Anyone taking pictures in London these days really can’t miss The Shard. In a city that is truly not short of iconic landmarks, this structure has managed to complement and modernize the cityscape and thus make itself indispensable. So it’s not surprising that I took some photos of this imposing skyscraper during my trip to London. In digitally post-processing these images, I noticed how easy it is to be influenced in one’s creative decisions by the mainstream of social media. There, everything strives for perfection, high gloss, and flawlessness. With its glazed fronts and associated reflections, the Shard favors this approach to the subject. It took a video by the YouTube-known photographer Adrian Vila to remind me of my old motto: There’s beauty in imperfection.
Perfection is beautiful – but confining.
Ever higher resolution in cameras and lenses, great details, unbelievably good autofocus, and dynamic range – the camera industry provides us with the tools to create ever more perfect images, recently also with cell phones. Of course, it’s no wonder that after spending an incredible amount of money on these tools, we want to use them accordingly. This is then rewarded on social media – brightly colored glossy perfection receives far more positive feedback there than less perfect black and white images – and who is immune to a bit of recognition, even if it is as fleeting as digital hearts and stars.
These strong pulls subliminally and (almost) irresistibly influence the creative process in this direction. But what is sold to us as a tool for expanding creativity actually tends to narrow it. Those who constantly strive for optical perfection exclude alternatives from the outset – alternatives that develop their emotional impact on the viewer in the first place precisely because of their visual flaws. Here are some images from The Shard that illustrate this.
High gloss is not a bad thing…
These three pictures show the results of my unconscious striving for optical perfection. Both images are taken with an aperture of f/8 because everything in the image should be sharp as possible. Both photos are very contrasty, but I still ensured that details are visible in most shadows. Almost nothing is lost. For The Shard #3, I did away with digital grain completely, and for The Shard #2 & #4, I left it at a very faint grain that is no longer visible in the reduction.
Now there is nothing wrong with any of this. On the contrary, I’m delighted with both images, and I wouldn’t want to edit them any other way, despite my statement that “there’s beauty in imperfection.” The problem lies not in the pursuit of perfection but in the exclusivity of that pursuit. The following image may be suitable to illustrate this point.
… But neither is imperfection
While photographing and editing this image, I also tried to strive for perfection. While shooting, I already knew that dynamic range would be a problem, so I shot a bracketing series to later compose it into an HDR image on the computer. However, the result left me cold.
The sky only looks so spectacular and dramatic because it is so dark. Only in this way does the sun’s radiance become clear. This, in turn, becomes a problem for the building because the sun is shining brightly behind it. Details in the foreground look recognizably unrealistic if they become too clear, but they also remain unspectacular if they remain dark and low in contrast. So what to do?
Steve Jobs to the rescue…
I remember many years ago when Steve Jobs presented the first iMac with your flat display. He discussed several design options, including building the display into an existing iMac chassis designed for a tube display. However, this approach did not convince him. At the time, he advocated, “Let each element be true to itself. If the screen wants to be flat – let it be flat.” Wise words!
Transferred to this photo, you could say: If the building wants to be dark, let it be dark. Don’t even try to make details visible that are not suitable for it. A simple insight, really – but as is often the case, simple insights are the ones that are the hardest to grasp.
Having decided to accept the “imperfection” of missing details in the building, I further acknowledged that the entire image wanted to be imperfect. Therefore, I chose heavy grain, even though with the availability of increasingly better noise reduction software, this has become an image property that has generally lost acceptance – except perhaps among those photographers who still consciously choose analog photography today. Nevertheless, I think this decision has done the image good because the grain gives it an atmosphere that is not intellectually tangible but can be felt, which I find difficult to put into words.
There’s always an alternative
Creativity does not tolerate norms or boundaries. And it abhors automatisms. Creativity is open, curious, and playful. It tries without striving for a goal, simply for the sake of trying. It is essential to keep reminding yourself of this. If, in the end, a goal is reached after all. Then, at least, that is how I feel, it is all the more a gratifying experience, yes, but this is not what drives creativity. In this context, the following observation is also interesting: while The Shard #2, #3 & #4 impress me visually, they don’t trigger much in me. I admire their beauty, yes, but that’s about it.
The Shard #5, on the other hand, inspires me to make associations. When I look at this picture, the words “Barad-dûr” or “Isengart” pop into my head. Could it be that it is only through the imperfection of the image, the omission of details, and the creation of “feeling” or “atmosphere” (whatever that is) that storytelling processes are triggered in the viewer? Or is that just me? Maybe The Shard #5 leaves other viewers cold, but The Shard #2, #3 & #4 do not. I guess I’ll never know – unless the inclined readers describe their impressions in the comments.