good images. Sometimes you should even use a camera. ☺. The point being that you don’t always need to be actually taking pictures. You can practice while walking to the coffee shop or driving down the street. It is a mental discipline.

But it is a physical discipline, too. And it is very helpful to use your camera every day. Just having it in your hands helps sharpen your senses. Carry it everywhere. Actually using the tool builds muscle memory. And coming back and having to edit what you have done closes the loop. It makes me evaluate my work and really think about how I have done.

Edit ruthlessly

Ah, editing. The point of my previous post on killing our darlings. I believe this is probably the second hardest part of photography (the hardest being marketing).

Shooting a lot of images means having a lot to edit. This can get to be a real time sink. And it can be depressing. I’m trying to look at it, not as making lots of terrible images, but as having lots of failed experiments.

If you go out every day and make yourself shoot and try new things, most are going to fail. That is OK. A few will succeed. That is one of the things that keeps me going. A few succeed.

The failures should be learned from and then trashed. There is little reason to keep a bad image, unless it helps you remember what your were going for and why it failed.

Even if you are constantly experimenting and expecting large number of failures, there is no excuse for letting down your standards in the editing. Be ruthless. If I get even one “keeper” out of a day’s shoot, I am happy for it. Having no keepers is not a failure for a personal day.

Another insight from Jay Maisel is “It’s my obligation to take out all the ‘wrong’ pictures.

Be honest with yourself

I like to experiment. I like to put myself in new situations and try out new ideas and techniques. But I have to be honest with myself and admit that most of them do not work well. Sometimes there is a glimmer of hope that might lead me to experiment further with an idea, but a glimmer of hope does not mean an image that should be shown to someone.

I have to accept the fact that the vast majority of the images I make are bad. That is, bad by my standards, which is all I can go by.

Most of them should be deleted. Even of the ones I keep, that may have some personal significance to me, very few should be shown to people. I am starting to understand and accept this.

One of the lessons that has been hardest for me is that a tack sharp, well exposed and focused image may well be worthless. It probably is. If it does not have something useful to say it does not matter how technically perfect it is. I owe it to you, the viewer of my images to only show you one worth looking at and considering.

Don’t fall in love with them

So I know I am going to throw away the vast majority of the images I take. I know I will throw away piles of technically perfect images. I know I will throw away away most of the experiments I make.

Because I know that, I have to keep from falling in love with them all. That’s hard. I made them. But the digital ecosystem is littered with useless bits. I have to do my part by cleaning up as much as I can.

I said in the previous blog about this that I go through many rounds of edits and culls. I really try hard to delay falling in love with any of my images until they have survived several rounds and seem to be contenders. I am not always successful. There are times when I just love an image. I try to not let that bias the objectivity I need in my edits, but of course, love wins sometimes.

Not falling in love with them is more a goal than a hard rule. But the hard reality in photography is that most of what I produce is not really good and is destined to be deleted or buried deep in my filing system never to be seen by anyone other than me.

But if it hurts and they are going to be thrown away, why shoot lots of terrible images? I don’t know of any way to improve beyond where I am or to expand my vision without experimenting and then ruthlessly editing. Terrible images are necessary.