Weakness as Potential Strength

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«Try again, fail again. Fail better.» – Samuel Beckett

Learn by you own mistakes is pretty much what Beckett encourage us to do. And so it is. Failure is not failure if you are able to lift yourself above the feeling of misery and look upon it as an opportunity to improve. I do so with my photography. Every so often, for instance, I take stock of my last period of photography and search for my weak spots. Some mistakes are imminent and obvious – and easy to remedy on the spot, while others sneak up upon you from behind and will only disclose themselves in a retrospective view. These go to the bottom of your creative self and are the most important inadequacies to discern. They hold the biggest potential for improvements, because they are what could be called systemic. More than anything they show what is limiting us from developing and growing. If I am able to decipher these weak spots in my photography I have found a base to jump further from.

When I take stock of my photography, I look for elements that can be improved, not only with the images themselves, but with my choice of subject matter and my shooting process. I look at the work and ask myself questions. Did I work the image enough? Did I vary my coverage enough? How about lens-to-subject distance? Ultimately the big question is: How can I make things better? And really; how can I become a better photographer?

Unless we are willing to evaluate our work with a critical eye, we may be destined to make the same pictures over and over. Even if you are a prolific photographer; if you stay put on the same spot, your creativity starts to crumble. By figuring out where our weaknesses lie, we can take steps to eliminate them – and thus lift ourselves to a next level.

When did you last evaluate your work? Do you know what your photographic weaknesses are?

When I look at my work over the summer and the last couple of months I see plenty of potentials for improvement. To be honest I am not very satisfied with my images taken the last five months or so. Looking through the files in retrospective I see I have gone into automatic mode – and most importantly I have been lazy, simply not been shooting enough. Besides playing with fun apps for my cell phone, I have not really experimented much; instead I have gone down the familiar and beloved road. Not good at all. But now that my weaknesses clearly are exposed to myself, I can start lifting myself above the mediocrities.

The thing is once you have identified and listed areas with room for improvements, you can target remedies to deal with whatever is ailing your shooting. It’s not such a mysterious process. When it comes to technical issues, answers can often be found on internet in a few keyword searches; you will find many free and comprehensive websites devoted to specific areas of photography. But that’s just part of the answer. The main remedy lies in going out with your camera and addressing those weaknesses head-on.

In her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz talks about how wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. As a photographer, making mistakes can be a good thing; I have made perhaps more than my share, but I try to learn from them. So hopefully my next shoot will be better than the last one – or as Jan Saudek, Czech art photographer and painter, says: «I believe all artists, if they are not lying to themselves, must believe that the best part of their work, or even their life, is in front of them. To look only to the past and to say `those were the best years, when I was young´ is to say that in the future there is nothing.»


80 thoughts on “Weakness as Potential Strength

    1. Nothing would make me more happy than if my post would make you get out of your comfort zone. It’s just a matter of jumping… Thanks for the comment, Susan!

  1. Ser crítico con el trabajo puede ser una buena herramienta para poder mejorar. Aunque al dejar pasar el tiempo las cosas se valoran mejor. Aquí veo un trabajo de gran calidad.

  2. Ett godt innlegg i rette tid – for meg. Som en av de middelmådige vet jeg at jeg gjør mange feil, og av og til får man lyst til å gi bare f ….Det nytter nok ikke. “På ‘an igjen”!

  3. What an interesting and important topic, Otto! How do you find new inspiration if you get stuck in a rot or always doing the same thing? I am still trying to find my ‘photographic calling’. So in that sense I think my best work is still far ahead of me, which is good. I am still relative young at photography and am discovering that I always feel drawn to certain subjects. However, I don’t think that I have mastered to express photographically what I see – not by a long shot. Perhaps it begins with trying to understand why I am drawn to certain subjects and not others. Thus, my photography work is really an expression of self-discovery. I am not always able to get into that ‘zone’ where time stops and my photography and I become one, but when I do that’s when my photos turn out ‘soulful’.

    1. How do I find inspiration? Sometimes it’s enough just to start to go out and shoot – or just go for a walk. Sometimes I find inspiration when I read or listen to music. Or I go watch an exhibition. What doesn’t help is trying to force inspiration to come. But if I keep working hard with my work, something will always pop up. It’s good your best work is still ahead of you. That’s how it should be for everyone. Keep self-exploring and you will get ever better. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Återigen ett intressant ämne att diskutera.
    Och om det liksom de andra finns det hur mycket som helst att säga, många vinklingar och personliga åsikter som vill och måste fram i ljuset:)
    Visst utvecklas vi, om vi inte gjorde det och om vi inte ställde oss själva inför utmaningar och svåra beslut…då vore vi slut som fotografer och konstnärer…slut i alla sammanhang.
    Och lika självklart är det att inspirationen och lusten tar paus ibland, bilder som aldrig borde ha blivit tagna…har ändå blivit det. Men, det värsta jag vet är när någon säger att “mina gamla bilder” är så dåliga, jag borde aldrig ha visat dem, de borde aldrig ha blivit publicerade…vilken skit, vilket skitsnack!!
    Man ska alltid stå upp för vad man gör…och har gjort…och kan man inte det då tycker jag att man ska ägna sig åt något annat…
    Många känner sig kallade…men få blir, eller i alla fall borde bli utvalda.
    Du är en duktig fotograf och debattör…jag uppskattar verkligen din blogg och dina (ibland) provokativa frågeställningar.
    Allt gott, Gertie
    Allt gott

    1. Takk for den flotte tilbakemeldingen, Gertie! Jeg er helt enig med deg at om vi slutter å utvikle oss, da kan vi like godt legge inn årene. Og ja, inspirasjonen og arbeidsinnsatsen går i bølgedaler, men så lenge vi ikke gir opp, vil vi alltid finne nye topper. Det med å stå inne for sine bilder, handler nok om både selvtillitt og selvinnsikt – eller mangel på sådan.

  5. If you really want to get “better” with photography, trying to improve on a technical or handcraft level is one thing. I think trying to answer, really honestly answer the question “why do I take pictures” might be the most challenging question. Yet, I think if one comes close to honest answers, the photographs automagically can get better. Really better.
    Have a wonderful day.

    1. I think your question is important in all arts. If you are able to understand your reasons for taking a picture you are surely closer to being able to make an interesting picture. Thanks for your comment, Roland!

  6. Wonderful post, a post I will/should return to every 6 months. I find myself getting into ruts, where it begins with passionate photography and creativity, and then I continue in that mode…but I think I begin going through the motions, and the quality drop can be substantial. Stepping back, taking a look at where I am going wrong (or losing focus) is the only way out. Great post Otto!

    1. I am not sure if it’s the only way out, but it’s certainly a good idea to give it a try whenever one get into the ruts. Thanks for the nice feedback!

  7. You weren’t specifically speaking of aging, Otto, but I like that last quote and it brings to mind how sometimes when I think of myself getting older I hold back on evaluation. It doesn’t feel like there is that much time left to change course. I’m a very optimistic person and I don’t allow myself to wallow in anything negative, but I think you struck a chord. I’m not evaluating enough. Perhaps I’ve subconsciously decided that I’m doing well enough, and I should be happy with that. I loved this post for the reason that you’ve got me reconsidering. My art and photography yes, but maybe even more than that!

    1. I don’t believe age needs to be a determining factor whether or not we continue developing. It’s a mindset that all artists struggle with. But as long as we keep developing we always be able to improve our art – and life. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Debra!

  8. This post definitely hits the nail on the head….my head. I go back and see photos from my beginning (which was just a couple of years ago really) and see where I’ve got to, and know I have a lot to look forward to. I usually try never to look back, and move continually forward, but in this scenario, looking back is a good thing.
    Thanks, Otto.

  9. I expect you will continue to grow photographically. digital helps, of course, but so does taking the time for self evaluation. Good post. Oh, and I liked your image too.

  10. Very inspiring post! It was what I needed to read right now. It really helped put things into perspective. Thank you very much for that! 😀

  11. A terrific post Otto-I was always told the success comes from the action no matter the result-it has made making mistakes a lot easier-wonderful quotes especially that last one! Thank you-

  12. this parallels life in general as i recall being taught in religion class: to end each day with a self examination. basically covering the day looking for weak spots or places we can improve, moments of failure and how to remedy the fall. i like how you offer a book at the end of your posts – it gives more depth should we choose to learn more on the topic at hand. great post.

  13. First of all, I like the photo with it’s vintage look and that particular scene. It evokes a number of memories about nearly overgrown old sheds, barns, and garages that I used to explore. Those memories are nearly tangible, so I’d say that this photo is successful.
    Secondly, your thoughts and insights are spot-on. We need to do exactly as you have suggested. It will take us past our doldrums and comfort zones, and we will be able to make some progress and improvement, not only in photography, but in life as well.
    A neat photo and wise words. Nicely done all around, Otto. Thanks.

  14. It’s in failures do we learn, grow and become better persons. Thank you for motivating us to strive and improve our passion for images and life on general. Have a great weekend!

  15. it’s so good to have a bit of time and am here enjoying this post. i miss this, though the time off the grid is heaven! with painting, i always feel as if the present work is prepping me for the future ones, but i don’t often think of that when taking photos. thanks; i have a new batch of images from the butterfly gardens yesterday, and when i go through them i will look through your eyes (never possible but you’re a great mentor!) and i hope to glean wisdom from those self critiques.

    thanks for your great feedback – always a sweet tonic during my hurried injections of cyber cafe sessions!

  16. “Unless we are willing to evaluate our work with a critical eye, we may be destined to make the same pictures over and over.” (And everyone likes it.) I agree ! Time slips by and we don’t even know we are doing it. What I have learned recently. I take a painting home from the studio, a finished one. I put it out somewhere and live with it for awhile. Sometimes , lots of times, I’ll look at it and I’ll see something that makes me say oh why didn’t I see that. Something is not right so back to the studio it goes. Another big help for me is collaborating with someone. I’m doing that right now and my painting has make a good jump in a new direction.

  17. After almost a year of blogging, the madness seems to have settled, put up all I had and I got nothing more which is awfully bad but good. Now I must dedicate my time to read and learn and better myself. So I’m here.

  18. All your posts are so insightful, Otto. You have such a talent to make us think, and to reassess our photography, especially with regard to our skills, our strengths, our weaknesses, our habits… Another inspiring post. Thank you!

  19. Another great photo, and another great post. You use your blog very effectively as a teaching tool. I learn from each of your posts, and I appreciate the education a very great deal. Thank you!

  20. There is so much to photography, I realise every time I visit your pages. Though I’m not a student of it, your articles are interesting still. Wonderful, Munchow.

  21. Thanks for this post to remind me to take a critical retrospective look at past photos. It’s important to not only look for the areas that need improvement but to look at how far one has come in his/her photographic journey and use that sense of accomplishment to inspire hard work on the weak areas. The quotes you used were inspiring.

  22. Great that you’re still thinking this way, Otto… but don’t be too hard on yourself! Now, I’m not using this as an excuse to become complacent, but there such a thing as being so self-critical, that it can even lead to discounting your own images, when they’re very much appreciated by others who do have insight. That’s the tricky bit for me, then. It ends up being a bit of a balancing act…

    1. It is indeed a balancing act. But speaking for myself, I don’t think I am too hard on myself. I try to enjoy my good pictures, but still always want to improve, and that’s what I use the back mirror for. Thanks for your thoughts, Andrew!

  23. Found your blog through Rajiv Chopra, many thanks to him. Read a couple of your other posts as well. It’s inspiring to find someone constantly lookng ahead and helping all of us want to get better. Great post this one, I am more into writing, but as you said, the thought applies to all art forms.
    Thanks a ton for sharing.

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