Suppose you had one opportunity to get the shot: what do you do? The obvious answer is go for broke; who cares if it’s slightly overexposed, out of focus or the framing is a little off. Maradona is probably only going to use the ‘hand of god’ once; the millennium is only going to roll around once in your lifetime. Bigfoot will probably only appear once, and only in out of focus or foggy areas*.
That’s one end of the spectrum: it’s all about the content rather than the execution.
The opposite end would be fine art still life: any one of the aforementioned photographic sloppinesses would probably get you thrown out of the gallery, unless perhaps you were very, very good at explaining why out of focus images represent the current zeitgeist of society, how rushing around and achieving complete form and ‘just getting it done’ rather than doing it well – quantity over quality – are also paradigms of modern corporate living.
Enough sarcasm. Basically, if you’re going to create a still life, you’d better damn well be in control of the elements, or it just makes you look sloppy and incompetent as a photographer. There’s no way you can excuse compositional errors, slanted horizons, overexposure or things intruding into the edges of the frame. Studio commercial photography also falls into this category; it’s 100% controlled, and if you can’t get your image right when there isn’t anything left to chance – and the shot is repeatable – then you should probably hang up your camera.
And that’s where the dilemma comes in: for photography that isn’t clearly at one end of the spectrum or the other, where do you draw the line of acceptability? If there is no expectation to create perfection, is there any necessity? In fact, if the expectation is of something slightly imperfect – to capture the chaos of reality – then perhaps perfection would actually weaken the impact of the overall image.
I like the lyricism and movement in this image; in fact, nothing is perfect. It was underexposed because the meter gets fooled by backlit situations so I went manual and got the exposure slightly wrong; then the limitations of my equipment meant motion blur in the subject was a certainty, so I decided to work with it; finally, none of the verticals are straight – it bothers the perfectionist in me, but I bet you it wasn’t the first thing you noticed about the image. Malastranska, Prague. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH
That last point isn’t immediately obvious. In fact, it’s quite counterintuitive; I was only made aware of it because I personally tend to drift towards the technical perfection end of the spectrum, and various clients have commented that my images look a little too perfect in some ways, especially for photojournalistic work. For studio photography, on the other hand, my clients love the attention to detail.
A year or two ago, I would have thought that the ideal combination would be to nail content, composition and the technical aspects of the exposure to produce a perfect image; however, this is not only nearly impossible to do, but somehow also results in slightly lifeless images. The soul is missing – or perhaps it’s not so much soul per se as humanity represented by the slight imperfections which impart the character of the photographer onto his or her image.
Perhaps I’m just confusing myself with the philosophy now, because this is my current photographic worldview:
1. We strive for perfect images.
2. Technical perfection isn’t perfection per se, because that slight bit of imperfection humanizes an image and gives it personality.
3. This means that we must have skill and ability to achieve technical and compositional perfection, even under spontaneous circumstances.
4. However, we need to have even more control than that, because we need to have the ability to add imperfection at will.
5. Go out and create, with this brief of perfect imperfection in mind.
I hear questions from the back of the room. Does this apply to every situation? More importantly, how much imperfection should we apply?
The answer to the first is obviously not; if you can do this in a situation where you have little or no control over the subject – think war zone photojournalism, for instance – that probably makes you one step removed from God, and a clear notch above the great PJs like Capa, HC-B et. al. Remember from the Magnum Contact Sheets book, even they had to work the scene a bit to get the final composition they wanted.
The answer to the second is nowhere near as clear cut. And frankly, I have no idea how much is too little, how much is enough, and how much is too much. The only way to determine the answer to this conclusively is to experiment, and get your work out there and opined-upon. Modern Japanese photographers tend to be at the very haphazard end of the spectrum – some of their work seems almost random, albeit very carefully constructed random – and the other end I suppose are the environmental portraitists who bring lights and modifiers and everything else with them even into the middle of conflict areas.
Flambe. Repeatable, but not controllable. You can set up the shot and do it again, but you can’t control what the flames are going to do. And this is the interesting thing that gives a little variation and makes each shot different. Seascapes are another good example. Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro
Personally, I’m going for something in the middle; but before I even get there, I need to shoot more – to have full intuitive control over my camera so that whatever adjustments I make come to me as second nature. And at this point something has to be said about good cameras, bad cameras, and too many cameras; good cameras are intuitive to use and require little training or practice to master. They do what you want them to, nothing more and nothing less. Bad cameras are ones that you never feel fully in control of, no matter how much practice you have. And too many cameras is just that: if you have too many cameras, you’re bound to eventually forget which button does what. And that could cost you at the most critical moment. This is why I’ll continue to use my D700 for reportage assignments until I’m fully comfortable with the D800; I know exactly habit will do under every situation, born of seventy thousand frames of experimentation – not counting the fifty thousand I shot with the D3, which is pretty much the same camera. MT
*Did anybody get the Futurama reference?
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