A Perfect Argument Raging in Photography for 200 Years

A Perfect Argument Raging in Photography for 200 Years

Do you want perfect photos? If so, then maybe you are barking up the wrong tree. In your quest for perfection, you are losing an essential element from your images.

Strict rules were put in place by the earliest experimenters right from the start of photography. When Nicéphore Niépce, the French inventor of photography, said his aim was “to copy nature in all its truthfulness,” accuracy was at the forefront of his mind. He wrote to his brother in 1816 about his successes in creating negative prints using a camera obscura, saying he must give more sharpness to the representation of the subjects. Does that sound familiar?

This was an early indication of the attitude toward perfection during the period the French now call La Belle Époque. Perfection through precision was the driving force behind the early growth of photography with that scientific approach considered more important than artistic expression. It’s an attitude that dominates today.

The earliest surviving heliograph from 1827 by Nicéphore Niépce (Public Domain)

At the same time, photography became the democratizing force behind portraiture. Whereas before, oil-painted portraits had been hugely expensive and the preserve of the aristocracy, portraits suddenly became widely available.

Although those early images were very well composed, the poses were usually stiff and unnatural. That was partly because of the length of the exposure that required people to maintain a still pose. Those early photographs are often seen as formal and aloof. However, that style cohered well with the demand for realism in the images.

Like the images at the top of this article, this is part of a collection of family photographs from the late 1800s that I will be restoring before they degrade too far.

There were those who rebelled against this approach. Julia Margaret Cameron, on her 48th birthday in 1863, was given a camera by her daughter. She became prolific during the remaining 11 years of her life. Sometimes adopting a soft-focus style, her work was derided by her contemporaries, who called it slovenly. Whether the gentle, dreamlike quality of her photos was deliberate or the result of an inability to achieve precision is sometimes still debated. However, I believe it was deliberate as she also produced highly acclaimed portraits of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Sir John Herschel, Charles Darwin, and Edgar Allan Poe. So, maybe the criticisms were misogynistic.

Soft focus image by Julia Margaret Cameron "Maud, There has Fallen a Splendid Tear From the Passion Flower at the Gate" 1875. Comparing her superior images with the mediocre family snaps I've posted here and there is little doubt in my mind of her creative and technical talent.

Technical imperfections in photography, though once frowned upon, changed to become accepted or even celebrated over time.

Look at Robert Capa’s renowned photographs of the Omaha Beach D-Day landings in Normandy during the Second World War. Many of those images are of poor quality if judged by the technical standards of the day. Yet, the images blurred with camera shake add a feeling of danger and desperation to the photos, conveying the dangerous atmosphere of the battleground.

Henri Cartier-Bresson's most famous image, Derrière la Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, France, 1932, is another example. The subject appears blurred, yet there is no denying that it’s a great photo, a perfect illustration of his decisive moment.

Sticking with Magnum photographers, one of Eve Arnold’s classic photos is of Marilyn Monroe fixing her hair in a bathroom. Technically, the image is poor. The composition is odd, the camera angle is skewed, and Monroe’s hands, left elbow, and foot are partially cropped. Yet, it captures an intimate moment in the life of an iconic figure in a private moment. The subject becomes all-important, and the technicalities of photography are inconsequential.

If we go to the other extreme, Ansel Adam’s photos seem driven by a desire to achieve perfection. His compositions and his pursuit of perfect tones are rarely criticized today. In the context of the time they were taken, when considered alongside the capabilities of contemporary technology, the flawlessness of his photos was a marque of high achievement. However, there was an argument brewing between perfectionists and those with a more casual style.

At that time the Swiss documentary and Harper's Bazaar fashion photographer, Robert Frank, published his ground-breaking book, Les Américains.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson by Julia Margaret Cameron (1869)

On one hand, Frank was praised for his casual style and lack of interest in achieving the same tonal precision as Adams. His work highlighted the bleak lives of the ordinary American people and his disregard for technical excellence worked well with that topic. But that style also came under criticism from the photographic establishment. Frank’s images were condemned by the editor of the magazine Popular Photography as comprising a “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness.”

Meanwhile, photographer Elliott Erwitt said Frank’s work was far superior to that of Adams, whose images, he said, had the “quality of a postcard.” Maybe he was right, on the shelves above my work desk is a small book titled “Ansel Adams. Winter Photographs. A Postcard Folio Book.”

Here lies a dichotomy. Firstly, we have images that are challenging in their telling of their stories. They are technically imperfect, but that imperfection is part of the story. Then, we have the precisely made photographs that are pleasing to look at. However, they lack the same immediacy and intimacy. They make little demand of the viewer. In perfect photos, one is taken in by the beauty of the photograph and not by the subject itself. 

Currently, the photographic community is swayed toward technical perfection. This is partly because perfect images are easier to like and don’t necessarily require the academic capacity to enjoy them. There is nothing wrong with that. After all, most professional photographers are shooting to please clients – clients want that technical perfection – and enthusiasts are trying to please Instagram.  Furthermore, judges of photographic competitions concentrate on the technical prowess of the photographer and seldom award those whose photos have meaningless blur and drunken horizons.

The other reason for the dominance of attempted perfection is due to what controls photography today: the camera manufacturers. Every other art is driven by the art itself and not by the instruments used to create it. Painters don’t get hung up on the brushes they use but on the images that they produce. Similarly, musicians love their instruments, but their driving force is their music. They are not universally fanatical about any single brand of piano, violin, or drum in the same way as photographers are with their cameras.

Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron (1892)

It’s the competition and the manufacturers’ powerful marketing behind zealous extremism towards camera brands. They encourage a following with a cult-like fervor and, as surely as people are taken in by high-demand fundamentalist religions, people get hooked on camera brands. Those manufacturers promise the paradise of ever-greater resolution and tell photographers that they must upgrade to achieve perfection.

My evidence for this? If I write an article about a camera, then that will get thousands more readers than my articles about using art techniques in photography. If I dare criticize any of the big three brands, I am guaranteed to get trolled, and my inbox will receive hate mail. I wish they put as much passion into their photography as they do when worshiping their camera gods, then they would take far better images. Sadly, many photographers are far more concerned about the camera they are using than the art they are creating.

There’s room to explore both extremes. Some of the very best photographers do just that. They mix their carefully constructed photos with spontaneous shots that care little for the technicalities. Their aesthetically pleasing, well-composed pictures keep the masses and camera club judges happy. Meanwhile, artists and collectors are absorbed by those images that are more interesting and less likely to have widespread appeal.

Julia Margaret Cameron's portrait of the Sir John Herschel, (1867), who himself was an active photographer who invented the cyanotype.

I hope that we will see a swing away from that drive for perfection to the more interesting. Why? Perfection is becoming boring. There is so much similarity with everyone trying to achieve the same product. Photography has become a sausage machine. It would be great to see more spontaneous, interestingly unique, flawed pictures alongside perfection.

Finally, very rarely, there are exceptional photos that were taken spontaneously, but are also perfectly composed and exposed, and are pin sharp in the right places. Do you have any of those in your portfolio?

What’s your photographic style? Are you driven towards perfection? Do you get hot under the collar if someone criticized your camera’s brand? Or, do you explore the world and not give two hoots about the rules and expectations of the establishment? It would be great to hear your thoughts.

Ivor Rackham's picture

A professional photographer, website developer, and writer, Ivor lives in the North East of England. His main work is training others in photography. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being. In 2023 he accepted becoming a brand ambassador for the OM System.

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Excellent article, I very much agree. As I’ve moved through my life as a photographer there has been an arc of desire towards creating technically perfect photos. I now find myself not caring nearly as much as what emotion the photo evokes.

I tend to agree with you Spencer. I'm on early days of that journey.

That said, I think this medium lends itself to any number of paradigms and 'rules;' just as motion pictures and painting (and many other art forms) do.

Perhaps this elasticity is why the medium endures so.

Thank you, Spencer and Marcus.

It depends, very much on the subject I believe.

I love the photography of William Klien, where technical imperfection is part of the reason why his photographs are great.

When I went through my "street photography" phase, I did not worry too much about grain and other defects, if the picture said something. Technical imperfection often lends authenticity to this sort of shot.

I am now interested in Architectural photography. Here I have found the perfection obtainable by using a shift lens, a, tripod mounted camera and multi shot HDR can add to the photograph as imperfections are a source of distraction.

I am sure many other subjects can be divided into categories where technical perfection adds to the picture and other subjects where technical imperfections can actually make a picture more interesting.

Hi Nigel, yes. As I said, there is room to explore both extremes. It's an interesting point to think about
which genres of photography fit best with which extreme. Thanks for the great comment.

Excellent article. There's more in photography than mere technical perfection. The beauty of "Photography as Art" is somewhat lost in this pursuit of technical superiority & engineering excellence. Add insult to injury is those social media platforms, where one doesn't need to go through some ground knowledge about something before putting their "valueable" comments.

Hope, it isn't too late to survive this holocaust !!

Thankfully, all Art changes all the time, including photography. Thank you for that superb addition to the conversation.

“ Similarly, musicians love their instruments, but their driving force is their music. They are not universally fanatical about any single brand of piano, violin, or drum in the same way as photographers are with their cameras.”

You clearly haven’t spent any time of guitar or bass forums. We’re a bigger bunch of nerds than photographers.

I know many guitarists (myself included) whose level of GAS outweighs their talent in the pursuit of that perfect, elusive “tone”

Yep! And the same can be said for car forums and astronomy forums. Face it. Many people like gear and like talking about gear. I'm very gizmo oriented but I'm also a stickler for my self imposed budget. If had a a larger photo piggy bank, I'd be buying a lot more stuff. It's my money, after all. ;-)

Fair points, but the guitarists I know always admire other people's guitars. This isn't universal, but within the photography world, there is an insularity, where many Canon owners look down on Nikons, wile those Nikon owners disparage Sony, and those who walk around with Sonys snipe at Canon. When I take my guitar anywhere, then the other guitarists are interested in it and want to play it; they rarely ask me to play it, but that's understandable! I've never come across a musician sneering at another musician's instrument.

Even taking something non-creative like a car, at vintage car rallies, the owners show an enthusiasm for the workmanship that went into the original build and into restoring them.

There's nothing wrong with liking gear. But do you think this is the big difference between the mentality of the collector and the artisan?

" But do you think this is the big difference between the mentality of the collector and the artisan?" There's certainly a difference. A collector appreciates the things that make the collection worth his/her time and money. An artisan has the vision that may, or may not, make their work collectible.

Cars? Just go to any car forum and you'll find the Ford vs Chevy sort of stuff happens all the time. Same for astronomy; refractor, reflector, catadioptric?

Yes, some fanbois can be real putzes when it comes to their gear. From my vantage point, the tech today makes it pretty hard not to take a good photo. Even someone with rudimentary skills can take nice shots. Just about every camera made today is capable of taking great shots. Some make that task easier and it's those that are more spendy.

We all have our biases and reasons for choosing our gear. A lot of it is subjective, some of it can actually be objective. In the end, if you're happy with your results, then you're probably happy with your gear and in that vein, shouldn't give a hoot what others think.

Eve Arnold is as purposeful in making her photos as Ansel Adams is in his. They're both doing the exact same thing. Technically the image is poor? Really? Poor? Technically her photo is perfect. She is in such complete control and is manipulating you to such a high level that you don't even notice it.

Photography has never been the pencil of nature and it never will be. A photograph is a completely created thing, it's unnatural. Technical perfection is invisible and can not be codified. It's a magic trick, it's what takes place behind the curtain. The greatest con job is when the victim never even knows that they are the victim, like the plot of The Sting. Photographers who understand this and can take full advantage of it are the ones more likely to make the photos that become lasting. Ansel Adams certainly understood this. He wasn't making postcards he was creating completely original things.

Also, musicians are much much more slavish to their instruments than photographers are to their cameras. It's not even close.

None of this is a criticism really. Just my point of view. Thanks and cheers everyone.

Hi Steven,

I didn't mean all of Eve Arnold's work; she was a fabulous photographer whom I admire. My reference was to that one photograph that was technically imperfect but is nonetheless great. It may be because she was so skilled that made this snap, that ignored the technical niceties of composition, that made it great.

I think we must move in different musical circles.

Thanks for the great comment.

I really liked your comments. Nevertheless, I take issue with you regarding musicians. To me the greatest musicians are those that play jazz. They are technical virtuosos and composers. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and even Louis Armstrong never discussed their instruments. They were obsessed with sound, harmonics and chordal variations as they improvised. Their obsessions dealt with breaking the rules and exploring melodic expression. Some used cheap instruments to achieve distortion.

Miles Davis, yeah! Now you are talking.

Excellent, insightful article.

As to your query on " Or, do you explore the world and not give two hoots about the rules and expectations of the establishment?" I am of a mind that there is a difference between a 'photograph' and an image which is 'digital art from a photo' (DAFP). The latter the result of, IMHO, excessive manipulation such as swapping out major objects like the sky for something the maker feels makes for a better 'picture'.

When I started to investigate my perception DAFP, I thought it was going to be a modern apparition triggered by the adoption of digital and resulting post processing tool set. I was fascinated that sky replacement was being with film back in the early days of Ansel Adams. Commercially, there were instructions on how to scrap and touch up pictures for adds.

I think everyone will have their own line on when a photo becomes DAFP but I'm more in line with your opening statement "When Nicéphore Niépce, the French inventor of photography, said his aim was “to copy nature in all its truthfulness,” accuracy was at the forefront of his mind." in what a photo is. There needs to be a 'truth' for a photo.

Hi Paul, it's an interesting topic, when is a photo not a photo, and the relationship between reality and a photograph is a topic I've given lectures on in the past. I do agree with your difference between digital art and photography. Furthermore, I like "boring skies" and never swap them! Thanks for the fabulous comment.

So, 200 years of gate keeping. I'm glad my generation didn't invent that practice.

I think that gatekeeping is likely the primary reason that photographers tend towards favouring perfection when reviewing other's works.

How are they to know if the imperfection was a studied deliberate choice or the result of a happy accident - If it was a happy accident, that a novice who has literally just picked up a camera created this excellent imperfect work, what does it mean for them and their (potentially) decades of experience still not producing to that level?

Thank you Jason and Jon. You've hit the nail on the head and found the reason why I always turn down the plethora of offers I get for judging photo competitions.

You've done it again Ivor, perfection on occasion means nothing, sometimes a bit of anti-perfection can do the trick especially when the point of the image is to convey an emotion or feeling. I quite often rework non-perfect shots and make them even more imperfect to convey a mood or feeling. Not only that but you have included one of my all time favourite portrait photographers who was heavily criticised during her lifetime for not being perfect, Margret Cameron. She did however produce some sublime imperfect images.
The image of the reed bunting attached, calling for a mate was just too much of a crop to make it as a 'regular' image but reworked just for me, is a constant reminder of that cool and bright spring morning and that small beautiful bird singing its heart out. Sometimes images don't need perfection.

Thank you, Eric. I very much appreciate your comment and that image is a fine and evocative interpretation of a bunting.

"If I write an article about a camera, then that will get thousands more readers than my articles about using art techniques in photography."
I think that is because there are two kinds of photographers. Those that suffer from GAS and does that don't.
(Those that don't are out taken pictures).

Photography can be an artform, but unlike the art of painting or drawing, it is very difficult to make Cubism or Surrealism with a camera, even less with a modern digital camera, as it by nature will gravitate toward a perfect reflection of reality.
Point your camera at a tree and what you end up with, is a picture of a tree.

I think I will politely disagree with your last point. I've pointed my camera at a tree and got a picture of a sea horse (it was a fascinatingly shaped dead tree to be fair) and I've pointed my camera at viciously entwined roots and got, well, I don't know what, and I've found some wonderful bark and manipulated the colours to extract the wonderful patterns submerged within it.

And Eric and his bunting shot shows that postprocessing with modern tools allows otherwise perfect pixels to be the source for something else.

But yes, photography is bound by the fundamental geometric relationships of the source - and as I have never got any satisfaction from the likes of Cubism, I'm not complaining ;)

Of course I agree with you but even more important is the message do what is right for you and to hell with any artificial rules if thats the direction in which you lean. If Margaret Cameron had stuck to the rules we would not have her wonderful images. If you feel desperately that photography must just convey the truth, and perfection then by all means just do that. If on the other hand you see photography as a creative free for all then by all means go ahead and see what you can do. In photography there should be room for both camps and each should respect the aims and objectives of the other.

Kudo's on a very excellent article from me as well!

Thank you, Peter.

Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

Yes, but that leads to a whole new argument for a future article about what beauty is and isn't.

If it's out focus or looks like a walk-up-shot (aka, tourist shot, snapshot) or of no interest to me, I'm scrolling past it. All I care about is it be in focus and something I can learn from (photographically); or does it entertain me. Out of focus images causes my brain to go into a vicious cycle of trying to get into focus, it just pisses me off. :D

That's fair enough, I guess everyone has a personal opinion. The Eve Arnold shot I mentioned was a walk-up shot, taken on the spur of the moment as she walked through the door of the bathroom. Would you scroll past that? Also, if you scroll past images without studying what the story is behind the image, is there a possibility that you are missing something valuable. Thanks for commenting

Yes, definitely I would have scrolled past that Eve Arnold snapshot you mentioned. As you say, it's technically not perfect. My take on it in addition to that is it's just not interesting. A woman doing her hair in the bathroom. Had the subject been some random woman taken by some random photographer, I think I safely presume everyone would have scrolled past it.

I think that's the point that makes it such a great image. It's not a random woman. She's a cultural icon who, at the time, was incredibly important to the culture. She was otherwise usually portrayed in carefully choreographed photos that put across a very different idea than the one of an ordinary girl with her skirt hitched up, doing her hair. It shows a revered idol just being an ordinary person. You can also tell from the photograph that the photographer had a special relationship with the subject, a level of trust that allowed the photo to be taken. It's a documentary image at its best.

To my way of thinking, it is far superior to, say, most staged shots using models. They say little more than "This is a pretty young woman wearing very few clothes." Yes, they may be carefully crafted and technically precise, but other than that, most lack a real story. Of course, the same criticism can be aimed at most genres of photography, and the real challenge for the photographer is getting past the mundane. It's certainly something I struggle with.

That's probably one of the things. I don't idolize celebrities and famous photographers. And, I don't revel in some dramatic or sensational narrative to juice up a mundane snapshot.

For me, an image needs to capture my interest first. Then, the story if there is one. For instance, some people like to take pix of birds playing in a puddle of water. Maybe to them, there's a story behind it. To me, it's just a boring snapshot of birds playing in a puddle of water.

Excellent article. Technical perfection is not everything but as a beginner you tend to believe it is. I would have some rules written in my notes or screenshotted to have them with me and check if I do this correct or if my Photoworks edits are perfect from the technical side of things but only when I let it go a bit the results really started to look better.

Thank you, Jenny. Yes, a lot of information aimed at novice photographers is about technical correctness. I believe it's important to learn the technicalities, but as you've discovered, not being fixated upon them helps us progress.

This is one of the best pieces I've read on Fstoppers in quite a while.

I don't have the circumstances or finances to photograph the faroes, Iceland, the Dolomites, or whatever is currently in vogue. Neither do I want to sit in front of the computer manipulating like Hell in Photoshop - not that I actually use Photoshop.

So I am stuck in my little corner of Wales with the occasional trip to Wales's and England's finest mountains a few times a year. Not that the "mountains" of Britain are mountains in the sense of European ones. Ours are much smaller and accessible. Special climbing skills are not really required.

Those contraints definitely impact my photos.

But, I like what I do, I don't take it seriously. I enjoy using my OMD and sometimes my Leica M. I don't care what people think of my kit, nor do I care what other people use or how they process.

If I come back from a trip or a hike with a few pix with which I am happy, all the better. If other people like them, that is the proverbial icing on the cake.

I do agree that there is a lack of diversity in style. An awful lot of photos on various sites at which I look, especially in the landscape genre, are so similar in style that one would think that a sole photographer is responsible. That is not meant to be any form of criticism, these photos are expertly and beautifully crafted, the skill of execution is extraordinarilty high. I would really like to see what these artists would make of the subjects I shoot. Perhaps not worthy of consideration.

I think the most important thing is to enjoy your photography, no matter what it is or what kit you use. Find your joy and to Hell with trends, cliches and rules.

Very true, Chris. Wales is a beautiful part of the world. With a name like mine, I should move there. Thanks for the great comment.

I totally agree with the camera gods part of this article. Whenever I'm asked about camera recommendations, I tell them why I continue to use Canon; familiarity. I tell them why I chose Canon in the first place; perceived support from third party manufacturers and the maturity of the lens mount (EF). Then I go on to tell them that Sony makes great sensors. Nikon uses those great sensors. Both brands make excellent cameras. Essentially, use what meets your needs the best and fits your budget. My loyalty to Canon cameras has very little to do with Canon. It is primarily driven by my comfort. One day I may take the plunge and go mirrorless, but for now I really enjoy shooting with my Canon DSLR and I hope whatever brand my friends and family choose will bring them joy as well.

If that's what you enjoy, Jason, who are we to argue! Thanks for joining the conversation.

Weren't Capa's Normandy pictures damaged by someone else's darkroom mishandling? See the last part of the article linked above. That isn't all motion blur.

That has been debunked. Have a read of this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magnificent_Eleven

There are a few articles on the internet about it.

Infrequent visitor so just seeing this - thanks for the additional perspective. Prompted by your comment, I learned even more here: https://medium.com/exposure-magazine/alternate-history-robert-capa-on-d-...

I have a whole shelf of plastic 'toy' digital cameras. I bought one about 5 years ago that was deliciously smeary with harsh contrast - like an old tube tv going bad... I figured I better pick up another in case I lose the one, but they had upgraded that model and the new one takes 'too good' of a photo... so my quest to find another camera with just the right crappy lens/software/chip combo - so I guess you know where I fall in this debate

I now know exactly where you fall! Thanks for commenting.

I have been photographing off and on for years and with digital I find it harder to let go, something about the immediacy of being able to view ones images has made me slightly neurotic. About a year ago I started using my old F2 and an Olympus 35 SP rangefinder, the latter specifically is great because it makes me slow down. I even started using the sunny sixteen rule and throw caution to the wind. I want to embrace imperfection and not worry whether my horizon is straight or if its tac sharp. I think it’s a good exercise.

Thanks for the article!

Thank you, Gerry. I also have old cameras sitting in my cupboard that I sometimes take out for the same reason.

I'm a bit late to the discussion, but this subject is very important to me and I wanted to wait until I had time for a proper comment. It is difficult (if not impossible) to have a thorough discussion on this topic without mentioning the topic of pictorialism. Julia Margaret Cameron was only one of a large community of photographers that adopted an aesthetic that emphasized beauty (often a painterly, soft focus look) and a composition, tonality, and subject matter that rejected a documentation of reality. Alfred Stieglitz helped to put this group "on the map" before rejecting pictorialism and pivoting to straight photography. Ansel Adams also started out aligning with pictorialism before he made the same move as Stieglitz and fervently pushed straight photography above pictorialism. Adams eventually disliked pictorial photography to the point that he and Group F.64 actively worked to suppress other pictorial photographers (with a particularly strong animosity towards William Mortensen).
All of this is basically a part of this continual debate between the technical perfection vs artistic expression at the expense of this perfection. Actually, this is quite an old discussion. I was reading a book published in the 1920s that included a passage very similar to this article. As soon as Eastman Kodak made photography available to the general public in the late 1800s, people were immediately drawn to the technical abilities of the photographic process and this idea of perfection (GAS is nothing new and goes back to the beginning of the consumer camera). More than 100 years ago, people gravitated strongly to gear wanting technical perfection.
Personally, I care little about this idea of perfection. There's quite a long list that comes before any concept of technical perfection.

That's fascinating, thank you, Justin. You are right, it is an old argument, but it is a debate worth rasing again today as there is too much emphasis on technical perfection. I believe there should be balance between the two.

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