Monday, September 4, 2017

Picture Perfect

I have a friend that is a fan of doing things. If I really think about it, in reality, he's a fan of learning things. If there is a thing he wants to and he doesn't know how to do it, he learns it, and then he does the thing. Then he does this thing that is interesting. He stops. If he wants to get better at the thing he obviously doesn't stop. He picks another harder or more challenging level for that thing and he keeps learning. But for his original purposes, once the thing is done he stops.

You see, my friend uses this expression that speaks to a philosophy that I have found useful when trying to be more productive:

Perfect is the enemy of done.

It's a wonderful little sentence when you think about it. It has but six words. You could write it with four (perfect is done's enemy), you could write it with five and fancy up some of the words (perfection runs contrary to completion), or you could bloat it out with a bunch of unnecessary stuff to make it sound more profound than it actually is (when you seek perfection you are competing against your interest of finishing the task at hand). As it is, it takes its own advice. It does its job and it is finished. It's not perfect, but it is done.

Take note that this is a different philosophy than rushing through and doing something half-assed. That's just being lazy and in some cases irresponsible. This expression at its core is about getting the job done but not fretting over minutiae that won't impact the result in any appreciable way.

I often struggle with this in much of what I do creatively, in particular, my writing. When I write I have the tendency to edit as I go in an effort to have it read as I want it to read when it's done. I am compelled to make it perfect the first time, or at least in as many iterations right then as it takes to get it just right. The end result is nice, but it takes a looooooooong time to get it there.

For National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I just write. I start at word count = 0 and I write with reckless abandon until word count = 50,000. I get to the finish line in near record time (for me) but the end result is far from noteworthy. I recently opened up a short manuscript (~51,000 words) that took me less than thirty days to write. It's actually due to my publisher by the end of October. Aside from the fact that I wrote it three years ago, there was so much wrong with it that I was too embarrassed to let it see the light of day. This example makes a bit of a mockery of the "perfect is the enemy of done" expression.

There needs to be a balance. 

I take great pride in my work and never want something to go out into the world that doesn't meet my standards, but there is a limit to what is practical. For blog posts, I often employ the "good enough" philosophy. By and large, I think they tend to be decent and occasionally pretty good so I think my approach for these is working. For novels, especially since I've just landed a publisher, I need to start trusting the process. I need to get the manuscripts done and stop chasing perfection. The editing team will do their jobs and won't let it out into the world if it's subpar and I have to trust them.

The catalyst for this post came during and immediately after the latest solar eclipse. I was on a strict timeline to get set up. I had to prepare the telescope in terms of position and focus and get my camera setup and attached to the telescope. I wanted to do a time-lapse composite image that required shots every 15-20 minutes. My goal was a sequence of 8-10 pictures that spanned the range of full sun to maximum eclipse for my geographic location (~80% coverage).

Nature, being what she is, would not wait and I hadn't taken the day off work to do this so I had limited time to get set up in between replying to emails and whathaveyou. I would have to settle for "good enough" and cross my fingers. Better planning would have helped a lot. Some observations:

  • I did some test shots the day before so I'd know approximately where to have the focus knop on the telescope and what kind of exposure I needed, at least for a full sun. 
  • I didn't charge my battery (oops!) 
  • I did have a backup filter I could use if I ran into problems. 
  • I didn't factor in the angle of the sun and realized that I'd need to be lying on the ground to set up each shot. 
  • I did realize that I could set my rig up on a table to help with this. 
  • I didn't realize the table shook every time I so much as breathed on it. 
  • The clouds did cooperate (somewhat miraculously) and I managed to get shots every 15 minutes or so throughout the whole 2+ hour event

When I got home I opened up the images and found that I got quite a few good ones. I really wanted to get the pictures up on the internet quickly before the hype died down so I opened up the basic image editor for Windows 10 and did an "auto enhance" on each one, cropped it square and then jacked up the warmth to give them a more sun-like colour. However, the exposure wasn't identical for each of the pictures and the "auto enhance" feature only did so much to equalize them.

I started to muck with them in Windows 10 and then looked at the clock. I was running out of time and didn't want to be up all night, so I cut bait on that idea and I put them all into GIMP (basically a free PhotoShop). I was pretty sure that most people would do the standing line of images with totality in the middle. I didn't have a pic of totality so I was thinking of using either the maximum eclipse or full sun as the focal point. I mucked about with the layout for a bit and tried to come up with something different.

Before too long, inspiration struck and I had my layout. The colours were still off, though and I wasn't completely okay with how it was looking. A quick time check told me I had precious few moments left so I saved what I had and stepped away from it. A few minutes later, I came back and took a look with fresh eyes, and do you know what? I liked it. I really liked it. The imbalance in the colour worked. It looked real. It looked organic.

It wasn't perfect but it was done.

I have been using the expression, "Be better, not perfect," as my personal life motto for a while now and it was at this moment in front of my eclipse photo creation I came to the realization that art and people have at least one thing in common.

Sometimes beauty lies within the imperfections.

"La Fleur d'Eclipse" (c) 2017 Andrew Butters

~ Andrew