Wabi-Sabi of Photography and Why I Stopped Chasing Perfection

Wabi-Sabi of Photography and Why I Stopped Chasing Perfection

1818 1228 James Tocchio

Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. These are the three truths of the Japanese concept wabi-sabi, an aesthetic philosophy centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Wabi-sabi tells us to chill. To abandon the pursuit of perfection. It’s a philosophy that’s helped me in many aspects of my life, notably in my photography. Where I used to chase the perfect photo, now I see that my imperfect photos are my best photos. In fact, the only photos that I want to make these days are imperfect ones.

As an aesthetic concept, wabi-sabi can be thought of as beauty found in physical imperfection; the patina that comes with age and use. The most often cited examples are a cracked piece of pottery or a tea cup stained by years of use. You can also lump in those unrestored 1960s Porsche 911s with sunburnt paint and scratched bumpers and faded chrome. These things embody wabi-sabi, it’s true. But for me, wabi-sabi is less about the physical aesthetic of objects and more about training the observer to see that imperfect things are more fascinating and beautiful than perfect things.

I used to spend incalculable hours cleaning and polishing and obsessing over shiny paint and sparkling metal. When my BMW Z3 Roadster turned fifteen years old, I noticed a centimeter spot of rust bubbling under the paint on the inside lip of its trunk lid. I worried about this rust for six months before spending the $500 to have it repainted. Months later I found more rust inside the rear wheel well. I stressed about this rust every time I thought of the car for the next five years. 

I once built a Triumph Bonneville, spending dozens of hours polishing the motorcycle’s exhaust headers, frustrated by the gold, yellow, and blue discoloration of the chrome brought on by the blistering heat of internal combustion. In the pursuit of perfection, I painted that motorcycle three times in five years. It was perfect, and it won an award. Two months later it was scratched by my father-in law as he moved some lumber in my garage. This depressed me.

This was before I read about wabi-sabi.

I now know that instead of researching rust removers and spending hundreds of dollars to repair an imperceptible flaw, I should have been driving that car. I should have used that car to bring my wife out on a date, where from the passenger and driver seats we’d never have noticed the dime-sized speck of rust in the trunk. Instead of maniacally polishing header pipes for weeks, I should have seen the beauty in the iridescence of golds and blues layered within silver chrome – and added to the spectrum of color with miles spent leaning into corners hard on the throttle. It took me more than a decade to have this epiphany. My journey to photographic wabi-sabi took even longer.

Seventeen years ago I began paying attention to my photography. That’s when I bought my first camera with my own money, a five megapixel Minolta DSLR. I spent that winter trying to make good photos. I bought snowshoes, and stamped alone through the woods every time it snowed. I spent hours and days making pictures of frozen lakes and gleaming icicles and brilliant white flurries frozen in midair by a burst of light from an on-camera flash. I shot in program mode, because this made the most perfect pictures. They were perfect recordings.

In a National Geographic Guide to Digital PhotographyI read about sharpness and making a proper exposure, and ISO, and how to eliminate digital noise and why distortion is bad. I read about zoom lenses, and fast apertures, and how to get rid of undesirable motion blur, and how to compose an image, and about which camera brand had the fastest and most accurate auto-focus system. I internalized this knowledge deeply and automatically.

A year later, I spent significantly more money to buy a better camera with more megapixels, ten this time, and a zoom lens. I went back to the woods and shot sharper pictures of snow and sky, and bright birds hunkered against the backdrop of white and blue, the bark of the trees slick and black from the melt under a late-winter sun. Flurries were now frozen in midair by a burst of light from an off-camera thyristor flash. The pictures were good. I was getting closer to perfect. I just needed to buy some more gear, and then I’d get there. 

Over the next ten years I pursued taking objectively better photos, the type that the pros made, the type that I saw on posters. To do this, I bought the best of everything. The best cameras with the best lenses, the best tripods and filters. The best memory storage and the best Apple computer with the best display. Finally, my landscape photos were clinically perfect. Sharp edge to edge with no distortion.

My photos were approaching closer and closer to perfection. And becoming more and more boring. And I was enjoying photography less and less. 

When I embraced film, everything changed. But not because film was inherently better than digital. I won’t profess that nonsense. Film isn’t as good as digital. Not as good, at least, at making perfect photos. The difference was (and remains) that when I shot film I would accidentally make many more imperfect photos than I was capable of making with my digital gear. Digital is, after all, much easier and much closer to perfection. My film photos weren’t perfect, they weren’t even good, and it was frustrating until I began to see things differently. 

That was the big change. When I began to see photography at large in a different way. When I realized that my “bad” film photos were actually more beautiful, more full of life than my digital photos. When I realized that perfection is overrated. That the clinical precision of the best digital camera can create a perfect reproduction of whatever I point it at, yes, but where’s the fun in that? The best painting in the world will always be more moving than the best photo in the world. I always wanted to be a painter. Unfortunately, I’m a terrible painter. Shooting film gets me closer. 

But it wasn’t really film that helped me find peace in my photography. Film just opened my eyes to the fact that I didn’t need to be perfect. I could abandon the quest and find freedom in the failure. I could choose limitation, and embrace limitation, and switch off of program mode and shoot by feel. I could choose whatever film I felt like choosing, and stop worrying that the National Geographic Guide to Whatever told me to choose a higher ISO. Peace came when I embraced imperfection in my photography, and when I embraced imperfection in my abilities as a photographer. 

I no longer have ambitions of perfection for my photos. In fact, I recoil from perfection. I don’t want to use the best cameras or modern lenses. I don’t want my pictures to be sharp. I don’t want them to be in focus. I don’t want them to be properly exposed and free of distortion. I don’t want them to be objectively perfect at the cost of being subjectively vacuous. My best photos are the ones with feeling. And feeling comes from movement, energy, thought, emotion, experience, and luck. 

I’ve made a lot of photos in the past fifteen years. And many of them were the first type, objectively correct photographs, carefully composed and accurately exposed, in focus, with just the right depth-of-field, sharp edge-to-edge. But sitting here trying to recall or envision any one of those photos in my mind, I can’t do it. They’re just not there. They are entirely forgettable. 

But there are other photos that I can instantly call to mind. And inevitably they’re the ones that are imperfect. The ones that were shot at a just-slightly-wrong shutter speed, or where focus was missed by a few inches, or where the subject clips the frame, or where motion blur renders detail nearly unrecognizable. 

I’m thinking of those photos now. They float into my mind effortlessly – a haphazardly shot workman in a dripping-with-steam Chinatown basement; my daughter, spinning in the dark of the New England Aquarium; a cityscape at night, shot handheld without a tripod; a window-lit portrait made with a Polaroid SX70 and a nearly dead pack of film which caused the shutter to hang open. These are the kind of photos that I love. These are the photos I want to make. 

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
32 comments
  • Thank you for this, probably my new favorite article I’ve read.

  • A very insightful and relevant article. I needed to follow this Wabi-Sabi philosophy when I revisited film about 5 years ago. When I look at my first attempts in the late 90s, the pictures were more feeling and lightly peppered with technical skill. Do you think that you needed to reach that level of perfection and recognize that it in order to appreciate your not so perfect ones? I tend to favor my not so great shots as they are usually the most interesting on the roll. I really enjoy your image of the workman, as it strongly resembles a painting; its colors and composure just so. This is not to say that all properly exposed, composed, and in focus shots are void of emotion or substance. Your points of embracing imperfection are spot on. Thanks for the great read.

  • This was a great read. There’s so much I agree with and to put it simply, I take joy in the fact that the imperfections are my own. No one else can replicate it and that ownership of everything that comes together to make that imperfect photograph means so much more to me than any technical perfection.

  • A good philosophy to follow. I go up and down with it depending on my mood or the item. I don’t care about new cars or dirt as long as it runs. I love scratched, bumped, brassed bodies of cameras. I dislike out of focus shots. I dislike clutter in a room or peeling paint. Since using film I have found my tolerance for things that used to bother me has increased. While the number of things that actually does bother me has decreased.

  • Dear James,

    A very inspiring read, as always! Yet I struggle with the idea that giving up perfection is really what this is about. Something is perfect if it has reached an optimum, a point where it meets its purpose so well that it can no longer be improved.

    I dare say that the photographs in the article are a perfect representation of an aspect of life. Life sometimes is fast, blurry, badly lit and out of focus. In the theater of life we rarely get to sit quietly in a front row seat with an unobstructed view of a well worked out scene. Instead, we will often be late seeing something at all, the angle of view will be awkward and there will be little time to focus before the scene is gone. Your photographs capture that perfectly and I agree, they are wonderful and full of life.

    But life also offers other moments that may be represented better in a well focused, well lit and well composed picture. I saw an old car, a Triumph Stag the other day, sitting abandoned in someone’s yard, untouched for years, slowly rusting away, being overgrown by some plants. I was on my own, had no hurry and could just contemplate the years it had taken for this scene to become what it is now. To me, a perfect picture of that is a sharp and detailed one that invites to take it all in, the rust, the leaves, the parts that are missing and those still there.

    So I believe that it is great to have all photographic means at your disposal, that you can capture life the way it presents yourself to you.

    Thanks for your work!

    Stefan

    • Hey Stefan, Thanks very much for reading. I see your point and I agree. My experiences and preferences won’t match with everyone’s, and if you asked me five years from now I’ll certainly be in a different place. It’s a journey, after all, and that’s what makes it interesting.

  • I’ve owned two Triumphs, and felt exactly the same about those pipes, very frustrating! A good article, and a concept I think of more and more at the moment as I realise most of my favourite photos have been taken haphazardly on point and shoots rather than my expensive gear.

    • I was tuning the carburetors yesterday after the winter hibernation, looked at the blue pipes and it didn’t bother me. I call that growth. Haha!

  • This brings to mind the relentless march to more megapixels. I started shooting seriously using a Nikon D40. A funny story. I was smoking a cigar at a golf tournament and stupidly brought the camera to my eye and burned a hole in the LCD screen. The only way to have it repaired was to send it to Japan. While there, a natural disaster hit and the Nikon repair factory shut down. Needing a camera, I bought a D200 then a D 300 then a D 800. Each model had more, but I the advancement of my skills was not from the technology. It came from learning the ability to see. The same happened with film. What began with simple mechanical cameras changed to feature packed tools ending with the Nikon F6. Lenses garnered more elements and special coatings. Is an over-processed HDR portrait a beautiful thing? The answer lies in the eye of the beholder.

  • Wabi Sabi has been my life for about 10 years and the weight lifted in dropping perfection is immense, acceptance is the key.

  • Happy accidents do happen. On the other hand, not every blurred or badly exposed photo is a good photo.
    We, casual photographers are fortunate: we are allowed to appreciate the aesthetics of Lo-Fi photography. Either the result of an accident or the result of countless hours of planning and trials. I guess there are artists that hunt for the perfect imperfection in a similar way a sports photographer (or weddings photographer, or fashion photographer) strives to get that clinical shot that the customer wants.

  • Bravo. I could not agree with you more. You’ve shown how imperfection can “speak” and free us, while perfection can imprison.

    As for the quest for better tools – the perfect is the enemy of the good.

    Instead, know the tools, learn the rules and then forget them. It’s wishful thinking to think that better tools will automagically create more compelling images. Use the tool for a long time to discover its limits and then use them automatically.

    “Constraints will set you free.” Using one camera, one focal length and one lens can be liberating eliminates the tyranny of choice.

    Beauty is based more on character than one facet. And beauty is, as you’ve noted, sometimes in the imperfections, the patina, the passage of time. If you look for it, you can find the transcendent in the banal.

    As for the out-of-focus shots, that’s how we see when we don’t scan [move our pupils aka saccadic movement]. Since only a relatively small portion of the visual field is in focus, we construct the scene in real time, correcting for white balance, perspective, ….

    Out of focus shots can also be used to great effect in cinema. Some shots in the HBO series “The Night of” are almost completely blurry.

    Out of focus can be used to great effect – the work of the contemporary photographer Uta Barth. The impressionists. The Thomas Ruff series “Nudes”

    As for imperfection – the childlike powerful paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat are powerful.

    In photography there is far too much emphasis on creating sharp images, shallow depth of field, bokeh etc. and not enough on the image. The quest for mechanical perfection comes at the expense of spontaneity, emotion, meaning and …

    Traditionally Persian carpets have imperfections. Human faces appear symmetrical. If they actually were, they would just look weird.

  • Thanks for a great read on an otherwise dreary day. I really enjoy posts like these which give tiny voyeuristic glimpses into the mind of the person behind the lens. For me, they offer more to relate to and ponder. Like a great picture tells a story, they draw me in. You may not be a painter, but you have a gift for storytelling both in words and images.

  • Interesting read and a topic that has crossed my mind—glad there is a term for it.

    When first experimenting with a zoom lens and autofocus camera, I moved the camera slightly, and the autofocus kicked in. Just at that moment, I accidentally pressed the shutter release. I counted this frame lost. When the scans came back, there was a beautiful, blurred abstract shot! It is one of my favorite images; I even applied for a copyright.

  • I knew about wabi sabi, and I find much joy in the pursuit of it. Maybe is not related but I think the Japanese concept of bokeh is a bit related, as it is not about how much a lens/camera can blur a background but the aspect of it, which otherwise could be almost considered an imperfection. Said that what I didn’t know was about Triumph Bonnevilles and now I want one xD

    • They’re beautiful motorcycles and it took me many years to get one. Once the weather here turns warm enough, I plan to shoot a photo project with mine, so I hope you enjoy that article when it eventually appears on the site. Thank you as always Francis.

  • Nice work. Write more. Thank you.

  • Agreed, it’s the flaws that are beautiful a lot of the time. It’s what gives something soul and makes it interesting. You watch those shows where people come on and sing for a music contract and, yeah, some of those assholes can sing perfectly, but it’s the voice of Tom Waits with all its imperfections and lack of octave range that makes me excited. Maybe you already know it, but I’m going to add another Japanese word to your vocabulary. It’s “Kintsugi” or “Kintsukuroi” which is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with gold powder. You get a whole pot or bowl or cup again with the fissures and flaws highlighted in gold. It’s quite beautiful. It’s really about embracing the flaws in the repair of an object as once something is broken it can never truly be whole again, and I’ll suggest this is where you should/could/may have gone with your Z3. The perfection in the paint was gone and initially gave you angst, but instead of the $500 trunk lid repair, and better than doing nothing, you get out the sandpaper and the phosphoric acid and you remove the rust and then, instead of lacquer and gold powder, you spray it with rust paint. You preserve the essence of the car while not getting hung up on the perfection of the car. Wabi-sabi is about embracing the flaws as beautiful, Kintsugi is about understanding the poetry involved with the repair of use inflicted damages. Similar. Not the same. They go hand in hand in my opinion.

    There’s nothing more disappointing than a showroom car that’s never been driven. Your Z3 with 15 factory miles on it and not a blemish would be depressing. What a waste of a car that would be.

    I dig women with scars. I dig cars with scratches. My boots are scuffed. I like film grain and vignetting. My favourite jeans have holes in them caused by the things I’ve done while wearing them. This is all good. Great article. Thanks.

  • Beautiful! You essay spoke to me. Thank you.

  • Hi Josh,

    Another great article!

    Like you, I find some of my favourite shots are ones where, technically speaking, something “went wrong” – for example motion blur or slightly missed focus – but the shot somehow captured the moment.

    Another photography forum I follow has a Wabi Sabi thread, but people there seem to think it means “beauty in decay” so they put up technically perfect shots of rusty bicycles, peeling paint etc. Just meaningless to me.

    I’m glad to find others who interpret Wabi Sabi like I do.

    Cheers

    Richard

  • I’d go with their interpretation also, wabi said derives from the tea ceremony associated with zen Buddhism and nothing is random, everything is deliberate .. including the acceptance of decay and the cycle of life. Its not an excuse for getting something wrong. For me its the acceptance of the dust, scratches and quirks of film and not out of focus ‘accidents’

  • Avatar
    Lisa Marie Stevens April 17, 2020 at 11:58 am

    Enjoyed your post, Jim. About 15 years ago I did a project on this very theme and ever since the wabi-sabi way has affected every part of my life. And now you remind me it’s time to update a page on my website dedicated to these types of photos, thanks. If you have any interest here’s a link:

    https://www.lmstevensphoto.com/portfolio/there-are-no-mistakes/

  • Thanks for your article. Once I started to embrace imperfection, and there’s a lot in my film expeditions, my joy has increased 10 fold. Thank you again.
    Andrew

  • I didn’t know this term until I read this interesting piece. As a fellow gearhead (in addition to film user), though, I see you’ve now understood the truth of “driver” vs. “queen” for your cars (I have a clear memory of disorientation the first time I saw a highly restored MGB being trailered to a show, three decades ago). From your description, I believe you are saying, The Existance of Realty is to be Experienced, not Observed. The “imperfect” photograph – as you call it – is not an attempted perfect observation of reality rather a perfect record of one experienced moment (and maybe this is the attraction of B/W).

  • some of my best pics are b&w’s taken by the super takumar 35mm/3.5, then found out it has some scratches,
    few weeks ago just bought an SMC takumar 35mm/3.5 in real great condition,

    it might be a mistake.

    ben

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio