I frequented those online photography forums, back in the days before social media. You know the ones. Pages of people, posting and sharing their work and the majority male crowd critiquing and breaking every newbie that dared raise their head above the parapet. There was one word repeated over and over in those critiques and it started to get on my goat.
You need to make sure your exposure is perfect, or this shot won’t work.
It’s not perfect, the focus is soft and your black and white edit could do with some work.
If you crop it this way, then it’ll be perfect.
Perfect, perfect, perfect.
There was an obsessive desire to make sure everyone’s photography was perfect. And I bloody hated that.
That’s not entirely true. Early on, I wanted my work to be perfect too. I submitted my images on those forums and listened to the criticism. I kept trying and trying and was always told the same things.
It’s far from perfect. It’s flawed. It needs work.
One day I submitted a photograph that I was pretty damn proud of. I knew it wasn’t perfect. I’d missed focus, it was underexposed and a bit noisy. But there was something about the moment that I loved. It was a moment between a couple on their wedding day, their foreheads lightly touching, both smiling and holding each other in the middle of a crowded dancefloor. To my mind, it WAS perfect.
The criticism I got that day was horrific…
Wow, I hope the couple weren’t paying you for this!
You’re a really bad photographer. Don’t give up the day job.
Do you even know what ‘focus’ is?!
I was devastated.
I sat, staring at the computer screen with tears running down my face. What would it take to please these people? I thought.
And then it hit me. I wasn’t trying to please those people. I was trying to please my couples. (For the record, the couple LOVED that photograph, as much as I did.) I knew the image wasn’t perfect. I knew there were things about it that ensured it would never be ‘technically perfect’. I didn’t give a damn.
Because I loved what the photograph was. It was a split second. It was the breath shared between that couple at that moment. It was the smiles full of love. The stillness amongst the crowds dancing around them. To me, that made it all entirely perfect.
It took me a while to understand it.
But when I did, it was a lightbulb moment. I finally understood that there was no such thing as PERFECT. But there was such a thing as ‘perfect in its own way’. I realised a photograph didn’t have to be technically perfect to be loved and adored. I realised that a sharp photograph carried no more emotion or feeling in it than an out of focus one. I realised that perfectionism didn’t matter one tiny little bit.
It took a lot of tears but I came to realise I was super proud of that image, and others like it, perfection or no perfection. And I went back into that group and stood my ground.
Years later, I was stood on a rooftop in a photography workshop with a photographer I had admired for a few years. We were photographing a gorgeous couple and I watched how everyone was working. Most were using pro equipment and shooting in manual. I felt embarrassed and ashamed of my low-grade kit and zoom lens and tried not to let anyone see I was using aperture priority.
The photographer leading the workshop turned to me, as I was taking a photograph. She said something that has stayed with me since after I asked her whether I should be trying to learn manual mode. She answered with a question of her own…
If you’re getting the shots, does it really matter?
And she was right. It didn’t matter a tiny bit. My clients had no idea whether I shot in aperture priority or manual mode. They had no idea what constituted a PERFECT PHOTOGRAPH. All they understood was that I was capturing them in photographs that meant a lot to them, looked beautiful and that THEY LOVED.
And that was all that mattered, after all.
So, if you’re worried you’re not taking perfect photographs, it’s time to let that go. It’s time to let go of perfectionism and just capture what feels right.
Listen to your gut, go with the moment, and don’t beat yourself up if you miss focus or bugger your settings up a bit. Chances are it’ll still be a GREAT photograph, and your clients or whoever you choose to share it with will love it all the same.