Embracing Mistakes When A Moment Matters

Does anyone remember how they felt when they first started taking photographs? I hope I’m not alone in thinking this, but it was the absolute joy of taking a photo that mattered most to me. I had no idea about shutter speeds, ISO or what it meant to correctly expose an image and if you’d said the words ‘depth of field’ to me, you’d have just gotten a blank stare in return. But I loved going out and observing and capturing what I saw on my little point-and-shoot camera.

I suspect things changed as my hobby got a little more serious. Buying my first DSLR meant learning about some of those things I knew nothing about, what I refer to as the “technicalities” of photography. You should probably know right here, I am not a technical person at all. I’ve always done things based largely on my gut and instinct, so this was a new experience for me. Photography is an unusual mix of creativity and technicality, the two shouldn’t really work together but, in fact, they do.

What changed though was that, with this new-found knowledge, I started to analyse my work in greater depth. I began to submit my work to photography forums for critique which, for a beginner, was pretty harsh. As well as taking that critique to heart and almost jacking it all in there and then, I began to look at my own work in the same way. I doubted every image – I worried about exposure, missing focus, the fact I didn’t dare step away from Aperture priority even though “real photographers shoot full manual”. And then I tortured myself by looking at lots of amazing photographers on social media and lamenting over how my work was never going to be as good.

The turning point came at one of my early weddings. I was still shooting with a cropped sensor camera and had yet to grasp the ins and outs of using flash. I was not confident in low light situations at all. The first dance was a total nightmare and I dreaded going through the images afterwards because I was pretty sure I’d screwed them up completely. So there I was, culling my images, when a shot from the first dance appeared on my screen and something happened. The shot was blurred, it was noisy as hell but I didn’t see any of that. What grabbed me was the look the couple were giving each other and it shone through all that was technically wrong with that image. That moment was a game changer…

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I quickly came to realise something in that moment and in the many moments since that wedding. As a self-taught photographer I had to realise that my strengths lay not in technical perfection but in “capturing moments”. I realise that sounds really cheesy, and I’ve fought against that phrase over the years because it’s been used so much it’s lost its real meaning. But, no matter which way I look at it or try to describe it, it’s the only phrase that really works.

A loving look or shared glance, a gentle touch, a genuine smile or laugh without any thought of hiding laughter lines. I’ve learned that what I really love to capture are people, personalities, quirks, character and the emotion, heart and soul those people bring to the party. That’s what matters most, not whether I’ve shot it at the perfect aperture or shutter speed, or whether it’s perfectly exposed or with no noise present. Because, you know what? The people I shoot for have no idea what any of that stuff is and they just don’t care about it.

Taking this pressure off myself has resulted in an interesting outcome. It’s meant my couples and clients wind up with way more images than I would ever have given them before – images I would have classed as throwaways are now included in my final galleries which means my clients are a whole lot happier! This sentiment was made clear to me when one of my grooms got in touch a year after his wedding. He wrote: ‘We love the photos you took that day and can never thank you enough. I’m especially pleased I ended up with some super photos of my Mother and Grandmother, neither of whom are now with us, at the last ‘official’ event they both attended. A photo that captures the moment, the essence and the emotion of an event is a precious thing, and you have the gift. However technically proficient a photographer becomes, it is worth nothing without that.’

So maybe it’s time to take another look at your images, to stop being so hard on yourself and start seeing your images for what they really are – memories that will matter hugely to the people you took them for and not necessarily the blurred mistake the technical side of you is critiquing and throwing away. After all, who are we to pick and choose what memories a person gets to keep?

Sarah has been running Sarah Wayte Photography for the last six years and recently started Heart Lines, a blog which aims to encourage photographers to worry less about the ‘technicalities’ and more about the heart and soul of their subjects. She is based in Essex, UK, but will soon be making the move to Canada, along with her husband, Stu, and their two fur-babies, Lewie and Lola.