No ‘perfect pictures’ here

©Neil Turner. Office worker on a lunch break. October 2008

A question for my fellow photographers:

When was the last time you finished a shoot, went through the edit and genuinely thought that you really couldn’t have done better?

My answer is that I cannot remember ever having that thought. I’ve come close and been really happy with what I have done man, many times but I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that ‘complete satisfaction’ hasn’t featured in my work.

I have never taken a perfect picture and I have certainly never made one in post-production – but I’m OK with that.

This question was triggered by listening to an artist being interviewed on a radio programme who said that she had gone through something of a crisis of confidence having finished a piece and in that moment thinking that it was perfect. She talked about coming very quickly to hate the idea that she might never achieve that level of mastery of her craft again and that she may well have reached a professional peak at a relatively young age. That was something which her passion for what she did led her to develop a form of depression.

In the kind of work that I do there are so many compromises that have to be made that nothing is ever going to be perfect. Being one of those photographers that doesn’t use image enhancement tools to anywhere near to their full potential, I don’t rely on post-production to reach the levels of Photoshop-Zen that might see my work hitting the levels that the artist I mentioned above had.

This led to further thinking and I came up with a scale where 0 was complete dissatisfaction, sell all my gear and become a hermit and 10 represented total perfection. I decided that I was unlikely to ever score above an 8. There are, of course, dozens of mitigating factors that mean that getting a 9 or a 10 are very unlikely. Let’s see; well, the weather can be less than perfect and the subject matter isn’t always scintillating. You often don’t get long enough and it’s rare that the light is perfect when there’s just one of you and you are limited to what you can wheel/carry. There are lots more but you get the point. Perfect pictures are as rare as hens’ teeth and perfect sets are something I’ve never produced. The good news is that I can’t remember a shoot in a very long time where I went below a 6.

A few years ago on my blog I wrote about the three elements that make a picture; light, composition and subject matter before and I mentioned the magic that happens when you have just the right combination of the three

I often look at what I’m supplying the client and say (very quietly) to myself “well, all things considered, that’s a good set of pictures” or “I’ve made something of silk purse from a photographic sow’s ear”. That thought is almost always followed by at least one of “of course if only such and such had been available” or “if only I had had a few more minutes” or any number of others that can clearly be seen with the benefit of hindsight.

The thing that annoys me is that the number of adverse factors that seem to occur appears to be growing and since I noticed this a few weeks ago I have been noticing which of them is growing the most. The answer seems to be how little thought has gone into the preparation for pictures. Corporates who have made absolutely no effort with their appearance when sitting for portraits or headshots. Sportspeople who don’t have the right kit or footwear. Recently I was asked to shoot a picture of an executive with their company car which was filthy when I got there and thirty-five minutes of my allotted hour for the shoot was taken with getting it clean. The car’s driver actually asked whether or not I could “just Photoshop the dirt away”. (I know that I could but that would have taken hours on.a set of twenty frames that the client was expecting.)

Photography is all about overcoming challenges and making compromises. The kind of work that I do presents plenty of the former and requires a serious helping of the latter. 

Self-awareness and a highly critical approach to assessing your own work are two of the things that should make you get better and better as a photographer. If you can look at your own work and know where it could have gone better is almost guaranteed to progress your skills. Analysis of your own work is vital. Taking pointers from your peers and colleagues is something we do less and less of and so you absolutely have to develop the knack of doing it yourself.

Once you have critiqued your day’s work and made some mental or even physical notes about how to do that kind of thing better you need to be able to stop going over it in your mind. Self-doubt creeps in all too easily.

Put it all together and that’s what makes it such a rewarding way to make a living.


  1. Always a pleasure to read your pieces Neil & I often reread them. Always informative and indeed a pick me up at times. It landed at the right time today 👍
    Keep shooting & keep writing


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