The Imperfect Shot

This morning, as I was shooting on the street with fellow friends, I intended to utilize my super wide angle lens, Olympus Zuiko 11-22mm F2.8-3.5, and I did all I can to make sure I have the best shots I could make in whatever situation I was thrown into.

Olympus E-5, Zuiko Digital 11-22mm F2.8-3.5 lens
11mm, 1/25sec, F9, ISO160
Shot with live view on the swivel screen
Pseudo-HDR processed in Photomatix.

I came across this incense coils scene at one of the Chinese Temples in the vicinity, and I framed it in a way that the image does not appear too straightforward, from low angle looking upwards with angled tilting, and shooting against the light coming heavy from one side (since it was morning). I was careful not to shoot directly against the light, and found the right angle to reveal the patterns of the smoke trails. To achieve this, the smoke trails must have a dark background. After finding the right composition frame that I wanted to use, I then set the camera to allow slow shutter speed, to capture the movement of the smoke trail. I stopped down the aperture to F9, shooting at ISO160, I can get away with 1/25 second shutter speed, which was just sufficient to introduce motion blur to the smoke trail for the smooth effect. In addition to that, knowing I was facing a very harsh lighting condition, I shot the image in RAW, hoping to recover the shadow details in the background wall using Photomatix Pseudo-HDR from a single RAW file technique, which I did. As I previewed this image on my computer screen, fine-tuning it toward the final outcome that I have originally pictured even before I clicked the shutter button, I thought to myself, not a bad shot.

That was until I saw the subsequent shot which I took by impulse, without giving much thought at all.

Olympus E-5, Zuiko Digital 11-22mm F2.8-3.5
14mm, 1/500s, F6.3, ISO160

It was the shadow of the same incense coils, but on the inner wall of the temple. As I approached the wall, I was fascinated by the shadows. I just snapped away without thinking, really. I usually would shoot things that caught my attention, without any reason why. No thoughts on composition, hence the slight accidentally tilted angle, which I purposely left it that way and not corrected in post-processing. Then I did not even remember what setting I used. I just, clicked. Even the shadow was not properly projected on the wall, appearing rather blur and seems like it was out of focus (the focus was correctly locked on the wall, as you can see the texture was sharp and clear). There really is nothing dramatic in this particular shadow photograph. There was no story to tell. No interesting foreground or background. No bokeh, no special effects like HDR.

But, why do I like the shadow photograph better?

I don't exactly know how to answer this, and I am being honest here. I am not going to cook up a story (or lie) to explain the logic behind my preference, if there is ever such a logic for it. Despite the imperfections and simplicity of this shadow of the incense coil shot, I really like it. Maybe that was just it, maybe it was the imperfection, and the simplicity that worked. The shot was imperfect, much like myself, and the shot was straight to the point, with nothing else to dance around with.

Perhaps, embracing imperfections and simplicity is not the easiest thing to do, when it comes to art and especially photography. We often struggle too hard, and do impossible things to accomplish what we want.

I then asked this question to myself, if I were to print this image large to be hung on my living room wall, which would I picked: 1) the original wide angle shot of the incense coils cooked in HDR goodness and garnished with the effects of smoke trail motion, or 2) the nothing special, blur and uninteresting shadow image of the incense coils?

I would print that shadow and blow it up large. No question.

What are your thoughts? Would you have picked the same as I have?


  1. Abolutely. Tho the smoke is cool, the shadows on the wall (or rather, those lockers or whatever that is) are much better. Nice one; I also like it a lot.

  2. Thanks Wolfgang !! Its strange how a simple shot like that is preferred !

  3. In my sight the shadow picture does show momentary life, captured with some imperfect mystery. There is left more space, air for my own thoughts and emotions left ... Maybe

  4. Hello Reiner,
    You were right !! How did I not see it, the empty space does influence the overall feel of the shadow image. Yes, the space for emotions and thoughts to flow. Thanks for sharing mate.

  5. Sorry, that is the worst shot I have seen. A confusing composition.

  6. cy.leow,
    Something that you do not understand or can't relate to does not make it the "worst".

  7. The shadows play with contrast which is always nice. It has "mood" and " feeling" and emotion. It leaves it up to the viewers imagination. Quite abstract too

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Robin, really love the "shadow shot". Why it works (at least in my opinion) is that my mind had to take a journey when I looked at the photo.. first I thought it was the incense holders seen thru a window, way out of focus, then I saw the details of the wall, then I realized it's a shadow, then I saw YOUR shadow (lower right) and I see you taking a photo of shadows, and I'm there in that temple. Even the barrel on the right helps the journey because it's the one "real" 3-dimensional object in the photo. So this photo works so well because it is 2-d and 3-d and a reflection and a cast shadow, ambiguous and concrete all at once. Great work! Knowing that it was "instinctual" for you makes it even better... years of "Shutter Therapy" practice went into that one moment, that is TRUE photography.

  10. Thanks Luke,
    Very abstract indeed !

    Hello Tom,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts !! I am with you in all your descriptions. I knew that the shot was in focus, yet when I review the image I saw the shadow was actually blurry and appears out of focus. And the inclusion of my own shadow and the barrel added sense of reality to the image. We share the same opinion !!

  11. Hello Robin!

    Once in a while I make a jump to your beautiful blog, and come by pictures like this one.

    I really love this photo, reminds me of when I was younger and I used to shoot lots of film with shadows of objects and persons, no technique, no precision in aperture or shutter, just shooting... and lots of times I was right, those photographs were what I was looking for, and the emotion they gave to me was far more interesting and moving than just being "perfect".

    So thank you again for reminding me how my younger, more thoughtless self wandered around the human world...

    This is great "φωτογραφία", writing with light, that is!

    Take care and keep on shooting beauty friend; and (another!) big "thanks" from myself.


  12. Thanks Michelle for sharing your thoughts. Some photographs work best when it is kept to its simplest form. We tend to focus on bigger and grander things that sometimes, even the simplest shadow can create a beautiful image. I guess it is a reminder to myself as well. Not to be caught up trying to hard to do something.

  13. While I do like the second shot better, mostly due to the nice texture on the wall and the overall ambience, I wonder if it would be as successful without the context of the first image. I try to imagine approaching the second image without ever having seen the first, and while it remains interesting, I think something is lost not knowing that the context of the things creating the shadows. The best photos tell a story, and i think that the second photo is only part of the story.