Photographers are a diverse crowd. From the subjects we shoot to the gear we use (and obsess over more than we’d like to admit), there’s much that divides us. Yet each time we pick up a camera, we’re all striving to create our best image possible—as subjective as that may be.
Whether we succeed in that goal (and what defines ‘best’) is merely secondary. The point of our photography journey shouldn’t be perfection—an abstract, seemingly always out of reach ideal. Rather, we should strive for incremental, yet steady, improvement.
The point of our photography journey is progress.
In The Beginning
It’s easy to forget that there was a time in all photographer’s careers before they picked up a camera. A time before they set out to capture their first image. A time before they sold their first print or earned their first commission.
When looking back, our early work—myself included—can seem cringeworthy and, at times, downright embarrassing. A time of oversaturated sunrises, poorly composed models or underexposed subjects.
Yet—as those reading this know—we continue. We push on despite—or perhaps, because of—not knowing any better. Our enthusiasm and passion for the craft make up for a lack of expertise. We get up at 4am for sunrise, we timidly position the model, we shyly take street photos hoping not to be seen.
Gradually, over time, we improve. We take pride in our best work, and put it on display. We begin to refer to ourselves as a ‘Photographer’ with a degree of confidence. We may even start to view the work of amateurs fondly, reflecting on where we came from, and taking solace in how more refined our work has now become.
Naturally, we turn our gaze towards the pros.
We admire their lighting, their editing, their compositions. We study their images, looking for clues on how to emulate the best aspects of their work. And as we do, we compare our work to theirs, noticing the flaws in our own work. Why don’t my best efforts look like that? Rather than drawing inspiration from the quality of their work, it’s easy to feel frustrated by the shortcomings of our own.
The cause of this discomfort is in our judgment of high-quality work. In our ‘taste’ as Broadcaster Ira Glass described it. The issue is that we’re too good at it.
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
Early in our photography journeys, we become adept at discerning the quality of good (and not so good) images. We begin to notice uneven horizons, or blown out highlights or weakly composed scenes.
Yet at this stage in our development a certain problem can arise—one that I myself still struggle with at times. The problem is that pursuing perfection is often paralyzing.
The Mirage of Perfection
As our taste for quality work matures, we begin to look inward, examining ways to improve the quality of our work.
Yet as soon we master correct exposure, we might then notice how our scene isn’t as crisp as we might like. And so we research the optimal aperture for our lens, hyperfocal distances and how to focus-stack close foregrounds.
After we master the technical considerations, our critique drifts towards composition. Then towards the scene’s ideal lighting conditions. Then towards advanced post-processing techniques.
Yet this pursuit is a mirage. As soon as we appear to move forward, mastering a new technique, our perception of the ideal image moves further away. If only I were here in spring. If only I’d have a 10-stop ND filter with me. And so it continues.
‘Perfection’ becomes an ideal we chase but can never truly reach.
What happens? We do nothing. Our progress halts, because inaction is safer than trying and failing to achieve perfection. We make excuses, the waterfall isn’t flowing as much as I’d like, I’ll venture out another time. We stop sharing our work, heaven forbid someone notices my soft foreground. Or we don’t even take the shot, the sunset fizzled out, so it’s not worth taking a photo.
When we don’t go out, when we don’t share, when we don’t take the shot, we deprive ourselves of valuable learning experiences. How can we improve at something without feedback to inform whether our image was better or worse than last time?
The trick I’ve found to help escape this paralyzing state of inaction is stop viewing my photography as zero sum game. That is, to stop treating my images either perfect or not good enough.
Instead, I’m now striving for continual improvement.
Slow And Steady
Despite its popularity (and, arguably, a modern necessity) among photographers, Instagram can be seen as contributing to—if not downright causing—the perfection mindset.
When we’re exposed to dozens of stunning images on a daily basis, it’s easy to get caught up in the virality of social media—and the sudden spike in exposure that brings. Yet, only in the rarest of rare circumstances, are careers made off the back of one image. Or off of one painting. Or off of one novel.
In short, we need to stop conflating short-term exposure with long-term success.
Perhaps the best way forward is to stop viewing photography as an all or nothing pursuit. The hard truth is that we don’t have the Midas Touch. Once we create one great image, there’s nothing to stop us from taking an average image a week later.
We have good days, and we have bad days—hopefully the former outnumber the latter. Yet even when we have a bad day, it’s worth returning (after some time has passed) to review the shots from that day. What aspects about the images were bad—was it the lighting, the weather, the composition? Which of our decisions were good—was it the location choice, the framing, the post-processing?
Give yourself the freedom to fail. And then learn from it.
When we take a step back to treat our photography as a lifelong pursuit—one full of ups and downs—only then can we escape the mirage of perfection. It’s time to stop viewing our photography development as a goal to sprint towards, but rather as a scenic hike through the woods. A slow and steady hike.
When it comes to how we approach our photography, be the tortoise.