Wabi-Sabi Photography – The art of the imperfect

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Wabi-sabi is a Japanese word roughly translating as 'imperfect aged beauty'. It is used to describe a particular philosophy that beauty can be found in the old, the everyday, the imperfect. And that everything is in a state of transition from or to nothingness.

Wabi-sabi photography, then, can be said to be noticing and capturing this beauty, for others to see. Wabi-sabi in photography can be split into 3 main types - photography of the overlooked beauty, photography of worn and weathered beauty, and adding imperfections to staged images to make them seem more real. We'll look at all 3 types in this article.

Wabi-Sabi Photography - The art of the imperfect

Photography of the everyday

One way of interpreting wabi-sabi is that of seeing the beauty in common items and scenes, beauty that is often overlooked simply because it is not where you expect to find beauty.

Abstract photo of the edge of a road
1qm_SAS_2669 by Stefan Schmitz on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)

To see this beauty often requires thinking in a more abstract way. You need to look at an item or scene not as an item / scene, but rather look at the shapes, tones, patterns, and colors.

A fence sticking up through a sand dune, covered by sand to varying degrees.
Dune fence, #2 by Christopher Paquette on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Getting very close to a potential subject removes the main identifiable shape of the subject against a background. The image becomes about the aesthetic of the shapes and lines within the frame, rather than what those shapes and lines actually represent in terms of a physical object.

Close-up of the edge of a wooden walkway over water, abstracted into shapes
IMG_5111 by Christina Xu on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Imperfect, broken, and decaying

This interpretation of wabi-sabi is the most common. It ties in with the Buddhist teaching that impermanence is an inescapable fact of existence. Everything changes and decays over time, just some things quicker than others. Wabi-sabi is seeing the beauty in the worn, well-used, weathered, and decaying.

Potential subjects are everywhere. Larger subjects, such as old houses in need of repair or disused buildings may or may not be common depending on where you live.

American Wabi Sabi - An old dilapidated house
American Wabi Sabi by Waywuwei on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)

But if you look at things close-up, there are an almost endless variety of subjects. The stains on an old baking tray. The patterns on the surface of dirty washing-up water. Rust and dirt on old tools.

Tree bark and moss texture
Tree bark and moss by Duff Axsom on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Again, thinking abstractly so you see the patterns and texture present, rather than just a well worn object, can help greatly in seeing the photographic potential of the object.

Texture of ripped up paper on a wall
Wall Wabi Sabi by leesean on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)

Adding imperfections

Probably the least discussed interpretation of wabi-sabi is that of adding imperfections to an image on purpose. There are two reasons that this may be done - to add beauty to the image through the imperfections, or to make the image more realistic.

We don't live in a perfect world, and so a 'perfect' image often will not have as strong a connection with the viewer as an imperfect one. In terms of stock photography the move over recent years has very much been from perfectly lit photos of beautiful models in a controlled studio setting to that of preferring images of real people doing real things.

This doesn't necessarily mean that images can't be staged, but rather that they need to be captured so they don't look staged. Part of this is down to the model's acting ability, part of it is down to purposeful technical mis-steps on the part of the photographer.

For example, using a simple light setup that mimics daylight or a street light may not give the best lighting for your subject. But if you're after a realistic image, it may be much more appropriate and believable. You can end up with an image that may not be technically as good, but much more effective in its message.

Similarly, when working with creating composites or CGI, it is quite common to add noise to the image. For composites, the noise helps give a more consistent look over the whole image, bringing it together as a single piece. For CGI it just makes it look more real - if the image is too clean it can just look fake. Lens flare effects are often (over) used for the same purpose.

Composite of portrait and mountains photo as background, grain added to help tie the image together
Composite by Boudewijn Berends on Flickr (licensed CC-BY) - Composite of portrait and mountains photo as background, grain added to help tie the image together

Imperfections in the technical process of taking a photo can also be used purposefully for the aesthetic they give to the image. The most common example is a slow shutter speed combined with either movement of the camera or subject. The blurry image may be much stronger than an image where everything is sharp.

Artistic blurred photo of trees taken by moving the camera during a long exposure
Lightheaded by Carlos Andrés Reyes on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Other technical imperfections such as high levels of image noise / grain, overly bright or dark exposures, subjects partly cut off at the edge of the frame, camera at an angle, extremely high or low contrast, and more, can all be used to make an image that is actually more pleasing to the eye than if it was technically perfect.

So, there are multiple ways you can interpret the meaning of wabi-sabi, and use it in your photography. Don't think that embracing imperfection means you can be sloppy with your photography though. Wabi-sabi is about noticing and appreciating imperfection, not being imperfect and not caring about it.

Always strive to improve, but don't forget not everything has to perfect, and indeed, nothing can be.

Written by Discover Digital Photography

July 17th, 2016 at 2:23 pm

5 Responses to “Wabi-Sabi Photography – The art of the imperfect”

  1. Charles rankin says:

    Trying to look at photography with a different eye.

  2. David says:

    Fascinating perspective on image making . It’s a challenge to make a good image out of a subject that is old and worn

  3. Ellen Marshall says:

    Thank you. This is the best explanation of Wabi-Sabi I have come across. In 2019 when I first heard of it my photo teacher just presented the concept as RUST. It is way more, now I shall explore all of that.

  4. Andrew Cutugno says:

    I am interested in Wabi-Sabi Photography, also in meeting other photographers who have the same interest

  5. Just heard this term Wabi Sabi on 12/3/23. Not realizing I have been photographing it for years. I just called it abstract photography. My photography now has an identity, Wabi Sabi and I love it!

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