How to Make a Perfect Photograph

Hayward, 2015 #cindyproject
Hayward, 2015 #cindyproject

”Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Dear friend,

For a long time I’ve aimed for “perfection” in my photography — whatever that means. I tried to set a certain standard for myself. I wanted to make memorable, powerful, and emotional photographs that would inspire others. I wanted to make photos that could stand the test of time. I didn’t want to bring any ugly photos into the world — only beautiful ones.

But what does it mean to make a “perfect” photograph? By whose standard should we judge this? And does such a thing as “perfection” really exist?

Don’t add the superfluous

Garden Grove, 2016 #cindyproject
Garden Grove, 2016 #cindyproject

The author, pilot, and French explorer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of “Le Petit Prince”) said that, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

It quite mirrors that of a lot of Taoist/Zen/Stoic philosophers. They believed that happiness wasn’t getting everything in life you wanted— rather, happiness was about not having pain, misery, and stress in your life.


Downtown LA, 2016 #cindyproject
Downtown LA, 2016 #cindyproject

Therefore a theory we can take to make a perfect photograph — to minimize and simplify our frame until there is nothing to take away.

It means to have a single, compelling, “happening” or emotion in the frame. And not having any superfluous distractions taking away from the frame.

It means to not have a busy background, not to have additional characters that don’t need to be there, or any other distractions.

Work on subtraction, not addition

Melrose, 2016 #cindyproject
Melrose, 2016 #cindyproject

In photography, we are trying to carve out a small slice of reality which we find beautiful. That means to discard and exclude the rest.

Therefore if you want to aim to make a “perfect” photograph — always think of what you can subtract, or remove (rather than what you can add).

If you’re making a portrait of someone — perhaps you can cut away at a messy background. Maybe that means photographing your subject against a simple white background.

Let’s say in terms of your aesthetic choices — you don’t like the distraction of color. You prefer the zen-like nature of black and white.

If you’re making a portrait of someone — what do you decide to keep, and what do you decide to not include? Perhaps a “portrait” of someone can just be a photograph of their hands. Or of just their face, or teeth, or midsection. How can you best tell the story of someone with as few parts as possible?

Perfection on your own terms

Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject

I don’t believe that “perfection” exists in an objective sense. If you put together 100 of the world’s top photographers in a room and asked them to judge a certain photograph, never will all 100 say a certain photo is “perfect.” Everyone has their own opinions, based on their life experiences, and personal sensibilities.

My suggestion: aim for perfection according to your own standard.

To me, a perfect photograph is a photograph which I can see myself still loving 5, 10, or 20 years from now. A perfect photograph has the perfect balance of form, composition, and emotion. A perfect photograph doesn’t just say something about my subject, but says something deeper about myself.

“Perfect” photographs come to me only about once a year. A “perfect” photograph can still have some small imperfections, but it is still perfect to me.

Just like how my loved ones might have small imperfections — I still find them beautiful and perfect.

5 tips on how to make a perfect photograph

Marseille, 2013
Marseille, 2013

So what are some tips to make a perfect photo? Some brief ideas below:

  1. Start with the background: I find that distracting backgrounds are one of the things that kill a photograph’s effectiveness. Seek to start with a simple background first, and then add your subject.
  2. Focus on the edges of your frame: If you want a strong composition, you don’t want any messiness in the edges of your frame. When you’re shooting, focus on the edges of your frame, and make sure they’re clean.
  3. Wait before deciding: You can’t decide whether a photo is “perfect” by your standards in a single day. For me, it often takes me months, a year, or sometimes years. When you’re in doubt whether a photograph is perfect or not, just wait and let time be your ultimate counselor. There are photographs that I took 5 years ago which I thought were “perfect”— but now I realize that they are lacking.
  4. Marry composition and emotion: A photograph without emotion is dead. A photograph that is memorable is one which combines composition and emotion. These photos punch you in the chest, and burn themselves into your hearts.
  5. Don’t just take 1 photo of a scene: If you want to create the most perfect frame possible, you need to “work the scene” and take many different variations of the same scene. I know some photographers who will take 300, 500, or even 1000 photos of a scene to get the closest thing to “perfection” in their eyes.

Ultimately, you need to be your own judge of your photos. Don’t be the slave to the opinions of others. Create photos you want to look at, and seek personal greatness in your work.