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How I ruined the best photo shoot of the year - The Photography Express

How I ruined the best photo shoot of the year

How I ruined the best photo shoot of the year

I don’t always share my best photo shoot experience because I believe in order to learn photography skills, I need to share some of the failures as well. So here is my failure story and the details of how I ruined the best photo shoot of the year. Even thought I’m going to talk about my failures, the most important thing is that I am going to tell you exactly WHAT YOU CAN LEARN FROM THEM.

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To give you a little background, a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take pictures at Dragon Con. Dragon Con is a conference of science fiction, comic books, fantasy and other elements of a fan culture in Downtown Atlanta USA. This event is held every year and it is always packed with thousands of people. In this conference, people dressed up as their favorite super heroes and other cosplays and gather together to have photo sessions, panels and meetings. Oh by the way, before we begin I highly suggest you read my 10 tips on taking epic cosplay photos.

I began taking picture with one of my other friend around 6pm. This is my first time ever taking picture at Dragon Con and let me tell you it was a big challenge. The light started to get dimmer when I start taking pictures and there were thousands of people walking around the street. I’ve to get myself prepared taking pictures outdoor with streetlights. I also needed to prepare for candid shots and ask for people to pose for me. Sounds fun right? It did…at least from the beginning.

Ok as of my gears here is what I brought:

My gears:

– Canon 5D MKII

– Canon 24-105mm L f4 IS

– Canon 50mm f1.8

– Yonugno YN-560III x 2

And now onto my failures and what you can learn from them:

Failure 1: I used manual mode

If you have been following my blog for a while, you know that I’m a big fan of using the P (Program) mode to let the camera detect the setting before I manually adjust it in the M (Manual) mode. So I did the same when I was in Dragon Con.

I switched to P mode, pressed the shutter half way and let the camera detect the settings. It read shutter speed of 1/60, aperture of f4 and ISO 1600. Ok I wanted my exposure to be brighter so I adjusted a slower shutter speed and higher ISO (read my post of Shutter SpeedISO and Aperture for more background).

What I did afterward was then I went to M (manual) mode, set the shutter speed to 1/50, aperture f4, ISO 2000. I also used my Yonugno YN-560III flash and set it to 1/64 flash power and put it on a 45 degree angle pointing above the subject’s head. This is what the picture looks like.

Total failure

Yike! Total failure!

The thing was, when I used the P mode to detect the setting I was standing near a street light pole. But as I was chasing down people taking pictures the lighting situation changed. Different streetlights at various locations were now away from me. In order to adjust to the right settings again, I need to switch back to P mode to let the camera detect the settings, then go to the M mode again. In that case, I was never fast enough to change the settings manually to get the exposure right.

Lesson 1: Use AV mode (A mode for Nikon) so you only need to set the aperture. And then let your camera detect the rest of the settings. Add an external flash to fill light in darker spots of your picture.

Failure 2: I pointed the flash straight at my subject

Even though in point 1 I said I should use an external flash, the second failure was that I was pointing the flash straight at my subject. There were instances where I was trying to get better lighting of my subject so instead of pointing to a 45 degree angle, I point the flash straight at them. Here is the result:

Total failure 2

The subject now is totally washed out by the light. Now you may wonder, if I set my flash at a 45 degree angle it didn’t work out, and now when I point the flash straight to my subject it didn’t work either. What works?

Lesson 2: Use a flash diffuser if you point your flash straight to your subject. If you don’t have one at least point the flash at 45 degree angle, then use the white card on your flash to bounce light off.

To give you a little background, most external flashes have a little white card near the top of the flash. You can point your camera straight at 45 degree angle and bounce the light off the card that way.

flash white card

Failure 3: I was managing 8 settings in each shot

By 8 settings I mean my camera and flash settings. They are the ones that constantly change even when I move a little away or from my subject. Those 8 settings are:

1) ISO

2) Shutter speed

3) aperture

4) flash power

5) distance

6) diffusion

7) zoom

8) engagement.

For ISO, shutter speed and aperture, you may have already guessed. Those are the 3 elements that we need to take care of when we shoot without using external flash. However, more settings need to be taken care of when I added an external flash.

I needed to worry about my distance with my subject because it determines how much flash power I need to use. I also need to know how much flash zoom I need to adjust on my flash in order to get the proper power. Even more, I need to know how much diffusion I need to get so the light come more naturally. Most importantly, I need to be engaged with my subject in order to let them know what pose best suitable for them.

If you don’t understand the paragraph above it is totally fine. I went a little too technical here and I will certainly make another post to talk about these 8 settings.

The main point was that I want to let you know it was not easy to manage 8 settings to get the proper exposure. In fact, it was almost impossible to manage all these in each shots in an environment that light is constantly changing.

Lesson 3: In order to minimize the 8 settings you need to worry about each time, eliminate them by having a wider aperture lens like the f1.8 or even f1.2. Doing that will eliminate the need of using flash all the time and you can cut off 5 of the 8 settings you need to worry about. (you only need to set the shutter speed, aperture and ISO)

Failure 4: I forgot composition

I always talk about composition, but as I was running around taking pictures and managing the 8 things at a time, I hardly remember to set up my composition for the shots. I was trying so hard to get the exposure right that I didn’t have enough time to plan my composition.

no composition

Before going to Dragon Con, I’ve research for different poses for models from Pinterest and Flickrs but none of those were in my mind when I was on the location. So what can you learn from this?

Lesson 4: if you are taking picture of people, you generally should treat them as portrait photography not matter you are indoor or outdoor. Don’t complicate yourself by the different style of shooting . Instead just get the person into the frame in a normal angle and do the rest in post editing if needed.

Failure 5: I was rushing to press the shutter release button

In summary this failure meant I was afraid of letting people wait.

Whenever I found a person to take pictures of, I don’t think I spent more than 2 minutes in total to take the pictures. I didn’t want my subject to wait too long and I was totally wrong that way. I should have thought about the fact that they spent so much time doing the make up and costumes and they definitely want me to take pictures of them!

Lesson 5: Even though this is obvious, but remember to take your time and think before pressing the shutter release button.

Overall, my photo shoot went bad. My pictures had bad lighting with basically no composition at all. Most pictures I took that day looked like snapshots and I am sure anyone can take similar shots from a point and shoot camera. I have tried to implement photography skills that I’ve learnt over the years but they didn’t work out due to the constant changing light environment and myself struggling with so many camera settings.

I hope you get a lot from my failure in this photo shoot so you won’t do the same as I did. What are your thoughts? Have a great rest of your week!

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About Gary

A passionate photographer with goals to fulfill your photography passion and motivate you to take pictures even when life is busy!


  1. Thanks for being open about your personal experience.

    • You are very welcome! I truly feel a photographer shouldn’t just share the best photographs. It is ok to make mistake once a while and if you do share it you’re much closer with your audience/clients.

  2. I’m glad you shared this experience. I was there shooting at DragonCon too, with pretty much the same results. I swear I’m going to remember all this and do much better at all of next year’s cons.

    • Hi Kelly oh you were there too! I wish we know each other before then we can definitely take pictures together. Let’s keep in touch and let’s nail it in next year’s Dragon Con!

  3. Thanx for sharing Gary… I really liked this post mainly cause I can truly relate to this one.. I am a self taught wedding and occasion photographer, I had a lot of those failure moments… and I sometimes still do. Learning as I go along. And I have to say I am so grateful for photographers like youself helping us to find our way.

    • Jamie thank you so much for your kind words. And yes as a photographer we have a lot of those failure moment but those are also our AH-HA moments so we will never forget our mistakes. Photography is truly a lifelong journey and we will never stop learning. Thanks for stopping by again and I’m sure to bring you my very best information next time in this blog. Take care!

  4. All good lessons! Street/Event photography isn’t easy!

  5. We’ve all been in each of these positions, I applaud your honesty!

    • Thank you and I really believe I shouldn’t hide those mistakes but instead share it so everyone can learn. So next time no matter i did a great photo shoot or a bad one I’ll be sure to make a post about it 🙂 Thanks for visiting my blog!

  6. And this is why professional photographers should be hired. Because they know EXACTLY what they need to do in EVERY lighting situation.

    • It is true, and this is also a great place for learning photographers to get their hands dirty so they’ll know what to do next time. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. ahh, so sad! But at least next time you’ll have all this knowledge under your belt and will hopefully get better photos! 🙂

    • Yes it was a sad day but you said it exactly right, I have this knowledge and will not make the same mistakes again! Thanks for reading my blog!

  8. Hi Gary, thx for sharing your negative photographic experiences, im still a learner photographer. What I do to compensate for the ‘failures’ is to shoot RAW then correct post production, what do you think?

    • Hi Zeiyad, thanks for stopping by! Yes using RAW and help a lot with post editing, but at the same time I’m hoping to learn from mistakes each shoot. I’m sure this just comes with experience so let’s keep learning everyday!

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