The Perfect Photo: Myth or Reality?
As creators, we can spend hours fine-tuning the tiniest details until we deem our end result “perfect.” But is there really such a thing as perfection when it comes to creativity? And, if so, what criteria should we use to judge flawlessness? We asked two landscape photographers if high-end equipment, timing, or one extra helicopter lap can lead to the perfect photograph. Or is the concept as mythic as the Loch Ness monster? They each shared a photograph to help frame their thoughts.
Author of The Arctic Melt: Images of a Disappearing Landscape
This photo, “Broken Arches” is of an iceberg in Disko Bay in Ilulissat, Greenland. During the summers of 2015 and 2016, I travelled throughout the Arctic to record the three factors that will be the cause of ocean rise due to climate change: the melting of mountain glaciers, the thermal expansion of the ocean and the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet.
I travelled in a Russian nuclear-powered ice breaker from Murmansk, Russia to the North Pole. There were large areas of open water. When we reached the North Pole, the ice was so thin that we could not safely disembark. We searched for three hours in order to find a piece of ice that would be thick enough for us to explore the area.
I had first been to Ilulissat nine years earlier. Then, the ice sheet was a sheet of fluffy snow and the temperature was 30 degrees. The icebergs in Disko Bay were so massive, they looked like glaciers. Now, the constant calving of the glaciers are causing tiny icebergs to fill Disko Bay, breaking apart daily due to the warm temperatures. Just nine years later, the temperature in Ilulissat was 65 degrees. The iceberg in this photograph is melting at a rapid rate. Water falls from within.
“Broken Arches” is an aerial photograph. I directed the helicopter to circle this iceberg until I found the best composition. Since I never crop any of my photographs, I needed to find the right moment where the sun, the shape, and the reflection are in perfect harmony. I was shooting at an angle through a window, which is not ideal. If I can, I usually take the door off so I can hang out and create the best composition. This time, the pilot wasn’t low enough, so I directed him to get lower and lower so that I could get a bird’s-eye view of this arch of melting water.
Artists have a natural way of composing, which is innate. My degree is in mathematics. Everything in nature is mathematical. The head is one-seventh the length of the body. The Golden Ratio exists in shells, flowers, pine cones, tree branches, spiral galaxies, and hurricanes. I think there is something like a perfect shot. But it’s subconscious. I know that when a landscape composition is in a one-third to two-thirds ratio; it feels good. So the photograph becomes a perfect composition.
Author of Park City: A Portrait
This image was shot over the Pacific Ocean in Encinatas, California 10-ish years ago. My favourite part is the way the sun lights up the ocean several hundred yards offshore.
For me, the “perfect” shot is something that’s technically great: the exposure, the focus, the composition are all nailed. This shot really isn’t technically perfect. I shot it on a little Point 2 camera that didn’t have that good of a sensor. It’s literally a $200 camera. But, this shot has emotion and, to me, emotion trumps the technical aspect.
The earlier part of my career was in sports stock photography. For that I’d shoot in perfect Utah weather: fresh snow, clear, blue sky. I was pushing back against “perfection” at the time I took this. It was the beginning of my rebellion against the technical aspect of technology. I was throwing out and upending all my beliefs on what made a good photo.
At the same period of time as this Encinitas photo, I was building a series of three cameras. My favourite lens is about 160 years old. It’s imperfect in the way it focuses, but it builds up cool patterns and the image becomes almost like painting. I love the way it all comes together. It’s a rebellion against how perfect these modern lenses have gotten and how sharp they are. They feel organic and handmade to me. It’s almost tactile, even though it’s still digital.
I see people get so caught up in the technical aspects of getting the “perfect” photo that they lose focus on what’s truly important: the soul, the feeling that a photograph gives you. And that’s where people should be spending their energy. Find emotion in a photo. Ultimately, that’s what people react to. You can call something a perfect photo, but at a higher level, a great photo has to have emotion and soul. This one does, even though it’s not technically perfect.