Opinion: The problem with perfection in landscape photography

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I once believed that the aim of landscape photography was perfection. The perfect sunrise. The perfect waterfall. The perfect wave.

Black Spur Drive, Victoria.
Black Spur Drive, Victoria.

And after (many) years of chasing perfect landscapes, I failed. I came close, achingly so. Yet the problem with that ideal is that anything short of ‘perfect’ is, by definition, a failure. It only takes one flaw to dethrone an image from being perfect.

I’d actively seek out faults in my images—discoloured seaweed, dead branches or stray clouds. I’d either try to clone them out in post-processing, or discard the image entirely. The obsession with perfection often inhibited me from going out. Chance of light cloud? Better call off that astro shoot. Waterfall only at half-flow? Better stay at home until the next big downpour.

Cape Woolami.
Cape Woolami, Phillip Island, Victoria.

Landscape photographers often read and predict the elements to idealise optimal shooting conditions. Yet when that perfect ideal prevents you from shooting entirely, there’s a problem. The problem is that pursuing perfection is paralyzing, limiting our growth.

As soon we master correct exposure, we might then notice how our scene isn’t as crisp as we might like. And so we research the optimal aperture for our lens and how to focus-stack close foregrounds. After we master the technical considerations, our critique drifts towards composition. Towards the scene’s ideal lighting conditions. Towards advanced post-processing techniques. As soon as we move forward, our perception of the ideal image moves further away. 

Cathedral Rocks, Kiama.
Cathedral Rocks, Kiama, NSW.

Inaction can be seen as safer than trying and failing to achieve perfection. We make excuses. We stop sharing our work. We don’t even take the shot. And when we do, we deprive ourselves of valuable learning experiences. 

The best way forward is to stop viewing photography as an all-or-nothing pursuit. The hard truth is that we don’t have the Midas Touch. After we create one great image, there’s nothing to stop us from taking an average image a week later. 

Kiama, NSW.
Kiama, NSW.

We have good days, and we have bad days. Yet even when we have a bad day, it’s worth returning (perhaps after some time has passed) to review the shots from that day. What aspects about the images were bad—the lighting, the weather, the composition? Which of our decisions were good—the location choice, the framing, the post-processing?

The trick to overcoming the paralysis of perfection is to give yourself the freedom to fail. And then to learn from it. When we take a step back to treat our photography as a lifelong pursuit—one full of ups and downs—only then can we escape the mirage of perfection.

Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand.
Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand.

Because nature isn’t perfect. It’s rugged and raw. It’s chaotic and wild. It’s unscripted.

The aim of landscape photography isn’t to create flawless scenes. Instead, Landscape photography is a journey, aiming to capture fleeting moments of beauty, awe and emotion in an imperfect world.

Mitch Green is a Melbourne based travel and landscape photographer. He can be found via his website, through Instagram, or down by the beach at 5am waiting for sunrise.

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