Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Photographic Perfection is Overrated

So how is that for a bold proclamation? Here is the catch: I am trying to convince myself that photographic perfection is overrated. It isn't as easy as you might think.

Perhaps I should start with Exhibit A. This was a grab shot from my car, parked in a precarious spot. The file was clean and comes from a nice Fuji rig, but it was dark gray out and spitting rain. I spent around 5-10 minutes tweaking it to a '70s magazine look that I liked and posted it to Google+. Three days later, it has over 1,800 views, 49 Plus Ones and 3 reshares. Perfect? I think not.

I did this for fun and to my tastes with synthetic light leaks substituting for actual light. Who am I to argue with my G+ followers? It was posted to my stream instead of a Community.
Here are Exhibits B and C in recent popular rankings among my 2,000,000+ views on Google Plus:

Spawn the Second. I recognize that smirk. It's like looking in a mirror.

Seen in a high school parking lot. Mutated in chrome.

Are you as confused about what other people like as I am? Don't worry, I refuse to be one of those people that posts recycled cat memes. I am a content creator, not an SEO specialist. Now on to the perfection theme...

Once upon a time, my vision of photographic perfection looked a lot like this:

January 20, 2014: The spectacular sunset prior to an approaching snowstorm as seen from the back of the Lincoln Memorial. Shot with a Panasonic LX-7 compact camera.
All the elements are there: tripod, DSLR, live view, separate light meter, hand timed exposure, remote release and I'm betting a split neutral density filter on front. My personal list still includes obsessive reading about gear and the never ending search for the perfect combinations of compacts, bodies and lenses. All of that obsessing over fast glass and perfect exposures works... but all of that technical perfection starts looking the same. You know, like those wallpaper images for your desktop.

Florida pier by moonlight. Canon DSLR and EF-S wide with tripod, etc.
The more I look at perfect landscapes, macros and studio shots online, the more I appreciate people that are playing with old analog tech, including the mystery Typospherian who sent a Polaroid through the mail recently.

Thinking back, my drivers for personal perfectionism includes the legacy of working with film and early digital. Do you remember film? ISO 400 was pretty fast and really grainy. The conditions had to be just right to capture images like this.
Seven Mile Plaza, Colorado. The house my mother grew up in. Canon SLR - Probably Elan 7e; badly scanned from negative.
In the film era, we obsessed about fast glass, film grain and the type of emulsion that worked best in forests vs. portraits. Fast glass was as much about depth of field as being able to capture a clean image. Even portrait film came in many varieties. Don't get me started on black and white and its special films, paper and filters.

Not that striving for photographic perfection is wrong. For some people it is amazing! I admire awesome landscapes and studio portraits and the technical skills they require. However, I have the luxury of enjoying photography for its own sake without need to make money on it or even have the equipment pay for itself. In theory, I could create lots of photos and never show them to anyone.

Part of my change of heart comes from a love a street and candid photography. The image below received the most views and +1s of those I posted to various Google+ communities in the last year. It is in no way perfect. Taken handheld, after dusk with a Panasonic LX-3, it is grainy, relatively low resolution and messy in ways difficult to count. But viewers loved it. Who am I to argue with viewers?
 I've been trying to let photographic perfectionism go and have been joyfully taking and posting images from an iPhone 5s and compacts. I am even learning to love some really imperfect images like this one from January with totally blown highlights.

Or this over processed iPhone image with crushed blacks. That it even worked at all at 10 degrees Fahrenheit was enough. My fingers stopped working around the temperature the phone did.

Way less than perfect, but I was able to capture the image before the snow was churned and post it to social media once the phone thawed out. My brain was still frozen when I processed this on the phone.
Or this processed iPhone image with the funky colors that has a certain 70s Kodachrome snapshot look to it.
Yep, taken with an iPhone. The camera you have with you really is the best one. Blotchy blacks and poor overall contrast, but it is good enough.
None of these images could have been captured with my orthodox DSLRs of old. I simply would not have been carrying the beast on a plane or in between dinner meetings and a hotel.

Could it be that I might enjoy photography for the sake of photography? Honestly, I did enjoy the near Zen experience of stalking the perfect sunset or sunrise with a camera on a tripod. However, somewhere buried under the layers of gear and obsessive search for perfect light is a balance point of being Zen and going with the flow.

These buskers were encountered on one of those amazing evenings when interesting things were happening around every corner on the streets. Certainly, the images would have been difficult without fast glass an modern APS-C sensors, but it was an evening of mobility and discovery.

Sony NEX-6 with Lens Turbo and old school Pentax SMC Takumar 50mm f1.4

Had I been focused on perfection, this encounter with a late night skate crew would not have occurred and would not have been nearly as much fun. Me, ten years ago, might have passed because the light sucked and I was tired and shaky hungry after wandering for hours. But not only was the shoot fun, these kids were super excited to see images on the back screen!

Sony NEX-6 + Lens Turbo + Pentax 50mm f1.4 from the 1960s. Whether anyone else liked this photo or not is irrelevant. It is one of my favorites from 2013 because of the experience and the vibe. My thirteen-year-old daughter was with me and amazed that they did not have the sorry attitudes that our suburban skate kids seem to have. Bustin' stereotypes is one of the joys of observing the world closely enough to make images.
We could not have dreamed of this kind of capture in the early 1990s. Moore's Law is our friend.

This shoot was made possible by lightweight, mirroless equipment. I was tired enough that using a DSLR would have been too much.

And it is here that you learn what a hopeless, gear addicted hypocrite I am. My current shooting rigs include an iPhone 5s (employer leash edition), Panasonic LX-7, Fuji X-E1(super cheap) with vintage glass and a newly acquired crazy-sexy-black first generation used Fuji X100. I have now gone full Fuji Boy with an X-T1 in the stable and sale of all the Canon DSLR gear coming soon. So how does this motley crew of lust-worthy high technology supposed to magically help me let go of photographic perfectionism?

Sony NEX-6 + Lens Turbo + Pentax 50mm f1.4 Imperfection can be beautiful.

The honest answer is that it might not. On the other hand, I expect the iPhone that is always with me will capture the most images on its totally inadequate sensor. The LX-7 is cheap and semi-disposable and will be close behind. I find the fixed lens simplicity of the Fuji X100 is really a joy as an all around travel camera and it introduced me to the world of Fuji. It is a timeless instrument good for years of service.

As for the Sony A7, now that I have tasted full-frame goodness for the first time since film it has been very hard to turn back. I had intended to use it hard and heavily in the desert, the rain, snow, at car shows and county fairs and anywhere else the loud shutter snap would not be a distraction. There were, however, several reasons I chose to back off from Sony for now:

1. After advertising the A7 as weather sealed, Sony later backed off of water resistance claims. Online tear downs revealed admirably tight tolerances, but no actual gaskets. That is a deal killer for me after having a semi-drowned NEX-6.

2.  Innovation is wonderful and moving at full speed, but that just means Sony holds back usability improvements for future models. The horrid NEX menu system could have been fixed with a firmware update. Fuji chooses to do firmware updates for discontinued products. I work for a small company and appreciate this kind of dedication to consumers.

3.  I see no indication of how dedicated Sony is to the new full-frame, E-mount platform.

4.  I gave up on the time and effort necessary to catalog, store, sort and process RAW files with the Canon 40D. I like my JPEGs clean and ready to tweak. In my opinion, Fuji pumps out better JPEGs with cleaner high ISO files than the Sony NEX-6. Granted, the newly announced A7s may kick butt - for now it is a product announcement.

Wintry test shot in all of its full-frame and Carl Zeiss Contax-G glory. Addictive, it is, but I am looking forward to seeing what the X-T1 and Fuji 35mm f1.4 is capable of.
And now enters the Fuji X100. It is three-year-old technology already replaced by something faster. No matter - I love the rendering and using a single focal length for a couple months already has me thinking and framing in a 35mm filed of view. The macro mode is soft and it tends to overexpose in bright sunlight, but I do not care. It is now a source for raw material that can be shared as is or easily molded in post processing with simple, free software tools.

Love the silent shutter. Love the Kitty and walk like her, or else.

Look Ma, no dedicated macro lens, and the photo is blurry but good enough with no post-processing whatsoever.

Once upon a time, this would have been on a tripod with custom white balance. Not today. It was handheld and good enough.

And the X100 lead me to the next generation of Fuji sensor technology. Their equipage is the absolute boss in crappy lighting. I love night photography and Canon excelled at making everything muddy orange.

Alpaca Fest with the Fuji X-E1 and the extremely nice 18-55mm kit lens.
Perennial winners of the Kansas City regional FIRST robotics competition
Reserved for Sugar Pants

Modified for fun because it sums up street life and style for me.

Some people surprise me with their observational skills.

It has been a great ride and I am looking forward to what comes next. I've been shooting for over 25 years and still love it. Perfection be damned. I am still having fun.

As for my old Canon 60D DSLR tankosaurus, it sits in the back of my car gently weeping while the little cameras have all the fun. It was a good companion and racked up tens of thousands of exposures. It was a fun twenty plus year run with Canon. Life moves on.

Thanks all for the long read. You can also find me on Google Plus

I'd love to read your thoughts on this topic either here or at G+. Comments on this blog are moderated. Type, submit and I will post after reviewing because typing Captchas really sucks on mobile devices. I refuse to subject people to them.

Yet another tedious, long-winded and vaguely original copyright notice: All images and words on this blog, unless stated otherwise, are copyrighted, intellectual property of Dwayne Fuhlhage. Please feel free to link, share, comment and otherwise use social channels for their intended purpose, but with attribution. Sure, the Internet is just full of free images for the taking. Mine are not special; except they must be pretty special if you are thinking about stealing them. Godzilla 2014 is coming, and I intend to have him as an enforcer because Kaiju are just amazing.


  1. I am by no means an expert. However, that doesn't stop me from saying that every photo here is fantastic! Those night street shots are great. The lighting is so natural, that's how a street looks at night. Especially the 'sugar pants' shot. I've stood in streets like that at that time...in Australia!
    Like you, Dwayne, I keep wondering about perfection and I still have a long, long, long way to go. But I too miss the days of film, which is why I'm spending so much time (and money) on processing these days. Ran six rolls of ASA400 through my Olympus Trip 35 to find a focus and light-flare problem. Think I found it, but re-skinning the camera will be the only way to be sure.
    My main issue with digital is the amount of tweaking that can be done after the photo has been taken. I'd much rather get a perfect shot before I hit the shutter button. Besides, I don't have Photoshop, and Picasa is confusing to me at the moment.
    That person-in-the-rain-against-the-wall photo is superb. Sure, you see faults in the RAW and resolution of it, but I see a wonderfully composed shot with loads of colour and story.
    'Cos we've all been caught in that kind of rain sometime.
    I'll have to read this post again in more detail.

    1. teeritz: Thanks for the comment and compliments! I am far from an expert myself. I took one basic film and darkroom class through a community extension program many, many years ago. Other than that, I am self-taught and shoot in my spare time.

      I love low light and night photography. I'm not sure why, but it is a feel I enjoy. The Sugar Pants shot is all Fuji with a bit of post for saturation and contrast. I discovered the look through G+ community images.

      There are things I miss and do not miss about film. I never had the space or money to set up a home darkroom, so that was an intrinsic limit during the film era. Outside prints came back all kinds of random. I hated not having control. I'm glad you are running some film. Several street photographers I follow have recently picked up vintage gear and are having a great time.

      I don't use Picasa for much other than cataloging, orientation and contrast adjustments. The fun tools are in Chrome through Picasa or Google+. You can set up a G+ account and never actually share anything to have another place to store your best images. Upload a photo, open it, select edit and have fun! It is nondestructive so you always go back.

  2. There are two types of photos that capture my attention: Shots that trigger an emotional response and shots that earn my admiration. If the picture triggers a wave of nostalgia (like the ThunderCougarFalconBird at the beginning of your post), it doesn't matter how "good" it is. I just *like* it.

    I'm finding there is joy in perfectly composing, capturing, and processing a photo. But I don't think most people care unless they feel a connection to the result. I guess that's why successful artists seem to spend half their time schmoozing :)

    1. Yeah, I like the last part of your comment. I collaborate with any number of organizations and standards groups. Generally, in the manufacturing sector there are technical collaborators and professional network types that fit the definition of 'charismatic narcissist'. I try to avoid being the latter.

      Other than cat memes, predicting what might connect is difficult given the torrent of images being shared on a daily basis. It is difficult to catch any attention. As with blogging, interactions are everything. And yes, there is intrinsic joy in the act of making images.

  3. I used to do b/w darkroom work in conjunction with a Minolta SR that had been my Mom's. Occasionally daydream about going back to darkroom...only occasionally. Super fun post to read. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for reading and the comment! Darkroom work is hard, stinky and rewarding. I don't blame you for wanting to make some photochemical reactions. It is magic.

  4. My theory here is the same as to why people appreciate a typed document more than a perfectly-justified, elegantly composed computer render of the same document, complete with beautiful fonts and embedded pictures: today it's very easy to get "perfect" results. But getting "excellent" results in a more traditional way requires patience, knowledge, artistry, and a lot of effort and skills. I would definitely join the crowd and say the first pic, with all its imperfections, is to me a lot more engaging and beautiful than the products of digital click-and-go. And that's precisely because the first photo shows all the earmarks of a handmade product. It might not be "perfect" in the way the light shows. But the composition, the "rule of thirds", the balance between the subject and the background, the focusing... they are all there.

    ... And of course, there's nothing wrong with having a bit of grain in a picture. That "noise" that used to annoy us so much back in the day, is now a very emotional feature. That by itself gives the photo another + in my book.

    1. Beautifully stated, Miguel.

    2. Yes, an elegant comment. I'm glad you enjoyed that bit of mostly real authenticity. I used to have a purist aesthetic for creating final images that biased towards technical perfection. I'm gradually getting over that and having some fun using my files as raw material.

      Taking this a step further, would creative editing count as hand crafting? It does differentiate an image from the bit flood, although creativity involves risk. I have generated more than a few images that I suspect other people despise as much as I do word memes and fail GIFs.

      Technically, pointing a camera, composing and hitting the release is a creative act. But perfection is almost too easy. The majority of the images I post on G+ are out of camera compositions without cropping. I always attempt out of camera first. Black and white conversions have quite a bit of finessing. I am most likely to use DxO Filmpack 3 (it was a free download) for basic adjustments. Sometimes, I want the base Fuji Astia to look more like Provia, Velvia or Kodachrome. The grain simulations are also excellent.

      As with typewriters, I very much enjoy the mechanics and design of the human/machine interface. Each brand and system has its own look and feel, both in the JPEG processing and in the HMI. Good equipment enables good technique and does not stand in the way of framing, metering or final image capture. Good machines have a soul and resonate decades down the line. The only things that keep the Fuji X100 from being my perfect, desert island machine are overexposure in hard daylight, lack of a tilting screen and generally slow focus speed. For the way it renders, that is just fine with me. It is one device that I will not get rid of as others age out.

      For an over the top and entertaining opinion on the various brands, take a look at http://zackarias.com/for-photographers/gear-gadgets/fuji-x100s-review-a-camera-walks-into-a-bar/

  5. I like ALL of these photos! And I agree with Miguel: today, imperfection is perceived as a sign of spontaneity and genuineness.

    1. I tell you, it is a strange and wonderful experience to walk into an Urban Outfitters and see tons of vinyl and several varieties of instant print cameras. My severely myopic sophomore gave up contacts after flirting with perfect beauty in seventh and eighth grade. She rocks the plastic frame glasses look and loves vintage 50s-60s clothing.

      I don't think any of this is hipsterism as public typewriting is oft accused of being. Kids light up when presented with the tactile feel of a real keyboard or control dials on a proper camera.

      Authenticity is still a mystery, but I am okay being a cult brand worshiper when a company designs something meant to last longer than two years.

  6. I agree with Miguel. As an artist, I always used to strive for perfection - till I realized, "what is perfection?" I used to wait till every thing was "perfect", and miss a lot. Now I'm spontaneous, and freer - so is it perfect??!! Who knows, but at least I'm in action. But also, don't give up that striving for "perfection"

    1. Donald: Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject and apologies for the long response delay. Life is in the striving. I'm glad you enjoy the creative process as much as I do!

  7. ive come to expect that quality of photography from your blog.
    some say photography isn't a talent and that it is merely pushing a button.
    but as these picture demonstrate: it is finding a substance in a moment that means more than meets the eye and that causes pause in its viewer and makes him think or feel something he otherwise wouldn't have

    1. Thanks for the warm fuzzy comment :-) I do love the act of seeing that is photography. That my work/play can resonate with other is a bonus.


Dang. My blog was hit by Spam comments. Comment moderation has been turned on for some time yet to be determined.