In the past I’ve read many articles and blogs about how to achieve the ‘perfect image’. There are countless tutorials online telling us how it should be done. ‘Shoot this way… process that way… be certain to do it like this’ – many of them contradicting each other. So which is the right way to achieve perfection?
I’m going to stick my neck out here and make a statement that some agree with and some don’t… Photography is art. Now, given that photography is art and art is subjective, how do you achieve perfection? Is it actually possible?
In landscape photography there are many schools of thought ranging from the highly processed, HDR, over-saturated, clinically clean, blemish free to the raw, gritty, straight-out-of-camera, (itself a bit of a fallacy since the camera does a little processing) as close to ‘real’ as possible styles. Then there’s the full on artistic interpretation of double exposures, ICM, intimate, which some don’t understand. So which of these many styles is perfection?
There are so many variables even at the press of the shutter. Do you over-expose or under-expose? Do a long exposure or a short exposure? Wide aperture for shallow depth of field or stopped down so everything is in focus? Which is the best ISO? Do you expose for the shadows or highlights? Bracket to blend or use grads and get it in one shot?
And then the processing… do you fill the shadows and highlights to get all the detail or leave them? Should you correct the colour, warm it up, cool it down, be selective or go for what it was set at at the time of capture? Full colour or mono? Remove lens flare or leave it in? Clone out unwanted items or have it as it was?
One thing is for sure; we all have our own ways of doing things. I’ve tried a few different techniques with varying results. I may find something new that I like and keep using it, but in the main I have my workflow and I stick with it as I get the results I like at the end of it. It may not be to everyone else’s tastes but does that really matter? I try not to move too far from what I remember at the time of capture and I’ll take out small imperfections like lens flare and anything that’s distracting, but not go to extremes like removing power lines. (I may clone out a person if they get in the way though.)
So do I achieve perfection in the way I work? Hardly! I still work with light more than anything and would rather wait for the light to be in the place I want and of the quality I want to save time in processing. My Photoshop skills are ok, but I wouldn’t say I’m a master. I’ve seen before and after images where there is light when there wasn’t any. Sure, it was the same image but the finished image was not like the camera captured. I don’t know how to do that, nor do I wish to learn.
A big part of landscaping for me is being there, experiencing and capturing what nature gives us. We may get a complete duffer and go home with no images at all but that’s all part of it. If it were perfect every time it would be too easy. We could always take an average photo and manipulate it to make it look like we had fantastic light, but as I said, that’s not my style.
Photography for me has always been real – but real as in what the camera has captured. If it’s exposed for the highlights and to keep the shadows dark then that’s what it’s about. It’s not about filling the shadows so they hardly look like shadows any more. If I want to have blown highlights then that’s what I’ll expose for. I always loved the old camera books with the ultra low key black and white images. They made you look and work out what it was you were looking at. They didn’t fill in the shadows, they were left. The opposite was true with the high key photos. There was nothing wrong with how they were taken as they were as the photographer intended.
So why do we have to feel like we have to make this ‘perfect’ image? Blown highlights? Nooo, can’t have those. Black shadows? Heaven forbid! Wrong white balance? Over saturated? Under saturated? Not enough contrast? Too much? Which is right?
Social media has a lot to answer for. It puts a massive amount of pressure on us to produce the ‘perfect’ image so that we fit in with our peers and those of higher stature than us. We have to get the likes or our world will end. Obviously it has a massive impact on us in the way that we can actually befriend (virtually) and communicate with those higher peers, but conversely we feel we have to be on the same level as them photographically. Our images need to measure up. The processing has to be spot on or we fail to impress. If the composition is slightly off then our social standing will plummet and no one will ever speak to us again. So we chase ‘perfection’.
Ultimately, there is no such thing. As you know, I shoot with my other half, Phil Starkey, and we always come away with different images. I like mine the way I do them and she likes hers. Mine are not perfect and neither are hers. They are just different. We use different camera brands and different computer brands. We process in a similar way but only as far as the tools we use. Basically we think differently so come up with different versions of what we see as ‘perfection’ at the time. The camera set up, composition, lighting and timing was perfect for the moment we pressed the shutter. Those moments of ‘perfection’ may not even make it home. Once another moment has been and gone we may not like the first one. It’s all down to how it makes us feel. We either like that ‘moment’ or we don’t.
Perfection doesn’t exist. What is perfect for one isn’t perfect for another, no matter how similar those two people are. What we can strive for though is excellence. We can try to be our best and do the best with the tools we have to produce the best images that please us.