PetaPixel

When Perfect Isn’t Perfect or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blur

NYE (4 of 55)

Quite a few years ago I took a solo trip down to Key West, FL. It was the first time I had gone on a vacation by myself, and since I was free of the distraction of friends and family, I decided it would make a great opportunity to expand upon my photography skills.

You see, the trip was shortly after I had decided to take this whole photography hobby of mine seriously. I had worked with video for years but now I wanted to work on becoming a good photographer as well, not just one that took as many photos as possible and then looked for the three good ones out of the hundreds shot (seriously, it’s a horrible method and I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody).

KW 1

I ventured around the island taking in the gorgeous coast, decadent night life, and of course the always fun nightly street performers of Mallory Square. Once I returned home I remember going through photo after photo and, with some minor exceptions,  having the same feeling rise up each time I scrolled through. These photos were BORING.

Sure, they were framed correctly, properly exposed, and in focus — all of the things I had learned that make a great photo, but they didn’t capture a modicum of the enjoyment of the moment. None of the fun I had experienced while there was coming through in the photos and I had no idea why.

What I would later figure out is that I was making a common mistake amongst beginner photographers: I was focusing far too much on the “perfect” picture. I made sure the shutter speed was fast enough to get a crisp image, the ISO was at the perfect setting, and the aperture was of course stopped all the way down.

At the time I thought that as long as you did all of this and pointed the camera at something interesting, you’d be golden. And yet when I looked through all my photos I couldn’t help but delete most of them. There was just something about them that made them horribly uninteresting. Every photo looked static and lifeless. In fact, in some instances they even appeared as if they were staged.

It was at this point I took a small break from photography. I set my camera down for a little while and went back to the casual world of using my iPhone for any photos I wanted. Of course this didn’t last too long as I quickly learned that for all of its incredible computing/phoning/texting power, the iPhone camera kind of sucked (this was back during the first few models, far before they had equipped it with a competent camera).

But during my brief hiatus I did learn something very important. Despite the poor quality of the photos I took with my phone, they all had a certain quality that was lacking in anything I had shot with my DSLR. They had life. Sure they were blurry, grainy, messes of photos, but they looked like they were actually capturing a moment. A moment that was fleeting and imperfect and beautiful.

RF-8493

This is when I learned to embrace the blur. I learned to focus less on getting the perfectly clear image and more on really capturing what was in front of me. I’m not sure I can fully express how liberating this was. Suddenly I felt free to just take photos again, and once I wasn’t burdened with taking the “perfect” picture something magical happened: my photos got better.

You see, not only was this embracing of imperfection beneficial to the general look/feel/appearance of my photos, but it also meant I was spending less time tweaking the settings between every shot and could simply pay attention to the world around me and avoid missing some spectacular things. This two-fold benefit meant an immediate improvement in my photography, and I was instantly revitalized to get out there and take pictures like a mad man again.

Portland (5 of 15)

Since then I’ve taken photos with a much slower shutter speed, pushed the ISO well past my comfort zone, and even taken photos with a misty lens thanks to the salty ocean spray. And you know what? My photos have only gotten better.

Now obviously there are certain types of photography that this lesson may not apply to. I wouldn’t recommend embracing the blur when you’re shooting portraits, for instance, but for photographers that want to get into the world of stuff like street photography or photo journalism, this lesson is essential.

DevSnow (1 of 1)

If you find yourself struggling to come to terms with this idea I have a few simple exercises that will hopefully help you.

1. Try taking abstract photos. Photos that aren’t necessarily meant to depict anything specific, maybe just a shape? Try getting so close to objects you can’t tell what they are anymore, then take the picture. Another experiment to try is to go downtown with a zoom lens one night, set your shutter speed to something very slow (make sure it stays open for at least a few seconds), snap the photo and zoom in or out while the shutter is open.

While this doesn’t always produce something spectacular sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the creative light streaks caused by the zoom. And it will at least get you used to the idea of being a little more abstract.

2. Shoot from the hip, literally. Walk around a crowded area with your camera slung over your shoulder and without raising it to your eye, point it at something generally interesting and snap a few photos. Again, sometimes you’ll just end up with garbage but every once in a while you’ll capture a beautiful, pure moment — one you couldn’t have gotten if somebody had seen the large camera pressed up to your face and staring at them.

3. Lock your settings. This one is very simple. Evaluate your surroundings, set your camera, and then don’t adjust anything. Just run with it. You’ll likely end up with some unusable pictures but you’ll also be free to simply observe your surroundings. This is probably the best way to free yourself and experience the moment, and I promise your photos will reflect it.

NYE (5 of 55)

Hopefully anyone who reads this has either already learned this or will take it to heart. I can’t stress how important it is to let go of perfection. When it boils down to it, photography isn’t about getting the perfect picture — it’s more about being there when the perfect picture presents itself and being able to identify it.

That’s when you’ll capture something truly special.


 
 
  • 3Horn

    Brilliant.

  • Raymond Parker

    Sorry, I can’t see a point to “stop worrying and love the blur.” Most blurry images, whether from “incorrect” focus or shutter speed, will fail.

    While it is true that there have been some iconic photos that are blurry — Robert Capa’s “American Soldier Landing on Omaha Beach, D-Day” comes to mind — I’m not sure that deliberate abandonment of technique should be advanced as a technique.

    New photographers should, to my mind, be encouraged to single-mindedly pursue competence in what has always been the bedrock of good photography: exposure, focus, depth-of-field. There is no shortcut, and these are best mastered by shooting manually.

    Aside from pure technique, content is king. With solid technique, the photographer is more likely to be ready to respond and to apply whatever adaptation fits the subject.

    Today, post-processing options give us a wide latitude for interpretation, but a bad photo is still a bad photo, whether made with a pro DSLR or an iPhone. I understand the idea here is to “see outside the box” but I’d recommend dedication to improving fundamental camera skills — something I pursue every day, after many decades behind the lens.

  • harumph

    Switching to aperture priority is a much better bet than locking your settings. Same amount of effort, but you’ll get better results.

  • Jonathan Maniago

    “Again, sometimes you’ll just end up with garbage but every once in a while you’ll capture a beautiful, pure moment”

    “Just run with it. You’ll likely end up with some unusable pictures but
    you’ll also be free to simply observe your surroundings.”

    “I wanted to work on becoming a good photographer as well, not just one
    that took as many photos as possible and then looked for the three good
    ones out of the hundreds shot (seriously, it’s a horrible method and I
    wouldn’t recommend it to anybody).”

    So, what exactly are you trying to recommend?

    “Once I returned home I remember going through photo after photo and,
    with some minor exceptions, having the same feeling rise up each time I
    scrolled through. These photos were BORING.”

    A lot of photographers seem to frown upon the idea of chimping. Personally, I think it’s a good way of realizing that the photos are boring BEFORE you even leave the scene.

  • http://blog.patdavid.net/ Pat David

    Isn’t this basically what Bresson refers to as the “decisive moment”?

  • Raymond Parker

    No. Bresson was ready for the moment because he had mastered technique. Look at Bresson’s work; it’s anything but random … it’s decisive. Big difference.

  • http://blog.patdavid.net/ Pat David

    I guess I meant to say that the deliberate process of focusing more on the moment vs. technical fiddling (for lack of a better word). Of course, Bresson had mastered the technical, just the importance of focusing on the moment is what applies.

    This is seriously a great reason for learning to zone focus. Frees you up from worrying about that – it really feels liberating after worrying about focus for so long.

  • BDWT

    So what I gathered from this article was that sometimes you need to try a little wrong, to break a creative block or just do something you wouldn’t normally do to get a surprisingly nice photo, the article was a little hypocritical. Had Alan maybe left out the part about shooting hundreds of photos to get one good one, I think the article would have not contradicted itself and we readers would have all understood the message a bit clearer.
    Thanks Alan, for the post and the photos.

  • Booray Perry

    How cool would it be if you could take those “blurry” pictures on purpose. Imagine actually understanding your camera settings and manipulating them fast enough to create an image that wasn’t an “accident” but instead a representation of your vision and creativity. Then you would really be taking your hobby seriously.

  • BDWT

    Also, to all those readers that don’t agree that a blurry photo can sometimes “be the one”, you ought to rethink the fundamentals of what makes a good photo, besides just looking at the technical stuff. Sometimes the subject, content, moment and event taking place in the photo can outweigh allll those technical aspects like exposure, focus and composition. It really subjective from photo to photo. Keep an open mind, or you might as well accept that your work will never evolve.

  • william praniski

    first he says it’s a horrible method to take lots of photos and later pick only 2 or 3 of the best ones.
    thenn he says to lock your settings and shoot some photos and you will have some unusable shots but surely one or two will be good, will capture the moment.
    i don’t understand this guy.

  • Eugene Chok

    “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept” – Henri Cartier Bresson

  • JP

    The “photo journalism” comment has me scratching my head. Embracing the blur will not get you a job taking pictures, at least for money.

  • Scott

    I don’t really like the way he laid it out but I do think he’s onto something with embracing a little blur to add an element of motion and action to some photographs.

    In sports, ultra sharp photos stopping any and all motion is the goal and can look great no doubt. At the same time though it doesn’t always imply the action taking place and in the case of Motorsports it’s actually detrimental and makes the cars look like they are just posed on the track if there is no smoke, rubber or dust flying to indicate movement.

    Personally as long as someones face is nice and crisp I don’t always mind a bit of movement in the extremities or background.

    It’s the same thing with music photography, a moment frozen in time can be great but a tastefully blurred shot of the sticks or picking hand can indicate even more emotion.

    All in my opinion of course. :)

  • hemburto

    Get on that Daido Moriyama game

  • Zach Fox

    I agree with you. However, I believe that once a photographer has reached a certain point of technical competency, there’s something to be said for worrying less about the “correct” settings for a certain situation (and consequently taking less time to fiddle with them), and instead focusing on capturing the life or magic in front of the lens.

    At the same time, there are some situations in which perfecting the settings for a shot assists in capturing that magic. What do you think?

  • Mike Burchard

    I think “lock your settings” is fine advice, so long as one of those settings is either aperture priority or shutter priority, depending on what you’re trying to achieve. If you “lock” manual-exposure settings, you’re at great risk of unacceptably over- or under-exposed images, which often don’t convey much more than the impression that the photographer didn’t know how to use his/her camera properly…

    “Shoot from the hip.” What?! Do you know what would really suck? Nailing the exposure and focus and “the moment” and everything else, BUT having the otherwise-perfect subject end up wildly crooked or very badly framed to the point where you exclaim “God! I wish I’d just taken two extra seconds to do that shot right instead of half-assing it like Alan Steadman told me to do.”

    Like a lot of other people, I’ve used blur & focus creatively to convey a mood, or motion, or something else… but it was generally a deliberate artistic choice; I’m not a fan of relying on luck to offset a haphazard or indifferent approach to photography.

  • mrbeard

    just my 2 cents, but i find a lot of images online are beginning to look the same, due to similarity in cameras and easy access to post processing tutorials. Photographs on say, 500px, generally look like they were all taken by the same person. Individual expression is lost in the pursuit of technical perfection.

    fair play to this guy if he wants to do it his way

  • ketsiv

    I am a little confused as to whether theses are examples of the boring photos or his “significantly better” photos, if it’s the later I fear for the rest of the advice this site has to offer.

  • http://www.thomaslawn.net/ Thomas Lawn

    I think you’re falling into the pit that a lot of photographers do and thinking that “proper technique” is to stop all motion. Motion blur is simply another tool a photographer can use to capture a scene. If you’re at a street carnival, people are moving all over the place. If you’re at a car race, the cars go fast.

    Stretching the blur on those things, just a bit, is just another way to describe that movement.

    “Proper technique” is to deliberately choose all of the settings that work to fulfill your vision. If you want to show motion? Drag the shutter a bit. Or find a different way to show that.

  • http://www.thomaslawn.net/ Thomas Lawn

    Making meaningful pictures will, regardless of your technique or style. Most picture editors wouldn’t know a great photograph if it was hanging on their wall.

  • http://www.thomaslawn.net/ Thomas Lawn

    Agreed! Movement is key. However, so often people think that the only way to use your shutter is to freeze motion instead of accentuate it, and this is a pretty good reminder to let some motion slip in sometimes.

  • JP

    Well, there’s great, and there’s “in focus”…

  • Björn Lubetzki

    while i do understand, that it is important to get away from the technique and worry about the image itself, all that can be done, if you have locked the technique down into your brain. and by that i mean locked to a point where you don’t have to think about it in any way and you know your camera to a degree, that you don’t even have to look/think about the settings. after that you can divert all your attention to the image!!
    some images work if they are blurry, but some simply don’t!!

    think about it. imagine the “afghan girl” from steve mccurry as a blurry image….
    or the famous image of einstein, with his tongue out…
    and there are many more. you have to get to a point, where a blurry image is simply “one more tool in your bag”. don’t just walk around in the city thinking “i will get way better images, if i shoot from the hip”. you may! but if they are blurry to the point of being unusable. you could of course go out there and master the “shoot from the hip technique”, to get images, which are less blurry. but that would mean, you had to get out and spend a few days perfecting a technique to shoot images, which aren’t perfect, for the sake of “perfectly imperfect images”.
    there is one thing thou, which might give you a totally different feel to photography. buy a manual focus prime lens. the “cheapest” one, you can get. you can buy a 50mm 1.8 from some manufacturers for 20$ on ebay (or less). after that you buy an adapter for around 10-15$. so all in all you spend 30$ MAX. now get out there and shoot. the images may not get pin sharp, but the blur will be manageable. you gain another thing thou. you have to take your time. if things happen really fast images will get blurry, because you will get problems focusing fast enough. but if you have the time for maybe a portrait, you still can get images, that are sharp. and it is a different feel, which is better than “get out there and stop worrying about whether or not your images are blurry”

  • Scott

    I felt like a moron noob when I got to the vintage races this year and started freezing all the cars on the track including their tires. Then I tweaked my settings and got a bit of tire blur and all was right wit the world HAHA.

  • Tim

    “My photos have only GOT better”

    or

    “My photos have improved dramatically”

    There is no such word as GOTTEN in the English language.

  • http://www.markwheadon.com/ Mark Wheadon

    If it’s written / spoken by enough people then it’s in the language — the use of language defines the contents of dictionaries, not the other way round.

  • ron

    i have noticed the same. they lack “soul”, perfect pictures with no meaning to anybody