Perfection isn’t a realistic goal for photographers

Old school film methods still work for digital

Young boy stands at home plate waiting instructions from his coach during practice following a baseball game as the sun set near the end of youth summer baseball season.

Young boy stands at home plate

The process for teaching photo stringers how to process film, edit and make prints for wire service transmission wasn’t complicated. Novices to our routine were introduced to it in two sessions.

First was a dry run walking through the darkroom learning where chemicals were mixed and stored, the proper times and temperatures, and how to judge time until the next open spot in the photo transmission queue.

This was the verbal instruction book. All new photo stringers had experience processing film and working in a print darkroom although some had never used some of the equipment in the AP space. Stainless steel reels instead of plastic. A Leitz enlarger instead of a bargain basement purchase.

Their second training tour observed my process for processing, printing, captioning and transmitting a news photo in real time, on deadline.

The perfect warning

When the training was completed, I’d offer two warnings.

Now that they knew the proper methods for processing film and making prints, it really didn’t matter. No one would be able to look over their shoulder in the film room. It’s dark. Rarely would anyone be watching as they made prints.

Following the rule of thirds

Following the rule of thirds

I told them I really didn’t care how they made everything work. As long as the results were what was expected, it didn’t matter how it was done. With one warning. Don’t ruin my film or the film of any AP staffer. End of story and career.

After hearing such a severe warning and knowing the results would be enforced, my next instruction took away some of the fledgling’s fear.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect. It has to be right.”

For a news photographer, there’s no greater day-to-day fear than being on deadline and stuck in a darkroom knowing that the next open transmission time is in eight minutes, that you have three minutes left in the film chemistry, two minutes to dry the film, and three minutes to print and caption the print before being told to start your transmission going to every newspaper in the country.

This is not the time for perfection.

That doesn’t mean you have the authority to be sloppy.

asphalt-machine-night-light-2012-06-4-0040At the end of every caption was the photographer’s name, a permanent mark on his reputation making note of more than whether or not the photo was great. It also revealed, to those who understood, how the photographer handled the process from shooting the photo to getting it ready on deadline.

A great photo that didn’t make deadline ended up in the round file, the trash, at the end of the news day. It also brought a series of phone calls asking why the photo was too late for deadlines.

The answer could never be that you were trying to make a perfect print with perfect tones, proper contrast, precise burning and dodging, or a print suitable to hang on the office wall to showcase your talent as photographer and darkroom technician.

I could never count the number of prints I’ve seen in newspaper photo libraries that are turning yellow and brown, pulled too quick from the hypo tray to make deadline. Prints that were dipped into the fixer tray just long enough to last through one transmission on deadline. None of those prints were perfect. All of them were right, for the intended job. That was more important than perfection.

Perfection is still a worthy goal

That lesson has followed me throughout my career where I always struggle for perfection in my work. I don’t think I can ever look at any of my prints, old or new, and think they are perfect in every way. There’s not a single digital file that couldn’t stand just one more tweak of tone, hue, or contrast.

I think of the times I’ve extended a portrait session because I wanted to move the light just ever so slightly to make sure the shadow from nose fell across the cheek in just so or reach over to pull a chin a fraction of an inch higher to move the catch light in the eyes.

Workers demolish a closed car wash at the corner of a parking lot where Wal-Mart will build a new store in a strip shopping center in Westerville, OH.

Workers demolish a closed car wash

I’m my own worst editor, always complaining to myself about the quality of my work, always looking for the perfect moment, perfect light, perfect timing, the perfect work flow and a perfect finished image. If I’ve worked this long and still failed to reach perfection on at least one of my images, what is to be done with the rest of today.

The struggle continues. I constantly calculate my simplicity quotient, figuring out where effort meets reality, when deadlines are reached, when being right is perfect.

I doubt there is a single photo stringer who didn’t tell themselves at the end of my training sessions that they would be the first to succeed at perfection. The psychology of the training forced them to at least try with every assignment to be perfect. To find the perfect place to stand, watch for the perfect action and timing, perfect composition , and a perfect processing work flow.

The struggle continues. I constantly calculate my simplicity quotient, figuring out where effort meets reality, when deadlines are reached, when being right is perfect.

Perfection comes in simple steps. It begins with knowing what is right. Sometimes right is the perfect result.

Editor’s note: Previous version published at New Digital, now offline.