Are you a perfectionist like me? Do you beat yourself up when all your images aren’t perfect? If so, then this is the challenge for you! It’s time to practice some wabi-sabi photography!
Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.Leonard Koren in his book, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers
What the heck is wabi-sabi?
In researching this concept I found many different explanations and definitions. Having been to Japan I wanted to find one that the most closely related to its roots. Here are a few that I found.
Wabi-sabi comes from two Japanese words meaning:
- Wabi – the misery and loneliness of living in nature, away from society. It also refers to an austere, natural state.
- Sabi – chilled, lean and withered. Refers to a lonely, melancholic sense of impermanence in life.
Taken individually, wabi and sabi are two separate concepts (referenced from this page):
- Wabi is about recognizing beauty in humble simplicity. It invites us to open our hearts and detach from the vanity of materialism so we can experience spiritual richness instead.
- Sabi is concerned with the passage of time, the way all things grow, age, and decay, and how it manifests itself beautifully in objects. It suggests that beauty is hidden beneath the surface of what we actually see, even in what we initially perceive as broken.
It also encompasses the following concepts:
- All things are impermanent – nothing lasts
- All things are imperfect – nothing is perfect
- All things are incomplete – nothing is finished
In short, what I take it to mean is that it’s somewhere in the middle between a philosophy and a visual aesthetic (something as a photographer you can relate to). It’s a way of being and a way of looking at and seeing things that we might label as imperfect, as things of beauty.
How does it relate to photography?
Let’s go back to the perfection obsession we have as photographers. Can you relate to any or all of the following?
- You want to get the perfect exposure every time.
- You want to make sure every image is 100% tack sharp.
- You have a wish list overflowing with expensive camera gear you want to buy (that you feel you need to take perfect images).
- When photographing a pretty subject like flowers, for example, you overlook the shriveled up, dead-looking one or avoid it.
- Photographing pretty things is easier for you than photographing unattractive or imperfect objects.
- Your goal is to take photos like your mentor or favorite professional photographers because they are perfect in your opinion.
Does any of that resonate with you? It certainly does for me.
So Wabi-sabi photography is about embracing the opposite of all of those things – on purpose! Even going out of your way to take imperfect images or photograph perceived imperfect or flawed subjects.
It’s about letting go and actively looking for imperfections to photograph. It’s about capturing everyday objects that you walk by daily without a second thought. Wabi-sabi is about looking for subjects that are broken, decayed, and marvelously imperfect.
Wabi-sabi is the antithesis of the Classical Western idea of beauty as something perfect, enduring, and/or monumental. In other words, wabi-sabi is the exact opposite of what slick, seamless, massively marketed objects, like the latest handheld wireless digital devices, aesthetically represent.— Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts
Today’s digital cameras can capture so much detail and are designed for creating perfect images. But there is an old saying that goes like this – just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. Right?
Wabi-sabi photography challenge
It’s time to challenge yourself to give up perfectionism for a month and do this with me. Let’s create some wabi-sabi and see if we don’t feel more Zen and relaxed in the process as well!
You with me?! You can even do this challenge with your cell phone because that’s already one step less perfect. So why not?
I took the image above with my cell phone shot through the binoculars in the previous image. It’s not perfect but it is cool! Experiment! Ask yourself, “What if I . . .?” and then do it!
Tips for wabi-sabi photography
Here are a few ideas for this challenge.
- Try using intentional camera movement to add some blur
- Use multiple exposures in-camera or put together images as layers in Photoshop or Luminar Neo
- Use long exposures
- Go on a photo walk with the goal of seeking imperfect subjects
- Shoot from the hip (literally by carrying your camera there)
- Shoot high ISO and create overly noisy and grainy images on purpose
- Use the wrong white balance on purpose
- Shoot JPG and whatever you get – you get
- Over or underexpose just to experiment
- Photograph through something (a light cloth, steam, a lensball, clouds)
- Looks for shape, color, texture, and patterns, especially on weathered subjects, and get close
- Keep the following in mind as you observe the world and look for them
- Nothing lasts (look for crumbly things, decay, withered bits of nature)
- Nothing is perfect (look for cracks, broken things, flaws)
- Nothing is finished (things being made, but go beyond that and think more abstractly too – how about a book mid-read, or a car half washed, or river stones which are forever changing due to the flowing water?)
The idea is to SLOW DOWN and look at the world and experience life at a slower pace. Don’t rush to submit your image for this challenge in a day.
Take your time and actually let the concept sink in and take hold of your soul.
In the image above, I held a neutral density filter over the front of my 8mm fisheye lens. I knew it would not cover the entire view of the lens but was going for something different with the inside exposed correctly and the outer bits overexposed.
EXPERIMENT!!! I cannot stress this enough.
Here is a great article on wabi-sabi photography that has some valuable thoughts and insights into how to apply this to your images and your daily life.
What wabi-sabi photography is not!
This is not to say I want you to become a lazy or sloppy photographer and rely on photo editing to fix your mistakes. Just the opposite in fact.
I want you to make clear and conscious decisions to notice and appreciate imperfection. Open your eyes and see differently. I’ve been told I have eagle eyes – this is one way you can develop that skill too!
If you are intrigued by this concept and want to read more here are some suggestions (I may be getting one of the books myself):
- 5 Teachings From The Japanese Wabi-Sabi Philosophy That Can Drastically Improve Your Life (web article)
- Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren (book)
- Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts by Leonard Koren (book)
Why participate – benefits and a prize
Besides doing this just for the fun of it there are a lot of great reasons to participate in this challenge.
- You may learn new techniques and change your ways of thinking which will also help to develop your own photographic style
- Practice growing your creativity
- Challenge and push yourself outside your comfort zone
- Have fun experimenting
- Practice moving away from perfection so emotion, mood, the decisive moment, and storytelling come first
How to win a prize
Besides the fact that I think you will win just by doing this challenge, you can also win a prize by participating and sharing your image with us. Here are the guidelines for how to do so:
#1 – Go out and take some images using the ideas presented above for wabi-sabi photography
#2 – Post one or more of your photos in the comment area below and tell us a little bit about how you created the image (one entry per person regardless of how many images you share).
#3 – At the end of the month (May 2022) we’ll randomly choose one winner from everyone who posted images. The winner will receive a $50 coupon off any DPM products in our store (not valid on private tutoring or partner products).
More examples of wabi-sabi photography
Everything about the image above is imperfect: it’s tilting, the vertical lines are converging due to the wide lens, it’s really high contrast, BUT I like it this way!
The images below were all made from the same scene as in the image above. I used a tripod and a variety of shutter speeds (from 1 second to 3 seconds) and some zoom blur techniques to create them.
Then I played around with Curves in Lightroom (you can do that in Luminar as well) to manipulate the colors and make them even more abstract.
Doesn’t it look just like the leap to hyperspace or warp drive (my fellow Star Wars fans and Trekkies will get that reference)?
Get out there and be imperfect
In the images above there is an element of imperfection or uniqueness in each of them. Old decaying things, graffiti on city walls, ordinary things seen in new ways.
Look around you – there are tons of things to photograph everywhere. Learn to see beauty in a world of imperfection and embrace it in your photography.
And the winner is . . .
The winner of this challenge was randomly chosen using a random name picker wheel. Congratulations to Trish Anderson!