How to take the perfect photograph? Hell if I know…

The other day I posted this shot, from Sarawub Intarot at National Geographic, on Facebook.

“Just about a perfect photo,” I said. So much is so right, including that amazing depth of field. The focus is soft in the near foreground but crisply defined from the woman out to the sky. It’s like somehow the shooter figured out how to 3D composite an f-stop 4 shot with an f-stop 11. Which I’m pretty sure is impossible. Just wonderful.

Which caused our boy Frankie B to respond, “Hrmmm…sounds like a post idea, methinks.” Yeah, no, I said. Denny is the guy to tackle that question, which he did yesterday, and I highly recommend his insight. He’s been at this since the ’70s and knows way more than I do.

Me? I’ve been shooting a little over three years, and what I don’t know about photography would fill libraries. Sure, I know the basics. I can tell you about the law of thirds and I have some basic grasp of light and I’m learning more about leading lines. I actually am pretty good with processing – Lightroom, Photoshop, Photomatix, and the magic of the Nik Suite, with its DFine and its Viveza and its Color EFex Pro and its Silver Efex Pro and its Analog Efex Pro. Not as good as some, but still, I know my around the digital fuckery.

So yeah, there’s no question I’m learning and getting better. But none of that adds up to any ability to tell you about what makes a perfect photo.

Still, the idea kept nagging at me. I’m a fan of Andreas Feininger, whose “Route 66: Seligman Arizona” (above right) is an example of the closest thing to a perfect shot I have ever seen. There’s O. Winston Link’s famous locomotive at night shot (right). There was Gordon Parks and Margaret Bourke-White and Alfred Eisenstaedt and a legion of shooters at LIFE who, every week for 36 years, filled that magazine with dozens of images better than anything I will ever take. There’s a host of fantastic photogs at Ello and there’s, well, everything at Earth Porn. There’s Ansel Adams and the dean of Colorado photographers, John Fielder. And let’s not forget my friends and colleagues at 5280 Lens Mafia and here at S&R – people like Dr. Denny, Greg Stene, Lisa Wright, Dan Ryan, Cyndi Goetcheus and my personal mentor, Greg Thow.

Surely, out of all this I should have an idea about perfect photos. You’d think, but no.

Finally I decided to focus not on how to take a perfect shot, but on how our notions of great photography fail to explain great photography. Since I know my own work best, I thought maybe we’d look at this guy.


In a lot of respects this shot was a complete accident. I had only been shooting for a few weeks. I hadn’t even figured out that I needed to doing everything in RAW format. I was trying to shoot the landscape and was annoyed that the horse wouldn’t get out of the way. And so on, and so on. I could write paragraphs upon paragraphs about the things I screwed up here and have talked with friends about what I’d do differently if I had a crack at this scene today.

In short, this isn’t a very good photo.

And yet, I have sold Ed here more than I have all other shots I have taken combined. While I have produced doens, perhaps hundreds of images that are superior technically in the last three years, none of them have connected with the audience like this one.

In his piece Denny makes clear that he isn’t worried about the audience when he shoots. I respect that, but I do care. I spent 35 years as a poet, and the audience I accumulated during that time would fit comfortably in a phone booth. I’m not a total mercenary, but for me that ability to communicate with the audience is a meaningful criterion.

This shot, imperfect as it is, succeeds on that scale. Why? Well, there’s clearly something about the horse. He’s not a show model, by any stretch, but he’s obviously friendly. He has some character, some unassuming charisma about him. He wants to connect (maybe because he hopes you have an apple in your pocket, but still). He’s open and engaging and seems happy in a way that’s calm and subtle, but infectious.

The backdrop – the mountains, the Colorado sky – was breathtaking. Even though this shot doesn’t do it full justice, it was still spectacular enough to establish a compelling context.

In short, the photo works, somehow, despite being miles away from perfection.

Perhaps a key element of perfection, then, is blind luck.

Perhaps what is happening here is an emotional connection that no conversation about technique could ever hope to quantify.

Or maybe, as so many of us artists have argued through the years (especially in debates with all manner of Structuralists and Post-Structuralists and Deconstructionists and Postmodernistas), maybe the answer just has something to with artistic inspiration, with an intuitive spark that defies analysis, that can’t be taught, that even the artist him/herself can’t really explain.

I have learned technique and work to improve every time I get the Nikon out. But I feel certain that if I someday take the perfect picture, I won’t be able to tell you how I did it. And if I can’t, who can?


  • I’m a big fan of dumb luck. I think it was in the last firmware update I installed onto my Nikon D80.

    I’m a photojournalist and people and pictures of them are my love, my passion, and people are the least perfect thing on this planet one could possibly photograph. So I gave up on the notion of ‘the perfect image’ years ago. But as it relates to Sam’s musings above, if I show you a picture I’ve taken of some church lady, or grocery store clerk, or thug type man with a metal grill on his teeth, or some pouty asshole five year old, and you take from that picture a sense of my love or respect or visual admiration for the subject, or if my picture instills in you the thought that there is a beautiful or whimsical or sympathetically tragic aspect to the subject that you hadn’t considered before, which makes you more appreciative or understanding of that type of person in your own life, then I have done my job.

    All you can do with a photograph is show people the world as it is, not how you or they want it to be. I think it likely you could drive yourself batshit trying to take ‘the perfect shot,’ and miss a lot of amazing things going on around you while you’re pursuing it.

  • Dr. Denny Wilkins

    Well said, both of you. Decades ago I spent too much time trying to take the perfect photograph. Only in my later years did I realize that the search for perfect is often the enemy of acknowledging the good.

  • I’ve only just been turned on to Robert Frank via the NY Times magazine feature on him “The Man Who Saw America.” In his imperfection, he was perfect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s