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12 photography ‘mistakes’ that are actually creative tools

From ‘filling the frame’ to the ‘rule of odds,’ the world of photography has its fair share of dos and don’ts.

In school, photographers are often taught to shoot in manual mode rather than auto, keep their ISOs as low as possible, and get perfect exposures without losing detail in the highlights or shadows.

The internet abounds with articles about rules to follow and errors to avoid, but it’s harder to find advice on incorporating these so-called ‘mistakes’ as a creative method. Happenstance and lucky mistakes have always played a critical role in photography, dating back to the days of film, a much more accident-prone medium than digital. But even today, when it’s easier than ever to take a technically ‘perfect’ photo, photographers are choosing to break the rules and colour outside the lines. We asked twelve photographers about their favourite ‘mistakes’ and why they love to make them.

Nilufer Yanya, on assignment for Pitchfork © Maria Louceiro

Experimenting with lens flare

“As a teenager, I was often labeled an unlucky person,” the Berlin-based photographer Maria Louceiro tells us. “As an adult, I’ve ended up relying on breaking the rules. I find that when imperfections flourish, I can create beauty. This includes adding lens flare, using broken objects that create light distortions, and experimenting with strange cheap cameras and lenses. With most of them, I can’t even identify where or when they were manufactured. I’m fond of very old lenses that are incredibly spent and flawed.”

Using old cameras

Speaking of antique gear, the commercial photographer James Aitcheson recommends using older camera models. “Learning to shoot with vintage cameras can give your photography a unique perspective,” he says. “I have a collection of vintage film cameras that I use on a regular basis for personal growth, and it has a profound impact on my photography. If everyone followed the rules, then how would anyone stand out from the crowd?”

“If everyone followed the rules, then how would anyone stand out from the crowd?”

Image © James Aitcheson

Shooting in the midday sun

“One ‘rule’ that I often heard while I was in school was to wait for the best light,” the New York-based documentary and travel photographer Sofia Verzbolovskis says. “That is, we were instructed to go out to shoot in the early morning or evening to get that ‘golden hour.’

“But I actually love to go out and photograph in midday and explore the endless possibilities of photographing with harsh light. You tend to get very striking images, with an interplay of contrast, shadows, and silhouettes. I am often out walking at noon, with my phone in hand, which I absolutely love to use for street photography.”

The silhouette of a man as he walks past a church on 116th in Harlem © Sofia Verzbolovskis

Adding light leaks

“I purposely add in light leaks to my photographs by opening my camera back on a roll of film,” the Maui-based family photographer Wendy Laurel tells us. “I also love sun flares of all kinds on my images and love water droplets and any other imperfections that highlight the light. I also use cheap lens filters in front of my lens to add colour or effects to sun flares. I use cheap gear as well. Kodak disposable cameras and point-and-shoot cameras are an easy and fun way to get that 1980’s nostalgic feel to your photos.”

Shot for @littleparadiseswim, on Kodak Ektar film with a light leak © Wendy Laurel

Using blown-out backlight

“I always love blown out, backlit images,” the fashion, beauty and lifestyle photographer Melinda DiMauro tells us. “It tends to be flattering on most people; I love the softness on skin tones and the overall mood it brings. Sometimes, on location, we will use a bounce or portable strobe to wrap the light and soften contrast.

“I’m a big fan of indirect light too. Sometimes, in the studio, I will just bounce a strobe off the ceiling or a wall to get an overall soft brightness with the light. I find that bright, airy aesthetic communicates feelings of peace or happiness, which works really well in commercial images.”

Model Valerie Ferguson shot on the North Shore of Oahu for Andre Assous shoes © Melinda DiMauro

Incorporating motion blur

“A lot of people are very focused on whether their photos are sharp enough,” the Amsterdam-based photographer Lotte Schriek tells us. “I did this at first too. I chose sharp, less interesting photos over blurry, interesting ones. But over time, I’ve realised that I like blurriness! I love incorporating motion into my photos. It brings the picture to life and makes it more dynamic. Don’t get me wrong: a sharp photo can be very interesting too. I just think that sharpness isn’t the only factor that makes a photo great.”

Image © Lotte Schriek

Not looking through the viewfinder

“Sometimes, I don’t even look into the viewfinder while I’m shooting,” the Los Angeles-based photographer Macey J. Foronda admits. “I find I can connect with the moment and subject better that way. I don’t like to be too posey-posey and precise. Some of my favourite images I’ve taken have been happy accidents. I enjoy feeling a little ‘off the cuff.’”

“I don’t like to be too posey-posey and precise. Some of my favourite images I’ve taken have been happy accidents.”

Trampoline Experiment #1, 2019 © Macey J. Foronda

Using a shallow depth of field

“I use a shallow depth of field whenever possible in my personal work, even though clients sometimes don’t like it!” the advertising photographer Mauricio Candela says. A wide-open aperture can create blurry backgrounds and bokeh, making for abstracted images with a painterly feel.”

Cutting people off at the limbs

“I’ve come across a lot of rules over the years about the edges of a frame and what not to do, especially when it comes to limbs and people’s bodies,” the New York City-based photographer Marsha Lebedev Bernstein. “Specifically, we’re told not to cut limbs at certain points—and that you certainly don’t cut people’s bodies or faces at strange points.

“While this may be true for classic portraiture and perhaps a certain type of commercial image, I find this is less applicable to, say, street photography, editorial photography, and certain types of reportage that push the boundaries. This is, after all, an art and not a science, and often broken rules not only work but actually heighten the overall mood and enhance the feel of an image.”

A visit to Montmartre © Marsha Lebedev Bernstein

Bending the rules of composition

“My background is in architecture, and for that reason, I used to be a perfectionist when it came to lines and composition,” the artist Margarida Reis Pereira admits. “This meant my photos were sometimes quite rigid and rational, especially when it came to framing an image or aligning my subjects ‘just right.’ Today, I think I’ve loosened up much more, which brings a more natural and spontaneous sensibility to my work.”

Using only one light source

“As a beginning photographer, as I researched various techniques, I used many different light sources,” the Saigon-based photographer Marc Tran tells us. “I bought a lot of equipment, ranging from cheap to expensive, and I practiced every day until I understood how to properly use seven to ten lights at the same time in one shoot, while controlling each light perfectly.

“Ten years later, I create most of my still-life work today using just one light. I’m focused on building and bringing a unique feeling into every image I make. Photography is an art, not just a technical skill. People wonder how I create nice images with just one light, but I’m trying to perfect my approach every day.

“Photography is an art, not just a technical skill.”

A creative shot for Sulwhasoo © Marc Tran

“I observe all the shapes and shadows of my surroundings—on the road, buildings, people, and trees—created by sunlight at different times of day. This research helps me to understand how the position, the intensity, the colour of the light affect my pictures. Many might see using just one light source as a limitation, but I see it as a challenge.”

Using light sources that don’t normally go together

“I like to use Rembrandt lighting for portraits, but I tend to add some sort of twist, like additional, smaller light sources to go with it,” the Dubai-based photographer Daniel Asater explains. “Sometimes not sticking to conventional lighting in the studio can be interesting. You can even mix continuous light sources with flash and gels, etc.

Image © Daniel Asater

“You can also add broken mirrors, plastic frames, or wine glasses to your gear to create dynamic lighting. Explore lighting with different sources, and move it into unconventional positions to see what works.”

About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.