Alex Eaton

[ Stillnotes ] 27 — Using imperfection to create perfect memories

Published 9 months ago • 4 min read

27 » Using imperfection to create perfect memories

Happy Wednesday y'all,

I'm Alex, and you're reading Stillnotes, a photography newsletter about more than just photography. Thanks for reading.

Imperfect images create perfect memories

This week I was sifting through my archive and landed on a trip to the California coast last summer. I headed to Bodega Bay to visit my sister, and my brother's family came up to join for the weekend. It was a slow, relaxing few days of playing around the yard, going to the beach, and simple meals. The yard next to my sister's place is chock full of dandelions. Each day is a cycle of grassy plants, thousands of flowering yellows, and finally the white-ish gray of the seed heads in the evening once the sun has set. One evening, my sister was playing with the dandelions and blowing their seeds into the wind. Naturally, my niece and nephews wanted to try, leading to the first image above. I was using my run and gun setup—Sony A7r3 with the tiny 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar lens.

This fun little moment suddenly turned into all out war when dandelion seeds were turned into blow darts directed at the kids. They scampered around the yard with my siblings in pursuit, dodging and returning fire. I entered the chaos as a journalist, rushing around documenting the hysteria and becoming a target myself.

On first review of the photos, it looked like a lot of bad compositions. People cut off on the sides of the frame, missed autofocus causing blurriness, and flat light. So I put them aside and didn't think anything of it. Revisiting the images this week I came across the first image and saw potential where I didn't before. Recently I've been drawn to slow shutter speeds and grainy black and white images after getting some film back from last fall that matched the look. So I cropped in aggressively, doubled down on that blurriness with a grainy black and white edit, and now I have an image that sings.

A few notes on why I think the image works now:

  • It's the right amount of blurriness to see whats happening but not distract. It shows action in the scene, which is matched by my sister and niece shown blowing on the dandelions.
  • My sister enters the frame from the left, and is blowing the seeds to the right towards my niece. Her face being more visible is the clear first focus of the image and acts as a type of leading line moving towards my niece who acts as the anchor of the frame on the right. It's not a perfectly balanced image in a typical way, but I think it works really well due to that motion and action.
  • I think the canted horizon line gives the image more semblance of action as well. It's a hilly area, so this was just a welcome coincidence.
  • The little details of the dandelion seeds flying around my sisters face (white little lines - almost looking like dust on a film scan), is my favorite part of the scene. They were one of the first things I noticed when I made this image black and white.
  • The edit. Color was no good, I added a bunch of grain and kept any highlights lowered. It feels like a gritty distant memory you'd see looking through a telescope—not literally, but in feeling.

Another image stood out for many of the same reasons, featuring my niece and nephew.

Again, an imperfect composition with my nephews feet cut off, imperfect autofocus, crooked framing. But you can feel whats happening with my nephew dodging and my niece following from a safer distance. The depth in this image works really well with the focus on my niece. I don't think it works the same if my nephew is in focus.

All this imperfection, yet photos that feel alive, in motion, nostalgic. The composition, cropping, and editing all necessary to make them work. Take one of those three parts out and I don't think these work the same. Here's an image from the roll of black and white film I shot in Washington last fall that helped me see the possibilities. Scrolling through this roll put me in the right frame of mind to visualize a different approach.

You'll mostly notice the edit, of course. The heavy grain. The imperfect exposure and lost shadows. I got hit with nostalgia, taken back to golden hour on that ridge looking to Mt. Baker shown in the back left. So I applied the same ideas to the photos of my family and got the same effect.

Let's take a look at the RAW files to see the difference. The first shows the power of the crop, the second for me shows the power of the edit.

A key note I want to pull out here from the image subtitle: Make it feel more like a memory than a moment. This is a nice cue for approaching an edit like this.

Minimal cropping in the second image, but the edit makes all the difference.

How to make moments from memories

Thinking through the path to these updated photos I notice a couple things. First, looking through my film roll helped me have a particular edit and feeling on my mind. Gritty, imperfect, nostalgic. Second, my mindset for even looking back at these photos in the first place. I was thinking a lot about my family at the time so my eye naturally caught this folder in Lightroom and clicked in. Third, time. Sometimes separation from taking the image can help you see it in a new light. What was previously a miss can now become something new.

All these pieces came together to create these photos more than a year after they were taken. It's a good reminder for me to spend more time in my archive, to purposefully seek out different editing styles, and to follow what's weighing on my heart. Family was on my mind that day, so I followed that urge when choosing what photos to work on. I've often heard the saying if someone crosses your mind to listen to that and reach out. I feel the same about this feeling when it comes to sharing images.

Photos let us give the gift of a memory, and it never gets old.

Thanks for reading!

Alex Eaton

Writer, photographer

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