We All Screw Up. Don't Worry About It.

Look, no one is born a lighting genius. We all make mistakes. And we are all gonna make mistakes in the future.

And just to make you feel a little better about it, today I am gonna tell you about my stupidest moment as a lighting photographer.

So far.

One Cocky Photojournalism Student…

The year was 1986. I was a photojournalism student at the University of Florida. (Go Gators, beat Florida State.) And during the winter break I had elected to take a photo practicum.

A photo practicum was a week in which you drove to another city, slept on someone's floor and worked your ass off at a good photo paper for a week. For free. In fact, it was less than free, as you had to buy the credit hour to get the credit needed for graduation. And you needed at least two of them. And an internship.

In 1986 our archrival at UF was Florida State University, located in Tallahassee, FL. The local newspaper there was the Tallahassee Democrat, which was a pretty damn good photo paper — especially for a small market paper. I still remember the staff by name, much like I still remember the starting lineup of the 1972 Cincinnati Reds.

Phil Sears, Mike Ewen, Phil Coale and Mark Wallheiser. They did good work – especially in their coverage of the UF/FSU game, of which I never failed to compare notes. So, brimming with misplaced confidence, I chose the Tally Democrat as my second of two photojournalism practicums.

Plus One Inter-School Rivalry…

It is important to know the depth of the rivalry between UF and FSU. As adults, the Democrat staff were (mostly) past all of that, but it was important to me. I was not gonna screw this up and lose face as a Gator.

Which is why I wanted to go above and beyond, all week long. And which is why I would do anything to make my photos better.

So when I got an assignment to do a biz shoot of a new hair salon the better part of an hour away, I packed up my (then) lighting kit, a set of Novatron 240s. I went with stands and a couple of Larson "Reflectasol" umbrellas. Think normal umbrellas but with these gawdawful mini-boom clamps that were, to me, beyond useless. But they were what I had.

I made the drive, grabbed my gear out of my car and lit the hell out of that place. Yes I did. Go Gators.

… Equals a Recipe For Disaster

Now, back in them days we didn't have no digital cameras. We had Polaroid backs. And for $2 a shot, you could check your lighting.

But I didn't have a Polaroid back. Or two dollars, for that matter. So I always winged it.

Besides, I liked being a little surprised by the results when I pulled my film out of the fixer early for a l'il peek. Miss that, actually. Not the brown-tipped fingers I sported from the developer stains. But I do miss editing film and I miss seeing my prints fade in while in the developer tray. I'm old.

It should be said at this point that the salon I was shooting was pretty snazzy. Very mod. Lots of windows and lots of big framed prints on the wall. With glass in front of them.

You can see where this is going.

Back to the Paper

So I light it, shoot it and break down. Then I take the long drive back to the Democrat.

Even as a practicum student, I had late-night access to the photo department (we shot night games, obviously, for sports.) So of course I nixed dinner and went straight back to the paper to soup my Tri-X. This biz shoot was gonna rock.

So, soup the film and dinner from the vending machine while the film was in the Senrac dryer and get ready to edit on the light table. We edited straight from negatives. It's easy — after a while, your brain just starts transposing the tones naturally. And telling critical sharpness is easy with a loupe.

So let's take a look.

That Moment When...

First frame. Looks really nice, except for there appears to be a big image of, oh, let's call it a photographic umbrella in the glass of most of the picture frames on the wall. Don't remember seeing that. In fact, I don't even remember mentally processing what the pictures were of in the first place.

Meh, we got more. I shot three rolls, all different angles. So I keep editing.

Umbrella reflections. Umbrella reflections. Umbrella reflections. Every frame.

No prob. Next roll.

Same thing.

Third roll. Same thing. Every effing frame. There was no need to even print them. You could easily see the photo umbrellas on every single negative, right on the light table.

Not. Good.

What the hell am I gonna do? I can't let a bunch of FSU-liking photographers find out about this. Ever. Or at least for the next 27 years. (Hey, Mark!)

So the next day, on my day off, I did the 90-min round trip drive to re-shoot it. I can't even remember the excuse I gave to the salon owner as to why I was coming back out. I'm sure it was brilliant. At least give me that.

That Other Moment When…

So I arrive back at the salon. I grab my cameras. I grab my case of Novatrons. And I head in.

Naturally, the very first thing I am gonna do is to look at all of the picture frames real good. I want to figure out where I can position the camera and lights to avoid coming back to the paper for a second time with a bunch of useless images of photographic umbrellas.

As I was walking up, I would not have thought it possible to feel any dumber than I had at the light table, 40 miles away, the night before. I was wrong.

The moment I opened the door I instantly raised the bar to a whole new level of stupid. I saw immediately that the stylish, poster-sized images were all actually pictures of photographic umbrellas.

The whole salon had a cool, edgy photo shoot theme. In my lighting tunnel vision mind I had just not noticed it. Until I was at the light table.

So I made a half dozen more frames so I wouldn't look like the moron I was in front of the owner, and drove back to the paper. I never told them, either. Not until now.

Go Gators. Beat Florida State.


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Blogger Sam Powers said...

To this day, I still find myself pulling the camera down and taking a second look around, hey just making sure... I'm an old guy too, shot film for my high school newspaper and yearbook. Thanks for this post David, and I bet your excuse to return was a doozie!

November 04, 2013 8:22 AM  
Blogger budrowilson said...

LOL!!! Thanks David.

I recently screwed up a shoot by accidentally deleting about 1/3 of the RAW files before backing them up.

I needed that.

P.S. - Note to self: never drink while batch editing.

November 04, 2013 8:30 AM  
Blogger JS said...

The weirdest part being, when you developed those new photos, and saw a reflection of... yourself at age 44, with a PhaseOne in your hands!

That was nice. Thank you for that, DH.

November 04, 2013 9:23 AM  
Blogger Paul B Scott said...

Long story short,About thirty years ago I had thirty strippers come in on their day off and did an entire shoot
on stage with strobes-shutter speed 1/125. Forgot that my new Pentax synced at 1/60.Leaped out of bed about 3AM "Oh,Nooo..."And I graduated
from FSU.

November 04, 2013 10:27 AM  
OpenID calvinphoto said...

someone should develop (lol) a plugin for PS that makes you feel like you're standing over the chemicals watching your image pop out of nowhere at you, love that feeling. Your story made me smile; nothing like a cocky attitude to make it hurt even more. I keep some of my more memorable failures beside me at my desk, just in case I get an attack of arrogance.

November 04, 2013 10:36 AM  
Blogger Scott Nelle said...

This story is INCREDIBLE. Someone should make a short film for the festival circuit out of it. Thanks for sharing, David.

November 04, 2013 11:30 AM  
Blogger Jarrett Hucks Photography said...

Thank you David for making me laugh out loud in the middle of my office. That was just absolutely great!

November 04, 2013 2:02 PM  
Blogger Martin Del Vecchio said...

I did not see this punchline coming, and it made me laugh out loud.

November 04, 2013 2:05 PM  
Blogger Not Happy said...

Now we know....the rest of the story.
Everybody is born stupid but we get smarter as we get older and more experienced, or so the theory goes.
Not sure it works as well with Gator grads like it does Western Kentucky grads but you've done better than your Gators this year. Just sayin.
Your welcome to come assist me, once again, on the sidelines in the Swamp this year if your up hearing your "Go Gators" go to waste and we'll see if your sports shooting skills have gotten better too...lol. Let the big dogs eat. Go Seminoles!

November 04, 2013 2:47 PM  
Blogger Yugo said...

That is AMAZING! If that salon is still around, you should send them big prints of your photos of their salon with photo umbrellas framed in it, for the next Gator practicum student to come shoot with his umbrellas.

Even more amazingly, you managed to properly expose a highly reflective interior with big windows in Florida using multiple umbrellas without a light meter, Polaroids, or LCD chimping? How'd you do that?

November 04, 2013 3:51 PM  
Blogger Jay Grabiec said...

hahahah. Great story.

November 04, 2013 4:01 PM  
Blogger Jon Bloom said...

I hate when I laugh out loud at something I read on the Web. Makes me feel like an idiot.

Also, as someone who has dozens of shots of Florida starting QB Tyler Murphy as a high-school player in my photo archive, I'm rooting for the Gators... but I'm not hopeful.

November 04, 2013 4:23 PM  
Blogger Gerard said...

David, is part of the motivation for this excellent post your Heisler-induced realization that emotional openness is required for intimate portrait photography? Are you nurturing your openness by being upfront about a big photography mistake you made?

November 04, 2013 6:24 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

David: In the "olden days", my standard excuse for one of my patented bonehead mistakes ( no film, wrong synch speed, etc.) was always .... "You know, maybe I ought to shoot a few frames of color in case they want to use it on the front".

November 04, 2013 6:41 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey said...

hi David,
Hilarious story! It's good to realize we all have our moments.

Yes, GO GATORS! I graduated Dec '85 from UF back in the Galen Hall days of football! We were glad when we had a 50% season! I'm hoping for a win against (as always), but they are looking good this year... we'll need a miracle...

November 04, 2013 7:50 PM  
Blogger Craig Litten said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

November 04, 2013 9:01 PM  
Blogger Hernan Zenteno said...

Love to know this experiences. And you tale arrived at time that I was thinking in the same thing. I am 46. What pricks my curiosity is that you never did a contact sheet in spite that the article was not a hot thing. I mean, you can drive and shoot again the assignment so you have time to do contact sheets. Is the only thing that I don't understand. About your feeling missing editing negatives, you can find something similar to a cure shooting some film in your next portrait assignment. I do that time to time for my work or for my pleasure. Guess what, I make mistakes cause film is terrible for mistakes. I believe that film is a very good teacher. You need to measure the light pretty well and preview the shooting before you know. Here in Argentina Polaroids were always forbidden for normal photographers. Include my first light meter took me a lot of work to get it. Then some thief robbed me, I suppose he thought was a cellular or something like this. Anyway, thanks for let me smile and remember old times. I miss my youth, but I still experience screw some shoot cause film is still indomable. I love that.

November 04, 2013 9:09 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

We never made contact sheets. Edited everything off negs.

November 04, 2013 9:14 PM  
Blogger jeff gammons said...


I shoot alongside Mark and both Phils at all the FSU games for Getty. I just tagged them on Facebook to this article.

Thanks for the story, I really enjoy your stuff!


November 04, 2013 10:19 PM  
Blogger Drew Garraway said...

Fantastic story!

I tell my students that we are all secretly stupid, and all we can do is try to help each other to keep from stepping in front of buses.

November 05, 2013 1:20 AM  
OpenID Rob said...

Guess it is time to share my story...
20ish years ago, I was an almost freshly minted crime scene technician. About 9 months into the job & very confident in my photo ability. Heck, I'm the one that taught the rest of my class. So here I am processing a search warrant & the lead detective is someone I've respected & known for several years. He gives me the scoop on what he needs & I go to work. Camera, check. Flash, check! (Goina shoot me some blast-o-grams--PD lingo for on camera, full powerish photos. Besides, it was not only near midnight, but the power was out to the apt) Click, click, click goes the camera. Check back in with the detective, & I'm outa there. Gee, these guys are great! They're going to bag & tag everything for me! I'm out the door & headed back to my van when I hit the rewind button, open the camera back, and yep, NO film in the camera. There was more than a bit of humble pie eaten that night as I walked back in & explained that I forgot to put film in the camera & needed to shoot the scene again. Thankfully, only a couple of items had been collected. To everyone's credit, nothing was said about it again--or at least in front of me.

November 05, 2013 1:52 AM  
Blogger Richard Wintle said...

Let me add my thanks - this giggle made my Monday morning (ok, so I'm a day late with the comment).

Any more such excellent stories in the works? Not to imply that there are other screw-ups in your past...

November 05, 2013 11:15 AM  
Blogger Heidi Marcinik - Sundog Pet Photography said...

Nice! Go Seminoles! :) How about a story where you may have screwed up when you weren't a student—when you should know what you're doing, but screwed up anyway. I'd find that more relevant to your idea of "everyone screws up."

November 05, 2013 1:11 PM  
Blogger Spencer said...

as long as we are all airing our dirty laundry in private:
I have shot several division 1 lacrosse final fours for a few lacrosse websites, and after the first one i shot i sat at my desk after shooting 5 games, being in the sun all day, driving 3 hours home saying to myself, "boy, i'm way to tired to be messing with these cards. i'm going to screw something up."
thats right about the point i managed to delete the card containing the 4th quarter and the winning team (UVA) celebrating after the game.

david, thanks for this resource. i'm still lights bitch, but sometimes i steal a few back.

November 05, 2013 1:19 PM  
Blogger Katie Stern said...

One time I stayed up until 2:00 a.m. and went out in -20 degrees F. weather to shoot 4x5 trannies. Had the police stop traffic while I stood in the middle of Main St. taking a stock photo. Went home, slept two hours, and immersed the E6 film into the wrong chemical first. Had to do the whole thing again. Explained to the police that the lab ruined my film.

November 05, 2013 1:28 PM  
Blogger MCC Member's Blog said...

I think this is one of the funniest photographer stories I ever heard. YOU WIN!

November 05, 2013 3:41 PM  
Blogger Alfred said...

Great story, I am still laughing, thanks for the humor!

November 05, 2013 4:37 PM  
Blogger William Huggins said...

i've never posted a comment before - i may never do it again (am i a stalker?). this is one of the funniest stories i have ever read. once and forever - thx for the lighting tips, but so much more, for the tips on perspective.

November 05, 2013 8:00 PM  
Blogger Wonderwall said...

ha! Loved this story! It is awesome on many levels.

We see what we want to see . And a lot of unnecessary grief we give ourselves. But then there would be no cool stories to share!

November 06, 2013 12:40 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I remember shooting Friday night games, going home developing the film and making a contact sheet, taking it to this weekly that hired me on break from school since I was the only photog with their own darkroom. This was '80. Get the list of shots from the editor go home print them out and have them back by 2 pm iirc.

Years later, I decided to shot the heritage park planes on Holloman AFB on day went home put my gear down got side tracked and started formatting cards and wipe the shots before I even get to see them. Luckily this was for personal use and I wasn't feeling well so I wrote it off to that.

November 06, 2013 1:29 AM  
Blogger Cliff Capers said...

Some days I think I miss the film and the beauty of panning a photo in the developer. Then I get out the 7D and realize I'm so much less stressed about what I'm gonna have at the end of the day.

I love the story. Really took me back to the early days of learning photography in high school.

November 06, 2013 1:42 AM  
Blogger Lisa Shires said...

haha awesome

November 06, 2013 1:12 PM  
Blogger Fred Glasser said...

Wow! It's ironic how timely this article was for me... haha... I ate it pretty bad on a photo session this morning. Super specific-to-the-very-last-detail corporate headshot with a 6 freaking lights, 4 softboxes, etc. Had the lighting set up perfectly, focused on some genuine interaction & connection w/ the client, got some great shots & expressions. What could go wrong? No sooner did I shake the guy's hand & see him out the door than I realized that I had shot every last image in really tight when the final image had to be a square crop... I actually had to call the guy up & ask him to swing by again so I could get some more pulled back shots. Talk about feeling like a knucklehead! Glad he was a super nice guy!

Great story David, and thanks for sharing... It's good to hear that even the best-of-the-best have their days...

November 06, 2013 1:27 PM  
Blogger Addison Geary Photography said...

I had photographed the dedication of a new wing at a local hospital. The graduate I thought contained D76 was actually just water. After seeing all the film was blank I immediately called the client. She told me it was okay I was really there just for show and all they really need was a photo of the dedication plaque. Photography as performance art.

November 06, 2013 1:27 PM  
Blogger Frank Hardy said...

The story is funny, but what is incredible to me is someone using images of photo umbrellas as wall art. I could not imagine purchasing a poster of a Larson umbrella and framing it to decorate an office / home with. I am not picking on Larson, fill in any umbrella manufacturer for your wall art image. None of the umbrellas that I can remember from the 1980's were that " arty ", for lack of a better word. Thanks again for sharing your story ... at least you did not forget to put film in your camera. Frank

November 06, 2013 6:28 PM  
Blogger KT said...

Haha I didn't see the final result coming, it wouldn't be so bad to suck up if you had the film from previous shoot though, it's when you lose it it really stings.

I remember blowing a one time opportunity to photograph the Josh Kirby collection including most his Pratchett works as well as Monty Python and Star Wars covers.

Shooting was perfect and the film loaded from earlier in the day survived no problems but the one with all the critical shots of what I wanted most didn't. Being a bonehead I didn't press the spool release hard enough as was in a rush to get it out later that day and see what I had. Hmmm this seems a bit stiff and before I could engage brain the horrible sound of tearing film.

Then in my horror I opened it right there NOT in the darkroom, thereby trashing the rest of the film, to see a dagonal tear across most of it and realised instantly what I'd done. Never made that mistake again.

November 07, 2013 10:29 PM  
Blogger Cathy Donohoue said...

Thanks for the story. It reinforces why I never would have tried my hand if digital had not been invented. I make mistakes on a daily basis but am loving it.

November 08, 2013 7:39 AM  
Blogger Cathy Donohoue said...

Thanks for the story. It reinforces why I never would have tried my hand if digital had not been invented. I make mistakes on a daily basis but am loving it.

November 08, 2013 7:40 AM  
Blogger Melissa said...

Go Noles!

November 08, 2013 12:10 PM  
Blogger stan said...

Great learning-experience story, thanks for sharing. As has been stated, who WOULD have pictures of photo umbrellas
as art??? Perhaps the idea was for patrons to think they were "on a set". Or something.

Years ago, I was in New York on business, and tacked a little personal time to visit after the work. On a gorgeous day, I packed my AE-1 on the boat, and made the trip out to see the Statue of Liberty. A day when you couldn't take a bad picture.

Somehow, I managed to.

When I got back from the excursion, I thought I'd just waste the remaining frames on my roll to start a new one. OK, frame 22, 23, 24, 25 - ? 26 - ? (was this a 36-exposure roll?) 32, 33, (uh-oh) 36, 37...

Apparently I hadn't engaged the leader in the take-up spool, so I shot "virtual" frames for the visit. No time to go back.

One good thing about mistakes - you (hopefully) learn something, and you have a story to tell later. If you chose to.

November 09, 2013 1:55 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Go NOLES!!! (class of 95)

And I have been there and done that. If we don't fail at something we never learn to get better at what we do.

Thank you for sharing. Brought back memories of working in the dark room back in the day.

November 12, 2013 10:18 AM  
OpenID kaeframes said...

Just to make you feel better: I bet McNally has a couple of stories like yours;-)

November 12, 2013 3:53 PM  
Blogger BdgBill said...

Great story. As an aside, I would love to see you pick up a film camera again. Even if you had the film processed at Walmart it would be interesting to see how you can handle the lack of instant feedback after all these years.

November 18, 2013 11:54 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I did the EXACT same thing... cocky (or maybe just a poor) photojournalist at my college paper.

lighting... umbrella.... ugh.

November 18, 2013 2:48 PM  
Blogger Ojanx said...

I like the story, Thank you for telling it to us.

November 27, 2013 8:21 PM  
Blogger msagrado said...


I began helping my mom with her camera when I was a kid. First taking pics and lastly even developing them in B&W. It was very funny and it hooked me.

As a techie at heat, the advent of digital cameras meant for me an endless sucession of gadgets, first compact cameras, then APC-C DSLRs and finally FF DSLRs.

Recently I rediscovered the magic of film cameras, especially the beauty of their aestetics and mechanics. And the sound of the shutter. Nice!

One of my recently found cameras is a Voigtländer Prominent, a sturdy metal block with a wheel as the film advance and cocking lever. The old automatisms have not yet returned, and being a manual camera with no exposure meter, the workload is a bit too much for me yet: measure with a meter, focus, compose, shoot!

And I wasn't sure that I had reset the film counter (you have to do it manually) so I didn't pay atenttion to the stiffness of the advance wheel... until I heard a cracking sound. I couldn't wait and opened the camera, to see that it had broke free from the cartridge. If I had only waited to reach the lab it'd be ok. But I was anxious, I "had" to know what had happened inside the camera, and didn't think quickly :-(

Fortunately the pics were from a street theater that we found while strolling the weekend, so nothing very important was lost. But I didn't accept easily that some of the pics I took would remain only in my mind, never to come out of the ruined film...

Now I'm a lot more cautious with cameras with film loaded. And the automatic movements are returning home slowly.

Thanks for sharing your stories. It made me laugh and share this little thing with the film :-)

May 29, 2014 3:10 AM  
Blogger David Wilkinson said...

I enjoyed reading this when first published. I enjoyed reading it again just now. I also enjoy watching vine clips of Gator linemen blocking each other. Go Noles!

November 17, 2014 12:32 PM  

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