Failure is an Option

- - Working

When I worked at a magazine, every month a couple of the shoots we assigned would fail. Fail to meet our standards, fail to be interesting, fail to capture what we were looking for. Immediately we would need to either kill it and reshoot, kill the story altogether, find pickup to replace it (I worked at a place once where they wanted me to find pickup and make an assignment simultaneously which seemed like a defeatist attitude so I usually just pretended to look for stock) or just figure out a way to run it. What you do depends on how far over budget you are, the number of kills that month, amount of time till you go to press and wether or not you can come up with a solution.

I worked at several magazines where we were told to reduce or eliminate (!) the number of kills (btw, eliminating the kills always amounted to pretending like it was going to run in a future issue and when that future issue never came–2 years down the road–we killed it). Kills have always been a part of making magazines and I would argue an important part of how a magazine is different than a newspaper or a monthly is different than a weekly. When you kill photographs it’s because they aren’t good enough to publish and that means you have high standards. Also, the only way to find brilliance is to take chances. Companies have R&D budgets because doing things the way you’ve always done them will never produce an unexpected bit of genius. You might think the first thing to do in a time of budget crisis is eliminate the R&D budget. This will of course eliminate your edge over the sea of sameness.

There are several reasons why a shoot fails:

1. The editor’s fault: Many times when making an assignment we are dealing with an incomplete picture of the story. Either it hasn’t come in yet or it has and is going back for a massive rewrite. Usually this leaves interpretation of the subject and selection of the photographer with a very wide area to work in. Whether this is bad or good usually depends on if the editor is one of those people who likes to see the important parts of the story depicted in pictures. You can also sometimes get caught in the trap where the editor is focused on a particular paragraph or sentence of a story pitch that may not even be possible to shoot. These shoots are called sandbags and always fail on some level.

2. The Photo Editors Fault: Sometimes I will fail to understand what it is the editor is excited about in a particular story and assign the wrong photographer or send them off in the wrong direction. Sometimes I would be unable to put enough effort into figuring out how to shoot something. I should also point out here a skill that is often overlooked in Photo Editors which is the ability to motivate and lead photographers. Magazines do a horrible job of teaching management skills which is sad because the reality of photo editing is that you’re hiring and managing a ton of freelancers each month and a huge part of managing people is leadership.

3. The Photographers Fault: I don’t think anyone really admits when they think a shoot they just did sucks eggs, because you can never really tell what’s going on inside the magazine and of course I’ve had CD’s and Editors love shoots I thought missed the mark. I remember calling a photographer who just delivered 3 different pictures for us to tell them one was not working to see if there was anything we could do and he remarked that he was just telling an assistant how the picture you love is sometimes the one they hate. Anyway sometimes you can’t make good pictures. Veteran photographers know how to make sure they get a baseline image no matter what.

4. The Budget’s Fault: It’s no secret that magazines try to accomplish more with less and cutting expenses can lead to a shoot’s failure. Eliminate pre-production, producer, shoot time, assistants, wardrobe, hair, makeup, casting, location scouting, props and you will see a difference in the pictures. You’re simply leaving more to chance when you don’t button up a shoot with these things in place and you have to be willing to redo it if luck is not on your side that day. I should also note that showing a portfolio to the editor where the pictures took $20,000 in production value to create and then handing them $5,000 to get it done will certainly lead to disaster.

A failed shoot is no big deal and if a photographer has done other sucessful shoots for you in the past it’s easy to move on but if it’s the first time shooting they’re probably not going to get a second chance no matter who’s fault it is. Failure is a part of the creative process and it’s a big part of making something great and unexpected. Without it you’re just mediocre.

There Are 22 Comments On This Article.

  1. When I was a magazine staff photographer I loved going out the same time as the writer to find the story together. Now I’m more often parachuted in after the story angle has been decided.

    The problem I run into now is that it is hard to get more than a name an address of the portrait subject. I always ask for a draft of the story or more details, but too often the photo editor has none.

    I end up walking into the assignment cold, which limits me to work with only what is at hand.It also makes the publication look bad because I have to get the story again from the subject instead of coming in like a pro that has done his homework.

  2. We all have bad shoots. And professionals usually know it. But, recognizing what causes a bad shoot helps keeps them to a minimum.

    I’ve never blamed my editors (other than bad contact info or directions). I’ve felt that if I didn’t deliver it was due to a few things on my head.

    I didn’t ask enough questions
    I never looked at the clients publication or web site
    I brought a bad start of my day to the shoot
    I allowed myself to be distracted
    I considered the shoot just another assignment
    What I had was “good enough”


  3. Truer words could not have been spoken, Rob! I really believe that if you’re not falling down every once in awhile, you’re not running fast enough.

    I’ve had a few failed shoots, but I’ve never blamed anyone for them more than myself. If the shooter screwed up, I didn’t choose the right one. If the production failed, my pre-pro wasn’t buttoned up completely. If my Art Director failed, I didn’t go over the shoot beforehand with him enough and explain my expectations and get everything on the table. Having said that, I usually find that if it happens, it’s because we’re generally trying to do more than we might actually be capable of – but then again, that’s a good place to be.

    Not everyone works like this, but it’s the way I was trained in my advertising career: if something goes wrong, the buck stops here. Kinda harsh sometimes, but it ultimately works for me.

    And, I find that it really makes for some long, trusting relationships with photographers – nobody could argue with that!

  4. great post, thank you!

    Failure is a part of producing quality content which is, what we’ve learned, the most important challange for print these days.

  5. Failure is the flip-side of success. Without it, one cannot grow. It is only nasty when it is ‘public’.

    So much effort goes into making a perfect shoot… and so many people have to be tapped to deliver 100% to produce the shoot at 100%. Becoming adept at moving through all the moving parts, diverse personalities and varying levels of competence, has always been a quiet hallmark of truly successful shooters. Delivering the truly exceptional shot is a triumph, delivering a pretty good image is a necessity. And in some fields, or subsets of fields, triumph is what is expected everytime.

    I love posts like this.

  6. This is a great post…I’m kind of surprised it has never been touched on here previously. Photographers have always talked about it, but I’ve rarely heard about it from the PE’s perspective.

    The various times that I’ve had shoots utterly and completely fail, the resulting emotion was one that I could only describe as “liberating”. It seems that the worst has happened, the thing you always hope will never happen, but we all rise to the occasion and live thru it- the p.e’s and myself . I’ve had shoots fail due to my efforts, due to external efforts, and did have fedex lose an entire shoot ( transparency film) and all we had left to use were the snip tests. An in every instance, I seem to have been hired again by the magazine/client. The disaster seems to bring out the best in everyone….or maybe I just got lucky.

    Really, the last two sentences of Rob’s post are the keepers.

  7. Well put Rob. I’m still shocked at how many DP/PE’s were never working photographers yet they are supposed to understand how we work and what we need to give them what they want.

    For me researching my subjects in whatever way that I can before I contact them is required. Even if I can see what the person looks like so that I can start to figure out what I am dealing with visually. I once had 3 business portraits in a month were the subjects were all former college basketball players and the shortest one was 6 foot 8. Boy, does THAT change how you photograph them when you are 5 foot 10.

    Walking in totally cold is the worst thing possible yet when you are given an assignment with little more than a name, phone number and “he’s an executive at MegaCorp”, you have to do whatever you can to be prepared. I am given that skeleton of information more that I’d like and far more than I should but I’ve learned to deal with it. My wife says that my super-hero power is “turning a goose poop situation into salmon mousse”. I think that comes from having been a news photographer for years where you are given assignments with 20 minutes notice – you learn to improvise with no support network.

    However I do think that a large part of an assignments “failure” rests on the shoulders of the photographer. If you need more time/access/scouting/models/budget whatever and don’t let your AD know, even so that they can adjust their expectations, before you make photos then the failure is largely because you went willingly into a bad situation. I’ve had to call my AD numerous times to say “this isn’t happening. We need to change some things” because things have gone awry that we didn’t foresee. As photographers we have to take personal, professional and artistic responsibility for our work and if it doesn’t meet or exceed our standards we need to let the client know before we produce sub-par work.

  8. When I was a PE, I used to get phonecalls, while on the job, or just after that would say – the journalist has never been here/met this person. You’d have a delightful Christmas story about rescue dogs and horses for a high end mature womens magazine and the subjects would be 20 somethings with more piercings and tattoos than plain skin…Oh yes, and it’s August, so the photographer has to take a bag and half of tinsel with the them to disguise the august greenery. What I wanted as a PE, was the photographer to call me, and let me know if there was a big problem, that would make the original brief impossible, so between us we could come up with a solution. Otherwise you get a fait acompli, which might have been what you would have agreed on, but when it turns up as a surprise it can piss you off…
    Now, as an agent I try and keep to that rule – if things are different to how we’ve been briefed, then I call the client and give them a heads up on the situation and our proposed solution. But even with all that – as Rob says, sometimes a shoot just fails anyway. Sometimes you do everything required, but the story itself is a failure. And no photographer can save that…

  9. What about a shoot that produces mediocrity but elicits widespread praise? I’m thinking of a friend who was a model in a recent Harper’s Bazaar celebrity filled layout that was shot by a highly famous, highly paid photographer, but seemed to result in lackluster and ordinary images.

    This is an example, I think, of a failure of art which gets a passing grade because the powers that be conspire to make it succeed.

  10. Great article. I think some of this also comes down to the experience of the photographer. I’ve done assignments where things just didn’t seem to have a ‘developed thought.’ It’s previous experience that has been the ‘life saver’ in times like these. And, on occasion, the photographer can offer up an angle that others might not have seen. And it goes back to ‘we all make mistakes.’ It’s how we learn. Make it once, you don’t make it again. (smile)

  11. I often talk to editorial photographers who would like to get into commercial work. They see the fat budgets, big creative fees and high-profile clients. I try to patiently explain that commercial work is a completely different animal. It’s not that a good editorial photographer can’t be a good commercial photographer. It’s that the business environment, client expectations and mindset are completely different.

    Rob’s article and this subsequent thread is a great illustration of what I try to articulate. As a former photo editor at a newsweekly (US News) I completely understand the points Rob makes about why shoots might fail to produce good, or even usable images, and that this is a fact of life and can actually have a silver lining. (However from my experience, unless you can show that it was either the editor’s fault, or something truly out of your control, like a lost FedEx shipment, you had a pretty short leash for a while afterward.)

    But in commercial work, failure is not an option. Period. Not only is the money for the shoot too big (reaching beyond $100,000 or more in many cases), and not only has the agency put in possibly hundreds of hours working on the campaign and setting up the shoot, but the money for the media buy of the campaign behind it may be in the millions.

    A single instance of a shoot that produces no usable images can result in an ad agency losing an account, an art buyer losing his or her job and a photographer with a tarnished reputation among art buyers and ad agencies.

  12. Really great post. Thank you for the insight, and yes, occasionally a shoot will fail. Whether it’s for a magazine or not (it’s why I don’t like shooting weddings – there’s no redoing it!).

    As a photographer, when I fail to perform, I always blame myself first. It’s easy to blame circumstances or other people involved, but I feel it’s our (the photographers) responsibility to make sure, we understand the task at hand. This doesn’t eliminate mistakes completely, since whomever explained the assignment could’ve misunderstood it as well, but still, I find it healthy to look at myself before pointing any fingers.

  13. Perhaps there is value in being a perfectionist after all, though someone else might call that being anal. I think failure in the various ways you pointed out could (unfortunately) become more common. As budgets will certainly decline, production will be trimmed, and the margin of error will decrease, making it more likely to have failed shoots.

    The pressure is already there. One thing that I think could help is greater flexibility, and one area that can easily touch is time. The more rushed a shoot, the greater the chance for failure. The less time between shoot and publication, implying less planning, then the greater the chance for failure. Proper planning doesn’t increase expense, and could actually reign in expenses. The same time approach could be applied to a shoot, because when everything at a shoot is rushed, then the chance of something going wrong, or the added distractions of reduced time (real or created), could lead to more failures.

  14. I think your #4 point is worth very close consideration. Opportunity or what opportunity we create is easily 1/2 or more of a great photo. The lower the production values that are available means that your photographer has to be that much more talented and/or lucky. After all, it’s what is in front of the camera that matters.

    I’m constantly weighing expectations of prospects with those images that are on my website. Can I promise that level of quality if production values drop below my comfort level? And – what IS my comfort level? How much DO I want to rely on my talent and luck? Failure is risky and very uncomfortable. It’s not an easy game but managing expectations is THE big deal.

  15. Marvin the Mavin

    best management & leadership training, for anyone who finds themselves needing to get their team productive:

    “The Feiner Points of Leadership”
    (Michael Feiner)
    sections include working with {boss, peers, ones one manages, meetings, etc}

    Corps Business: the 30 MANAGEMENT PRINCIPLES of the US Marines
    (Forbes senior editor David H. Freedman)
    include principles like
    Tell ’em the Result, and Why, and get out of their hair!
    (DON’T tell ’em *how* — let ’em work their own way)
    Be Bold
    Grow The Good (if you put ’em up, you’ll grow success: if you put ’em down, you’ll grow failure. which one do you want?)

  16. An interesting interview comes to mind with regards to a failed shoot. I recall watching an Avedon interview (I think it was with Charlie Rose, I cannot recall) and he said he was so disappointed in his work with regards to one of his first photo shoots for a magazine, he actually sent the money back. I think that was very brave of him.

  17. If a photographer has failed or thinks they may have failed an editorial shoot, what should they do? It seems often that there is no feedback from PE. Would it be inappropriate to contact the PE to find out what happened or what went wrong? Is there some way a photographer can salvage their reputations with that particular client?

  18. As a photographer, it’s so good to hear that the fault of a failed shoot doesn’t always need to rest on my shoulders.
    Usually for a job, I get a name and phone number from the magazine, and then I’m on my own. Most of my editorial failures I find were the result of something I simply couldn’t control- the weather, subject’s personality/time availability, art deadline, unreasonable/vague directions, whatever.

    Good PE’s CALL and ask what happened, may run my baseline shot because they know how it can happen, or we negotiate a reshoot if there’s time. Not-so-good PE’s EMAIL me to tell me I screwed up, tell me to reshoot, and don’t return my call to discuss the images themselves.

    You mention that photo editors should be trained in management skills, and I agree- I like to be treated like a pro and not a hired hand.
    I’d like to add that all PE’s should learn as much as they can about photography itself so that they can better describe to us what they need, and better understand why we sometimes just couldn’t get the shot they were hoping for.