How to Let Go of Perfection in Photography

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In the digital era, where perfection seems within our grasp through post-processing and limitless opportunities to reshoot, it’s easy to get hung up on perfectionism. In some genres, such as product photography, it’s a necessity. Your commercial client won’t appreciate blown-out highlights on a shampoo bottle or soft focus on the wheel of a prestige car.

But in many other areas of photography – especially when it comes to your personal projects – letting go of perfectionism can help unleash your creativity and ensure that you don’t miss important moments.

B&W image of child illustrates letting go of perfection in photography

Beautifully imperfect.

My brush with perfectionism

Earlier this year, my firstborn turned 18 and I wanted to create a slideshow of photos from her birth to the present day. Since I was still shooting film for the first 10 years of her life, this involved trawling through printed photos.

What stood out to me was that among my favorite photos, very few were technically perfect. Some were poorly composed. Others were out-of-focus, underexposed, or badly lit. In fact – and I hate to admit this – if I’d shot these photos in the digital era, I’d have rejected many of them, or attempted to reshoot them to get them “right”. But they captured expressions that epitomize my daughter. They had caught candid moments between sisters, and snippets in time I’d forgotten, but want to remember.

Letting go of perfection in photography

Grainy, underexposed and soft, this photo of my children snuggled into an armchair reading books is priceless to me.

Embrace the imperfect

Almost everything about the black-and-white photo at the top of the page is imperfect from a technical stance. The subject is too centred; the sun has cast shadows over her eyes and highlighted her nose; the highlights are blown out, and the focus is soft on the eyes. To me, though, it is exquisite. The windswept hair, the tilt of her head and quirky smile capture her sweet nature, and the way she looks (to this very day) when she is daydreaming.

Three photos showing letting go of perfectionism in photography

In all three photos above, there are technical faults. But the clumsy embrace, the dimples, those eyes and that cheeky pout could never be replaced by technical perfection.

While this article is not about film versus digital, it is hard to deny that the digital era has brought out the perfectionist in us all. Those of us who cut our photographic teeth in the film era will remember what it was like to accept imperfection. When you had a maximum of 36 frames on a roll of film, there was no room for rapid-fire shooting in the hope of getting one good shot. Unless you did your own printing, or were prepared to pay for custom printing, you were stuck with the composition you’d shot. There was no histogram to meddle with, no brushes to delete stray hairs, and no actions or presets to smooth everything out.

Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity

My youngest daughter is wildly artistic. She’s a keen photographer and has an eye for composition, lighting and quirky camera angles. To my frustration, she refuses to master some of the basics such as the exposure triangle and depth of field. While I think this has more to do with teen rebellion than creativity, I have learned something from her.

Technical skills are important, there’s no question, as we need to master the fundamentals of our craft. In photography, this means understanding light, how focal length and depth of field work, and the relationship between shutter speed, iso and aperture. We should be aware of the rules of composition even if we choose to veer from them.

But digital photography allows us to take our perfectionist tendencies to an extreme.

Letting go of perfectionism in photography.

Would this photo be improved if it were straightened, and the white balance perfected?

Perfection is a myth

When you make perfection your goal, you’re often left with a sense of failure. Rather than enjoying your achievements, you waste time lamenting what you failed to achieve and what you could have done differently.

Creative minds are rarely tidy (neither are their workspaces – just ask the aforementioned daughter). Creation can be a messy business, yet making a mess is something that’s discouraged from an early age. Creativity is the explosion of paints and brushes across the table. It’s the random words smudged across school books that become poems and songs. It’s burnt saucepans, twisted ankles and spilt ink, and it’s weird composition, missed focus, and unwanted backgrounds. These messes can lead to wonderful things that you’ll miss if you are focused on reaching perfection.

It’s worth remembering that Penicillin, potato chips, Scotchguard and the pacemaker were all the result of mistakes.

I am no landscape photographer, but when I revisited my birth country I wanted to capture how the majority of South Africans live. The photos below were shot from a slow-moving vehicle, and a landscape photographer could point out their many imperfections. But I think I achieved what I set out to do, and that’s good enough for me.

Letting go of perfectionism in photography. Photo shows Khyelitsha township in South Africa, with Table

Khyelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, was established during the apartheid era as part of the Group Areas Act, and is now home to around 2.4 million people.

Letting go of perfectionism in photography. Photo shows Khyelitsha township in South Africa, with Table

Tins roofs, uninsulated buildings and a riot of electrical wires overhead.

Letting go of perfectionism in photography. Photo shows Khyelitsha township in South Africa, with Table Mountain in the background.

In the background, the mountain range for which Cape Town is famous. In the foreground, the outskirts of Khyelitsha.

Perfection is boring

There is a long list of famous songs which were recorded with mistakes, including Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, The Police’s Roxanne, and Radiohead’s Creep. It takes nothing away from our enjoyment of them – in fact, it enhances them. It reminds us that they were made by humans, who are fallible just like us.

I believe there is something in the human psyche that craves imperfection. In recent years, we have seen a resurgence of vinyl in the music industry. The trend in photo editing, especially for portraiture, has swung towards emulating film. And it is the millennials, raised in the digital era where everything sought to be perfect, who have led these trends. Lightroom presets such as Mastin Labs and VSCO are doing a roaring trade making digital photographs look like they were shot on film.

The flat tones in this photo were the result of underexposure. Now there’s a preset to emulate this look.

Image shows two gilrs at camp fire, illustrates letting go of perfectionism

In this photo, the skin tones are too green, the central composition could be improved, and that red bucket draws too much attention, but contributes nothing to the story. Yet the photo reminds me of how much fun my children had on their first camping trip, and is evocative of my own childhood.

You’ll miss the important moments

Henri Cartier-Bresson, a master of candid photography said, “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.” To him, photography was all about capturing the decisive moment, not getting hung up on technical perfection. Get too fixated on perfection, and you’ll miss the moments that take your breath away.

Your subjects can’t repeat a candid expression because you missed focus. An embrace is only spontaneous the first time. Spend too long worrying about shutter speed or depth of field, and you’ll miss it. If it’s restaged, it will show.

Letting go of perfectionism in photography.

Discovering what my children had done when left unsupervised with craft paint in the backyard: priceless.

The photo below of a woman with her teenage daughter is an outtake from a family photo shoot, snapped in the break when they had dropped their guard. Because it is out of focus, I was tempted not to show it to them, but I was so drawn to their natural smiles and the warmth in their embrace that I changed my mind. It turned out to be one of their favourite photos. The outtakes are often the best photos, when people behave spontaneously.

Teen girl and mother embracing and laughing, illustrates letting go of perfectionism

This photo of my daughters was shot on 35mm film. Had I been shooting with a DSLR, I may have reshot it because the focus is soft. I’m so glad I didn’t. That split-second interaction sums up their relationship – the little one’s curiosity while her big sister asserts her superior status.

B&W photo of two little girls illustrates letting go of perfection in photography

A moment is only candid the first time.

Progress over perfection

Candid photography and photojournalism are all about capturing the decisive moment, no matter how imperfect the conditions. You can’t reschedule the moment your baby takes his first steps until the light is right. And trust me, if those photos are blurry and the cat makes a guest appearance at the critical moment, they will still move you to tears when you look at them 18 years from now.

Regardless of what genre you like to photograph, keep shooting. Keep learning; read widely and take inspiration from anywhere you can. Learn from your mistakes and strive for improvement, but don’t get hung up on perfection. Enjoy your photos and, most importantly, the process of creating them.

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