The Opportunity to Fail

Learning requires failure. In photography—as in all aspects of life—we have to see which of our choices work, which we can build upon, and which get us nowhere.

In the world of photography it’s becoming more difficult to find out when we’ve failed.

We release our images into the wild waters of the Internet where popularity governs the primary metric of success: the number of Likes, Favourites or Retweets. If someone is ambivalent, they won’t click. No photo-sharing site offers a “this photo isn’t very good” button. We’re all winners.

I realised this on September 19th 2009. Remember when “Talk Like a Pirate Day” was still a thing? In 2009 that was September 19th. I uploaded a rushed photo to mark the occasion—more to allay the worry that I hadn’t posted to Flickr for a few weeks than to show the world something worth seeing. It was an awful photo.


For that day it was the most popular photo in Flickr’s “Explore”.

Nothing about that experience hinted that it was a bad photo, yet in my eyes, it most certainly was. Technically it’s OK, but it’s just a minifig on a blank background. Where is he meant to be? Why is it Darth Vader, he has nothing in common with a pirate? I’m sure you’re sick of me mentioning this by now, but where’s the story?

I can see my photographs have improved since then, but I’ve had so few critical comments—well, useful ones (My 5-year-old could have taken that)—that I’ve just had to work hard and hope I’m pushing in the right direction. Getting useful feedback is difficult.

DeviantArt offers subscribers the option to request a photo critique—which is a great idea—but offers up another problem: from whom are you getting these critiques? Not all opinions are equal. Not everyone is going to like your photograph; not everyone is moved by toy photography. If you tailor your photographs to please the average critic you will produce the average photograph. To steal a quote from US journalist Herbert Bayard Swope —

“I can’t give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time”.

So what are we left with to guide us? Where do other artists go to get their portfolio critiqued? There is no group of wise toy photography masters I can show my work to. I’d love to be able to pop along to my local weekly meeting of toy photographers and show my latest work, but that event doesn’t exist.

In the past we’ve experimented with critiquing toy photographs from the community during our semi-regular Stuck in Plastic hangouts (by request of course, not just at random)—that seemed relatively successful. I hope we’ll have time to do that again. You’d hope that given our combined toy photography experience we’d know at least a little about the subject.

The best answer is to seek out someone whose opinion we respect—a mentor, and ask what they think. Not just a pat on the back and a “well done”, that’s back to the problem with sharing online—people are too polite, afraid they might offend. Make it known that you’re not out for praise, you want to get better and you need to know where you can improve. That’s how you get good at stuff.

Mastery of photography is one of those skills that cannot be taught, it must be learned, but for that to happen we must be able to get feedback on our failures.



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7 years ago


I love this post, more than you realize. Can I sign up for the first critique? If you can do for my photographs what you do for my writing…I’m there! We can start with my little ‘best of’ book I sent you in December and move right into a few classic space men photos I have brewing. Let me know when you want to get started. :)

Also if you want to start a peer review hangout once a month I would be happy to participate. I’m pretty sure Kristina would join us.

Thanks for being so awesome.


7 years ago
Reply to  Shelly

I’m in

7 years ago
Reply to  Balakov

I would love to hear your thoughts about the “best of book”. Whenever you have a chance. :-)

I enjoyed the community critique hangout as well. I learned from it myself. Lets talk more about how we want to proceed, it seems that there is enough interest that it would be worth our time. :)

7 years ago

This reminds me so much of the of the “participation trophy” for kids in sports (and life) debate. There is the one side saying that sports is about participation, learning, and bettering yourself and that should be rewarded. Then there is the other side saying that trophies should be for earning something, such as a win, and giving them to everybody makes them worthless. I do not have kids and I do not get into sports so I am not sure where I would fall in that debate. I am reading your thoughts here and I cannot help but wonder… Read more »

7 years ago

I’m not part of the community but I would love to be part of pair review or something like that. It’s so hard to get a good review, good advice… People around me are pretty much of two categories : – People who don’t shoot much photography or not at all. They like what I do… – People who raise an eyebrow when I tell them I shoot Lego… Lego ? Wtf ? You’re not 10 years old anymore…… Either category cannot give me a nice feedback… It’s hard to improve without strong advice, from people who know what they… Read more »

7 years ago
Reply to  Andy

Oh and btw, for those who raise the eyebrow when talking about Lego photography… When I show them your work, or the one of Vesa, usually then mute :)

So, until I’ll show them MY work to mute them, Thank you guys so much ;)

7 years ago

I’m new here, and to get the first word is not so easy as it seems. I gave a quick look to other posts, and I think I found the perfect place to talk about toy photography. Not all people who I know feel the same way on this issue. Some like it, others simply consider it a thing of children. You know, for many to play with Lego or other toys on adulthood it may seems a strange and childish thing. But I think this is a new way of doing photography, of making art, and although I just… Read more »

7 years ago

Mike, so true. As you know I am an apprentice in the Arcanum where personalized critique session in the private atmosphere of a closed group are common practice and a true cornerstone of a personalized growing experience and becoming a better, consistent photographer. Apprentices share their view with eachother, and one on one between master and apprentice take your work consistently to the next level. The key challenge is building that trust to let others truthfully critique your work so you can learn from it while giving critique to others. Both as the one that gives the critique and the… Read more »

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