Creating the perfect photograph used to be my ultimate aim. It was a pursuit that left me feeling like a failure. What follows is an argument to give up on perfection and the suggestion of a beneficial alternative.
In the 90s, the advances in technology meant that it was possible to create music where every element was perfect. Months were spent in the studio and in post production making sure that every note from every instrument sounded exactly right.
Music is not made like that today. In fact, after an initial recording that sounds quite close to perfect, the artist usually spends quite a bit of time layering the track with sounds that are chosen specially for their imperfection. Musicians quickly realized that perfection should never be the aim.
Looking to the practice of photography; cameras, lenses, and post production software are multiple times better than what we had just ten years ago. Coupled to that, there is training material by the world’s greatest instructors on just about every possible photography related topic. It is easier than ever to create the perfect image. I’m suggesting that we give up on this ideal.
Take a moment to consider an iconic image that you personally enjoy — one that sticks in your memory. For me, it is a person jumping over a puddle by Cartier-Bresson. I’m confident that the image in your mind is not technically perfect, or even if it is, that’s not the reason you remember it. You remember the image because of the emotional connection you had to the image. Emotional connection should therefore be our primary objective when creating images.
That is not to say we can be sloppy. Technical imperfections can distract from the emotional appeal of an image. It is therefore important to get the technical aspects right. However, this should always follow the purpose of creating an emotional connection.
One of the reasons that this is a tough ideal to aim for is based on how we learn photography. If you bring your images to me for critique, I’ll tell you how you can improve on them based on what is not perfect in each picture. We keep incrementally improving our work until it’s as close to perfection as possible. Aiming for perfection is measurable.
Emotionally connecting with your audience is not measurable. What may reduce one person to tears might have no impact on the next person. Success or failure when aiming for an emotive image is completely subjective.
“Photograph what interests you. If you find it interesting, it’s highly likely someone else will find it interesting.” I was fortunate enough to hear this advice from Ralph Velasco when I was starting my photographic career. Since then, I’ve been careful to concentrate and covering subjects that interests me. Along with that, I’ve carefully curated my portfolio to only include work that represents the subject matter that interest me. Over the course of my career, it has meant that I’ve created emotive images that have connected with my clients and I’ve been hired to do the work I love.
Take a moment to consider the time you spend on photography. What percentage of that time is spent on perfecting images through retouch, gear acquisition or training and development? Similarly, what percentage of that time is spent photographing something that you love — something that you would pay for the opportunity to photograph?
We all need to work on improving our photography. I’m not suggesting giving that up. Instead, I’m suggesting spending the majority of your photography time emotionally connecting with what interests you. I'm confident that aiming for emotive images will make your photography more interesting for both your self and your audience.