The Failed Photo Files

Posted on February 24, 2013


100 Bad Images, and Why

Sometimes you nail the exposure, and sometimes the exposure nails you.

One of the things I like about film photography is the contemplative nature of it. Sure, I don’t do single-image 5×4 images, but I do only get 10 images/roll, and so they each matter. As I’ve taken more film photos and learned a little about the medium, I’ve learned two things: first, any subject worth photographing is worth photographing twice (you learn a lot when you develop the negatives, and yeah, I get how digital is cool); and second it can take a full day to get a good print, so if I’m not willing to spend that day then I’m no longer going to take that picture.  In my recent 10-day European excursion I only took 50 film images. I don’t think this way when I shoot digitally (yes, I do shoot digitally! albeit poorly). However, I still have many more failures than successes, so I thought it might be interesting to comment on some of the photos I scanned but will never print.

Just as there are many hallmarks of success there are many reasons for failure: poor lighting, improper exposure, developing errors, wrong cropping/viewing angle, improper vision, other technical or artistic failures. I hope to cover many of them below.

Lest this seem too defeatist, here is an excerpt from an interview with John Sexton, printer for Ansel Adams and famous photographer:
Q: Are there frustrations you still encounter?
John: I still make a picture with the lens cap on the lens. I end up with my cable in the frame; I can have the lens shade in my image; I can set the film speed wrong. But one of the more frustrating things that still happens is when you feel something, but somehow that magic just doesn’t get on to the piece of film. There was something you were reacting to that was not something you could photograph.

Not only is he a better photographer than I could ever hope to be, he summed it up better than I ever could. Fail_1

My friend Chris Burke competes in strong man competitions. I thought a photo shoot of him would be heroic, unfortunately I didn’t know it would be in a basement with fluorescent lighting. This was a tough day: new subject, crappy lighting, really busy backgrounds, lack of luminosity. I think had I to do it over again, I would turn out the lights, hit Chris with a flash and have him well lit against a black background which I would use DOF to blur out.



There were a lot of shots from this shoot that “almost” came out. Low, flat light, no tripod, slow film. Normally I over expose about 4 stops (i.e. meter a shot and expose it 4x longer than suggested) for shadow detail. On this day the most I could get was 2 and still keep to hand held speeds, and balanced on rocks in a stream I lost a lot of shots. I still find ice to really be a difficult subject. It acn be in focus and still look blurry in the image.


Even though I captured the luminosity of the subject, it’s too centered, it’s too busy, and well, a good shot of an ugly thing is still ugly. I think maybe I was hoping that I could make something ugly beautiful in the late autumn light.


I don’t know how I screwed this one up. I carried these antlers all day looking for an “art shot,” my guide laughing the whole time. Then, I put them against this busy background! WTF. Fortunately, I got slightly better framing here:


I tried to get some shots in my parents 1732 house before it was all cluttered up. I did them both with natural light (avg exposure, 7 min) and by painting with light (fun!). Unfortunately with these long exposures, the film saturates and shows things you don’t normally see, like the left side being blown out. Potentially saveable in the dark room. Also don’t like how the candle, and all of the rest of the verticals line up on the right. And, the heater register below the candle stand is like telephone lines in landscapes. That alone creates a failure.


What a great shot! Unfortunately, I cannot abide by all of that white in the middle. At this time I was shooting ASA 100 film. Kodak has since reformulated their films so that the 400 is just as finely grained. This means I can take photosat 1/4 the  exposure the 100 required. This not only gets me better water shots, but when you consider that my exposures generally run 30 s to 15 minutes, you can see how I might be interested. Also cuts down on reciprocity failure compensation for those long shots. Fortunately, this river isn’t going anywhere and I can go back.

This was the coolest thing. A few years ago on Thanksgiving my friend Lynda and I came across this guy making these sculptures at the Golden Gate. Could not get a shot of it that made for a good photo, no matter what though. Part of it was the flat light. Part of it was that at the time I neither developed my own film nor had a light meter. (I used my SLR to meter which is an ultimate FAIL because of simple math it took me far too long to consider – the reading depends on the lens. D’oh.). I still look at these and wonder if I could’ve framed them differently or ANYTHING.
Why did I even take this shot? I’m sure it would be glorious in color, but in B&W, there are no redeeming qualities.
Another shot, well an entire environment, where it seemed like the shots would be glorious, but ultimately failed to move me. The contrast is too high to print, there is no luminosity, and I broke my own rule of never shooting a cloudless sky. However, when you’ve just hiked 2000′ in 2 miles with 40lb of gear, sometimes you just really try to force it. Especially when you really came up to fish for rare golden trout and realize your left your rod in the car and carried an empty tube up the hill. But, I was with good  friends who were very patient (one shot inside a 60′  fire-hollowed tree took 15 min exposure), who had a great time, and you can’t capture those things on film. Success!
From directly above, this shot was rather nice. From this angle it’s just a messy pile.
Ah, macros. I want this shot to be great. I can handle some of the issues with contrast in the darkroom. What I can’t fix is the depth of field issues with the macro. I say every lens is like shooting a new camera. Her you can see that the focus was dead on on the leading edge of the lower mushrooms, but didn’t even make it to the next set. If I had DOF through all of the mushrooms I would really like this print. Fortunately, these things do grow on trees and I’ll have another shot at it. (Double pun, hoo-yeah.) Super stupid because that lens has a DOF preview. These days I just set it to f-32. Yes: 3, 2. Love that lens.
I love texture. I could shoot tree bark all day long and I’ve got some winners. I put a neutral density filter on to see if I could do something with the clouds racing by in the otherwise bland sky, and it seemed like good composition. It’s got point of interest at all 4 phi spots. Yet it is a FAIL.

This shot actually is a SAVE. But to get the contrast I was after (there are only about 1.5 zones in the banding) I had to increase development time (by now I had both a light meter and my own darkroom) to the point where it takes 30s to develop the shadow in the lower center left, and 30 min to develop the upper right corner. I had to use the darkroom clock to do it. It took a month of working every night to get two prints. I have another roll of this item that I’m too nervous to develop – I don’t want any more negatives that dark! BTW this hung over the bar for two years. You got a free drink if you could guess what it is. I only lost 2 pints. Here’s a link to one of the finished prints:

When I was taking the above shot I looked down at my feet and found this interesting composition. One of the problems with ASA 100 film was the slightest breath of air in the long exposures causes FAILURE. Also macro shots really demand a lot of composition. See how the pansy rig in the center is in the shadow of the one to its right? I think it fails right there.
In Cordova, it’s like heli-ski Hollywood. When the athletes aren’t flying, then the photographers are climbing all over the place to get shots. Bernard has got some awesome shots from here. I have not done as well. Flat light, blank sky, low contrast (professional) development contribute to a fail. I might work with some of these someday if I ever can trade luminosity for “mood,” but I’d have to be out of luminous negatives first. Of course if it’s to flat to fly, it might be too flat to shoot!
How could you not take this picture? But when you are considering spending several hours in the dark room it just doesn’t seem that interesting. I actually found a drowned deer under this pier once. They apparently swim the 15-mile width of the Prince William sound. The locals will actually snow mobile across this waterway. The trick is to get up to about 80mph on dry land and hold it open for the whole trip. People commute into town, get drunk and drown on the way home. So many people drown that the heli-ski operators, often first responders, designed a special survival suit for them. True story.
Again, mood without luminosity. See a better version here.
This is the root of a tree growing about 20 feet across a single neighboring stump. It’s primordial. Too bad I FAILED to capture any of that.
No image: Sometimes you just have to ask yourself why you took a picture. You have to understand my camera and tripod weigh a good 15 pounds. I have to set up, choose a lens, remember how it works, put on a filter, do a bunch of math in my head, and count (because not only does my camera have no meter, after one second all exposures are manually set, so I count and then manually trip the shutter). So there are no “snap shots.” And yet….
How did I not see that my subjects face was shadowed? I think a portrait with the face in the dark is an AUTOFAIL.
This is the shot where I really learned about lens shading. Again. And I drove 40 miles of dirt roads to do it.
Sun flare and a white blob in the middle a double FAIL.
So I climbed Pilchuck 3 times so far to photograph this stump I call the Kraken. The first day, no meter and in the rain my view finder and lens fogged up. It takes just the right light, so one rainy day, so second day I raced 80 miles, put on my pack and sprinted up the hill with cracked ribs, only to find out i had no film. Third time, I took an entire box of film. Yet despite the really nice luminosity, they is a fail.
Almost, too busy on the upper right.


This is the most fascinating thing. Bright green (yes, I do have some nice color shots) it, or should I say he, is on the base of the Kraken. In an entire roll of film, either he is sharp and the rest is out, or his face is zoomed across the frame while everything else is sharp. I showed them to a Shinto priest friend of mine, convinced I’d been trying to photograph a Kami. I often wonder if it is still there. So, the roll fails as printable, but did I photograph the unknowable?  Perhaps it’s a spiritual success.

Oh, yeah, and you also have to manually advance the film every time on my camera or you double expose.
Brilliant failure? I don’t know what it is, but I kind of like it. Might make my abstract album.
Oh yee Kraken. As I said the light has to be just right. Blocked shadows and blown highlights = FAIL. A polarizing filter might’ve saved this. I’m sure there is information in the shadows, but it would a nightmare to pull it out in the darkroom.
I did not get good contrast when I shot it, and had it commercially developed (never, ever do this, mail me your film if you have to!). With a loop, every part of this looks sharp, but every print is blurry. I cannot figure this entire role out.

This thing is so cool, but again even with several shots I FAILED to capture it. I think it’s a means of keeping the wire tight, but I’m not sure. I have a fascination for how even on the same farm every corner or latch, the same problem, is solved differently over an over again. Fail_26Huh.

  • Fail_27
    I did this whole roll before I had a light meter. The first print I made in my darkroom came from it. I printed it 100x and never was satisfied. First, scanned photos (transmitted light) always have more detail than prints (reflected light), second I learned a lot about paper. Third, I started developing my own film. Even if everything else was right, hello, that black circle is on the negative! I did really get a lifelong fascination with ice and water from this though.
    I was on my way to work, saw this at the end of my road, and pulled over to shoot some film. I’ve never gotten a print off of this roll that even begins to capture my vision. I may have used a red filter to pull the clouds, which also darkened the green forest  just below treeline. FAILURE to capture the vision.
    I can burn in that sky and get the cloud detail, but again, some is totally missing.
    RRR. All of those dots might be on the negative or scanner. I clean the negs before scanning, but I think the cheap printer paper I use creates a lot of dust in my office. Sometimes you just have holes in the emulsion. At any rate, all the negatives get washed before I use them, eliminating a lot of that. Remember, scanning is an intermediate process for me and not an end goal.
    Great bokeh (the quality of soft focus in the back ground), good texture, nice light balance, and yet vapid.
    I had this thing for knotted vines at one time, but I never got a good shot of them. FAIL:: NO VISUAL METAPHORS.
    If only the DOF extended to the foreground.
    The awning in the corner kills this shot for me. I could not crop it and leave an meaningful picture. Maybe with the tree lit up at night I could live with it.
    So cool. Just tell me how to burn in the sky and not the tree? One of only 4 shots I’ve ever hand held with that camera by the way.
    Turns out that with a super wide angle lens, you need a super thin filter or it shows up in the images. I had to buy a special filter just for that lens.
    I love this shot: luminous, well composed, metaphorical, great detail. Makes a very uninteresting print. I cannot tell you why, but it FAILS. And, hello, I couldn’t move the corrugated roofing out of the way before I took the shot? Especially if you shoot full frame like I do, you have to look at the full frame!
    I wanted to do some food pics for the kitchen, but am pretty new to macro work. Thus, the framing here FAILS, and you can’t even crop it effectively.
    Same subject as my Absinthe Cosmos album: You can see that while it has great possibilities in B&W, it FAILS compared to color. (Pollen on a puddle, in my parents’ drive btw.)
    This was taken at the very eastern most point of the United States on the “elbow” of Cap Cod. It looks good here but in my prints was too contrasty. Now that I understand paper a little better, I might be able to save it on Ilford. It’s like my beer: Beer to share, beer to drink when I’m sad, beer I try to convince people I meant to be Belgian (ie, infected), beer to throw out.
    The lack of DOF in the foreground and the clapboards in the background make this and instand FAIL.
    So, I’ve traveled to Pittsburg NH twice, thrice? to shoot this old door on the back of a mill. It was once read, but has faded so much it’s an abstract pink. The best shots I ever got were with a cheap digital camera, all lost in the fire. I think all of my B&W shots of this fail. It needs to be color.
    In the 1930s they built a ski jump in Berlin NH (north of all f*ck) and hucked off of it. The landing hill is so steep, I could not walk up it, but had to find the old stair case and come up on my hands and knees. Remember this is wool knickers, leather boots, and wood skis. I challenge you to even find any of these for sale at EMS. This shot FAILS not because of the obvious technical problems, but because I could not capture how absolutely frightening it was to stand there and imagine doing what these people did. It was like the first time I heard Zep I. Sure cool. But can you imagine hearing it in 1968 when it came out? Mindblowing.
    This shot FAILS because some SOB our boat in the middle of the night, our island flooded (which we anticipated) and all of my camera gear got soaked in salt water.
    !@#$%^ lens shade. Midnight on the tundra. Could probably save this by cropping.
    I have taken this image at least three times on 35mm and MF, driving all the way to Crystal for it, yet it still never captures the moment: a tree smashed through another tree.
    An old mill in the center of the Winnapasaukee. Once the rivers ran rainbow hues from the textile mills. I did finally get some good shots of this after a week of bushwacking, waiting for the light, pruning, and reframing. This was not one of them.
    Awesome still life at the Shaker village, but he wind was blowing and never could get a good shot. Once you blow it up, it’s full of little blurry bits every where. Again 400 ASA would save this.
    Tried a neutral density filter and long exposure to add interest to a boring shot. FAIL.
    The problem with car shows is you shoot everything up close wide angle and you end up reflected in every shot. There are 10 images of me here, at least, as with most of my car shots. FAIL. It is, however, the “million dollar smile” of the 49 Buick grille. Doesn’t it give you goose bumps?
    That slight fuzziness by the blower is in every shot of this car, although not on the negatives. I cannot figure it out. It’s not on the lens because it’s only on this car.
    See that line across the hood, above the grille, even with the lights? I thought it was a chemical stain when I printed it, but on scanning it, I believe it’s the buildings across the street reflected in the paint. However, I once got bagged in competition because a water mark on a tree in a river was labeled an “obvious dodging mark,” also I’m in the bumper 5x. DOUBLE FAIL.
    Icicles to the ground, but it just doesn’t come off well on film.
    From this photo I learned that if you are taking pictures of reflections, you have to set your lens on the distance of the reflected object, not the reflecting object. The clouds, not the car. So, although I was 3′ from the car, I had to set my lens to infinity to capture the clouds.
    Actually this photo is pretty successful (proving there has never been a bad photo of this woman). I converted my SLR to a pinhole and found that my light meter can actually handle the f-stop! It is a little under exposed, but the interesting FAILURE is the house in the background which is in such perfect detail due to the pinhole and takes away from the subject. With a normal portrait, the back ground would be out of focus. Every lens is a new camera, even no lens. — with Caroline Coffey.
    I was trying to show the massive size of the trees that wash down these tiny (30′) rivers. This thing is like 80′ long and taller than me. I just don’t think I pulled it off.
    Long exposure in an attempt to capture the torrents of water in this flooding cascade. FAIL.

    Great focus, texture, and DOF, but no clouds in the sky. FAIL. I actually have files of cloud pictures just to rectify such negatives by double exposure in the dark room. Of course that requires a second enlarger and my second is now reserved to become a camera.


    Okay it’s backwards. Great bokeh but I just could not frame the shot in a way that told the story. Total FAIL. Have to really think about how to cover this.
    My parents 1732 house with a heater duct behind the chair and a thermostat to the right. I want my pictures to be timeless. So, despite great luminosity, FAIL.
    Behind the Daniel Webster birthplace. Awesome snow detail, but how to dodge and burn to actually get all of the scanned detail to print? On the FAILURE edge. Actually, based on recent success with flashing the paper I might get this, but honestly despite exposing 5x over the tree hollow exposure, I thing this shot is under exposed…
    People think it’s a wave, but it’s dew in a spider’s web. If the DOF were better, it might be brilliant. I discovered some forgotten negatives while scanning, let’s see if it’s salvageable.
    Contrails. Seriously? FAIL
    Parallax. This is why I need to go to a 4×5, with tilt shift movements. But I’m okay as this was just a test shot for the trains to see if I could capture anything of them on film. Could also save this by the simple expedient of a step ladder. I will say, however, this was just a test shot to see if the concept of the train yard was doable.
    Drove all the way to Pike to get a garlic braid to shoot, and then couldn’t figure out how to get a good photo of the long, narrow thing.
    The light cord makes this a FAILURE. MF is not for snapshots. — with Bernard
    I took this about 12″ from the tree. I loved how the texture of the tree and rock were so similar, but the disparate DOF made this a FAIL. I retook this several years later by standing 100′ away and using a telephoto and am much happier with the results.
    I don’t do wires in photos, dammit. Also, hanging off this icy balcony and got part of the railing in the foreground. Finally exposed my ASA 100 as if it was 400. FAIL, FAIL, FAIL. And the final failure? After standing here for at least 100 years, the platform I was standing on and the bridge all got wiped out in hurricane Irene, which my sister documented here.
    I still have trouble with water and ice looking out of focus even when they are sharp. Someday I’ll figure it out.
    Besides being scanned backwards, I just think this shot needs to be in color.


    Most images of these falls are taken from the other side (see next photo), so I waded the stream and climbed the scree slope to get this. I actually took several shots and they all came out like this, all vibrated and such. Don’t know. After several such episodes I wonder if the mist in the air might be the culprit.


    The more typical view. Which of course makes it a failure.
    • Fail_81
      A quick shot. The sky and the wires fail, but he V8 tatt on his neck and the demeanor of his girlfriend in the background makes me wish I could save it and tell this story. I did do a very cropped version of this that almost worked.

      I want to say that tree makes it a fail, what do you think?

      • Fail_83
        My neighbor’s barn in Rye. I waited 30 years to take this shot. Morning shower, sun, low light angle. It’s luminous, but the lines of the boards kill it for me. Looks nice in color, too – black and orange.
        No metaphors, dammit!
        I had learned about shading. Next, keeping the shade out of the image!
        I thought the bands on the photo were chemical stains, but they were actual shadows. Your eye balances this stuff all out and makes it easy to miss.
        I thought this would be a cool shot of Bernard (I think) sliding down the stairs, but didn’t get the density on the negative. One of those you wish you could have a do over, but the brewery is gone.
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