I’ve started and deleted this article on perfectionism in photography no fewer than 187 times. I am completely convinced that striving for perfection is the biggest thing that holds us back as artists, and yet here I am paralyzed with fear about not getting this right.
I preach about letting go of perfection to basically anyone who will listen: the students in my workshop, my mom friends, the kind lady from HomeGoods who helped me load a large cooler into my car (this actually happened). It’s something I’m completely passionate about and the thing I struggle with the most. But now, given the chance to tell you all about how I feel about it, I freeze up. The irony is not lost on me.
I teach a workshop at Click Photo School called “Connected: Images With Heart” where I help other photographers find their unique voices. When I wrote the workshop, I had no idea how many artists struggle with hang-ups about perfectionism. Through working with these amazing women, I can so clearly see how perfectionism stifles our ability to create the work that we will not only love in the moment, but for years to come.
The most imperfect photos often become some of our favorites (if they aren’t instantly relegated to the trash upon seeing technical errors in post production). Because, there’s an untold story that often lies in the mess within the background of our frames. There’s joy in the blur that happens when you’re too excited about capturing the moment to remember to increase your shutter speed. There’s love in the poorly lit photos captured when the only light source is a bedside lamp.
The things that make your story unique often lie in the imperfections within your photos. You just need to trust yourself enough to look past the “errors” within your photos and see the beauty that exists within the frame.
Being perfect isn’t why you became a photographer.
Do you remember the first time you took a photo that made your heart sing? Maybe it was right after your first child was born and you pointed your new DSLR set to Aperture Priority at her sweet brand new face. Maybe it was on a hike where you stopped to capture the beauty of your surroundings. Or, maybe it was when you got your first roll of film developed.
If you are a photographer, either in business or a hobbyist, each of us has a photo that made us realize that photography was for us. Each of us had a moment where we realized that we could see the world a little differently through the viewfinder. Each of us had a moment where we decided we had to learn more, get better, and continue to create photographs that gave us that same pitter patter of excitement as the first photo that made our heart sing.
Getting perfect photos wasn’t the point back then. Our goal was simply capturing the moment in a way that our untrained eye found beautiful. Learning and growing is important, but when it becomes all about executing our vision perfectly every single time, we are missing out on the joy that comes from creating just to create.
Perfectionism can stifle your voice.
Now that you’ve grown in your technical and artistic ability, have you gone back and looked at those early photos that gave you such joy? If you’re like me, going back and looking at those photos that I once deemed so good makes me both happy for how far I’ve come as a photographer and cringe at how little I knew back then. White balance? What’s that? Motion blur on a stationary subject? Didn’t even notice. Horizon lines and trees heading right into my subjects’ heads? Who knew I shouldn’t do that?
As I grew as a photographer and slowly learned the rules of what makes a photo successful, the early work that made my heart sing started to make me cringe. The more I learned about photography, the more I realized what I didn’t know, and the more afraid I became. With each new class or article or tutorial, I started abandoning the feelings and instincts that brought me to photography in the first place and started focusing on getting things RIGHT.
Achieving perfection in my photos became more important to me than capturing the moment that made me raise my camera to my eye. Slowly, I became a better photographer. But, while I was working so hard at achieving perfection, I was losing what made my photos truly mine. The quest for perfection diluted my unique point-of-view and my work quickly started to look like it could be anyone’s.
Perfectionism can stall your progress.
Perfectionism can keep us from not pursuing our dreams because we are too afraid to make a mistake. We may never start that business for fear of disappointing a client. We may never do that personal project because we might not get it right on the first try. Or, we might never finish the article we said we would write because we might not have the perfect words at the right time. Sometimes we’d rather just not do it at all than to do it wrong.
I couldn’t launch my business without having everything perfectly ready to go, right down to how I would package my photos when I delivered them to non-existent clients. I couldn’t submit my work for features unless I had quadruple checked it for any imperfections. And, I couldn’t buy my kids clothes with their favorite characters because they wouldn’t photograph well. Going on a walk through the park with my family became more about getting perfect light for photos, and less about being with them through the perfect moments.
Perfectionism diminished everything that made me the artist and human I was meant to be. It wasn’t until I stopped trying so dang hard to be perfect that I finally found my artistic voice and began to not only photograph the life I was living, but actually live the life I want to live.
When I finally dropped the need for perfection, it was then that I was able to truly connect with my work, my subjects, and, most importantly, myself.
5 Ways to let go of perfectionism in your photography:
1. Manage your expectations.
Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” Not twelve hundred. TWELVE PHOTOS. That’s just one per month.
I’m going to to ahead and blame social media for this one, because the drive to create compelling content and keep the media machine running is too strong to overlook. Sure, Ansel Adams was working with film and it was a different time, but the sentiment remains. We cannot and should not be expected to churn out perfect, jaw-dropping, high-quality work every second of every day. If we are constantly trying to create work that is “scroll-stopping,” we are missing out on the opportunity to tell the truth and capture the moments in our lives exactly as they are.
Not every moment worth photographing happens in amazing light where everyone looks great. Not every moment worth photographing will lead to a feature. And not every moment worth photographing is a marketing opportunity. We cannot forget who our memories belong to. We did not start photographing in order to try to gain more followers or keep an audience engaged. Chances are that we started photographing so that we could hold onto moments just a little while longer.
One of my former students, Robin Belluzzi, explained during our class: “I realize now that for a long time I had the wrong audience in mind when I pushed the shutter. I had forgotten who these memories really belong to. They belong to me and my family and that is so much more important than how many likes any picture might get. So now I’m not shooting just hoping to get something good enough to put on Instagram; I’m shooting the moments that really matter to me.”
Have a realistic keep rate for your photos.
My current keep rate for photos that I import versus photos that I export for printing or delivery is currently around 23 percent. Of those, only a handful stand out each month as being what I would call exceptional (exceptional is different for each photographer). I did a casual survey of some of my closest photographer friends, and keep rates for both personal and client work all seem to hover between 20 to 30 percent.
If we are trying to get 100 percent of our photos to be award-winning, portfolio-building, scroll-stopping photos and not focusing on making sure that three out of every ten photos actually matter to us, we are missing the opportunity to capture real memories.
I always say that I keep anything that makes me feel something, regardless of mistakes — that’s my version of exceptional. I don’t care if the whole darn thing is out of focus. If it moves me, I’m keeping it. Using this as a guideline really allows for us to trust our instincts and keep the photos that will move us for years to come.
2. Use mistakes as opportunities to learn.
What about the other 70 to 80 percent of photos that we don’t flag to keep? Are they all lousy photos? Not necessarily. I’ve taken lots of photos where there were no real technical errors but they didn’t feel right to me. Sometimes they were too safe. Sometimes they weren’t compelling. Sometimes I was being too heavily influenced by someone else’s work. And yes, sometimes they were just technically bad. But each photo we take can be an opportunity to learn if we allow ourselves to trust that there’s a lesson in each frame.
Too often we look at our mistakes and immediately move to calling ourselves failures. Instead of beating ourselves up about the mistakes that we make, we can look at each frame and know how to do it better the next time.
The more seasoned we become as photographers, the easier it gets to be hard on ourselves when mistakes arise in our work. “I should know better” and “What was I thinking?” become commonplace as we cull our images. But talking to ourselves like that doesn’t get us any closer to becoming a better photographer, doesn’t make the mistakes go away, and it doesn’t make us love our work any more. Coming at it from a place of self-compassion is the key to allowing your mistakes to become opportunities rather than failures.
3. Be compassionate and kind to yourself as you make mistakes.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is to think about how I talk to myself and reimagine it as I would talk to one of my children with the same issue.
When my children make art, sometimes it’s really great and sometimes, well, there’s an opportunity to learn in there. But when one of my kids comes to me with a picture telling me that it’s a painting of a monkey in a spaceship and it looks more like a cat riding a hamburger, there is no way that I’m going to talk to them the way that I sometimes talk to myself about making a mistake in my own art. “This is awesome! Did you have fun making it?” I usually say. Because we know to tell our children that the joy of making art is in the process of actually making of the art, not in the outcome.
When did we make that shift ourselves? We need more cats riding hamburgers hanging on the fridge, simply for the reason that it was a blast to make it in the first place.
4. Know your core values and personal legacy.
The biggest shift in my way of thinking about perfection came from trying to figure out what I want my personal legacy to be. What am I going to leave behind in the world?
I want to be remembered first and foremost as being kind — both to others and to myself. I want to be remembered for being able to find the beauty everywhere. And, I want to be remembered as someone who made mistakes, but learned from them and tried to make things right when I could. But being perfect? Never.
I never want to be remembered as someone who needed to be perfect, who wanted things exactly right all the time, who didn’t give myself or others grace, who was afraid to do something if I couldn’t get it right, who was afraid to take risks for fear of failure. Those things that are all wrapped up in striving for perfection are absolutely not part of my personal values system.
Examine your own personal values and see where perfection falls for you. If perfectionism isn’t one of your core values, remember that every time you feel those feelings creeping in. Keep your values list close so you can be reminded if you start to get caught up again.
5. Remember, it’s supposed to be fun.
Lastly, remember that most art begins as something that we do for enjoyment. In whatever medium we choose to create, our art almost always began out of something like curiosity, imagination, passion, serenity, spirituality, joy, or love.
As we grow in our art and figure out that we can monetize it or use it to further our own agendas, we start to attach things to it like validation, attention, popularity, expectation, and fear. When your art becomes your job, it’s hard to think of it as a respite from daily life because there is always some element of livelihood that depends upon your performance.
But that’s when we have to step back sometimes and try to find ways to make sure we’re creating for joy and excitement. Leave the perfect work behind and make something weird, just to see how it feels. As Neil Gaiman said, “Make new mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.”
Because so often, that’s where the good stuff happens.