Anybody else out there struggle with perfectionism?
Because I sure do.
Sometimes it can be good. It pushes me to improve, to be detailed oriented, and to persevere.
But like everything else in life, perfectionism has its downside. I can become obsessed, fearful, or paralyzed.
Because I am a bit of a perfectionist, I’m terrible at settling for “good enough” when it comes to my photographic work. I began charging for my work in 2007, and the pictures were fine, but I had a lot left to learn. After taking some classes here and there and raising my prices, I decided it was time to get serious about this photography thing if I was going to stick with it. In November of 2014 I began the process of becoming a certified professional photographer (CPP), and a year later, I completed it.
The certification is offered through Professional Photographers of America (PPA), an organization which has been an invaluable resource for me over the years.
What does it mean to be a certified professional photographer? Well, you can read PPA’s explanation here.
But for me, it meant that I had confidence that I could shoot in any situation and get the image I was looking for. It meant that I knew deep in my soul that clients could trust me with their memories. It meant that my professional association recognized that I had achieved a certain level of skill.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the process of becoming certified, but you should at least know what’s required. PPA requires you to pass a technical test and to also submit 15 images, each of which meet certain technical requirements. I took a 3 day course and passed the exam without too much hassle. The image submission process took much longer.
The standards for passing images are quite high and can often be frustrating. In order to get my images to a passing standard, I joined a Facebook group run by CPP volunteers who provide feedback on your images. It has been, by far, the best thing I have done for my photography. It was like the mac-daddy of all boot camps…and it was brutally hard. Each image posted received constructive criticism, which was very helpful, but hard to take some days. The end result, however, has been a huge improvement in my technical ability and understanding.
Don’t let that paragraph above make you think that I just threw some existing images out there and glided by. Oh no. I spent months begging friends and family to let me practice on them. I set up a studio in my in-laws house after Easter lunch because there were so many (mostly) willing subjects in one place. Sundays, weekdays, right after my son’s birthday party… I was shooting ALL. THE. TIME. I must have completed my 10,000 hours during this process, because I finally did it enough that I really knew what I was doing and it showed.
Funny thing is, the precise nature of this style of shooting made me a perfectionist nut. While I think training my critical eye was important, the process sent me to a land of “should have.” There are so many tiny details I should have taken care of… I should have turned her head slightly to the right. I should have seen that stray hair. I should have metered that light a 1/4 stop lower.
This has always been one of my least favorite things about photography. I hate lamenting all the things I should have done. Photographs are made by moments. Once the moment has passed, it’s done. There’s no redoing it. Mistakes that went unnoticed when you pressed the shutter live on forever. I’ve spent years trying to learn how to appreciate them, but I’m still terrible at it.
If you read my most recent blog post about the new direction of Blue Space Photography, you may be wondering why I went through the process of getting certified at all. I mean, I’m not going to be taking posed studio shots any more, so why bother?
It’s important to me that my clients know that they can call on me for ANYTHING photography related. I can confidently say that I am an expert in my field and can meet their needs in a way that lots of other photographers out there can’t. This doesn’t mean I don’t have more to learn, because there’s always more in this wonderful world of photography. It simply means that I have been trained by more than just experience and that other members of my field acknowledge my achievement.
Becoming a CPP also proves that I didn’t make the choice to shoot documentary photography because I couldn’t hack it in a studio setting. I chose documentary photography with intention and purpose because I believe that it’s the most important kind of picture and that it will carry the most meaning through your life.
I feel like documentary photography gets a bad reputation of being “snapshotty” or not requiring the same level of skill as more controlled portrait settings, when in fact it takes a great deal of skill to capture the right moments. I may not need to engineer lighting for documentary photography, but I still need to know how to look for it.
And the most important reason that I am both a CPP and documentary photographer?
Being a certified professional photographer pushes me to take the best pictures I possibly can, aiming for precision and searching for details. But documentary photography speaks right to the heart of my perfectionism, forcing me to relinquish control over every aspect of an image. It helps me appreciate mistakes and the messiness that comes with life.
I think perfection is highly overrated. The beauty of life gets overlooked when we look with our eyes and not with our heart. We get caught up in the toys on the floor or the laundry on the couch, when what we really need to see are the people who live there.
I say these words as much to myself as anyone else… and I’m going to keep practicing what I preach until it becomes second nature to me… just like photography.