Embracing Imperfection


This time of year, a few years ago, I sat next to this professional photographer on a flight coming back from a U.S. Customs conference for Brokers and Broker-related technologies.  He, being a photographer with an interest in software-technology and me, being a programmer with an interest in photography: we traded business cards and had a nice chat.   We shared two legs of the itinerary and had some time to grab a beer in Atlanta's airport and chat about our respective careers.  

From that chat, I remember vividly this quote, (regarding Portraits, specifically -  Christmas Portraits) he said, "I help capture the lie that people like to perpetuate of having the perfect family."

Now.. I will admit that is a total-hipster statement but...in my own experience I've found some truth in it.

Last year, I picked up Trey Ratcliff's photo book.  Among the many fantastic photos in that book, is this very awesome and magical Christmas portrait..

A Neo-Rockwellian Christmas - Trey RatcliffWhen dad is a photographer, then there is a major degree of pressure to deliver photos on all the requisite holidays and celebrations! So, I decided to try to re-invent the family Christmas photo with HDR. Please note that many of my inventions go down in flames, but, as Winston Churchill said, “success is the ability to go from one failure to the next with no loss of enthusiasm”.Christmas scenes have a lot of light levels. The lights on the tree, the deep greens withn the branches, a roaring fire, lights in the room, reflections off the ornaments, and the like. It’s wild! I’m pretty sure this is why people like Christmas scenes so much - a wonderful treat for the eyes that is rich in texture and rich in light. Traditionally, it’s been very difficult to capture so much richness in a single photo, saving a lucky and heroic combination of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and lenses.The tree lights made the faces of my three stunt-children (who are also my real children) glow perfectly. No flash could have achieved this, unless you are the kind of Rambo-flash guy that would go bury one inside the tree to hit their faces from the left. But, let’s face it. That’s hard.This was a 5-exposure HDR. You will notice that I often use 5 exposures, but note I could have done it with 3 exposures at -2, 0, and +2. Some silly Nikon cameras, like the D3X I use, will not let you step by twos, so I had to take 5 at -2, -1, 0, +1, and +2. The middle exposure, from which the kid’s faces were masked in and perfectly lit, was shot at f/4 aperture, shutter speed of 1/250, 100 ISO, and at 28mm.From the blog at www.stuckincustoms.com

 (.. I mean, really... how awesome is that?)  
A very inspiring image... in fact, it inspired me into a moment of insanity but, in the end, helped us to develop a new holiday tradition.. read on.. 

So, in my very Clark Griswold way, as the Holiday Season approached last year, I projected onto my family the impossible task of creating this perfect family Christmas Portrait.  Not because I wanted to impress anyone, outdo the Jones's or cousins.   Not to try to portray the image of a perfect family.   Just... because.

With a 2 year and old and 6 year old, our house isn't the most clutter-free place.   One of the reasons I'd rather do Google Hangouts from my Boat than my house.   But, we  do have this corner where we  always place our Christmas tree and we have this Grandfather clock that means something to me because.. my mom and grandfather built it.  We set up stockings around the Grandfather clock, buy some Christmas floral arrangements and cute little outfits for the kids and I set off in the misguided journey for the perfect image. The idea was for the image to look like we were beginning to decorate the tree.   False - Candid Portraits.

Perfect lighting, the perfect poses, the perfect clarity, the perfect angle.   It must all be PERFECT!  Miles, turn in towards your sister and fold your arms on your lap.  Jena, chin up but face me.  Smile!  No - The real smile! ... Miles, put that down and sit here.  Jena, stay where you are..   Miles -- no wait, don't do that -- over here!!

Click Click Click Click

I went shutter-mad.   Took hundreds and hundreds of photos.   At the end, I looked alot like my favorite scene from National Lampoon's Christmas vacation.   Sipping Egg Nogg and wondering where my chainsaw is so I can cut down the tree in disguist.   

..and ma in her defeated pose and I about to snap, the kids flopped down to the floor with Christmas lights in their lap...

Then, it happened.   While Dina and I looked at each other in stress-induced defeat, the kids sat down beneath the tree and started playing with an extra strand of Christmas lights.  I pulled off the boot flash and took the camera off the tripod.  Snapped a half dozen shots and ended with this.. my favorite holiday shot of our kids..

It isn't a perfect image.  Because of my lens, it is a little higher-ISO than would be ideal.  They had both changed into random PJ's, so these were not the cute little clothes we wanted. There was some motion blur and neither kid is looking at the camera...  But.. the thing about this image is... it is real..

So now, we have a new family tradition.  Instead of trying to get the perfect family Portrait for Christmas.. as we decorate the tree we pulll out the lights and let the kids play.   I snap some shots and most of them, don't turn out.   But, I always find one or two that will pass for the sake of capturing the memory.

I haven't even gone through all of the photos from this year but this one stuck out to me as appropriate for this post.  As a casual photo-snob perfectionist passerby sees the photo I posted today, they'll see amateurish imperfection.   Mid-High ISO and softness from the Lens I used.    Motion blur from the wrong shutter speed.  Incorrect focal point and maybe the wrong F-stop.

As Dad and Photographer.  I see the memory.  This shot and the 20 before and after it of my children enjoying the Christmas Season.  Isn't that, the point, after all?

Perfection.. can be.. a fool's errand.

Merry Christmas & Happy Holiday Season..

Bill, the Not Perfect Dad-Photographer