A few weeks back, Darryl Currey from Australia, who is a member of my Facebook Group posted an image with a question. He asked, “Does a photo have to be perfect to be perfect?” and “Have we become more obsessed with the technicalities of photography than the art of it?”
My answers: NO and YES!
A photo definitely does not have to be perfect to be perfect. So let’s break that down and get past the word play.
Being a Perfectionist
If I may share something about myself… I am a perfectionist. I want to be the best. I’m willing to put in the hard work and I am very competitive by nature. I am great at managing the little details, but there is a big problem… I am not the best photographer and never will be. I learned very early in my career that I wasn’t the best and didn’t have what it takes to be the best. I almost gave up photography. I mean what’s the point? If I can’t be the best then why work so hard at it? I shared those thoughts with my father and he asked me one simple question in response. He asked me why I picked up a camera in the first place, and what about that camera made me pick it up again and again and again.
It was at that moment that I realized what was most important to me: it was the PROCESS of creating photos and the ACCESS that it gave me to all kinds of different people. Being the best was something the competitive side of me was pushing for – but it wasn’t the reason why I enjoyed taking pictures.
As I grew up and began working professionally and I continued to struggle with wanting to be perfect. You see, wanting be perfect creates anxiety. Because anyone who is driven this way eventually figures out that you can’t achieve true perfection, so it almost discourages you from picking up the camera in the first place, because you know you are going to fail.
Over time this led me to realize that I needed to let myself be a perfectionist – because it’s who I am – but I needed to take a more realistic approach to it and not be so tough on myself. That began with understanding that if I ever did achieve true perfection…. what would I do for an encore???
It also meant that I had to learn that it was okay to fail and that the important part was if I didn’t take the risk, there would be no chance of success.
It also required asking myself my Father’s question: “Why do I pick up the camera in the first place?”
So what makes a picture perfect?
So in the years since as my career has gone from photojournalism to weddings and portraits and sports teams and product photography, food and fashion and beauty photography, back to photojournalism and back to beauty and portraits – yeah, I have done a little bit of everything – I have learned that a perfect picture is a picture that represents a moment that I care about.
In order for it to be perfect, my photograph needs to make people pause. Hopefully say WOW. I want to create a story with my lighting and composition and the elements that are included in the photo. I want people to feel something when they look at my image – in short a perfect image should evoke emotion.
If we do a quick Google search for the phrase ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, we are quickly presented with some of the most memorable images in history. Upon inspection you will find that many of these photos suffer from poor quality. Often times they are not sharp, and there is frequently subject or camera motion. The composition is awkward, the exposure is off… the list goes on and on. So how is it that these images are considered so to be so good? Answer: they represent emotional moments.
How the Pros did it
Heck, even some of Ansel Adams’s images were not great exposures. As an example, his famous “Moonrise Over Hernandez” was flat and uninteresting as he shot it – but Adams recognized the potential of the scene and had very little time to set up his view camera and expose a sheet of film, without being able to meter the scene. Ansel Adams and Jerry Uelsmann really were the original Photoshop masters. The problem was they didn’t have photoshop- they did their magic in a darkroom with paper, chemicals and light and meticulous note taking – but they had the ability to turn the average into the incredible. I am not a landscape photographer, but I can’t help but look in awe at any of Ansel Adams’s Images.
Edward Weston and Irving Penn- two photographers that history regards as masters- routinely created art that had awkward composition, and printed their black and white images in ways that we would currently call flat and muddy and poor in quality. Yet, these images stand the test of time as incredible works of art, all because of the fact that they evoke emotion. They did then and they still do now.
Sounds simple, right?
Now that almost makes the answer sound very simple. A perfect picture evokes emotion.
Not so simple. Different people find different aspects or genres of photography appealing to varying degrees, which is why photography is SUBJECTIVE.
So there is no easily defined answer.
If I can discuss a little human nature for a moment: in most countries – like here in the US- we go through 12 or more years of schooling as we are developing into adult human beings. While we are in school, almost everything has a right or wrong answer. Almost everything is quantified by an A through F scale and we all know that nobody wants the F. Heck, some people have a meltdown if they don’t get the A+.
So we are conditioned to want to be right, to know the right answer, and to do things the right way. In photography, the only part that has right or wrong is the physics part. Everything else is subjective, so it is very hard to establish right or wrong or A or F.
What makes a picture perfect is different for everyone. The simple reality is that nobody will have the same experience with one of your photos that you did. Even if they were standing next to you when you took the photo – their experience will be different than yours.
Darryls second question was: Have we become more obsessed with the technicalities of photography than the art of it?
In many ways YES. I call these photographers TECHtographers. This is not meant to be an insult. It is a label that represents photographers who cannot resist the urge to get the A — to be perfect in a defined way. Techtographers are the folks who follow all the rules and find comfort in those rules. They often times create images that, while they may be scientifically and technically perfect, are visually sterile and uninteresting.
Once again, I am not judging Techtographers. In their defense, our obsession with social media and sharing everything that we do makes it extremely hard to develop as a photographer in today’s world. It is ironic that we live in a time with all of this incredible technology that allows us to do so much more with a camera that I ever dreamed as a teenager. Yet, that same technology preys on fear and anxiety and challenges even the most confident personalities.
When I was developing my skills as a young photographer, I would take a photo and frequently I would be the only person to ever see that image. I figured out that my parents would never say bad things about my pictures and that friends and relatives would behave the same way. Fortunately my mentors were tough and honest, but always supportive and encouraging. If I met someone who actually took the time to comment about one of my photos that they saw in a newspaper or magazine, they were commenting to my face so they had nowhere to hide. That meant that those kind of interactions were usually positive as well.
Today we take a picture and in no time it’s online for the world to see and then we quickly learn that the world is full of jerks! Jerks that don’t consider us, or why we took the photo, or what our level of experience is, or any of the obstacles that we had to overcome to take that photo. These jerks are simply full of opinions and hot air and that NEVER makes a person feel good about what they are doing or the progress they are making.
You can post a photo and get a hundred likes but all it takes is that one jerk who is gonna recite some rule he learned in a YouTube video like he is an expert about it and immediately you feel like crap and it doesn’t matter how many likes you get.
Likes become the A. Positive comments are the A+. Not a lot of likes or a nasty comment equals the F– even though the nasty comments frequently come from people with much less talent and guts that you have.
If you are a member of my Facebook Group you already know that I don’t believe in that kind of feedback. It has absolutely no value, and is pretty much guaranteed to stunt the growth of any developing photographer.
I do believe that even though we have these incredible resources like YouTube and Google, it is much harder to develop as a photographer today because of the way that we live our lives so publicly.
So in summary what do I suggest: I would encourage all of you to remember my father’s question- which was really his advice- NEVER forget the reason you picked up the camera in the first place.
Don’t try to be the best – work hard to be the best that YOU can be. Create and record moments with your camera, focus on the emotion of your shot. Strive to have people look at your work and pause and consider it. If you’re like me, work for that WOW response.
Now this is not an excuse to ignore really learning photography – you know, learning how the three sides of exposure triangle interact and learning what depth of field is and how to control it and use it creatively. This is also not an excuse to be a GEARtographer who has all the newest coolest gear but can’t shoot, or a ZOMBIEtographer who shoots exactly what everybody else shoots. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It is a suggestion to stop paying so much attention to what the next guy is doing and be yourself. Do your own thing.
Do be a perfectionist but use it in a positive way. Don’t let it prevent you from trying. Instead focus it on the details. I promise you, success in photography isn’t in the rules – it’s in the details. If you look back on those iconic photographs that have stood the test of time, they are strong on the details AND they are flawed at the same time. The flaws are forgiven because these images connect with the viewer and make you say WOW. Let’s be real – couldn’t we all use a little more WOW in our lives?
So don’t worry about perfect – keep the fun in photography. Regardless if it’s a hobby or a profession, if you can keep the fun in the process, you will never work a day. You will shoot more often and improve with experience, and you will always feel rewarded by your efforts.
As always – I hope you find this useful. You can watch the rest of Episode #78 of TogChat in the video below.
And until next time, go pick up that camera and shoot something, because your BEST shot is your NEXT shot. So keep learning, keep thinking, and keep shooting. Adios!