Remembering what it is to be a “Novice” & Reflecting on the Arrogance of Experience

Film photography has its ups and downs – even as someone who’s been shooting film for a long time, I still find myself staring into the abyss wondering how on earth I’ve managed to make such stupid mistakes. And sometimes – even with the experiences I have under my belt – the answer isn’t clear. It makes me wonder how people with less experience find the confidence to carry on. That said, recently, I’ve been through a few personal experiences that have led me to reflect on those thoughts. In fact, I’ve been given the opportunity to reflect on the fact that often the novice actually has a position of advantage over those of us with more experience under our belts.

Rollei 35 Fail

The first of my recent experiences was when shooting a Rollei 35. These cameras are completely manual with a little light meter on top – if you have any experience with shooting manual cameras, there’s very little that can go wrong. Yet something did go wrong. The problem is, because I wasn’t really paying attention to what I was doing, I have no real idea what it was that went wrong, and not knowing has left me a little frustrated.

Whatever the issue was, it resulted in me overexposing the last 9 frames of the roll. The only thing I can tell you is that it wasn’t the fault of the light meter. I know this, because I wasn’t using it. For some reason, I’d chosen to just go with my gut. My gut feeling for exposure is usually plenty good enough, but on this occasion it was apparently a good few stops out.

Being someone with a level of accrued experience, my natural instinct looking at the overexposed photos was to blame the camera. Maybe a fault had developed mid roll…? Though that didn’t seem to be the case when inspecting the camera. So perhaps I set the settings wrong then? Again, I can’t see how that could be the case.

Rollei 35 & HP5
Rollei 35 and Ilford HP5 (badly exposed)

And it can’t be the development of the roll as the rest of it is totally fine. In the end, despite my level of experience, I’m left with a bit of a mystery. The problem is, I find myself unwilling or at least unmotivated to find out what went wrong. I have shot manual cameras loads of times before without issue, so if something went wrong, my instinct is to believe it probably wasn’t my fault, and that just doesn’t feel like a very healthy or useful conclusion to come to

Chroma Fail

Another recent photographic experience happened after I bought a Chroma 679 just as Steve announced them. The first two days I decided to shoot it couldn’t have gone worse. The problem is, as someone who has the level of experience I do, I approached shooting with what in hindsight feels like totally the wrong attitude. I approached it with a blasé level of confidence that resulted in a series of stupid mistakes.

To begin with, I couldn’t load the back. After spending ages attempting it to load it incorrectly, I went on YouTube and found this video by Nico. If I’d had less experience, or was less self-assured, I would have just looked it up straight away. My experience led me to waste my own time.

I also made a mistake with the film I loaded. I shot a roll of Kosmo Foto Mono 100 on a beach a few month back with great success, so decided to shoot another roll of that. What I failed to take into account was the miserable weather and the fact I was shooting a roll of 100 ISO film in a camera with a lens with a maximum aperture of f/6.3. In the end, I resorted to underexposing a little bit with it in mind to have it pushed a stop. If I’d just taken an other moment to think about what I was doing, I could have avoided this mistake.

Chroma 679, Mamiya 65mm 6.3 & Kosmo foto 100 (badly exposed)
Chroma 679, Mamiya 65mm 6.3 & Kosmo foto 100 (badly exposed)

As if those mistakes weren’t enough, the next day, with an intent to finish the roll, I went out with the camera again. I knew I was going to have the roll pushed, so I erred slightly toward the same underexposure I’d been shooting the previous day so at least the roll would be consistent. Feeling clever and on top of things I shot my first frame with the dark slide in place.

Fine, one shot lost. I took the dark slide out and finished the roll. I then noticed that I’d somehow managed to change the shutter setting to 1/500th instead of the 1/125th it should have been at. The result of this being – taking into account that I’d being already trying to match the previous days underexposure – I’d now managed to underexposed the second half of the roll by something like 3 stops. I even failed to remember that 6×9 on 120 only gets you 8 frames, so I also shot a couple of photos onto backing paper…

By being so self-assured, by working in the assumption that despite the fact I was using new-to-me gear, I didn’t really need to apply any greater level of concentration to what I was doing, I’d made a whole series of mistakes. My experience and my confidence therein totally got in the way of me doing a good job – I had too much confidence in myself and my abilities which resulted in me messing up!

Chroma 679, Mamiya 65mm 6.3 & Kosmo foto 100 (badly exposed)
Chroma 679, Mamiya 65mm 6.3 & Kosmo foto 100 (badly exposed)

Remembering the Novice Approach

I recently started a new hobby that requires a whole new set of skills in a field where I have next to no experience at all. This has given me opportunity to reflect on the above mistakes with a slightly broader perspective.

Just before Christmas, my (awesome) wife bought me a VW Golf MK2. It’s a car I have wanted since I was a teenager, and now as someone in my late 30s I can finally afford the insurance and financially justify owning such a thing just for the fun of it. Of course, being a 30 year old car, it’s not exactly brand new. I’ve managed to pick up a fairly decent one, but it’s not perfect.

When I first got it, looking under the bonnet I had no idea what most of it was – I know the basics of how an internal combustion engine works, but not enough to even call myself a novice mechanic. And that’s not taking into account the electrical components, or even any of the more basic parts that might need replacing.

But, in the couple of months I’ve had it, I’ve been soaking up new knowledge and knowhow like a sponge. I’ve had the spotlights out to clean them, changed the indicators, changed all the bulbs, upgraded the wiring for the headlights to take a feed directly from the battery, had the dashboard apart to change all the old blown bulbs for LEDs, fixing a load it creaks and rattles in the dash in the process. I have also swapped the radio for a Bluetooth one, and most recently upgraded some of the gear linkages to shorten the travel of the gear stick and make it feel more positive in its movement.

Before and after shots of the dash – old dead bulbs replaced by LEDS

None of this is particularly heavy hitting stuff to anyone with any level of experience in owning older cars I’m sure, but I’ve learned loads. And I’ve learned because my appetite to learn is there. I have a desire and a willingness to build my knowledge and knowhow. It’s exciting and new, and importantly for the sake of the point I’m trying to make here, I don’t have a weight of experience hanging over me that deludes me into false sense of not needing to learn.

Because of this, I’m asking basic questions left, right and centre and finding there to be zero resistance to new information. I’m still making mistakes, but what’s interesting about the mistakes is that they don’t feel like stupid ones. I’m concentrating to a high degree on what I’m doing. Every step I take is calculated, and before I take the steps, I’m doing every bit of reading and researching I possibly can.

The Arrogance of Experience

Of course, it would be impossible for me to entirely return to behaving like this as a photographer. As someone who has been doing photography for a long time – 29 years now – too much has become second nature to completely return to that sort of approach. But these recent experiences have certainly given me food for thought.

Photography provides me with an endless amount of possibility when it comes to learning new things. It wouldn’t matter if I’d only been taking photos for a couple of months or for twice as long as I have, there is always going to be more for me to learn. So what gives me this sense that I don’t need to pay better attention to what I am doing, or take the time to research a bit of kit or process or whatever before I undertake it?

The answer is obvious. I have become somewhat arrogant through the weight of my experience. I have become less able to learn through a false sense that I don’t need to. The really frustrating thing is, even my increased self-awareness of this isn’t likely to make me immune to effects of it! Can I honestly say that having gone through these recent experiences I won’t make similar mistakes again? No, I know for a fact I will walk similar paths in the future. Without any shadow of a doubt my experience, self-assured attitude and arrogance will continue to cause me issues.

I just hope that starting a new hobby will help remind me of the positive attitude and apparent advantages that come with being a novice…

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27 thoughts on “Remembering what it is to be a “Novice” & Reflecting on the Arrogance of Experience”

  1. There’s a word you left out, Hamish. Honesty. Having the courage to admit to what one might call silly mistakes, perhaps this ‘arrogance’ could be seen as a ‘false confidence’, a slightly gentler term, maybe. I suspect this article puts a comforting smile on quite a few faces looking in, certainly has with me, as I’m very prone to doing similar. Speaking just for myself at this point, my head is good at thinking about something and jumping to a conclusion as to what’s needed, without fully working through the sequence of logical steps required to reach said goal. End result is my head gets stuck ‘knowing’ the answer without really knowing it. This impulsive tendency to see the ‘answer’ straight away is a double-edged sword good for sometimes seeing things others don’t see straight away, but also prone to heading off in the wrong direction. This, connected with my absent-mindedness (which isn’t getting any better as I get older) has often done me no favours. Even in my professional life I would sometimes be the same, the more I felt sure I was right, the more likely I was to be proven wrong.
    Anyway, that was the “scenic route” round to simply saying thanks for the article, you’re not alone ????

    1. Thanks Ralph, yes, false confidence is a softer term, I just didn’t feel the need to be soft on myself… ????

  2. Brian Nicholls

    Thought provoking article Hamish and very brave of you! When you are in the rookie stage of learning you generally don’t know what you don’t know. It’s a very exciting and creative stage in life. When you get ‘longer in the tooth’ you do know what you don’t know and it’s a potentially frustrating quest to keep up to speed because we all then begin to seek a perfection that doesn’t exist. No subject can be fully learnt so, acquired wisdom is knowing when to fall short of perfection (whatever that is!). Please don’t get me going on guitar playing!!

    1. I love the phrase “you don’t know what you don’t know”. There was an american politician who was criticised for saying it about WMDs in Iraq a few years back. It was the first time I heard it. The concept of unknown unknowns has fascinated me since – knowing the unknown unknowns exist in any area of life is quite grounding I think

      1. Dear Hamish,
        I do love your willingness to be so candid about the occasional stuff up. I can recall the occasional commentator has given you some flack as a result. Unfairly, I’ve thought, we have all made rather basic mistakes at some point. The only difference is you’re honest enough to admit them.

        Just last year I opened a camera back with an unwound film (only lost a couple of frames, luckily). And I shot my first roll of film in about 1973…I’m not bad these days, but once in a while, yes, I’ll make a mistake. If you stop making mistakes completely, you may have stopped learning.

        Sorry I have been so tardy with that Alpa article. All good things come to those who wait, and it will be good. 😉

        1. Cheers Brett! I have no interest in presenting the constant stream of success that’s so prevalent on social media etc. I honestly can’t think of anything more boring.
          And cheers, I fully expect it will be!
          Nice to hear from you!!

  3. Great article Hamish although I agree with Ralph that it’s being a bit harsh on yourself to call it arrogance when “false confidence” might be better. I say this as I guess I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past. I think it’s part of what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect (a graph of confidence versus wisdom.) And yes it was Donald Rumsfeld who talked about unknown unknowns re the Iraqi WMD debate

    Perhaps I’m lucky in getting easily distracted and so never become a long term expert on anything before moving on to my next passion.

    BTW is that Worcester Marine Basin in the first shot? We hired a narrow boat there in 2019 for a week. After I’d read up everything I could about narrow boats and got to the stage that I knew what I didn’t know.

    1. Ha, yes I do like the Dunning-Kruger graph. Me and my wife were talking about it the other day, coincidentally. I like the “peak of mount stupid” as a description for those who have an initial sense of confidence after learning very little. I remember when I was there in photography telling someone that the dof preview level was a quick way to lower exposure and see the effect through the viewfinder ????????

      I don’t have any issue calling myself arrogant – though it’s nice to be told that I shouldn’t. To me, it’s just part of keeping myself in check.

      The shot is down into Lowesmoor Wharf rather than the marina which is by the river. The boat hire place is in lowesmoor though… … ?

      1. Yes, you are right , it’s Lowesmoor Wharf where we hired the boat. For some reason the hire company call it Worcester Marina in their brochure.

        1. They perhaps don’t want people looking up lowesmoor – people think it’s a bit of a scuzzy area, though I don’t really know why. It’s just one of those slightly out-of-town streets with a chippy, a funeral directors, tanning place, sex shop, charity shops, a east-european food shop and a couple of pubs… I think all towns have them, but there’s a lot of hoity toity people around these parts that might not want to be associated with that sort of thing

  4. There will always be a mistake to be made, so just concentrate on today and let tomorrow take care of itself. I assisted a Scottish photographer for several years and he was always throwing out some kind of ism. He loved to quote Winston Churchill but I can’t say if this was one or not, “A man who never made a mistake never made anything”. I have my own saying as well, “Being a professional not only means you know how to do it right but you also know how to fix your mistakes”. IMO learning how to fix mistakes has the benefit of taking me to a deeper level of understanding and learning. Actually a win win situation. I have the tendency to hammer myself when I mess up but it’s my way of making sure it’s drummed into my memory bank. Rarely do I make the same mistake twice but as I stated at the beginning…

  5. There’s also the mistake of having too much confidence in your equipment. For example, the ah-may-zing 3D Matrix metering in my Nikon F6. Totally messes up and overexposes if you shoot predominantly dark subject matter like forests. Or totally underexposes with back lit subjects – even with the fancy D or G lenses that is meant to communicate subject distance to the meter!
    But it’s the best 35mm camera ever, so it must be right?!
    And I just made that mistake this weekend in Muir Woods National Monument out here just north of San Fran! Good thing I was using colour neg film…

    Or when I shoot the really fun Wtulens 17mm f16 pancake on my Bessa L. The Bessa has a ttl meter but for some reason this lens gives wacky reading with it. And yet, instead of judging the exposure readout to a simple Sunny F16 estimate, I just followed it blindly… And way underexposed the film even though I knew if I just listened to Sunny F16 I would have been pretty much ok!

    Yah, too much faith in the equipment can be a bad thing..

    1. HA! yes, I can definitely empathise with the following a meter blindly mistake … I’ve done that too many times!

  6. Looks like someone has just passed the Mt. Stupid peak and heads towards a valley of despair 🙂
    The fact that it happens at this level of experience and a good sign! Jokes aside, I do remember the feeling when after shooting meter less for a longish time and thinking I’m doing just fine, I loaded up my long-unused Dynax 7 with 35-70 zoom kit with the same HP5 (which is impossible to spoil!) and all the images were instantly better exposed and as a result had more spark in them than those from leica m-4p plus summicron 🙂 This prompted me to be less cavalier with my metering (i.e. actually use meter app at least from time to time).

  7. Honestly, I don’t see any sign of overexposure in that Rollei 35 and Ilford HP5 photo. Perhaps the negative is denser than it would be with “ideal” exposure – only you can tell! – but this scanned image doesn’t even seem to have any blown highlights!

  8. Can’t disagree with any of the points you make, other than calling yourself arrogant. (You couldn’t write an article like this if this were truly the case.)

    As we learn more about how to do something, we sometimes forget to pay sufficient attention to the fundamentals of the process . Thus we make mistakes that we avoided in the early stages of our learning (schoolboy errors!). It’s a case of us rushing, and not working methodically through what we know actually brings success.

    For me, your piece has echoes of Sroyon’s article the other week about taking time to really consider images and spend time looking at them. Whether it’s gear linkages in a Mk2 golf or taking a photograph, the more time and awareness we put into a process, the better the results.

    Acquiring knowledge on a subject, just makes me realise how much I don’t know . By realising that I cannot know everything know helps me stay in the “absorbing sponge ” state you describe.

    Really interesting, thought-provoking article.

    1. Thanks Keith. And I’m glad you saw the subtext callback to Sroyon’s article too – I was quite pleased reading his article again the other day that there was a bit of a link. The battle to remember how much we don’t know is a hard fought one I think – we are easily tricked by our brains. There’s a particularly good TED talk that taps into this sort of thing – here
      I’ve also been reading about the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky recently – all fascinating stuff about how crap we are ????
      Sorry for the slow reply ????

  9. Silly question Hamish. The overexposed HP5 Shot: Were you wearing sunglasses/photochromic spectacles when you estimated the exposure ? Because if you forgot that it would certainly lead to overexposure. I know this for a fact! Bin there dun that

      1. You may want to check the shutter timing on the Rollei 35. I’ve seen a few get sticky and give too long exposures.
        Either that, or you accidentally made your aperture too large.

  10. “I even failed to remember that 6×9 on 120 only gets you 8 frames, so I also shot a couple of photos onto backing paper…” Haha.. That made me laugh a bit.

    If it makes you feel better, I just bought a rolleiflex and loaded the film wrong. I tried saving the film but failed at that too. If I had read the manual, or someone else’s advice I found later on what to do to save the film… you get it.

    Maybe someone else has said it already, but there is little consequence for shooting film incorrectly–aside from the little money and time wasted. This might be as important as being experienced and going with your gut. If the film was 10 times more expensive, you might use several light meters before deciding on exposure even if your gut was correct.

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