One of the foremost goals of a photographer of any skill level is to improve. That is admittedly an open-ended proclamation, as improvement can many so many different things to different people. Rather than focusing on any particular skill, however, I think it is worth considering for a moment a more generalized drive for perfection and how the incessant pursuit of such an ideal concept might actually impact one’s growth as a photographer.
It’s safe to say that we’re accustomed to being inundated with messages about perfection — “practice makes perfect,” “always strive for perfection,” “how to shoot perfect portraits.” It seems to never end. Perfection. This is apparently what we all should be aiming for, and perfection is marketed to us as if it is indeed the norm. We’re presented with naturally imperfect people with imperfect features, imperfect food, and imperfect structures that have all been digitized and sterilized, reimagined and reformed, resulting in something that seems much too faultless to be real. We’ve all seen portraits of models that are perfectly sharp, perfectly exposed, and so heavily processed that a mannequin could just have easily stood in. Stylistic intentions notwithstanding (there are always exceptions), such images sometimes fail to be truly compelling.
Photo by Tuncay Coşkun
If compelling imagery is what you want your photography to be about, then at some point you will have to realize that the quest for perfection can be counterproductive. It’s not that technical qualities like sharpness and exposure are unimportant, but there are times when technical perfection alone is meaningless; in fact, an overemphasis on perfection is likely going to get in the way of your creative growth in the same way that obsessing over gear can deflect your focus away from actually going out making photographs. The ability to create compelling photos relies most heavily on vision and instinct; it’s about capturing a moment. Moments — if we were to somehow think of them as being sentient things — don’t care about your f-stop or ISO level. And neither does the person who views your photo and is moved by it.
I often say that there is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to any creative/artistic endeavor. I am not suggesting here that technically precise photos are inherently of lesser value than photos that forsake some level of technical precision in exchange for atmosphere or mood; each of these ideologies can comfortably coexist. Indeed, as photographers we leverage technology as a vital method of expressing our vision — and vision is an intensely personal concept. We’re all free to use our cameras however we wish. All I am suggesting is that it is important to avoid painting yourself into a corner. Anyone can learn to be a proficient technician, but this doesn’t always translate into artistry. There are certainly instances when technical aspects take center stage but, as Jay Maisel claims, “gesture is the most important element” of a compelling photograph. One may sacrifice, whether by design or as a matter of circumstance, any number of technical elements in an effort to capture that decisive moment, that ephemeral gesture that sucks the viewer in. Some of the most enduring images we’ve seen aren’t perfectly focused/sharp/composed/exposed, yet we love those photographs for what they represent and how they make us feel.
Of course fundamentals matter; practice is important; knowing how to make competent use of various guidelines and rules is wise. But where do you go from here? Is perfection even attainable? I don’t know and I don’t think it matters. It also doesn't matter whether you come about your “imperfect” creations by accident or by calculated intent. Nor should it be much of a concern whether others like your less than perfect work so long as you're happy with it. Visual and emotional impact matter; being comfortable in your own creative skin matters; developing your personal style matters. Perhaps perfection as some sort of abstract principle enters the conversation at a certain point, even if for no other reason than to describe the artist’s tendency of being a perfectionist about one’s imperfect creations. But as far as chasing after a proper, obliging, idealized version of photography, give yourself a break. Break a few rules and go with your gut.