Seek Progress, Not Perfection in Your Photography

Seattle, 2014
Seattle, 2014

I just finished reading a new book titled: “Becoming Steve Jobs”, which is a new biography on the life of Steve Jobs. I also read the other (more famous) Walter Isaacson biography: “Steve Jobs”, and found this to be a great refresher to the life, work, and passion of Steve Jobs.

In “Becoming Steve Jobs”, one thing I found fascinating was how Steve Jobs was a practicing Buddhist. Although he could be a ruthless businessman, he balanced that with meditation, mindfulness, and Buddhist practices.

Is “perfection” a fruitless goal?

The first concept that struck me interesting was how in Buddhism there is no concept of “perfection.” You can constantly improve and head towards perfection, but you can never fully arrive there. As mentioned in the book: “Everything is in the process of becoming”.

I think this is a great concept to consider when it comes to our photography. We all seek to become the best versions of ourselves as photographers, but how do we know if we have truly “arrived” at our destination? To know we have truly achieved “success” in our photography, do we need to get a book published, do we need to have an exhibition, or do we need a certain amount of followers?

Not only that, but what is “perfection” when it comes to photography? Ultimately I think photography is (mostly) subjective. After all, we can never 100% control whether our viewers like or dislike our photographs. Each viewer takes his/her life experiences and personal philosophies into account when looking into a photograph. This ends up influencing how they judge a photograph.

Subjectivity and photography

For example, let’s say you made a really amazing street photograph of a person walking in a crowd. There are a lot of interesting hand gestures, colors, beautiful light, and no overlapping figures.

The viewer might think the photograph is uninteresting, because they prefer simpler photographs (with single-subjects). Or perhaps they aren’t educated in photography, so they wouldn’t know a “complex” composition if it hit them in the face.

But then again, who is to say that the viewer is “stupid”, “dumb”, or “uneducated?”

Let’s take another example: let’s say you make a really fascinating portrait of an indigenous woman in Africa. As foreigners, we all instinctively think that indigenous women in Africa are interesting subject matter. But if you showed the photograph to a native African person, they would think the photograph is boring and common-place (because the image isn’t novel to them).

What makes a “perfect” photograph?

So what makes a great (or perhaps) “perfect” photograph?

Part of it is composition. You want to compose a photograph well– meaning framing interesting subject-matter into the frame which contains strong emotions, gestures, or expressions. You don’t want to include distracting elements in your frame.

Another part of it is novelty. Photographs which are novel to us (which we haven’t seen before), generally tend to excite us. Novelty stimulates our sensory system, and causes us to crave more. We hate looking at the same boring, cliche thing over and over again.

But ultimately, there is no such thing as a “perfect” photograph. Why not? Because “perfection” isn’t an objective attribute we can measure. We can look at a photograph and determine the composition of the photograph, the main colors of a photograph, what is happening in the frame, the main subjects, the expressions and moods– but perfection? Forget about it.

Seeking “perfection” in your photography

So is seeking “perfection” in photography fruitless? In my opinion: yes and no.

In a sense, it is good to seek “perfection” in photography because it pushes us forward. It causes us to not become complacent with what we are doing. It inspires us to constantly reinvent ourselves, and to make every new photograph we make even better. This is kind of like the iPhone. It isn’t a perfect device, but every iteration becomes marginally better, and the ultimate goal is “perfection”.

But then again, you can never arrive at “perfection”. Even if one day you did arrive at “perfection”, that would be pretty depressing. You would have nothing to look forward to.

Apparently this happpens to a lot of people who suddenly earn a lot of money (or win the lottery). Their entire life was about struggling to stay alive, to pay the bills, to work hard for promotions, and to hustle hard. But once they suddenly get a huge amount of money dumped into their lap, they suddenly lose a sense of purpose or direction in their life.

Progress, not perfection

So how can we apply the concepts of “perfection” and the Buddhist notion of “the process of becoming” into our photography?

I think being overly-perfectionist is actually a huge detriment to our photography. Often perfectionists fall into “paralysis by analysis” – that they over-analyze scenes and situations so much that they end up not doing anything. For example, let’s say you want to pursue a photography project, and are a perfectionist. You might not have 100% of the puzzle-pieces in place, and you might end up not even starting your project. We know a lot of people like this– who have great ideas, but don’t execute.

I think rather than thinking about photography in terms of “perfection”, we should look at photography in terms of “progress”.

Progress is a much more encouraging trait. Progress is happiness. Progress means we are moving forward everyday. Progress means we are slowly becoming a better version of ourself.

My struggles with “perfection”

Personally, I don’t consider myself a “perfectionist”. Rather, I am a “satisficer”– I try to do things 80% well and just get it done. This is the philosophy I have when it comes to decision making (I don’t try to optimize and make the “best” decision, I just try to make “good enough” decisions and move on).

The same is with this blog. Nothing I write on this blog is perfect. I just like to write down my ideas, as it is a form of meditation for myself. Writing helps me explicate my thoughts. I also hope that some of the ideas on this blog are helpful to you, my dear reader.

However my big problem is this: I am more of a perfectionist in my photography. This stems from a feeling of self-criticism and a sense of self-doubt. I don’t want to put out my weak work– partly because I don’t want to spam people with so-so photographs. But I think a bigger part of it is that I always one to “one-up” myself. But this causes me to fall into “paralysis by analysis”, and I just never end up sharing anything.

So for myself, I am going to try to loosen up my perfectionist tendencies in photography, and focus on just making steady progress, and not being too self-critical, and to be more self-compassionate.

Compete against yourself

Don’t feel like you need to compete in your photography with anybody else. But still you can be competitive– against yourself.

Everyday seek to find progress in your photography and become the best photographer you can. Compete against yourself. Try to become a better photographer this year than you were last year. Seek to become “self-actualized” as a photographer, in which you are using your best abilities and skills to making images that please you.

Seek progress, not perfection.

5 thoughts on “Seek Progress, Not Perfection in Your Photography”

    1. I’m a beginner too Julia. Take a workshop if you can! You won’t find a kinder or more thoughtful guy who generally wants to see people succeed. That comes through on this blog and a hundredfold more in person.

  1. the same is true for studiyng foreign languages :) as a non native speaker I can hardly be perfect but my progress open new windows to other dimensions of culture, society, relationships, etc. ….

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