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Design Debate

Is There Such a Thing as Perfection?

What criteria should we use to judge flawlessness?


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? We asked four photographers to  whether they prepare for flawless or aim for surprise. They each shared a single photograph to help frame their thoughts.

Susan Wright
Author of Rome Secrets

“This picture was shot on assignment for the New York Times. The journalist wrote a gorgeous story and I’d always wanted to visit this place. It’s San Francesco del Deserto. It’s in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon. It’s truly a magical place. Literally, a place where miracles happen.

“I had to travel to all these islands in the lagoon. I spent the whole day on the lake with a driver. Finally, we arrived at this island. It was the last one on my shot list. I hadn’t actually gotten permission to photograph there. Getting permission in Italy is a complicated process because of bureaucracy. Often, it’s better to arrive in a location, ask for permission and just get what you can. I’d actually been to this place once before when I was working with a journalist and it wasn’t possible to take photos.

“The driver was a local from Burano, a neighboring island, and we both spoke to the friars. It was evening and the monastery had closed by the time we got there. But this particular friar showed me all over the island. Perhaps, he could see I was totally fascinated by the place. We walked together. We talked about the lagoon. He was very open and very friendly.

“I was taking photographs and I turned around. And that magical rainbow had appeared right behind the friar as he was in deep thought. And I shot that. Everything happened perfectly.

“When I’m out on assignment, I have very limited time—a day or two. It can be a bit of a challenge to get the right shot with the conditions presented on that particular day. If there’s time beforehand, I’ll research and prepare. I give myself a shot list and then, time to live in the moment.

“Creative visualization is part of my preparation too. Get in a meditative state and think about a location. Feel it. You get visions in your mind: the image that would be truly beautiful to capture. Visualize that and when you arrive in a place, allow that place to speak to you. It’s the art of not forcing a photograph, not running around, trying to find the best location. I’ve done that. I still do it sometimes. But when you get in that receptive mode, that’s when you get those great shots.

“I love this shot, but personally, I’m still striving for that perfect shot. My idea of the perfect image captures the beauty, the love and passion of this country. I know I’m going to get it one day. I can see it. I can feel it. But it hasn’t happened yet. But it will. And when I capture it, it’s going to be absolutely amazing.”

Kevin J. Miyazaki
Photographer and graphic designer

“For the past few years, I’ve contributed to the annual ‘52 Places to Go’ story in the New York Times travel section. Last winter, I was asked to photograph the renovated Music Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“The hall itself is gorgeous. I wanted to photograph it during a live performance of the Cincinnati Symphony. That would typically be a hard thing to do: cameras make noise when shooting. In order to capture the most dramatic vantage points possible, I mounted remote a camera on a very tall pole on stage behind the orchestra and also one in the upper balcony. The camera shutter was set to ‘silent mode’, which dampens the camera noise.

Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki

“Sports photographers have lots of knowledge about firing remote cameras, but I’d rarely shot like this. So, I asked advice of photographer friends about triggering the cameras and ended using a radio trigger that fired my two Canon cameras at the same time. I’m so used to instantly seeing how my shot looks with digital cameras. It was a bit nerve-racking to not know what I was getting for the whole length of the performance. The camera was mounted with a 17mm tilt-shift lens. A tilt-shift lens removes the distortion caused when shooting upward. It made the lines in the hall’s architecture straighter than they would have been if shot with a normal, wide angle lens.

“On the night of the performance, I moved throughout the hall triggering the camera. I was given full run of the building, so for a good part of the performance I stood alone backstage, directly behind the symphony. It was dark and I was the only person there, standing amid tables where the musicians left their instrument cases. It was quite a dramatic experience. For this particular shot, which shows pianist Alice Sara Ott receiving a standing ovation, I was firing the cameras from the upper balcony—you can see me holding the camera trigger in the air if you look closely.

“It was exciting to take down the cameras after the performance and see that everything had worked as planned. But, I’m not sure if I believe in the idea of a ‘perfect shot.’ Photography is really about failing or falling short with most of what you make. The successful photographs are tiny victories. The longer you make pictures, your odds of coming away from a situation with good results certainly get higher.

“I previously lived and worked in Cincinnati for the newspaper and city magazine, so it was exciting to be back. We can take our own home location for granted. My neighborhood—I now live in Milwaukee, WI—has all the visual elements of a good travel story—cool coffeehouses, a 100-year-old chocolate shop, outdoor cafes, etc.—all things that I’m often asked to photograph on assignment. That beautiful shot of a croissant in Travel + Leisure may have been shot in a Parisian cafe, but how do you capture that image in your local bakery? I always want to remember to feel a bit more like a tourist than a photographer. And hopefully that excitement translates into my pictures.”

Diane Tuft
Author of The Arctic Melt: Images of a Disappearing Landscape

“This photo, ‘Broken Arches’ (above) 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.

“Broken Arches, Disko Bay, Greenland” © Diane Tuft

“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.”

Mark Maziarz
Author of Park City: A Portrait

“This image (below) was shot over the Pacific Ocean in Encinatas, California 10-ish years ago. My favorite 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 View 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 Pacific Ocean in Encinatas, California. Photo by Mark Maziarz

“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 favorite 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.”

Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph writes about business, history, and culture. She has published in Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. She is the host of a live show and podcast called Dedicate It


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