Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Impossibility of The Perfect Photograph

I've often thought about the possibility of shooting a perfect photograph. I started taking photos at about age 8 or 9 with an old Brownie camera. Since then, I guess I've take more than a quarter million photos. Most of them not that good, I hate to admit.

Since I began teaching a visual communication class in 2000, my own photography got better. I try to inspire my students to shoot well-composed images. I show my own images in class to illustrate a concept. Frequently, I explain how my own photos fall short of perfection or how they could have been more successful.

In recent years, I've tried to set and keep appointments for myself to think about, plan and shoot images. I make time for myself and my craft. I've made some images of which I'm proud. But still, each photo has some flaw or less than ideal compositional element.

A great photograph is superior technically: focus, contrast, print quality and the like. A great photograph is composed and cropped well so the viewer is drawn to the figure-- the main idea-- while the ground-- everything else in the image that helps the viewer interpret it-- explains the context and meaning. More than that, an excellent photo is one that communicates a specific message as intended by the creator.

Does the perfect photograph exist?

Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother," shot in 1936 for the U.S. Resettlement Administration, comes close. The photo is well-focused, has excellent contrast and displays many textures. From a content standpoint, the image is nearly perfect. A viewer can't help but feel compassion for Florence Thompson, the woman in the image, and her children.

Look closer and you may notice a "phantom thumb" in the lower right corner. Thompson's thumb and index finger were in the original print, holding a tent pole. The image was retouched to make the thumb less noticeable. It's still a great photo, but not perfect.

Steve McCurry's "Afghan Girl" appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine in June 1985 and is another perfect photo candidate. The haunting, piercing green eyes of then 13-year-old Sharbat Gula in a refugee camp in Pakistan make this one of the most recognizable images ever.

After closer scrutiny, the viewer may notice a vertical reddish line at the right third of the image from top to bottom. This is most likely the edge between two panels of the green fence behind Gula. The line is not a huge distraction, but it can take some eye time away from the girl's vacant expression.

John Filo's "Kent State" photo was shot May 4, 1970, and moved that day on Associated Press. The image of Mary Vecchio screaming as she knelt over the body of Jeffrey Miller, a student who was shot by National Guardsmen, appeared in hundreds of publications perhaps most notably Life Magazine. It is one of the most memorable spot news photos in U.S. history and won a Pulitzer Prize.

In May 1995, Life ran the image again in a feature on important news photos over the years. In the new version, a fence post directly behind Vecchio's head is gone. In the original photo, the fence post was a distraction. It looked as if it could have been a javelin piercing Vecchio's skull. To be fair, Life editors said they had not altered the image on purpose. Rather, they received the photo for the 1995 edition from their image library and only noticed the alteration after printing.

Finally, let's consider what is arguably Ansel Adams' most famous photo: "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico." Shot in November of 1941, the image shows a nearly-full moon rising over a small community and fading sunlight reflecting off crosses and headstones in a foreground cemetery.

Actually, I can't think of anything about the image that isn't perfect. But the perfectionist in Ansel Adams wanted a second shot. He often told how he had seen the moon in the mirror of his truck while driving. He pulled over, quickly set up his camera and exposed the shot. Before he had time to insert another plate in the camera, the light had faded and the magical moment had passed.

I'm humble enough to know that none of my images compare with those mentioned in this article. I feel a bit sheepish passing a critical eye over these lastingly memorable images. That's the nature of the serious practice of the craft of photography. The key word is practice.

In 2008, I spoke with Jim Brandenburg, noted National Geographic photographer who lives and photographs in Northern Minnesota. When he visited our university for a lecture, I had the chance to show him some of my work and talk about how his approach to the craft. I told him I was still trying to shoot a perfect photograph. Brandenburg admitted he too felt he was getting closer but he had not yet achieved that goal.

Maybe that's what keeps us going.


  1. I don't know if perfection is achievable at all. I absolutely agree with your last line, the quest for perfection keeps us going.

    I find it frustrating in my photography and videography when I find the subtle imperfections in what I thought was a great shot.

    Finding those imperfections in your work and in the work of others is what makes you better. Keep up the quest!

  2. I do think the quest keeps us going, but I thing getting the perfect photo is a combination of planned attention and luck. As you said with Ansel Adams, the moment passed quick, there wasn't even time for a second frame. Of course his skill at composing great photos played a role, but if he hadn't been in that place at that time he would have missed it.

    I know getting a perfect photo is beyond me currently, but I'll keep trying.

  3. One of my favorite things about photography is the ability to always be better. I enjoy looking at photos that I took two or three ...or even ten years ago and seeing how much I've improved. Back then I'm sure I thought to myself that those images were fantastic and now they wouldn't make my portfolio.

    Maybe there will come a day when it won't be so noticeable between the changes in my photos :D

    To also follow up on what VetteRay is saying there is so much being in the right place and the right time to photography but there is also a huge part of knowing where to be at the right time and not only that but knowing how to be in the moment and yet still compose the photo in the best way possible.