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How to Take Imperfect Photographs

Taking and sharing photographs is the best way I’ve yet learned to talk about the things I really love.

But getting closer to the heart of the matter - the stuff we really love - can make the doubts whisper louder, the fear of ‘not good enough’ grow out of hand.

Part of what I’ve been doing in this conversation about perfectionism is thinking about how to allow for the imperfect in photography.  How to leave a crack to let the light come in.

I have learned, over time, to leave some photographs uncropped, as a way of showing process, and leaving some of my own presence still in the photograph.

Buchaile Etive Mor, and Wing Mirror

Sharing photos like this did, at first, feel strange, and uncomfortable.  But I can see with reflection there’s still something of the longing to be perfect in it: to capture the essence of the moment, photographer and all.

I have made a deliberate effort to pay attention to the different aspects of growth in the natural world, including images of flowers and plants that are decaying, or being eaten.

And that does get a lot closer to it: countering the classic view of what makes a perfect flower image (and with read across to what it means for us to be growing, blooming, blossoming, flowering, whole).

Pollen

Fly on Blossom

End of the Blackthorn

But still I know my inner photographer is searching for a way to capture and express that moment, that process, as beautifully, as prettily, as perfectly as I can.

Garden Flowers
Photography is not the same as writing.

Writing, for me anyway, has more movement, more energy between the lines, more fluidity. More room for cracks, and light.

Whereas photography is, at least at some level, an attempt to capture.

Each image is complete in itself.

An offering, if you like.

Which leaves me still wondering how to counter perfectionism in photography, and allow imperfections to shed some light.

I’d love to hear from any photographers out there - including those who, like me, take photos just for fun, and just because you can, or just because you love. How do you counter the dead hand of perfectionism in your work? Have you learned ways to take and share imperfect photographs?

The only answer I managed to come up with in the end - and an answer to the blows of the critic when the doubts get out of hand - is acceptance that photography can only ever be a representation of the moment, the object, the thing that we see, and wonder at, and feel love for.

However good the image, that’s all it ever can be: a sharing of a way of seeing of a moment in the world.

Which allows me to soften my gaze, and keep looking and trying, and learning from the world to just be.

Seeds

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Comments

  1. Jason
    Twitter: Wildscape_Jay
    says:

    What an insightful article this is. Although I’m a professional I too take photos just for fun, for the love of it and for the beauty of a shared experience. I don’t care too much anymore about perfection in my shots, they are what they are, and who decides where the dividing line is between imperfect and perfect? What matters to me is the telling of a tale, the feeling of an emotional bond with the subject, a feeling that hopefully touches the viewers heart too.
    A while ago I posted this gallery, http://jasonsmalley.co.uk/2010/10/memories-of-spring, and people emailed me telling me of the ‘imperfections’, of how they were rather chaotic and rule-breaking. However for me they spoke of wild nature and truth.
    So yes, lets use our camera to feel the way. Lay it on the floor, place it on the ice, poke it into the mossy nooks and see what it can show us.

  2. Arthur Durkee
    Twitter: Stickdragnaol.com
    says:

    I’m a pro photographer, as well as a poet (there, I owned the title for once), and I agree with a lot of what you say here. Except that my opinion about photography vs. writing is the opposite of yours: photography is very full of movement, it’s not just a capture; it’s more like painting, where the energy of the line in the composition can activate a lot of feeling and motion. A great image is as eternal as a great painting, or a great poem, or a great piece of music. Ansel Adams was trained as a concert pianist before he took up photography; and many of his best images are very musical in spirit.

    Photography is about light. Every photograph I take outdoors, which is mostly where I work, is about the light. The sky, the light striking the trees, filtering through the haze. Photography IS light. Letting the light in through the cracks is literally what the camera does.

    As for taking photos for fun, with few expectations, that’s what I do even though I’m a pro. I approach even paid jobs as an amateur, i.e. a lover. Most of my best photos are spontaneous, not planned, not carefully intended or thought out carefully beforehand, they just happened. (Most of my best poems happen this way, too. I think writers stumble a lot over their own intentions.)

    I think writers and photographers alike stumble over the idea that their work has to be intentional, consciously controlled, that they must be in charge and in control of everything that’s going on. If you want to embrace imperfection, that idea of control is the first thing you have to get rid of. Too many get caught up in the idea of thinking they’re supposed to know what they’re doing. Uncertainty and imperfection makes them uncomfortable, precisely because they feel out of control and don’t have a convenient yardstick to judge the results. There’s no signposts along the roadside telling you going in the right direction. That’s when trust in your creative process REALLY starts to matter.

    In writing, the exercise of “morning pages” or “free writing” is a way to loosen this up. Playful spontaneity is something that can be learned.

    With digital cameras, now, it’s even easier to embrace imperfection and spontaneity in photography. Here’s a few techniques that work very well towards opening up how and what you see.

    1. Don’t look through the viewfinder. Just shoot. Look at what you’re making a photo of, but don’t look through the camera to make the photo. Aim and shoot, but don’t use the viewfinder or the LCD screen on the back of the camera. Or: Don’t look at what you’re doing. Just shoot. With practice, you can actually get really good at taking photos of subjects without looking at them.

    2. Shoot behind you, behind your back, so you cannot see what you’re shooting. Shoot off to the side, and don’t look till you see what you’ve got. You’ll get a lot of duds, and a few masterpieces, using this technique. Get used to making a lot of mediocre photographs; after all, with digital, all you have to do is delete them later, and save the ones you like.

    3. Do the wrong exposure. Embrace the blur. I often shoot without flash when the camera wants to use flash. (It’s important to have a camera that you can adjust settings on manually, so that it doesn’t do something you don’t want. Do not leave the camera on “Auto” all the time; explore all your other settings. In other words, get to know your tools. You know your tools as a writer, why wouldn’t you spend the same effort to know your tools as a photographer?) I often shoot out the car window when driving along, or riding a bike at dusk. Super-sharp intentional exposures are one kind of photographic aesthetic, and one that we’ve all been told is “best” in photography—but it’s not the only good kind of photograph. Embrace the blur!

    4. Break all the rules of technique. In fact, just forget about them. Go ahead and do everything you’ve been told you’re not supposed to do, or that you’ve been told will yield bad photos. Unlearn the rules.

    5. Take a walk with your camera, and slow down and really LOOK at something before you make an image of it. The making of the photograph is the last part of a long process of seeing. Take your time. This is more a practice about seeing the world as it is; seeing beauty even in un-beautiful things; getting absorbed in turning off the mind, turning off the intentions, and just wandering at random.

    I find this yields some really amazing photographs, although when I’m out on a camera walk like this, making the photograph is almost the least important part of the experience at the time. It’s only later, when you go through the photographs after you get home, that you often realize how good the images are.

  3. Jacqui says:

    This has all been very thought provoking for me - both what you have written and the replies. I take photographs mostly for pleasure, but I also try to capture the essence of what I am taking - to tell a story or sometimes to paint a picture with it (if that makes sense! I am a bit of a perfectionist with my photos and usually do a fair bit of editing before I’m happy with it. Only if it is a record of something that cannot be repeated could I tolerate what I see as imperfections in the picture. I certainly would never think of placing myself in it at all in any way. And yet I really love your first picture and that it shows your wing mirror. That transforms it from a just landscape into a story that is being told, and speaks of relationship between you and the mountain. I like that idea and want to think about it further.

  4. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Jason: “What matters to me is the telling of a tale, the feeling of an emotional bond with the subject, a feeling that hopefully touches the viewers heart too.”

    Thanks for that Jason… you’ve reminded me that this is also what matters most to me, the feeling of the emotional bond with the subject. When I remember to ‘focus’ on the feeling of connection I both have and want to share… the concerns about the ‘perfection’ of the photo do diminish. I guess like anything remembering to do this takes practice. We imperfect human beings are an eternal work in progress.

  5. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Arthur Durkee,

    My goodness Arthur… that’s like a teaching lesson in itself. Thank you so much for all these suggestions, I will practice playing with them. And thank you also for claiming the title of poet :-)

    Jacqui, thank you for replying so thoughtfully. I know just what you mean about painting pictures and telling stories. And actually - as you have hinted at yourself - this might be the way into the kind of imperfections and loosening up being talked about here, allowing for more of the paints to be shown, the human dimension as part of the telling of the story.

    But I do also know what you mean about how much discomfort can arise when we start to do that. Leaving in something that ‘should’ be cropped, including a bit of ourselves… can make you feel very strange… until you do it a few times and it’s easier. Like anything, we can change the way we do things through practice.