The Big Picture: Why Perfect Technique Does Not Always Improve a Photograph

September 19th, 2017 by Erin Babnik

 

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” —Mark Twain

A little secret that is well known to educators is the concept of the “good lie”. It encapsulates the idea that any course of instruction is bound to be incomplete or imperfect, but learning has to start somewhere. When we first begin to study any complex subject, we need some structure, some kind of foundation on which to build our understanding of it. For example, when I was beginning my studies in art history, my professors introduced me to the subject of ancient Greek sculpture by emphasizing the evidence regarding known sculptors, what each had contributed to the art, and why any of it mattered. I later learned just how much of this introduction amounted to optimistic conclusions based on ambiguous evidence, but that education brought me to higher levels of understanding. By the time that I started working on my doctoral dissertation, my research was focused on some of those points of weakness as areas where I could make my own contributions, and my professors were encouraging such questioning because the “good lie” was only ever a starting point.

Learning photography involves a similar progression through structured principles into personal discoveries. As landscape photographers, we learn our craft as a combination of in-field methods, compositional rules, location research, weather chasing, and post-processing solutions—all of which amounts to the “good lie” in our field. Together, these ideas provide a useful framework through which we can develop our creative sensibilities, but the framework itself is merely a way in.

To be sure, craftsmanship is an essential part of the photographic process, and good technique is often crucial to the success of a creative motivation. The sheer spectacle of technical virtuosity alone can provide a special frisson: prickly sharpness, masterfully controlled tones, or precise calculations of celestial events—all count among the many technical accomplishments that tend to delight viewers of landscape photographs. Regardless, perfect technique hardly amounts to the holy grail of photography. Despite its many virtues, technique is fundamentally reproducible, is always subject to becoming obsolete, and can become a visual crutch and a developmental cul-de-sac. For anyone who wants to keep progressing in their photography, creativity is the higher good. Therefore, it is important to be open-minded about craftsmanship and to acknowledge that creativity is a messy place.

Keeping the following caveats in mind can help to ensure that perfection doesn’t become the enemy of the good.

Spring Back by Erin Babnik

This photo departs from my usual standards in many ways: through its range of tonality, through its irregularity of detail, through its impressionistic approach in general. What I might consider unacceptable imperfections in other cases are precisely what give this photo the character that I find appealing.

 

 A Perfect Lemon is Still a Lemon

There is an old joke about a person looking for his keys under a street lamp. When a passerby asks him if he’s sure that it’s the area where he lost his keys, the man replies, “No, I lost them a block away, but the light is better here.” The process of making a good photograph can go wrong in the same way, by letting some unimportant factor dictate a direction. I often find participants on my workshops abandoning a great composition that they saw because it would require some minor compromise, choosing instead to photograph something less interesting that they can make ‘perfect’. Sometimes you just have to seize a moment or follow through with an idea however you can because it will result in a powerful photo regardless. Even if it means that you have to use a high ISO or shoot handheld instead of using a tripod, it’s better than not getting the shot at all. When technique starts dictating which ideas to pursue, then it’s probably time to cut the chains and enjoy some creative freedom. No amount of masterful technique will improve the photos that we never make!

The Devil is in the Details

According to the law of diminishing returns, sometimes ‘good enough’ really is…good enough. The value of technical quality does have its limits. After all, the world’s most compelling photographs do not tend to be studies in technique, and most viewers do not even notice many of the technical shortcomings that typically make photographers cringe. Laboring in the service of perfect technique can easily become an unnecessary hinderance to progress, causing a photographer to leave projects unfinished or to become too frustrated to begin a new one. I remember once spending days on processing a photograph with a delicate color palette, shifting hues and tones by minute amounts ad nauseam in my efforts to achieve the perfect balance. I shared some of the variations with a friend who has an excellent eye for such details and who was very enamored with that photo. He carefully compared all of the versions and finally said, “I doubt that any of these differences even matter,” and he urged me to release the photo and move on. It was great advice.

Imperfections Can Create Character

As Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, “There is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportions.” He finds this strangeness in the abnormally large eyes of the woman he loves and delves into describing the depths of her character that he sees through them. Beauty in photographs can also come about through such strangeness, typically created by some imperfection in the pictured elements or by some irregularity in their presentation. A leaning tree or burned out snag can break up regularity and give character to a forest scene in the same way that film grain or soft focus can. Even ancient Greek architects seem to have understood the power of imperfection when they made temple columns bulge in the middle instead of being perfectly straight vertical elements; the more emphatic examples suggest an interest in giving the temple some life, some character, as if its columns were bulging like muscles while supporting the temple’s entablature. Similarly, a high level of refinement can sap the life out of a photograph, causing it to it look too mechanical. It is possible for a photograph to be lacking in vitality simply by appearing too perfect.

Craftsmanship has always been one of the great joys of artistic creation for me, and I both exercise and teach it with great enthusiasm. “The good lie” is good for a reason, providing an important foundation and a perpetually useful touchstone. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that it has its limits, its exceptions, and its missing links—and sometimes making a substantial contribution to your portfolio means stepping outside that box. The pursuit of perfection has the potential to elevate a photograph significantly, but it can also smother its fire or prevent us from creating a photo at all. Ultimately, it’s the pursuit of our own goals that should tell us which direction to go. When creativity is hiding in the shadows, we’ll never find it by looking in the light.

The Lost Ark by Erin Babnik

The clouds were moving quickly this day, changing the quality of the light in addition to the character of the sky from one minute to the next. Upon seeing an opportunity taking shape, I had to pluck my camera off of my tripod and quickly reposition myself on my elbows to catch this moment before it was gone forever. A small aperture gave me the depth of field that I needed to get it all in one quick exposure at the cost of some diffraction, and there was no way for me to set up my tripod perfectly in the time that I had. The resulting image is plenty sharp to print large, although focus stacking and the use of a tripod could have made it that much sharper—but prioritizing those techniques would have meant missing the moment.

 

Inner Glow by Erin Babnik

When I found that condensation had filled my lens with moisture behind its front element, I almost packed it up to use my telephoto lens instead, a choice that would have limited my options a lot at this location. I decided to keep shooting with the water in the lens regardless and discovered that the condensation gave a wonderful glowing quality to my backlit composition.

 

All or Nothing by Erin Babnik

I spotted this moment unfolding much further away from me than some closer options that I liked less. I knew that the composition I wanted would require a significant amount of cropping with the lens that I had, but I was very excited by the rare and wonderful play of atmosphere and backlighting. I decided that a smaller photo of something that I really liked was preferable to a full-sized one of something less interesting to me.

 

Octopus's Garden by Erin Babnik

Getting the tones and colors of a photo dialed in so that they harmonize and balance perfectly can consume an enormous amount of time and mental energy, and eventually you reach the point of diminishing returns and need to move on.

Have you ever had issues of technique keep you from pursuing a moment or an idea? Do you have any photos in your portfolio that would not exist without some compromise? Please feel free to share in this discussion with a comment below!

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Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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  • Jack Bolshaw

    I think creators of any kind of art find themselves, at some point, struggling with a project that they don’t find absolutely perfect and it is very difficult to sometimes let go, release the curtain, hit the share button, and showcase their work. Like you, I find it helpful to receive outside opinions of people that I respect photographically but have on occasion, found this process creates further unwarranted frustration. A response of “I doubt any of these differences matter” can be infuriating if deep down one believes that there is a correct answer. However your friend is correct there’s no correct answer, looking at the big picture (pun intented) the slight nuances are superfluous to the grander audience however sometimes appear critical to the individual. One must always strive for perfection but simultaneously understand that there’s no such thing as a perfect piece in any subjective field. Thanks for writing this article Erin, it’s a great read and very thought provoking.

    • Jack, thanks so much. I agree completely about the perils of seeking outside opinions…that’s another vexing issue that I’ll take up in an article dedicated to that topic someday. I also really appreciate your last point, that perfection is ultimately subjective, which essentially underlies everything that I’ve said, although a paragraph expanding on that idea could have fit in here nicely. Thanks again!

  • Josh Cripps

    I often remind students I’m teaching that “there’s nothing worse than a sharp photo of a fuzzy concept.” And I think the discussion here expands that idea so eloquently. Well done, EB!

    • Thanks, Josh! I love that Ansel Adams quote, which is very similar to the one I chose by Mark Twain at the top of the article.

  • Erin…your statement, “When technique starts dictating which ideas to pursue, then it’s probably time to cut the chains and enjoy some creative freedom. No amount of masterful technique will improve the photos that we never make!” I have been in that situation…..as you spoke about not enough time to set a tripod because the clouds and light would be gone….That has stopped me. Thank you for advice, “cut the chains” and do not let perfect or technique stop me from taking a picture…as many were not taken because of perfection.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Thomas. I’m so happy to hear that you found the article helpful!

  • Jeff

    This is a very good article, and you have some very valid points here Erin.

    I do like the photo with the moisture behind the lens element, although the idea of that scares me to death.

    I believe there are three scenes that landscape photographers encounter.

    The casual scene where you have time to get the right lens, set up the tripod and wait for the best light.

    The frantic scene that’s perfect when you see it, but fading fast. You have to shoot it with what you have and as fast as possible before it disappears.

    The spiritual scene that you can’t photograph, for any of several reasons, so you just look at it, enjoy it, and let your soul absorb the beauty and wonder of what’s in front of you.

    Have Fun,
    Jeff

    • I appreciate the comment, Jeff! I absolutely agree about the existence of scenes that touch the spirit and yet won’t quite translate in a photograph. I’d also add that it’s exactly that kind of “spiritual” quality that sometimes *does* come out in a photograph through some deliberate technical choice that is not what the “good lie” recommends. Those decisions can happen in either of the first two cases that you described.

      • Jeff

        Too true.

        Have Fun,
        Jeff

  • Alexis Winsor

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your well expressed thoughts in this article Erin. I find the perspectives you have presented here to be helpful, not only in my approach to my art, but also as a way of viewing any creative venture. Thank you.

  • “No, I lost them a block away, but the light is better here.”

    That’s what I would do 😉 Instead of wasting time shooting a perfect composition in unsuitable light, I would go where there good light is right now and see what I can shoot there.

  • Tom Herriman

    Great article Erin!

    I have been digesting these thoughts and ideas for more than a week.

    The title suggests that even perfect technique won’t put art or beauty into an image.
    On first read, my thoughts went immediately to some of my images and the decisions I made in the field. I definitely take a lot of pictures that lack art.
    But a recent image stood out in my thoughts as a great example of what you wrote here.

    I found a scene that I really liked but I spent less than 10 minutes trying to work it out. My imagination became focused on technical elements that I could not resolve. I had a goal for the day and the clock was ticking. I needed to move on to achieve it. So, I decided to let go of the moment and potentially return later as part of my overall goal.

    As I walked away from the scene, my thought was that I the images I just took would be filed as memories or deleted to save hard drive space. But when I saw them on screen the first time, I knew that despite not working out a technical detail, I have a keeper that I would share. The technical exclusion will probably keep this from being a masterpiece, but the image is pretty darn good nonetheless.

    Your article iterates what I often miss in the field. A strong composition is more powerful than perfect technique. My nemesis.

    I never did go back to the scene, but I’m okay with knowing that I achieved my goal and found a pretty nice image in the process.

    I thought I might offer a side thought to go along with this article.
    Practice increases our familiarity or awareness and makes us more efficient at our craft. Proficiency can go a long way toward quelling the fission and improving the focus of our imagination.

  • Ramunas K Fishermang

    Very inspiring article – not only because it urges you to relax a bit regarding photography and have more fun with it by going with the flow of the scenery, but also because it allows thinking outside-the-box and promotes striving to feel comfortable with personal work.

    I just want to point at one specific aspect here, regarding the technical qualities of processing which as you said, can be mentally draining and a very pro-longed process. Postprocessing is like a puzzle one needs to solve, with no particular guidance or solution that shows a clear path. How can you constructively and happily work towards something if you don’t actually know what the result should be? I usually spend three days on one photo, always looking at it with fresh eyes every morning. Often I find things I didn’t see the night before, and many times this also lead me to start over. Some times it has been so mentally draining that I couldn’t relax till I was done. However, in most cases I actually reach that magical moment of “aha, that’s it!” when everything falls into place. And it is a fantastic moment of relief and creative mindfullness, to put it that way. But I think it is very important, as you pointed, to also be able to know when to give up and be happy with what you already got.

    Anyway, just thoughts I had. I wanted to thank you for an inspiring article. Cheers!