Death by Perfection

Perfection. It’s a word often associated with high marks, implying you won’t let go before it’s just right. You always deliver top notch. People know they can trust you to make the best. It’s an attitude that shows you are a person having standards. Can’t go wrong if you strive for perfection…

Wait a minute.

Perfection or perfectionism could also mean that you take forever to get anything done, since nothing is good enough. If you are a perfectionist, maybe you aren’t getting much done at all, since there is always room for improvements. Maybe you don’t even try, because you know it’s not going to be perfect anyway.

I remember when I was younger I was living by the idea that it was better to do only three things and get them right from the start than trying a hundred things an maybe getting ten of them halfway right. In retrospect, I see that I was scared of not getting it right, rather than just trying out and see where it would lead. First time I jumped from a 10-meter diving board, I used the whole summer to build up courage to climb the tower. I wouldn’t let myself get up there and have to turn around not daring to do the jump. That would be too embarrassing. So, I used the summer to infuse mental strength in myself—and then did it. It did take the whole summer, though. And it seized my summer to such an extent that I couldn’t enjoy much else.

Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with fixing things. It has nothing to do with standards. Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It’s a loop—an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or photographing or making and to lose sight of the whole. Instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we often get caught up in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity.

“Do not fear mistakes. There are none,” Miles David so correctly stated.

I know the feeling too well. I am out shooting an assignment for some magazine. I won’t let the editor down. I want to deliver perfect images. Instead, I stall my creativity because I am anxious about not being able to make those photos as good as I believe they should be—whatever that really means. I get more and more frustrated when I can’t get anything right or capture any photos that stands out. I keep digging myself deeper and deeper in expectations that just get higher and higher. There is no way out, at least not until I get so angry with myself and in pure frustration am able to let go of any pretentions.

The perfectionist processes and re-processes a photo. Keeps adding layers, keeps juggling settings, tries new filters, adds a detail here and another there. Darkens, brightens. Increase saturation. Decrease contrast. He or she never gets to finish processing the photo. In fact, if he or she would take a birds perspective he or she would see that the photo might just have been better from the start before all the excessive processing.

The perfectionist is never satisfied. The perfectionist never says, “This is pretty good. I think I’ll just move on.” To the perfectionist there is always room for improvements. The perfectionist calls this humility. In reality, it’s ego-centricity. It is pride that makes us want to write a perfect script, paint a perfect painting, take and process a perfect photo.

Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough—that we should try again. Don’t get me wrong. This is not an appeal to be sloppy with our creative outlet. We should do our best, but we shouldn’t keep striving for perfection. That may only lead us into a creative block or performance anxiety. Yes, we all want to become better at what we do, but getting better is a process not a finalized result. If you seek perfection, you seek an unattainable goal. As you get better so does your idea of perfection. The stake will always move outside of your reach since everything can always get better.

Instead of seeking perfection, accept that things are as they are. And rather do and risk failure, than wait until you know you can do it to perfection. You may never get started otherwise. And remember, failure is never failure if you look upon it as an opportunity to improve as I wrote in my post Weakness as Potential Strength more than a month ago.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a EOS 5D with a 24-105 mm lens set at 24 mm. It’s a double-exposure merged in Photoshop and then processed in both Lightroom and Photoshop.


Listen to the Creative Flow

The act of creating is closely related to the ability to listen. Listening to our unconscious mind, or listening to the muses, or listening to the creative power of the universe that we are part of, or listening to our inner artist—whatever you prefer to call it.

We create not in a vacuum or out of our little self. We create in an exchange with something bigger than ourselves. By listening to what is always flowing through us as an underground river of creativity, we are able form work of art that expresses a deeper truth or communicate a universal human experience. It doesn’t matter whether we photograph, write, dance, perform, paint or sculpture or express ourselves through other kinds of media, by listening we create with strokes of unknown potency as if we are vehicle for a creative power must stronger than ourselves.

I think we too often forget to listen. Because of that, we often end up with a writers block or aren’t able to break through a barrier of mental obstacles that holds our creative back. We yearn to create something unique or something that expresses who we are, and in so doing, we try to wrestle it out of our conscious self. That’s not how it works, though. We need to listen instead of speaking—figuratively speaking.

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes; “Art is not about thinking up. It’s about the opposite—getting something down. The directions are important here.”

If we are trying to think something up, we are striving to reach for something that’s just beyond our reach, “up there, in the stratosphere, where art lives,” as Cameron puts it. On the other hand, if we try to put something down, there is no strain. We are not doing, we are getting. Something outside of our conscious self is doing the doing. Instead of trying to invent, we are rather engaged in listening.

The great Michelangelo is said to have remarked that he released David from the marble block he found him in. “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through,” said Jackson Pollack. If you have been in flow, you know the feeling, that whatever it is you are creating already exists in its entirety. Our job when creating is to listen for it, watch it with our mind’s eye, and write it down, photograph it, paint it, sculpture it.

I think it’s nowhere easier to understand this idea or concept than in photography. As photographers, we are not creating a new world to photograph (well, if you are not a studio photographer that is). We take what is, we see—or we listen, figuratively speaking—and transform what we discover in this process into a photograph. We often talk about “taking” a photograph, which I find to be a somewhat imprecise phrase. It implies that the photograph is our doing, rather than we see and received what is offered us. The American documentary photographer Charles Harbutt often said that he doesn’t take photographs, photographs take him. The New York photographer Jay Maisel has a similar approach. He doesn’t look for specific photographs. Rather, he’s open, perceptive, and ready for what comes to him unexpectedly.

The thing is, in the act of creating, we are more the conduit than the creator of what we express. The making of art is like dropping down in this underground river of creativity. It is as though all the stories, paintings, music, images, performances live just under the surface of our normal consciousness. Like this underground river, they flow through us as a stream of ideas that we can tap into. By listening.

I have a good friend of my, a colleague in photography, who is staging his photography meticulously. He is in full control most of the time, and don’t let anything be formed by coincidences. Yet, he often shoots his most brilliant imagery when for a split second he let go of the control.

When you learn to trust the process, you will see that inspiration—whatever that is or whatever word you want to use for it—will come to you. You will hear the dialogue you need, find the right light for your photo, discover your David in the clay or hear the right tones for your song.

We must learn to listen to the creative stream. The more we practise the better we become at it. In the beginning, it might be difficult to quiet the mental noise that we impose on ourselves. One way is for instance through free writing or through free photographing as I wrote in my post Free Shooting a couple of weeks ago. That is, to create without thinking, just letting go and flow with whatever comes to mind without trying to modify or reshape whatever comes to you as you think it ought to be. This way of creating you can do in all works of art.

Listening is imperative in the creative process. Like in the good conversation, the one with the ability to listen will learn, while the one, who only speaks, inevitably will keep repeating him- or herself.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Nikon FinePix E900 with the lens set at 28 mm (the equivalent of a 128 mm full frame). The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Passion in Reins

Passion is the driving force behind creativity. Without passion, whatever we create will not engage others. When you create with passion, you lose yourself in time and space; you get totally absorbed by the now. We get in flow. It’s like entering a tunnel—as I have written about before in conjunction with creative—everything else is blocked out. It’s all about whatever you are creating and you will often be pushing yourself further than you could have imagined.

However, tunnel vision isn’t all good. Sometimes we need to have awareness around us as well. Passion can drive us blind. We have probably all witness the train wreck when someone blindly followed their passion and it wrecked their career and hurt both family and friends. Thus, as much as we want to follow our passion and let it drive our creativity, we will be will advised to follow Benjamin Franklin’s words: “If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins” .

A passionate drive isn’t the same as blind passion. We need to be aware of the distinction. Some of the world’s creative icons, such as Steve Jobs or Pablo Picasso, let their passion take them to unfathomable heights, but it also drove them into recklessness and blindness.

Steve Jobs was a brilliant rule breaker who cared deeply about making his marks. His passion was like high-octane fuel. And his creativity seemingly without limits. However, it wasn’t all glorious. Jobs did break the rules, but often it was at the expense of people who got in the way. Yes, he was creative, but in other ways he wasn’t exactly a saint.

The art of Picasso was a gift to humanity, there is no denying that. Yet Picasso didn’t exactly treat women in the most dignified way. He once said: “For me there are two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats” .

What is my point? Certainly not that we should think that we are better than these icons. We are all human and we have no idea how we would have handled life in their shoes. However, we can learn from their creativity and the passion they brought into their creative endeavour. And we can also learn not to make the same mistakes, being both honest and aware about what our passion and our creativity brings into play.

I have certainly made mistakes in my life for which I am ashamed. Probably you will be in the same boat. We have all fallen short at times. We are humans after all. The critical point is whether we learn from our mistakes.

Passion ignites the best of creativity. However, it doesn’t give us carte blanche to do with it as we want. Let’s keep the words of Benjamin Franklin in mind.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Canon Eos 1D with a 28-135 mm lens the lens set at 28 mm. Shutter speed: 1/320 s. Aperture: f/22. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Do you need some ideas to improve your photography and not having to spend a lot of money on new equipment? My eBook 10 Great Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Point-and-Shoot Camera might be what you are looking for. It’s an inexpensive eBook full of inspiration, and it’s available on my website

The World Doesn’t Need Another Ansel Adams

«Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.» – Oscar Wilde

We all have our heroes. We all have our role models. Be it in arts or in other aspects of life. And that is all fine. The hardest part, though, is to break ties with those heroes. Particularly in arts. To find our own voice takes courage and determination. It takes consciousness and willingness to do those first stumbling steps on our own. Finding your own voice may take some time to develop. But there is no way around it if your want to become true to your own vocation, if you want to become a true artist. It’s just like the child breaking ties with its parents to become a grown-up himself – or herself.

As artists we have all copied others at some point in our creative training. That’s but natural. We learn by copying. One of the great artists may have been the inspiration for our own pursuit of artistic development. And we may have gained momentum by this artist’s vision. But there comes a time to break away. There comes a time to stand on our own, because we don’t want to remain copycats the rest of our lives. That is when your artistic vision starts to develop, and that’s when you start to develop your own artistic style. If you don’t make this initial break, you will always stay in the shadow of your heroes – and nobody will ever care about your arts. No success of any other artist will help you become successful yourself, no matter how good you are at copying their way of seeing, their way of doing and their way of expressing. If you are as good as Ansel Adams doing what he did, no one will ever see anything but his influence on your work – if at all they will cast a glance on your work.

In his book «The Accidental Creative – How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice», the writer and creative consultant Todd Henry opens the last chapter with the title «Cover Bands Don’t Change the World». The same could be said about any arts – our arts. If we don’t free ourselves from our heroes, we will never be able to impact anyone with our arts; in fact it will hardly be worth the term art at all.

Henry continues: «It’s my desire to continue to strive to find my own voice and to weed out all the places where I’m being “cover-bandish”. This can be very tricky because it often means turning down more work than I accept, but my hope is that the original value that I bring to the clients I chose to work with will create raving “fans” who want to continue to work with me and trust me when I develop new products or ideas.»

Back when I started out pursuing a photographic career one of my heroes was Ansel Adams. I thought his black and white landscape pictures spoke directly to my heart. I was very impressed with his way of bringing out details and tones in all parts of the landscape and his dramatic visual language. He inspired me to learn about the Zone System – and needless to say, my pictures started to look very much like his – if far from as good. In my case breaking loose happened by itself, simply because I lost interest in landscape pictures and moved on to other fields. Of course I found other role models, but then I was already more conscious about my own vocation and my own way of seeing.

Be yourself. I much prefer seeing something, even if it’s clumsy, that doesn’t look like somebody else’s work. – William Klein.

A few years ago the magazine Wired had an article about 10 photographs one should ignore. One of them was no other than Ansel Adams. The writer Blake Andrews wrote about him: «Adams created some remarkable images and he wrote the book (literally) on photographic technique. Yet on the whole he’s probably done more harm than good for photography. How many young photographers have fussed over which zone to put the shadows in while the light fades and the photo disappears? More importantly, how many perfectly exposed black and white vistas of snow-capped peaks or rivers snaking into the background do we need to see? Yes, nature is majestic. We get it. Saint Ansel showed us, and he did it better than you ever will, so move on already or we’ll score your performance as a negative.» Point made, I should add.

To sum up my point then: The world doesn’t need another Ansel Adams. It needs a genuine you.

On a different note: For the next two weeks I will take some time off from blogging – I am actually gonna have some holidays, padling and travelling and visiting friends. But alas, by mid July I will be back blogging again. See you again then. Have a great summer (if you are in the northern hemisphere) or great winter (for those of you in the southern hemisphere).

Like Roots to a Plant

Some time ago I wrote about a photograph that I first had dismissed as nothing, only later to find a way to bring out its inherent artistic quality (Blessing in Disguise). Back then the post was about not getting blinded by what might look like a mistake in the first place. The post resulted in many inspiring thoughts as well as interesting feedbacks. Particularly one comment made me want to expand on the thought process behind in principal any creative art form, and more specifically the apparent conflict between craftsmanship or technique on one hand and creativity on the other.

For me technique in relationship to creativity is like roots to a plant. In most cases a plant won’t survive without some kind of a root system, even though the roots themselves aren’t «showing up» like the rest of the plant – thus don’t seem to be important – and don’t need to. Still some plants somehow manage to blossom without much of any root at all and draw nutrition in some other way. So it is with artists. Some are able to work inspiringly without much technical knowledge at all but for must it surely will help and boost their creative process.

I have often been asked: «Why should photography be locked in that golden cage of sharpness and so called perfect exposure? Or why is the technical aspect so important? Shouldn’t it be the emotional expression, what makes a pictures that tick, that should be most important?». And of course that is completely right. In the end it is indeed pictures that hit us in one way or another that stand out and make a difference. If the creative process becomes limited by technique, then the outcome is fenced in.

Nevertheless, I still think technical knowledge is an asset, not a limitation. When you know what possibilities you have, you have more keys to play with, and you don’t need to depend solely on luck or some divine inspiration. Again if you don’t let it limit yourself. I have many times written about the necessity to let go, to lose control, take chances or just experiment in the creative process, but I don’t see this as a contradiction to learning the craft.

It’s still a paradox of the creative process. We wish to be spontaneous; we wish to be free and even joyful in our creative expression. Yet, the greatest freedom comes through discipline, a rigorous approach to one’s work and craftsmanship. Only after learning the mechanics of the craft and fully engaging the process of our work with our bodies, hearts and minds, can we hope to be truly creative.

Examining the difference between the artwork of children and adults perfectly illustrates this point. Children are marvellously creative and imaginative, approaching their projects with an effusive, innocent and highly spontaneous energy. However, their work lacks rigor, technical mastery and conceptual strength – without indicating their work is less for that reason. Experienced adults, on the other hand, cultivate critical discernment and a mastery of their medium, learning to appreciate the benefits of sustained efforts of the long term. Unfortunately most adults also lose the child’s spontaneity and innocence in the process of growing up. Ideally, when an adult can integrate the spontaneity and unselfconscious expression of the child’s mind with discipline, wisdom and depth of the adult personality, a true fullness of expression may be achieved.

In Greek mythology, Eros and Logos represents the two poles of experience, both vital to the creative act. For the argument here, we may view Eros as the raw energy of our enthusiasm and passion, and Logos as the craftsmanship, the necessary structure and form, the rigor and discipline of the artists. We need both. As artists we stand between these two opposing forces which we much negotiate in the process of our creative work.

Pay Attention


I think all creatives yearn for some kind of success, some kind of recognition for the work we do. Success is maybe not why we photograph, write, paint or travel—or whatever creative activity we do—or ought not to be. The work itself, being creative, is a reward good enough if we only let ourselves not get obsessed with the thought of success. The craving for success can actually get in the way of our creative endeavour.

Nevertheless, we do feel good when we experience some kind of success, whether it’s monetary gain or just some heartfelt feedback from a good friend. I am sure you know what I am talking about.

Success is all in our minds, though. You cannot control how the world will receive and perceive your artistic work, but you can be in command of how you feel about it yourself. If you let yourself feel good about actually having achieve your creative goal, whether it’s a book you have written or a photo project you have undertaken, your creativity may flourish even more.

I know, it’s easy to say. Because we do yearn for some kind of recognition from the outside. And when it doesn’t come —and often it doesn’t or takes a long time to arrive—we feel discouraged or even dumped. What really happens then is we fire up under our own scepticism.

Perhaps the greatest barrier for a creative life is this deeply held scepticism that we all hold inside of us. When we don’t experience the success we so want, we nourish our own scepticism. Then we start to doubt. We doubt our creative abilities. We doubt we have it in us at all, and these doubts are very powerful.

Very often when success doesn’t show up, we give up, let our creative self down. Instead, we let ourselves sink into addictive thoughts. Rather than living now, we spin our wheels and indulge in daydreams of could have, would have, should have. We stop being creative, even resent it and fall into a black hole. Life is no longer what it is, but what it could be or ought to be. According to Julia Cameron, a writer, director and producer—and the author of the book The Artist’s Way—one of the greatest misconceptions about artistic life is that it entails great swathes of aimlessness. The truth, according to her, is that a creative life involves great swathes of attention. Attention is a way to connect and survive.

So when you feel miserable and futile because success has failed to appear, instead of letting yourself sink into despair and resignation, start to pay attention to what is beautiful in your life. Try not to worry about your creative disappointment, be aware of the now. Live in the now. You still have creativity in you; you are still creative, no matter success or failure. Success or failure has little to do with quality of life—creatively or otherwise. Again, according to Julia Cameron, quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity to delight. If you are able to feel delight even when life is hard, success doesn’t show up or when you lose someone you love, you can recover and feel alive again. If you are able to feel delight, you will gain trust in your creative abilities again. You will start to create again.

And here is the point: The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention. If you pay attention to what is right now, the small pleasure that always are, you are on a path to creative recovery.

The award of attention is always healing. It begins as the healing of a particular pain—the lost lover, the sickly child, the shattered dream, the lack of success. But what is healed, finally, is the pain that underlies all pains; the pain that we are all, as Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke phrases it, «unutterably alone». Attention gets us back on the track, and what more is attention is an act of connection. This I know from my own experience.

Some 15 years ago, I went through a divorce. As anyone who has undergone a divorce knows, it’s a painful experience. After my divorce, I pretty much withdrew from everything. I stopped seeing friends, I didn’t go out anymore, I didn’t engage in anything besides work and spending as much time with my kids as possible. In reality I gave up myself, I felt ashamed and I felt guilty. Eventually my creativity—that my work so depends on—stagnated as well.

I would take long, solitary walks, and I would suffer. Then one day, as I was doing a day hike up in the mountains surrounding the city I live in and was immersed in my own ominous thoughts, a little girl ran into me. She had been chasing a butterfly and hadn’t seen me at all, before she bumped into me. «Isn’t that a beautiful butterfly», I remember her saying. In fact, it was a rather dull, bleak butterfly, but suddenly I did see its delicate beauty. And then I started to notice the small flowers that grew out around rocks, I noticed birds in the sky and saw the imaginative figures the clouds formed on the sky above. It was as if I suddenly was awakened. I started to pay attention. I started to live in the now again. I started to appreciated what was.

Not long after my life got traction again—included my creative life.

The poet William Meredith has observed that the worst that can be said of a man is that «he did not pay attention».

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken on Ilford XP-2 film with a Canon EOS-3 and a 16-35 mm lens set at 20 mm. The photo was scanned and processed in Photoshop.

A Delicate Balance

A photo without emotional content is a dead photo
A photo without emotional content is a dead photo

No photo truly succeeds unless it triggers strong emotions. The same holds true for all visual arts. However, photography is special in that its very creation is very much technically depended. So much in fact, that many photographers don’t venture beyond the technicalities of the photographic process. It might even be what draws them to photography in the first place. A technical perfect image is for them an absolute requirement. With this approach they miss the point, though, which is that a captivating photo needs more than technical perfection, it needs the emotional connection more than anything.

Photographs that we find most meaningful are those that ooze human endeavour and symbolize the meaning of our world and our lives. Images that hold the most power for us tend to focus on loved ones, those who inspire us, those we detest, tragedy and beauty. Whether they are completely sharp, properly exposed or perfectly composed is of less importance. Of course, we use those technical variables to tell the story as best as possible—as part of the visual language, but in and of themselves they are completely uninteresting. An emotionally loaded but technically poor photo trumps a technically perfect photo lacking emotional content—any time.

The fact that the photographic process is so technically depended can get in the way of creating those strong images we all aspire to capture. This goes even for those of us who are less attached to the technical side of things.

Because photography is such a technically depended art, at least some technical considerations are always needed before taking the photo. The way our brain works makes this a problem. If you have to focus your attention too much on the settings of the camera, you may not be able to connect with and capture the emotional content that triggered you to wanting to take the photo in the first place.

Let me use an illustration to make this clearer. One of the most famous illustrations shown in psychology books appears to be either a vase or a pair of faces in profile (see beneath). A person not familiar with the illusion sees only one aspect at first. When the other aspect is seen, the first one disappears. Though it becomes ever easier to go back and forth between the two apparent realities, no amount of familiarity will allow both subject to be seen at the same time.

Exactly the same process is at work when we try to juggle between the technical aspect and the emotional aspect of taking a photo.

When our attention is drawn to technical aspects, we disconnect from the emotional content as surely as we stop seeing the vase just as we see the face. As we begin to see a subject in terms of shutter speed, depth of field, light and other technical considerations, our brains shifts gear. We lose the emotional power of the process in that instance. We lose the ability to see and capture the emotional content.

That is why the technical handling of the camera must become instinctively. Given, this doesn’t come by itself. It’s something that will only happen after long practise. The more you photograph the less you need consciously be aware of how to capture a subject that has triggered your curiosity. At that point, you are better able to connect emotionally to whatever you are photographing, and make this radiate through the final image.

This goes back to the fourth stage of learning, what I called unconscious competence in the post The Rollercoaster of Learning here on my blog last November. At this stage, you are at a point where the tools in your hand no longer get in your way.

Imaging you are a writer—or maybe you even are one. If you had to search out every single letter on the keyboard when writing, it’s not hard to imaging what that would do to your flow of writing. Only when you don’t need to think about where you fingers go on the keyboard can you write fluently, right out of your mind. Only then will you be able to enter the state of being in flow.

So it’s is with photography. When you need to concentrate your mind with technical considerations you won’t be able to enter the flow. Your camera literally gets in the way.

Let me end this post with a quote by the great, now diseased, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson: «Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards – never while actually taking a photograph». He knew that thinking about technical aspect would pull us off from what is most important in the actual moment of capturing a photo.

En klassisk illusjon som ofte brukes i psykologi-bøker

On quite a different note: Last month I announced I would admit one person free of charge to my online workshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice» starting up at the end of May. Quite a few people signed up for the draw, which has now been carried out. However, instead of drawing one, I decided to admit two of those who sign up for the draw, to the workshop. The winners of the draw are: Ann-Christine Påhlson and Colleen Briggs.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon EOS-5D and a 16-35 mm lens set at 16 mm. Shutter speed: 1/250 of a second. Aperture: f/13. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop with the plug-in Nik Silver Efex Pro for black and white conversion.