Overcoming A Failure To Save A Shoot

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon1 Comment

We All Fail As Photographers

I want to be real in this episode.  We live in a world where information is highly curated and in some cases entirely staged.  Sort of like the beginning of the Jumanji movie where there is a female character who works extremely hard to get the lighting, environment, and angle just right so that she can take a photo to put on social media and then comments the photo with “just rolling out of bed”.

From a photography perspective we tend to see only the best, finalized, fully processed images.  Photographers don’t put out their images that just didn’t work.  They don’t publish their shot where everything was perfect but they missed focus.  We usually don’t see the 300 other photos that came out of a shoot that were varying degrees of bad to ok, we only see the one that was really good.

I’m not saying everyone uses a spray and pray technique, where you push the shutter button 3,000 times at a photo shoot hoping that when you get home on the computer there is at least 1 there that is usable and after some post processing may be something you feel comfortable sharing.  Although that is a stage I think we all kind of have to go through at the beginning of our journey to master photography.

I am saying that even a photographer who is really skilled and experienced experiments with things.  The more I do photographer, the more I am convinced that the creative process requires experimentation.  Trying a new angle, a new composition, a new lens, a new light.  

I feel like the most growth I have made as a photographer has come from my many, many failures. I also feel like one of the best ways I can judge my skill level as a photographer is in how I respond to and overcome those failures.  Let me tell you about my latest one.

Started With A Great Location

My story starts with a paid client shoot.  My wife and I were hired to create some family portraits.  We had been hired to create portraits for this family in the past, so a repeat client.  This time they family wanted to go out to a place here in the west desert land of Utah called the salt flats.  It is a beautiful location where there is a wide, flat desert area covered by a few inches of salt.  Yep, salt.

We have shot at this location numerous times.  We have had the experience of shooting at these salt flats where you can imagine that during the day when the sun is out this white floor you stand on is uncomfortably bright.  Like there almost isn’t a direction you can look in without squinting kind of bright.  

The specific failure at this shoot was not the result of not knowing the family or the location.  We have created images of this family and we have created images at this location.  Both are things we know so the situation is one where we should be as prepared and ready to create beautiful images with this family.  

We can’t control or really know very well if mother nature is going to deliver a truly stunning sunset at this location, but it is really safe to assume at worst you are going to get a golden colored sky with mountains in the background and this unique and interesting bed of salt everyone is standing on.  That’s the worst case scenario.  Best case is that there are some wispy clouds just over the mountains where the sunlight reflects off of them and produces stunning orange, red, and magenta colors in the sky.

When the client asked if we would do the shoot at this location we were kind of excited because the worst case scenario is a pretty good one and our confidence that we can create beautiful shots actually increases.

My Failure At a Recent Client Shoot

Now that I have set up the story, let’s get to my failure.  As you know I don’t do photography full time.  I work as an Information Security professional in my day job, and with this location being 2 hours away from my house (one way) it meant that timelines were pretty tight.  I had to finish my work at the day job, load up the car with the equipment we would need to do this shoot, and get on the road so that we could drive those two hours and be there in time to warm up the family while we waited for the ambient lighting to get good.

Not a shot that will win any awards. Big shadows on some of the family and harsh lighting on the faces, but sill fun images for the client to have and helps them all get warmed up to having a camera in front of their face!

I say warm up the family on purpose here.  My experience has been that it takes a little bit of shooting before all the members of the family get real in the photos.  Not just this family, it seems like it is only professional models who can walk into a photo setup and boom, we have perfect poses and smiling.  For everyone else they have to kind of work up to it.  That means we need to get there early enough we can do a little bit of shooting with the family before the good light hits.

So, I finish work and load up the car.  I went through my mental pre-shoot checklist that I shared a couple episodes back, and we left.  We weren’t terribly late, but a little behind our target.  We made up those few minutes on the long drive.  We got to the location before the family, something we always want to do so that they don’t wait on us and I can start getting equipment setup.  Things were actually looking very good.  

I got my light stands out of the car.  I was excited because our previous experience with this location had taught me that it is tougher to shoot with lights than any place I have shot.  Remember how I described it earlier as being a place that is uncomfortably bright no matter what direction you look when the sun is out.  I had learned by experience that normal lighting I would use just isn’t quite enough at the salt flats.  I was really excited I had brought with me more light stands to set up more lights and play with that during this shoot.

I got my lights out and started mounting them on the light stands when my wife went to get the softboxes out so that we could mount them on the lights stands and asked me where they were.  She couldn’t see them in the back of the car.  That’s when it hit me.  I didn’t put the softboxes in the car.  I can’t really describe the wave of panic that hit me just then.

I have my light stands.  I have my lights with fresh batteries.  I have my cameras with fresh batteries and empty memory cards.  I have diffusers in case we want to take some individual shots while the light is still severely harsh.  What I don’t have are my softboxes and I really NEED them to make the lighting work the way I had envisioned.  I failed.

Reacting To My Failure

What would you do if you were in that situation?  You have a family that will be arriving on location in minutes.  A family that drove two hours to get to this location.  There isn’t a store within at least 90 minutes that would have softboxes.  You can’t get softboxes and have to use what you have with you.

I am really fortunate because my wife shoots with me.  She is the better half of me anyway, and as she saw the panic on my face and immediately started calming me down.  She reminded me that the style of family portraits these days is using a lot of high key lighting and we could totally create some images like that without any lights.

I went back to the car and took a look at what else I did bring.  The great things is that I wasn’t totally without light modifiers, I just didn’t have the I was counting on and planning for with my creative vision for this shoot.  I had my MagMod MagBox.  A good softbox I love using for individuals, but it is kind of small for lighting a family.  I have my MagMod MagSphere, which again is pretty good for lighting and individual but I prefer the softer light I get out of my bigger softboxes for lighting a family.  I also have two MagBounces that I had already planned to use to add the extra light I had learned I needed from previous shoots.

I became confident I could use these modifiers to make it work.  It wouldn’t be exactly what I had envisioned, but I knew I could make this work.  Then on to my next problem.  I only have three mag grips.  These are the silicon sleeves with powerful magnets on the sides that you have to slide over the front of your light so that the MagMod modifiers can stick to your lights via those magnets.  I wanted to use four lights for this shoot and for sure I can only use 3.

I altered my creative vision to include the three lights I have and as I was getting them setup the family arrived.

Dealing With My Failure

During the two hours we had driving to the location, and before I had realized that I didn’t have my softboxes, my wife and I had talked about me working on getting the lighting setup for when the light was good while she took the family and did those warm up shots.  She would meter to get proper exposure on the skin and let the environment be as blown out as it needed to be.

Now that the family was here that is exactly what we did.  I don’t think the family ever knew I had my panic moment or that I had failed.  I think we did a really good job of acting like we were as prepared as we wanted to be for the shoot.  I set up the three lights in a way I thought would work well when the ambient light changed while she was doing a little shooting with the family without any lights. 

Really should have brought he lights in closer so that we could lower the power and get softer light, but with all the family poses changing quickly and the sunset light leaving we didn’t change the setup much during the shoot.

I put the MagBox on the left and the MagSphere on the right.  I raised both light stands to be just above the heads of the family and positioned the lights to point down towards them.  I planned to have the family stand a couple of feet behind the lights.  Then I put my one MagBounce on a light stand about half the height of the other lights and positioned it camera right so that it would be about four feet in front of the family and a couple of feet in front of the camera.

I quickly did some test shots with the lights with our second camera, trying to see how my setup looked, and it was so bright I could really see them in my tests, but I felt enough confidence to move on.  I went over with our big diffuser and started helping to reduce the harshness of the ambient light for some individual shots.

It wasn’t very long before the ambient light started to get less harsh, just as we had planned for as we timed the shoot with our clients.  We moved over to the lights I had set up.  I got the lights as close to the family as possible while my wife was getting in the right position with the camera.  We took a couple of test shots to get the power levels of the lights where we wanted them, and then I got the iPad setup to show the family the shots as we took them.

The lighting worked out pretty well. Still a little harsher with shadows from one model on another model in the family, but we were still able to create some really good photos. Most importantly, the client LOVED them!

I was relieved to see that the lighting was pretty good as we looked at the images we were creating on the iPad.  It wasn’t as soft as I had hoped for and knew I could get if I had my larger softboxes with me, but we overcame my failure and the images were still really nice.  The client was raving about them as we were shooting, so I knew we were good.

Getting Creative After Failure

As the shoot proceeded, mother nature treated us to perhaps the best sunset I have seen at this location.  We got some safe family shots and then I asked if they wanted to try an experiment with me.  I didn’t have exactly the right lights for what I wanted to create with this family, but I wanted to try putting the lights behind a couple of them and create some images where this amazing sky would be in the background and I hoped I could get just a ring light around their silhouette.

I would love to do something like this again with different lighting modifiers, but was really happy with the image we created here given the 60 seconds we had to move the lights and get the shot.

They were game so I moved the lights and we shot a few, and the client was just thrilled.  I tell you this part of the story not because the lighting is the very best for this kind of image but because I am really proud of the fact that I didn’t let my failure at the beginning of this shoot determine how the whole of the shoot went.  I was able to overcome that initial panic and come all the way around to having some creative ideas.  I don’t think I would have been able to do that a couple of years ago and I am taking it as a good indicator I have developed my skills as a photographer.


Jeff: WiFi camera connection.  I love having the iPad available for the client to see the images we are creating.  It is invaluable to me to get that instant feedback from the client.  Most importantly, they can make sure we get everyone looking the way they want in the photos.  I wish there were two things different.  I need faster WiFi as it takes many seconds for an image to transfer to the iPad and I need the camera to remain fully functional while someone is flipping through the images.



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