Why I Value Imperfection in Photography
Updated: Dec 5, 2021
Is perfectionism preventing you from enjoying your photography?
Does perfectionism prevent you from loving the moment you captured because it wasn’t as good as you thought it would be?
Perfectionism is something that can affect a lot of people, and photographers are no exception. This is hardly surprising considering the number of critics and ‘experts’ there are in the field, constantly telling you how your image should look and why this or that doesn’t look good.
Obviously, there are a few definite ‘no-no’s that everyone will agree on, such as a skewed horizon or a tree coming out of someone’s head, but I’m generally in favour of some creative licence otherwise photography becomes a pressure rather than a pleasure.
WHAT DO I MEAN WHEN I SAY THAT I VALUE IMPERFECTIONISM IN PHOTOGRAPHY?
I don’t mean that it’s okay to take a careless photo and expect people to like it. What I do mean is that we shouldn’t always aim for perfection and refuse to accept anything less.
I like this image. It's not perfect, it's not even anything special, but it reminds me of a particular place and time and that is its appeal for me.
There are how-to materials, tips, videos, tutorials and experts galore in photography always urging us to strive for the perfect shot. We are encouraged to find a perfect location, set up a perfect composition, shoot in perfect light and achieve a perfect result. Anything less often seems to be unacceptable.
The trouble with having a perfectionist approach is that it is unachievable for most regular photographers. Even professional photographers feel under pressure to capture a perfect image at every shoot, and many are speaking out against the trend to push for perfect images.
The professional photographers that I most admire are those who are willing to admit that they don't get everything perfect. Thomas Heaton is one of those photographers and in a recent YouTube video he describes what he calls a 'comedy of errors' on one of his photo outings.
WHAT REALLY MATTERS IN PHOTOGRAPHY?
As beginners, we can read all the materials, watch the training videos, take on board the guidance of experts, and still come away from a shoot disappointed that we didn’t get the result we were looking for.
I think this is where we need to step back and realise that what is important is not the final product, but the process involved.
What matters is that we put our learning into practice to the best of our ability, that we shoot what catches our eye, that we enjoy our photography and embrace our mistakes as part of our own learning curve.
What matters is that we use the skills and techniques we learn to create interesting and beautiful photographs.
What matters is not that we look at what is wrong with our photos, but that we look at what is right about them, how they demonstrate how far we have progressed.
I find it refreshing to come across photographers who do things differently, who step out of line and make their own rules.
I’m thinking of the photographer who breaks the rule of thirds and places a subject centrally in the frame, or the photographer who uses a high ISO because he or she likes a grainy look to their photos.
I’m thinking of the photographer who continues to shoot hand-held even though “professionals use a tripod”, or the photographer who shows a photo publicly despite its imperfection because he or she knows that photography is never perfect.
If you are aiming to have your photographs commended by judges in a competition or praised by other photographers in a camera club, then you may feel under pressure to produce the technically correct, perfect picture.
But it’s not for me.
I want to be spontaneous with my photography, to enjoy making images, to feel the delight of being in the right place at the right time and getting lucky with an image.
I want to bring home photos that I love, that speak to me, that I would be happy to hang on my wall.
I want to shoot those things that catch my attention, things that make me want to stop, take off the lens cap, and raise the camera to my eye.
I want to love the images I capture, not endure the frustration of seeking perfection that I will never achieve.
I want to look past what others might consider to be errors and see my own special moments captured on camera.
I want to see each photo as part of my unique view of the world, not as something to be discarded because it doesn’t fit into someone else’s view of perfection.
Shot in my local park, filters applied
HOW DO WE OVERCOME PERFECTIONISM?
Perfectionism can stifle our unique photography voice. It can make us want to be like other photographers. But if we become like other photographers, we are no longer ourselves.
It is only when we drop the need for perfection and embrace the imperfections in our photography that we are truly able to connect with our subjects, with our unique voice and with ourselves as the photographer we are meant to be.
So, how do we let go of perfectionism?
Here are 5 ideas that might help you.
1. BECOME AWARE OF THE PERFRECTION TRIGGERS. If you are constantly seeking likes on social media, expecting everyone in your camera club to praise your images, or always striving to receive a positive comment on a photography forum, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment and disillusionment.
There are groups where members will give genuine feedback, and these can be useful to our development as photographers, but I tend to avoid those where everyone is a critic.
All I get from these groups is a sense that my photographs are not quite good enough, and I don’t need that.
2. USE IMPERFECTIONS AS LEARNING OPPORTINITIES. We can use those images that do not live up to our perfectionist standards to inform our future photography. Instead of beating ourselves up for failing, we can build ourselves up by learning.
3. ASK YOURSELF WHO YOU ARE PHOTOGRAPHING FOR. When you look back at your photographs from a year ago, or two years ago, do you want to remember where you were and how you felt when you made the image, or do you want to focus on the mistakes?
I like my photographs to be reminders of places I’ve been and remember how and why I created the image. If this is your aim with your photography, then make images for yourself.
Photograph the things you like, take risks, be creative. You’ll have much more fun this way.
4. AIM FOR IMPROVEMENT – LEARN BY TAKING SMALL STEPS. Practice brings progress, not perfection. Instead of trying to take perfect photos each time you go out, you can aim for improvement on each photo outing. When you aim for progress, you are likely to reach your goal, whereas aiming for perfectionism is an impossible goal to reach.
5. FOCUS ON THE PROCESS RATHER THAN THE RESULT (AND DON’T MISS ALL THE FUN!). Perfectionists are more concerned with the outcome than the process involved in getting there. The desired outcome might be a perfect photograph yet in focusing only on this outcome we miss out on all the fun of experimenting, discovering, making mistakes, learning something new, taking a different approach and all the important steppingstones in the process of becoming a competent photographer who can produce decent results.
Sometimes an image just appeals to you and its worth capturing!
In some ways this post is a follow up to my last post in the sense that I don’t believe you can reveal your true voice in photography if you tend towards perfectionism.
If you are aiming for perfection in your photography, you are more likely to be concerned about whether other people like your work than about whether it is pleasing to you.
By becoming aware of your perfectionism triggers, using your mistakes as learning opportunities and aiming for improvement you will start to photograph what you love and enjoy the process rather than constantly seek perfect results.
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