How to Let Go of Perfection in Photography

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In the digital era, where perfection seems within our grasp through post-processing and limitless opportunities to reshoot, it’s easy to get hung up on perfectionism. In some genres, such as product photography, it’s a necessity. Your commercial client won’t appreciate blown-out highlights on a shampoo bottle or soft focus on the wheel of a prestige car.

But in many other areas of photography – especially when it comes to your personal projects – letting go of perfectionism can help unleash your creativity and ensure that you don’t miss important moments.

B&W image of child illustrates letting go of perfection in photography

Beautifully imperfect.

My brush with perfectionism

Earlier this year, my firstborn turned 18 and I wanted to create a slideshow of photos from her birth to the present day. Since I was still shooting film for the first 10 years of her life, this involved trawling through printed photos.

What stood out to me was that among my favorite photos, very few were technically perfect. Some were poorly composed. Others were out-of-focus, underexposed, or badly lit. In fact – and I hate to admit this – if I’d shot these photos in the digital era, I’d have rejected many of them, or attempted to reshoot them to get them “right”. But they captured expressions that epitomize my daughter. They had caught candid moments between sisters, and snippets in time I’d forgotten, but want to remember.

Letting go of perfection in photography

Grainy, underexposed and soft, this photo of my children snuggled into an armchair reading books is priceless to me.

Embrace the imperfect

Almost everything about the black-and-white photo at the top of the page is imperfect from a technical stance. The subject is too centred; the sun has cast shadows over her eyes and highlighted her nose; the highlights are blown out, and the focus is soft on the eyes. To me, though, it is exquisite. The windswept hair, the tilt of her head and quirky smile capture her sweet nature, and the way she looks (to this very day) when she is daydreaming.

Three photos showing letting go of perfectionism in photography

In all three photos above, there are technical faults. But the clumsy embrace, the dimples, those eyes and that cheeky pout could never be replaced by technical perfection.

While this article is not about film versus digital, it is hard to deny that the digital era has brought out the perfectionist in us all. Those of us who cut our photographic teeth in the film era will remember what it was like to accept imperfection. When you had a maximum of 36 frames on a roll of film, there was no room for rapid-fire shooting in the hope of getting one good shot. Unless you did your own printing, or were prepared to pay for custom printing, you were stuck with the composition you’d shot. There was no histogram to meddle with, no brushes to delete stray hairs, and no actions or presets to smooth everything out.

Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity

My youngest daughter is wildly artistic. She’s a keen photographer and has an eye for composition, lighting and quirky camera angles. To my frustration, she refuses to master some of the basics such as the exposure triangle and depth of field. While I think this has more to do with teen rebellion than creativity, I have learned something from her.

Technical skills are important, there’s no question, as we need to master the fundamentals of our craft. In photography, this means understanding light, how focal length and depth of field work, and the relationship between shutter speed, iso and aperture. We should be aware of the rules of composition even if we choose to veer from them.

But digital photography allows us to take our perfectionist tendencies to an extreme.

Letting go of perfectionism in photography.

Would this photo be improved if it were straightened, and the white balance perfected?

Perfection is a myth

When you make perfection your goal, you’re often left with a sense of failure. Rather than enjoying your achievements, you waste time lamenting what you failed to achieve and what you could have done differently.

Creative minds are rarely tidy (neither are their workspaces – just ask the aforementioned daughter). Creation can be a messy business, yet making a mess is something that’s discouraged from an early age. Creativity is the explosion of paints and brushes across the table. It’s the random words smudged across school books that become poems and songs. It’s burnt saucepans, twisted ankles and spilt ink, and it’s weird composition, missed focus, and unwanted backgrounds. These messes can lead to wonderful things that you’ll miss if you are focused on reaching perfection.

It’s worth remembering that Penicillin, potato chips, Scotchguard and the pacemaker were all the result of mistakes.

I am no landscape photographer, but when I revisited my birth country I wanted to capture how the majority of South Africans live. The photos below were shot from a slow-moving vehicle, and a landscape photographer could point out their many imperfections. But I think I achieved what I set out to do, and that’s good enough for me.

Letting go of perfectionism in photography. Photo shows Khyelitsha township in South Africa, with Table

Khyelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, was established during the apartheid era as part of the Group Areas Act, and is now home to around 2.4 million people.

Letting go of perfectionism in photography. Photo shows Khyelitsha township in South Africa, with Table

Tins roofs, uninsulated buildings and a riot of electrical wires overhead.

Letting go of perfectionism in photography. Photo shows Khyelitsha township in South Africa, with Table Mountain in the background.

In the background, the mountain range for which Cape Town is famous. In the foreground, the outskirts of Khyelitsha.

Perfection is boring

There is a long list of famous songs which were recorded with mistakes, including Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, The Police’s Roxanne, and Radiohead’s Creep. It takes nothing away from our enjoyment of them – in fact, it enhances them. It reminds us that they were made by humans, who are fallible just like us.

I believe there is something in the human psyche that craves imperfection. In recent years, we have seen a resurgence of vinyl in the music industry. The trend in photo editing, especially for portraiture, has swung towards emulating film. And it is the millennials, raised in the digital era where everything sought to be perfect, who have led these trends. Lightroom presets such as Mastin Labs and VSCO are doing a roaring trade making digital photographs look like they were shot on film.

The flat tones in this photo were the result of underexposure. Now there’s a preset to emulate this look.

Image shows two gilrs at camp fire, illustrates letting go of perfectionism

In this photo, the skin tones are too green, the central composition could be improved, and that red bucket draws too much attention, but contributes nothing to the story. Yet the photo reminds me of how much fun my children had on their first camping trip, and is evocative of my own childhood.

You’ll miss the important moments

Henri Cartier-Bresson, a master of candid photography said, “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.” To him, photography was all about capturing the decisive moment, not getting hung up on technical perfection. Get too fixated on perfection, and you’ll miss the moments that take your breath away.

Your subjects can’t repeat a candid expression because you missed focus. An embrace is only spontaneous the first time. Spend too long worrying about shutter speed or depth of field, and you’ll miss it. If it’s restaged, it will show.

Letting go of perfectionism in photography.

Discovering what my children had done when left unsupervised with craft paint in the backyard: priceless.

The photo below of a woman with her teenage daughter is an outtake from a family photo shoot, snapped in the break when they had dropped their guard. Because it is out of focus, I was tempted not to show it to them, but I was so drawn to their natural smiles and the warmth in their embrace that I changed my mind. It turned out to be one of their favourite photos. The outtakes are often the best photos, when people behave spontaneously.

Teen girl and mother embracing and laughing, illustrates letting go of perfectionism

This photo of my daughters was shot on 35mm film. Had I been shooting with a DSLR, I may have reshot it because the focus is soft. I’m so glad I didn’t. That split-second interaction sums up their relationship – the little one’s curiosity while her big sister asserts her superior status.

B&W photo of two little girls illustrates letting go of perfection in photography

A moment is only candid the first time.

Progress over perfection

Candid photography and photojournalism are all about capturing the decisive moment, no matter how imperfect the conditions. You can’t reschedule the moment your baby takes his first steps until the light is right. And trust me, if those photos are blurry and the cat makes a guest appearance at the critical moment, they will still move you to tears when you look at them 18 years from now.

Regardless of what genre you like to photograph, keep shooting. Keep learning; read widely and take inspiration from anywhere you can. Learn from your mistakes and strive for improvement, but don’t get hung up on perfection. Enjoy your photos and, most importantly, the process of creating them.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Karen Quist is a writer and photographer, specialising in documentary and branding portraiture. Originally from South Africa, she now lives in Melbourne with her husband, two teenage daughters, a neurotic dog and two spoilt rabbits. When sheโ€™s not writing or taking photos, youโ€™ll find her working on her first novel, drinking strong coffee, or finding new ways to avoid doing the laundry. You can visit her website Lens and Pen Group or connect with her on Facebook or Instagram.

  • Heidi Eberle

    Thanks for this! I recently began saying something similar to my husband about the photos of my daughter. For the first year of her life, my photo project was to do a monthly photo shoot with her. And it went well! Some months were easier than others, but overall I really enjoyed it, and enjoyed playing with different backgrounds and techniques. Now she is 18 months, and just getting a photo is difficult because she is always on the move. So I do “photographer” shoots every 3 months and the rest of the time I do “mommy” shoots, where I am less picky and just trying to capture her curiosity, activity, and personality. Composition isn’t great, and usually there is a family member or stranger in the background, or the lighting is off. But I want to remember her as she actually is – messy, curious, and always on the move – and not staged.

    Here is a particularly good one from our last photo shoot, which was the most difficult yet. Almost every photo had her blinking, or running away, or looking down. But I got a few that I liked and that’s what matters.

  • Heidi Eberle
  • Karen Quist

    And look at that smile! Just beautiful. It’s funny, we try to photograph what we think are the important moments, such as birthday parties, but it’s often the moments that seem insignificant at the time, which turn out to be the most important. Like the photo of my daughter twirling her hair while the little one tried to grab it did not seem all that important. But looking back twelve years later I realise how it encapsulates their relationship. Good luck with your shooting, Heidi, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Heidi Eberle

    Thanks Karen! Yes, the “big” events tend to be more stressful and I want to experience it in person, not just see it through the camera lens. For her first birthday, I set the camera up on a tripod with a remote shutter release and then pointed it toward her high chair for the cake smash. That way I had pictures AND got to watch. But I did have to let go of the perfection.

  • Cori Wimmer Arkins

    I am SO grateful I came across this article. I have recently found an absolute love for documentary photography but have been struggling with feeling like I was just barely getting it right. Something was always just a little off. Shutter speed was too slow, ISO was too high, my aperture some how slowly creeped in too tight as I started to lose light. There was almost always something. While I do want to get better and not make these mistakes as often, I think now I can appreciate the image more for what it is. I will take a slightly faulted picture that captures an amazing and special moment any day, over missing an opportunity that will not be available again.

  • Karen Quist

    Thank you, Cori. Your attitude is awesome! The more you shoot, the better you’ll get with the technical aspects, and meantime you’re capturing amazing snippets of life and who cares if they’re not perfect? Keep on shooting and enjoying it.

  • Albin

    Good reminder that at the personal level the important photos are often not technically perfected studio portraits – in my family six albums of drugstore prints of my mother’s sometimes awkward sometimes surprisingly well-composed Brownie snaps carefully pasted with little black corner triangles are a lifelong treasure. Beyond the personal, “perfection” is mainly a kind of photo mag (National Geographic, Vogue, etc.) standard of image quality, coloration and sharpness that’s being reinforced by today’s pixel-peeping technology and the sale of too many DSLRs in the hands of too many hobbyists better at producing “tack sharp” or “bokeh” or “radioactive HDR” or dry ice waterfall images than personally or socially or artistically memorable images, mainly to prove they can.

  • Karen Quist

    I’m laughing at ‘radioactive HDR’ – so true. Those Brownie snaps have so much value, and will be passed down through generations.

  • brucehughw

    Nice!! Thanks for these great reminders. Like the saying “Perfect is the enemy of good”

  • David Thickett

    Karen Quist’s article on perfectionism was fantastic. Like many, I get frustrated at my imperfections (photographically speaking!) but Karen’s article reminded me WHY I take pictures. Thanks Karen x

  • glennsphotos

    Thank You. Wonderful article and oh so true. Ive been doing Event photography and have recently did a sweet 16 and I was culling through the party (yesterday) and was about to delete a expressive photo with the 16 year old and her sister (as it was a bit soft). My wife said it was beautiful and that there parents would love it so decided to keep. Sometimes I get to carried away with details that I forget that the expressions are what we cherish. When i go through our daughters photos there are so many ones that aren’t perfect but capture the moments of growing up perfectly. She is off to college this week so we have been going through them all recently and enjoying.

  • rwhunt99

    I like this article, I think too many are wrapped up in getting the “perfect” shot. They end up with sanitized photos that may or may not tell the real story you wanted to convey. If you look at a wide variety of product shots, many are deliberately imperfect, it is because they were creative, told a story, emphasized something they wanted the viewer to notice. Most photography “rules” are really just guidelines to get you somewhere near what you really want to show or tell, it is up to your creativity to go the distance to tell the story. Nothing is more important than telling the story from a personal view of everyday life, not Annie Leibowitz moments, but the everyday “real life” moments which are not perfect, but real.

  • Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for the reminders to love what we do, despite the “technically imperfect photos” — we captured moments that will never be repeated. We should always strive to be better without missing priceless moments in the process!

  • Karen Quist

    Thank you for your kind words, Marvin. We are all here because we love our craft!

  • Karen Quist

    That’s absolutely right! This is why I used the examples of the songs with flaws. We love them not in spite of their flaws, but because of them. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  • Karen Quist

    So true! It was going through all those old ‘imperfect’ photos that prompted me to write this article in the first place. All those little moments that we don’t see as significant at the time turn out to be the most important. Your photo of the 16-year-old will be treasured for years to come, no doubt.

  • Karen Quist

    Thank you for your kind words, David. I’m glad you found the article helpful.

  • Karen Quist

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

  • Chris Sutton

    Bravo! This is a brilliant article that reminds me why I take photos: not to be technically perfect but to record moments atmospheres. (My daughters don’t always agree however! ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

  • Karen Quist

    Thank you, Chris. I find my daughters rarely agree with me either haha! If I deleted every photo of them that they didn’t ‘approve’ I’d have about 3 photos left!

  • pete guaron

    Karen, while I accept the point you’re making, I think it’s a bit harsh to suggest that “perfection” didn’t exist in the film era. Or that the process of producing a print and retouching it was anything less in those days – just different, that’s all.

    Skipping past that – the gear I have now would never have been within my budget 50 years ago, and it can do things I never even dreamed of, back then. However, one of my all time favourite photos was one I took on my very first camera – a second hand Kodak Box Brownie – and another, which I love so much it is my screen saver and I see it all the time, is a photo I took on AgfaColor negative film, some 15 years ago. Even scanning it digitally and printing it on my first Epson digital printer did nothing to detract from it as a photo – technically it is nothing to shout about (grain, sharpness, whatever), but aesthetically it pushes ALL my buttons.

    I’ve had plenty of fun with photography over the past 60-odd years, since that Brownie was given to me – used everything from a miniature sensor in a Nikon compact to a 5×4 Linhof field camera, and most stuff in between. What is more important than any other criterion – for me at least – is to enjoy the process of taking and printing my photos. Not worrying so much about the technical issues as the creative ones. Even now, I am often just as happy with my Canon pocket camera and its 1 inch sensor as I am with my full frame Nikon – there’s NO comparison, with the lenses (the Nik usually shoots Otus) – but from a creative point of view, they run a VERY close race.

  • Marco

    Thanks for this article. I’ve really learned a lot. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Karen Quist

    Thank you, Marco ๐Ÿ™‚

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