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Striving For Perfection In Photography

Do lots of little things well in order to make great photos

With a new year come new plans, new goals and even new resolutions. While it isn’t particularly reasonable to plan to be perfect in the year ahead, it does make sense to think about ways one might try to achieve a more perfect photograph. After all, perfection in photography isn’t just one thing, it’s the culmination of lots of little things done well. And in a technical art such as photography, there are lots of opportunities to do lots of little things well.

So what does it mean to strive toward perfection in photography? First and foremost, consider the tools and techniques that combine to provide increased image quality.

Let’s think about sharpness. Is your picture “pretty good” but you know in your heart that it would be much better had it just been a bit sharper? This could mean taking the time to invest in—and carry with you—a stable tripod that allows for sharper pictures than come from handholding. Or maybe it means ditching the cheap kit lens in favor of better glass to produce sharper pictures. Or perhaps when photographing a human you realize that even at a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second, motion blur can creep in and ruin an otherwise ideal shot. This last point is why I’ve instituted a personal policy that all but requires me to use a shutter speed of 1/250th at a minimum when I’m photographing people with natural light. I can’t risk the subtle motion blur from taking my pictures farther from the ideal. So to ensure an image is as sharp as can be, photographers have to get used to pulling out all of the stops—from tripods to good glass and fast shutter speeds, cable releases and ideal apertures to image stabilization. It may seem like much ado over a simple little thing, but without sharpness, our pictures are sure to remain far from perfect.

Another opportunity to turn a little thing from wrong to right is to get in the habit of capturing RAW image files. Now for those of us who are naturally perfect already—with perfect compositions and lighting skills and exposure controls—RAW capture becomes slightly less important. But because most of us aren’t in fact perfect, we need to maximize control and our ability to make corrections and fine-tune our images as much as possible after capture. RAW image files bring a wealth of lossless image control to the editing process and allows us to make our images a little closer to the perfect exposure, the perfect sharpness and the perfect color without compromising image quality the way a compressed JPEG would. By taking the extra effort to learn to shoot and process RAW image files, you take another step closer to perfection in photography.

Speaking of image editing and postproduction, this alone can be a major differentiator between work that’s pedestrian and that which is par excellence. So many photographers say that they prefer the camera and lighting to the computer work that comes after capture, and it’s understandable why. But there’s a big difference between “getting it right in camera” and abdicating your responsibilities to make an image the best it can be using every tool at your disposal. The post-production process has always been essential to the creation of a great photograph. Failing to do what’s necessary to deliver better results is a dereliction of duty. At the very minimum, be sure to fine-tune color, contrast, sharpness and composition in post if you want your images to have a chance at approaching perfection.

Just because you’ll be using the computer to improve your pictures doesn’t mean you don’t have to be diligent before the exposure is made. Generations of photographers have succeeded on the back of the philosophy that it’s always best to get it right in camera. And what “it” is can be anything one can control at the moment of capture. From lighting to composition to a subject’s attire and pose, from the position of the key light to the intensity of the fill, whatever you can do in-camera to make a better photograph will pay dividends down the line. After all, garbage in leads to garbage out, so getting it right in camera is the foundation for all fine photographs.

However you may strive for perfection in photography, try to remember that there isn’t one single recipe for success. Instead, it’s a collection of lots of little things done right that leads to great results. You don’t have to master it all in one day, but as you learn and grow as a photographer you’ll start mastering more and more of the technical and creative skills that add up to make photos great—even if they’re not quite perfect.

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