The Perfectionist Photographer

October 29, 2018  •  2 Comments

Many people believe perfectionism to be a very positive trait. People who are perfectionists are perceived as hard workers, as very conscientious and as people who will go the extra mile. The thing is that perfectionism can actually have some dangerous side effects. It leads to all kinds of health issues, burn-outs, depressions, anxiety disorders and the list goes on.

The Perfectionist PhotographerThe Perfectionist PhotographerPerfectionism might not be your best friend as a photographer or creative. It stifles creativity and it even stops you from achieving excellence fast. Attention to detail in photography is highly desirable, trying to avoid all mistakes at all cost though will stop you from growing.

I speak from experience. I have been a perfectionist as long as I can remember. If I was playing the piano as a child, one mistake would make me start over again because I wanted the music to be unblemished and this would result in my starting over and over and over again, hardly ever finishing the entire piece of music. I would feel upset if I coloured outside of the lines, I would start a new school diary if I had scratched in it and I was even hard on myself about my hand writing. This behaviour inevitably lead to me being a perfectionist student and then the perfectionist artist.

Autumn EdenAutumn EdenA path lined by birch trees through the moors of the Veluwe, The Netherlands on a misty autumn morning.

Fine Art Photography in a painterly style inspired by the Old Dutch Masters by Ellen Borggreve

If you can at all relate, can I ask you if perfectionism has helped you move forward? It is one thing to strive for excellence, but another to keep waiting until the circumstances are perfect, the work is perfect and to destroy everything that is not. There is nothing wrong with striving to master your craft, this I feel is a positive trait. Perfectionism however is not.

Perfectionism stops you in your tracks. "Let's not start this project today, the conditions are not exactly like they should be...", you inner voice will whisper. "I can't make anything good, because I don't have the perfect camera, lens, computer or software", your perfectionist self will say...In short, perfectionism is stifling. It stops creativity from flowing. It stops you from creating at all, it keeps you from moving forward, it keeps you from evolving. Perfectionism is fear that you might fail, that something is not going to live up to your incredibly high standards.

Autumn HarmonyAutumn HarmonyFloating birch trees in a misty mere (lake) with the light of the rising sun lighting up the autumn colours.
Fine Art Photography in a painterly style by Ellen Borggreve

Perfectionism will not be ok with you learning to do something, it will demand you to be the best immediately. You are not allowed to be a beginner, you are not allowed to make mistakes. 

You might also like the following blog posts:

The Pursuit Of Inspiration

Turn Off The Voice OF Fear Of Failure

The Gap Between Where Your Are And Where You Want To Be

When I realised that perfectionism was not as great as I had made it out to be, I decided to plunge into the unknown realm of making mistakes, just creating for the sake of it, creating even when the conditions were not perfect. This made a huge difference in my life, because when before everything always seemed to be either on halt until everything would be just right or my efforts would feel very forced, now there was a flow in my life. 

I can not honestly say that I am no longer a perfectionist, but I am leaning more towards striving for excellence now, without expecting myself and all the conditions to be entirely perfect before I begin. Before I would go to the same exact spot over and over again until I got the picture just right (resulting in hundreds of pictures that were very similar), now I do everything I can to get it right, but then the result is allowed to be what it is. Yes, this does mean that at times I must live with taking a picture that I don't like very much, but this is ok. I write down what I don't like and build on that experience.

It is said that Claude Monet destroyed many of his paintings because they were not good enough according to his standards. I have been prone to doing this as well. Once I binned a soft sculpture that I had worked on for 48 hours because he looked off to me. My husband rescued him from the bin, locked him away and got him out after a week or so. This piece went on to win me multiple international awards. It is like perfectionism clouds your vision, it will always start to look for what is wrong and never for what is right. It will always find the smallest thing that is off and not the 99 % that is wonderful.

Oak Trees In Autumn LightA Fleeting GlimpseA sunlit forest scene with oak trees and pines in autumn Fine art photography in a painterly style by Ellen Borggreve.

In the last few months I struggled slightly with what I thought was starting to look like a lack of inspiration, looking back I can see that it was not. I had inspiration in abundance, but perfectionism had found a clever new way of sneaking in disguised as an artist's block. I knew I was not really blocked, just very tired. I had loads of new ideas, but I thought the execution of them was not up to my standards, which is often the case when you are tired. I had a clear vision of where I wanted to take my photography, but I was not happy with the results and that made me stop in my tracks for a bit. It felt like I was blocked, but it was perfectionism. By writing morning pages every day, I noticed what was going on, I smiled to myself and thought that it really had me fooled and then I started to just create again, knowing where I wanted to go, but accepting that no journey is ever completed without taking steps. A step that is not perfect is so much better than no step at all. Progress is so much more helpful than not taking action. A good enough result is always better than no result. 

Yes, you can still have attention to detail, but you should not get lost in the details and loose sight of the whole picture. You can strive to be your best self, but you must allow yourself to be a student....of photography, of your craft and of life. I find that allowing yourself to always be a student, will lead to better results than demanding perfection from yourself. 

Floating Trees In A French LakeVessels Of DreamsA misty mere at sunrise with trees in autumn colours. Fine art photography by Ellen Borggreve

To me the magical aspect of creativity is the willingness to take inspiration and be the tool through which something comes into being. Perfectionism kills the magic of the process and sometimes it destroys the soul of the resulting work. How much magic do you think is in a picture that I took one hundred times just to get the tiniest detail right? The detail might then be perfect, the soul of the work was crushed in the process. You might think that perfectionism is the way to achieve excellence, I am confident in saying that making mistakes and learning from them leads you to excellence much faster and it will not let you destroy your self-confidence in the process.

(Pictures in this post all taken in the past 3 weeks, prints will become available shortly)

If you are longing to learn more about forest photography, my eBook: The Magic Of Forest Photography might be just what you are looking for. I am also offering in person one-to-one workshops forest photography

The Perfectionist PhotographerThe Perfectionist PhotographerPerfectionism might not be your best friend as a photographer or creative. It stifles creativity and it even stops you from achieving excellence fast. Attention to detail in photography is highly desirable, trying to avoid all mistakes at all cost though will stop you from growing.


Great article, Ellen. Perfectionism is a curse that I suffer from also, but i'm slowing giving myself permission to make mistakes.

and that's the real take away point isn't it? That making mistakes is okay and is indeed necessary in order to progress, as you eloquently pointed out.
Tony phillips(non-registered)
You just described me to a tee. I have been a perfectionist all my life and used to think of it as a valuable trait, but as I've grown older I realize how it has hindered me from attempting so many things or quitting so many things prematurely. Your article is mostly in regard to art, mainly photography, but I can also see how perfectionism has affected so many other areas of my life. Thank you for this great article reassuring me that it's ok to not be perfect, but to just give it a try and let my best be good enough.
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