The Enemy of Good is Better

I have a new dentist and he's a perfectionist.  Extremely skilled he's earned that right.  Recently while having a veneer repaired he had me stand in front of the mirror, out of the chair, and asked me "can you see the slight color difference?"  I looked and looked, but I couldn't see anything but perfect work.  During the finishing stages of the restoration he continued to fret over the color and fit and I'm thinking "dude, it's only a tooth.."

The last customer of the day, he finished my new veneer and we moved out into the lobby area to make an appointment for further work.  We sat there talking about his work and my work and he asks "You've heard the old adage"  "the enemy of good is better" haven't you?"  Indeed I have and its an enemy almost every professional deals with at some point in their career.

I mentioned to him that if he hadn't asked me about the color, or showed me where to look, I would have never seen any difference at all.  But by him calling this to my attention, depending on my personality, I could complain or in some way express dissatisfaction with his work which otherwise I would have been perfectly happy with.  He's a perfectionist and it bothered him, and he wanted me to have the best quality work.

We can appreciate this.  He knew where to look, how to tell if there were slight differences in color, and the intricacies of fit and finish.  By sharing this knowledge with me, he opened himself up to criticism and perhaps having to redo the entire job.  He was concerned enough about his work to risk a possible loss in profit and time.  Yet, we both immediately recognized the "condition" because I'm much the same way with  my images.

The theory is that there's a point of quality or correctness where you should be prepared mentally, as a professional, to stop and call it a finished and well done job.  Most often your dental or other professional won't care enough to get to this point.  This is the type of person you have to remind, plead, or threaten to get the quality of work you paid for.

Sometimes though you get a different sort of personality.  We push the quality of work right up to the edge of perfection.  The risk of doing this is that there's a very fine edge where the work is perfect, and you ruin the work because you went too far.  An example would be cutting a board to length.  Many board cutters would cut it close to the right length and perhaps leave it a little long.  A perfectionist board cutter would strive to cut that board EXACTLY the right measurement, but all too often this quest for perfection ends up with cutting the board too short and having to throw it away and start over again.

How does this apply to images?  Sharpening would be the most obvious example.  Sharpening is very beneficial and approves an image quite a bit.. up to a certain point.  Past that point not only can you tell it was over sharpened, but you also start exhibiting halos and sharpening artifacts.  I don't mind going on record saying it is ALWAYS preferable to under sharpen than risk over sharpening.

Exposure?  Bump it up a bit and it looks better.  A bit more in small increments and all of a sudden you realize it's too much  Saturation?  Sure, color is great.  Vibrant bold colors look wonderful in print.  Go to far however and the entire image looks "processed" and fake.  This point of "just enough" is often very small.  But the effect is very real.

My grandfather was a carpenter.  And not just any carpenter.  He was a carpenter who worked almost exclusively in Bel-Air, Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades, and other expensive west side enclaves.  He was successful enough to buy five lots in Bel-Air and build a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired home in which my 95 year old grandmother still lives today.  He became this successful because he constantly pushed the edge of "the enemy of good is better" and his work was second to none.

This is where we all should strive to be, yet we all aren't born with the type of personality that allows us to walk this fine line and remain sane at the same time.  Most of us need to remind ourselves that "good enough" as a philosophy will benefit not only our work, but our mind.

For me personally I've divided my work into different areas.  I have images I share with friends and family about my life and the such, and I rarely do anything at all with these images.  The point of these is to share memories, not make perfect images.

The images I prepare for a client are a different story.  Even if it's a low end client on a low end bid, I'll strive to make those images as close to perfect as I possibly can.  Why?

Because clients who are happy with you recommend you to others, and in the example of photography they'll also send over a sample image along with their recommendation.  When they see this sample image I want it to reflect as close to possible my best work.

High end clients get my best work not only in image processing, but set setup and preparation as well.  A low end client might only be paying for me to bring an on-camera flash, a high-end client might be paying significantly more which allows me to bring lights, light modifiers, and assistants to help set them up and keep them under control.

And yes, I can think of several examples.. okay many examples.. where in the past I was reviewing my work with a client and fretting over small imperfections or things that might have been done better, and at the same time driving my client nuts with my obsessionism because "dude, it's only a picture.."

We can probably all think of several examples where "the enemy of good is better" in our personal and professional lives, and it's a good concept to ponder from time to time.  But where it comes to photography this adage probably most applies to post processing and applying sharpening, color saturation, exposure, and any enhancement process.  Don't add too much, and when it doubt make it the lesser amount.

Perfectionism.. it's a double edged sword.  It's bad and it's good.  It has advantages, and disadvantages.  It can make you appear on top of your game, or insane.  Every now and then give the concept some thought.  You'll be glad you did.


Until next time..