Balancing content and technical perfection

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Base jumping off the KL Tower. There are no do-overs for either the shot or the participants. Nikon D200, AI-P 500/4

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.

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Benzinger Skeleton. Full control of everything, full repeatability. The second, third, fourth and fifth shots would look exactly the same.

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.

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What’s this? A situation in the middle: you can anticipate what’s going to happen and be prepared, but you don’t get a do-over. You should be able to get a perfect result with practice.

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.

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It wouldn’t have worked without the man. Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

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.

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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.

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If This Looks Too Perfect, That’s Because It Was Staged. Artfully constructed scene for a promotional video. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF 1.4/85 Planar

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.

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More lyricism. Malastranska, Prague. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

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.

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Just your average slice of life. Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini, Panasonic 20/1.7 G

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.

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The foot. The one aberration in this abstract urbanscape is actually to me what makes the image. Nikon D800, AFS 24/1.4 G

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.

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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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Would the burger be as appetizing without that juicy pickled onion marmalade peeking out? Probably not. Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro


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  1. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back to your
    blog? My website is in the exact same area of interest as yours and my users would certainly benefit from some of the information you provide here.
    Please let me know if this okay with you. Thank you!

    • Yes, I do mind. Quotes are fine – a few sentences or at most a paragraph – but please note that copying articles wholesale is plagiarism and violates copyright. Not to mention being just downright lazy…

  2. Ming, I think it would be interesting for us if you revisited this essay. A sort of “two years on…”. I think your personal work and your objectives have evolved since this and I for one would be interested in you picking up the threads of the question of balance between perfection and imperfection. Do you still see things the same way as you did in this essay?

    • Good question. I think this recent article about transcending the process is perhaps the most representative of my current state of thoughts…

      • Linden says:

        Yes, the Ultraprint project, and its pixel-perfect self-imposed standard at 36MP with the Otus is a good project for you. It’s an area where you can, and are, pushing boundaries. At the same time you are focusing your readers’/students’ attention on large format high quality printing as the ultimate output goal in photography – something that was obvious in the analogue age but almost forgotten today.

        I’m very interested in your Ultraprint work, and look forward to buying some from you as you offer them.

        The Ultraprints necessitate a push toward perfection. As you state in the linked article, whole genres and types of photography are excluded (eg “street”) on the basis of technical limitations.

        Does that mean that for you the idea you expressed in this article – balancing perfection and imperfection – no longer applies as a guide or interest to you in your personal work at all, or is that pursuit for perfection limited to the Ultraprint work?

        • Thank you. I don’t think the output was motivated by historical reasons – rather, a desire to appreciate as much as we can of our camera’s capabilities at reasonable sizes and put some sense of relativity back into the pixel/ image quality race – on one hand, we’ve got more than enough pixels to make enormous images at normal viewing distances; on the other hand, Ultraprinting requires more pixels than you think…

          There’ll be a Cuba edition very soon. 😉

          Balancing perfection and imperfection still applies, but now there’s an additional consideration: that level of image quality means that imperfection is noticeable, and it cannot dominate – or overshadow the rest of the qualities of the output. Furthermore, the kinds of subjects suited to Ultraprinting – or perhaps which result in prints with the biggest impact – are usually not the ‘controlled imperfection’ kind. I suppose that means it is as much an artistic shift as a technical one…

  3. creadvty says:

    I completely agree with your point that sometimes perfection works against the image. As an example, I took photos of Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners grappling with each other. Personally, as a practitioner myself, I found that shots that were technically more imperfect (because of [intentional] blur or composition that is too tight) better captured the chaotic, rough-and-tumble experience (and sometimes claustrophobic feeling) of grappling. Necessary roughness, I say.

    • Here’s a thought: it’s about capturing the impression your brain has, rather than the exact perfection of freezing the moment perhaps?

      • creadvty says:

        I like how you put that (if I may say so). Capturing a moment viscerally/emotionally instead of visually… I think so, imho.

        • The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced it ant be any other way – for a start, we can’t replicate the 3D-ness of what we see…let alone each individual person’s different interpretation and impression of color.

  4. SomeGuyInNewJersey says:

    I got the Futurama reference if it exists… And if it doesn’t I didn’t… 🙂

  5. This issue sometimes makes me sleepless.
    Albeit being a beginner photographer, I’m obsessed with perfection and I work mostly with ‘real life’ situations. There is interesting photos that I don’t send to clients because it’s slightly out of focus ou not sharpen enough (if you look so close) and people always complains that they don’t see this ‘mistakes’ as a see it.
    It’s funny because I tend to accept these imperfections in others, then I’m trying to force myself to give a second chance to some of my images (it’s hard). A very psychological theme.

    • I think it depends on a) what your clients deem acceptable and b) what you deem acceptable. I’ve seen many huge ad campaigns or materials where the photo is clearly not 100% technically (OOF, motion blur), but for whatever reason, the clients went with that shot – what we don’t know if it was a deliberate choice of whether they were screaming at the photog after the shoot for missing the shot.

      Being unhappy with it and pushing yourself is a good thing. Shot discipline is a tough thing to get right, but hugely important.

      I’m starting to offer a series of assignment-based tailored workshops over email, which are individual and aimed at getting you from here to the point you want to be at – please email me for details if you’re interested.


  1. […] can sometimes come off as being too perfect and ‘soulless': lacking in that little imperfection or spontaneity that some might find endearing or a subconscious reminder of one’s humanity. […]

  2. […] I don’t think it’s easy to have both – in fact, I’d argue that it’s impossible to have both a strong interpretative (i.e. a communication of what you imagine, rather than what you see) image and a strongly realistic image; the latter implies giving up creative control of your vision to some extent, and being a finder of images rather than a maker of them. Once again we must consider the strange ground that is the studio: yes, we still make images, and control the vision (though one could easily argue that creative control has long been surrendered to client or creative director) – thought these images frequently lack the spontaneity and slight imperfection that is frequently required to communicate some parts of an idea – e.g. speed, urgency, imprecision – to the viewer at a more subconscious level. (In fact, I examined this idea here, in balancing content vs. technical perfection.) […]

  3. […] on demand on a repeatable basis.) I actually think the final part of what makes an image work is a degree of controlled imperfection; this appeals at a subconscious level to the humanity of the viewer; it’s almost as though it […]

  4. […] Olympus ZD 45/1.8** (May 2012) – Probably my favorite lens for M4/3 at the moment. Optically, it’s superb. Sharp, moderate contrast, excellent color, neutral, smooth bokeh, and a great microcontrast structure the helps to generate that 3D look and feel to images. Sharp already wide open, but improves to peak at around f2.8-4; don’t go past f8 on M4/3 bodies because you will run into obvious diffraction effects. The price is spectacularly good for what you’re getting, but the compromise is a plastic, somewhat flimsy-feeling outer shell, no lens hood, and an easily-lost blanking ring at one end to cover the hood bayonet. […]

  5. […] on Share this:TwitterFacebookTumblrPinterestLinkedInDiggEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  6. […] background-position: 50% 0px ; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } – Today, 2:23 […]

  7. […] they used to be. I see a missed shot, and I can still learn from it. Ming Thein has just written an article about perfection and content, with lots of very very good examples – well worth a read if you’re interested in […]

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