Always striving for perfection with your images? Geoff Harris questions whether this works to the photographer’s advantage or whether ‘good enough’ is all that’s required.
Photography is tailor-made for obsessive people, and all great photographers are obsessive and driven to a greater or lesser extent. Think of Robert Capa jumping into the channel with the D-Day troops or the injuries and privations that other photojournalists have suffered. It’s not just war or documentary photography either; I once saw a video of the famous wildlife photographer Mike ‘Nick’ Nichols, shooting in the South American jungle, literally covered in bugs. Even Martin Parr had to put up with the horrors of Benidorm in high season.
So yes, you need to be dedicated and hardworking to achieve greatness in photography, but there is a point where a healthy obsession starts to go bad. If you are finding you are getting stressed on shoots as your work just isn’t good enough, or you are rejecting most of your shots because of the smallest imperfection, it might be time to step back and take stock.
It’s so hard to judge perfection. Even if you get the exposure and sharpness spot on, the composition might not be absolutely perfect according to the golden mean or golden spiral or some similarly arcane rule. There are so many definitions of what makes a good photograph but I like US photographer Steve Schapiro’s observation that it successfully delivers “information, emotion and execution.” If it’s clear what an image is about, if it strikes a chord with the viewer and is well taken and composed, that’s as good as you need to get.
Of course, this is quite a broad definition, and many abstract and fine-art photographers don’t worry about making it clear what they are photographing. Sharpness can be another pitfall. We’ve become obsessed with sharpness as it’s so easy to view everything on a computer at 100%. Remember, sharpness and noise can be painfully obvious with higher resolution cameras, but your viewer may not be looking at your image on a large computer screen (the image might print fine at 300dpi, for example). Sharpness is important, depending on the subject, but you should stay realistic.
Photography is not a sport. While there are many great things about camera clubs, I worry a bit about the constant competitions that some (not all!) take part in. Photography is not like a game of tennis or crown-green bowls, where there is a clear winner. Because photography is so subjective, the judges of these competitions sometimes resort to very technical criteria, checking that an image absolutely adheres to the rule of thirds, for example. I find this is a little ludicrous, as many great photographs would probably fail similar tests. Somebody once told me that their ambition was to be a good ‘club photographer’, which, again, has too many sporting connotations for my liking. So, by all means, enter competitions as a way to raise your skills and ascertain your progress, but don’t get deflated if you don’t win. Use it as an opportunity to get some feedback.
“Done is better than perfect.” I love this saying, a favourite of Facebook boss Sheryl Sandberg. It’s very easy with photography to get bogged down and never actually get your image out there, particularly if you shoot in Raw and do a lot of editing. A Raw image offers almost unlimited scope for reworking and tweaking, so if you are not careful, the means can become the end in itself.
Far better to work on developing an efficient image-editing workflow, do what you need to do to the image and then publish it. If you find an image is requiring hours and hours of Lightroom or Photoshop work, it’s probably not good enough to begin with. While it’s important to make your portfolio as strong as possible, if nobody ever sees it because you are always working on the images, what’s the point of being a photographer?
One thing that can help is to put yourself in the viewer’s shoes. I shoot weddings and wedding photography is a fascinating genre. As well as teaching you to shoot under pressure – you only get one chance, folks – you soon learn that your definition of a good image might not chime with your customer’s.
If you are anything like me, you can beat yourself up for not getting an image quite sharp enough, blowing out a highlight or allowing some clutter in the background. Meanwhile, all the customer cares about is that you got a nice shot of 88-year-old Auntie Joan, or caught one of the bridesmaids in a cute pose. Again, I am not saying you should put out sloppy work, but you should nevertheless put yourself in the customer’s shoes when deciding whether to keep or reject an image.
It’s good to be obsessive, and vital that you try your very best to take the best possible image that you can. You need to stay grounded, though, and if this quest is taking the fun out of photography, it’s time to chill out and remind yourself that perfection is almost impossible to find. Photography is a journey, and even the great names never ascend to some kind of imaging nirvana, where they know absolutely everything there is to know about the subject.
Do you agree with Geoff? Tell us what you think in the Comments section below.
About the Author
Geoff is an experienced photography journalist and recently stepped down as editor of Digital Camera, the UK’s best-selling photography magazine. He now writes for a range of publications. Geoff is a keen travel and portrait photographer, and a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society.