What I Learned Looking for the Perfect Photo


It doesn’t matter whether you’re pointing the lens on your iPhone at a sunset or shooting in a studio with a Hasselblad H4X, you want the same result: a perfect picture. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a seasoned pro or a novice enthusiast with a vague knowledge of f-stops, you know you’re never going to get it.

We might get close. We might produce a really good picture, the kind that makes us feel we’re really talented and might even be able to impress photo editors and buyers, as well as our friends and family, but we’re always going to have that sneaky feeling that somewhere out there is a shot that’s even better.

But what would that picture look like? How close can we come to taking a perfect photograph — and what does it actually take to grab a shot that’s as close to perfection as we’ll ever get?

Composing the Perfect Image

It would probably have perfect timing. That’s certainly an essential ingredient in a perfect sports photograph. Press Association sports photographer Gareth Copley won the 2010 World Press Photo Award with this shot of a moment in a cricket match.

As a capture it’s impressive enough. But when you consider that the impact of the ball, the flight of the player and the expression on the player’s face represented a fraction of a second in a game that lasted for five days it’s an even more amazing feat of concentration, experience and patience. Throughout that period, Copley would have taken thousands of images many of which he says he never even looks at.

But timing itself isn’t enough. has a stack of images whose only claim to quality is a bit of lucky timing that gives the image a second layer of meaning. For the most part, those photos are jokey rather than artistic. They’re a long way from perfection, and… let’s face it, we all have lucky shots on our hard drives that we know could never repeat. While pros like Gareth Copley are able to make a living because buyers can rely on them to capture those split seconds again and again, we treasure our best-timed images because we know we’ll never capture them a second time. Shouldn’t a perfect image be built on a basis of skill rather than a lucky snap?

So what about composition? National Geographic has a slideshow of what it calls “Simply Beautiful Photos” in its composition section, and yes, if I’d taken any one of those pictures I’d have turned it into my iPad wallpaper and be showing it off to anyone around me each time I took out my tablet in a café, on the bus or just walking around the neighborhood. Heck, I’d even buy one of these insane shirts to make sure no one missed it.

Some of those compositions really do seem to come close to perfection. I don’t have anything like Norbert Rosing’s shot of a Winter Landscape in Germany, and while I’d like to think that’s because I don’t have the opportunity to fly over a snowscape in a helicopter (which must be how he took this image, right?) I do wonder if I did have that opportunity whether I’d have the eye and the creativity and the skill to create such a beautiful picture. I’d probably miss it.

But some apparently perfect composition doesn’t seem that difficult. Sam Abell’s shot of a tree-lined driveway in Mississippi is pretty close to a lot of the shots I’ve got in my hard-drive. Sure, the trees aren’t so interesting and I don’t have anything with such beautiful purple flowers but a path heading to a central point on a horizon that obeys the Rule of Thirds? Yeah, I’ve got those — and having taken them I’ve always wondered whether I got the exposure right and if I couldn’t have done it better shooting at the Golden Hour on a clear day instead of the cloud-covered mid-afternoon when I just happened to find myself standing at the site with a camera and no one in the way of the shot.

So you can get the composition exactly right  — that’s not always difficult, although it can be — but even combined with the right timing, you still might not have a produced a picture that you feel is perfect, one that you couldn’t make any better.

Sunset is Best After Sun Has Set

Maybe color helps. National Geographic also has a slideshow of beautiful images under the label “Palette.” They’re surprising, mostly because of the limited choices of color in most of the images. A shot of a cormorant at sunset is painted in unnatural shades of black and red and yellow. A picture of a black dog is almost entirely black so that we notice the gray hairs on its snout and mostly its mournful eyes. The pastel shades of the skirts of ballet dancers in California turn a shooting opportunity that would normally be about movement into a celebration of soft tones. If I feel that any of those pictures are perfect — and they’re certainly candidates — it’s because they show an understanding of a scene, of camerawork and a photographic eye that I end up questioning in myself. A tip from National Geographic explains:

Most of us know that sunsets can provide dramatic colors in the sky. But many people don’t realize that if they keep shooting after the brightest color seems to fade to the naked eye, a richer hue of the color may appear on film or flash card.

Those “manypeople” include me — until now anyway. And that’s maybe what this hunt for a perfect picture has shown me most clearly. Whether a picture is perfect or not is always going to be subjective. Of course, the picture has to combine wonderful timing, a sense for composition and an awareness of color. But most of all it has to move me — and it has to make me wish that I could do that and practice until I get close.

What is a perfect photograph? For me, it’s a photograph that inspires me to be a better photographer.

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