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The worst photography commission I ever did

Let me start this by clearing any issues on behalf of the client. The client was an absolute delight. She was communicative, kind, hospitable, direct, prompt, and beyond understanding.

This post is about me, my failure, and my disappointment.

There is a sort of cycle of growth for any creative. It starts with "what am I even doing?" and then becomes "oh wow, this is hard," before shifting into "ok, I think I'm getting it," and "yeah I can do this," before ballooning into "I'm good at this!" then inevitably hitting a failure point and plummeting back to "what am I even doing?" This is the way of the creative. This is not to be confused with the ever-present but variably-noisy voice telling you that you are not doing anything new nor creative (which, let's face it: nihil sub sōle novum!)

While I don't post photos of my sister and her family, I have taken dozens of absolutely beautiful family portraits in a variety of settings, contexts, and posed/candid. For the sake of the privacy of the children, I don't post these. And when our mutual friends come and ask me for similar photos, again, I don't post these. I haven't figured out how to use Nightshade/Glaze just yet... (digital AI is too overwhelming a discussion in my professional life to enjoy reading up on it in my personal life), it comes down to privacy from both bots and other bad acting humans. But I digress...

Once in college, I lent my camera to a very dear friend of mine whose camera was acting up on its own right. Given that she was in a photography course and I was merely taking photos for fun, our sorority, and occasionally shoehorning it into other studio art coursework, I didn't think twice when she had a pending deadline and no end in sight to her own camera woes.

The mistake I made, though, was that I'd previously left my camera on Auto. At this point in time I'd yet to take my film photography course, and again... I was taking photos for fun, our sorority, and to capture moments around me that I was too socially anxious to enjoy sans camera (I felt so unnecessarily naked in social settings without a camera to hide behind that I eventually went to a sorority event solo, incorporating the camera into the costume I'd wedged into the event's theme). Once my friend returned my camera to me, I let it sit until the following football game day.

Thinking back on it, I was actually a designated photographer for my sorority this semester. We had a Father-Daughter "event" planned wherein we could bring our fathers to a tailgate and the (in this case, morning) football game and enjoy the afternoon together. Running late without an out-of-state dad to be punctual for, I grabbed the camera on my way out the door to the later half of the tail gate.

I proceeded to take 200+ photos of 120+ girls and their dads. I was snapping away, there was a little line as people decided they'd grab a picture and then head into the stadium or grab a bite to eat under the shaded tent. I felt like I was contributing to the group, was happy to serve so many people who I respected (and some of whom I was flat-out intimidated by). I felt like I belonged to a group of girls I otherwise felt very disparate from--in a group known for beautiful, confident, athletic, fun girls... I was just a quiet, insecure, artistic oddball. I was too deep in my own self-exploration and recovery to consider that maybe a lot of other girls around me were also insecure, weird in their own ways, and introverted. I watched the game with the camera strapped around my body protective like a shield. I had an identity and some signifiers to strangers and friends alike. I happily made my way home (alone, probably... in my defense, my roommate and some of my best friends were on the field as cheerleaders, twirlers, and dancers) and settled in for the evening comfortably.

And then I plugged my SD card into my computer and opened up Lightroom.

Reader, my heart sank (I just finished Jane Eyre a few months ago... I know I made the reference but wow what a disappointment!).

All ~200 photos were blown out. The camera had been left to the project settings my friend had last used. It was clearly ISO 100, and I'd just taken all of these photos in DIRECT SUNLIGHT.

I spent a lot of time feeling badly about that. Even now, I have some moments where I reflect and cringe. I have been reminding myself more recently that cringing on my past only means I've grown, but it still hurts. I'm sure in this day and age where everything is recorded once, captured a few times across devices that the people who needed photos got other photos with their fathers. But I felt like barfing for a few days and ANY confidence I'd gained about my belonging in my sorority vanished along with the hopes of sharing out meaningful photos.

Up until last Christmas, that was the worst photo session I'd ever had. Even in my difficult photography course where I struggled to find any interesting subject I at least had a handful of photos that were salvageable. So, onto the thing I don't want to talk about but feel a need to share to not only get over myself but maybe provide you a sense of "it's ok, it happens to everyone."

A friend of mine from church reached out around Thanksgiving of last year to ask if I could take some family pictures on Christmas Eve. I said of course, would be happy to do so, what is she thinking/what is the setting. Trying to cover my boundaries as someone who actually enjoys family photography (alongside couples and maternity, of course).

My first goof was not rejecting the job when I learned it was like 60 people.

My second goof was not having the foresight to bring a light kit.

My third goof was not ensuring my tripod was ready to go.

And my fourth goof was not being more confident in the moment to move and organize people where they needed to be for best coverage.

So, how did these pictures turn out?

Underexposed. On a gray day in December and with the ambient tungsten lighting filling the house, these photos were DARK. I knew in the moment, of course. I'd gotten there early with the intention to set up, and immediately notice I'd left the clip mount for the tripod somewhere else. Without a tripod, I was left to just capture manually on as slow an exposure as I felt comfortable snapping... which is not very slow.

Since I couldn't slow the shutter speed (which, to be fair, 12 young kids aren't exactly poised to sit still for that amount of time, either), I thought I'd try to go up in ISO a bit. I knew that I'd need to leave my aperture pretty tightly closed to fit ~60 people in focus, so I quickly Googled how to make it work with a high ISO. I knew my lens leant dark anyways... but this did it no favors.

These pictures meant a lot to the client. I learned that they used to do photos annually, but all the kids made it a little less of a tradition. I also learned that some of the elderly family had some health concerns, which makes these even more special. I felt a lot of fear to "get it right," and let that fear keep me from speaking up sooner. Not that I could have gone out and gotten a light kit, but maybe we could've stepped outside for the few minutes it took to get the picture together.

Anyways, after avoiding the disappointment of editing these photos long enough, the client asked me how things were going and I had to share the news. The photos were bad, but I knew I could continue to edit in post production and fight for something usable. But knowing the value and the cost (they overpaid me 3x given the holiday... unprompted) I had to share that these photos were not my typical standard or quality. I was disappointed, and I offered a refund and free makeup shoot if it would ever be convenient for them. It is the worst feeling in the world to admit defeat over something I could have done better and something so high-stakes.

But the client was SO gracious. So generous, kind, and beyond understanding. She told me not to worry about it, that she'd ask me to come for any future gathering regardless of my offer. I told her I'd try my hardest and get something turned around for her, and I did.

And this is when I discovered Camera Raw's Denoise AI feature.

I'm sure no one reads this, but still... you guys. This is AI I can get behind. And it SAVED my behind.

Since I didn't have a large enough volume of photos to batch process in Lightroom, I selected the few I knew had decent faces and no blur and opened them up in Photoshop. Opening those negatives gave me the basic processing features you'd get in Lightroom, but I also saw a little feature called "Denoise."

I didn't even mess with the Manual Noise Reduction and jumped straight for the AI. In my fifteen years (wow I am O L D) of using Photoshop I have never managed to fix noise manually, so I knew I was out of my depth.

This feature lets you set the volume of noise reduction and provides a little preview before creating a second digital negative and appending Enhanced-NR to the end of the file name. Given that I had lots of little faces and hands visible I obviously could not push the meter up too high... but I was able to do it enough that the ultimate deliverables I sent to the client exceeded the low expectations I had set. I typically don't ever find relief in giving bad news, but knowing I'd done so made me feel much better about the product I was able to pass along, KNOWING I'd just made the photos much better to look at.

Not to mention, I got to remove some of the extra noisy things in the composition I'd otherwise have to work around... I got to remove a massive crystal chandelier, remove some cookies, swap some guys grazing at a cookie table in the background of one picture to a (totally nonexistent) empty formal dining room. I got to remove garland greenery from the foreground blocking up the clients' son's shoulder.

Overall, not great. Definitely a humbling experience for me. I noticed I had a deep sense of dread whenever I looked at my computer over my holiday break, knowing that I'd left Lightroom and Photoshop open so I would get it done (spoiler: I did not get it done any sooner for that reasoning).

But this feature saved those photos. If you've found yourself in a similar position of totally messing up photos for a client, I hope this brings you some comfort knowing that it happens to others, and that there might be a way out of it. Regardless of if you can redeem the photos, though, always:

  1. Let your client know what happened

  2. Own why it happened (this is the cringey part)

  3. Apologize for dropping the ball on the session

  4. Refund their money (if they'll let you)

  5. Offer a free rescheduled session

  6. TRY with everything in your might to salvage something to send to the client... even if it is just a measly 8-12 photos

Not all clients will be super receptive or calm about this... I definitely was blessed by my client and will forever speak highly of her and her family for that. But if you are honest, try your hardest to honestly salvage something, and offer to make it up to them as any good photographer should you might find some sympathy. We are only human and that means we are going to fail and make mistakes. And as creatives, we will always be somewhere on the cycle of "what am I doing?" to "okay, I think I'm getting it."

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