The other day I had someone say something very interesting to me, and it made me think.
As I sat with a friend, enjoying a bowl is Vietnamese Pho, I asked her if she had seen the images from my photo shoot earlier that day. Looking for critique, I got more than I had bargained for when she replied:
"I think you could have done better."
Man, did that strike a chord. I was happy to hear her thoughts, they mattered to me, but man was I not expecting those particular words or the brevity that accompanied them. I thought on her statement for the remainder of our meal, and decided to give the photos another look when I returned home.
She was right. Inspecting the photos a second time around, taking the time to look at them from another's perspective, I suddenly wasn't a fan. The lighting seemed just slightly off, the pose not as natural as initially thought. What I thought to be perfectly good images quickly became symbols of how far I still had to go in my portraiture attempts.
Photographers love their photos, no doubt about it. Whether on film, or just pixels on a screen, every shooter has that image which they've simply grown attached to. From conception, to capture, to final product, the photos we produce are a part of us, and it is easy to become attached .
What's the problem though, with becoming attached to an image? I mean, we put the work in, why shouldn't we take a little pride in our creations?
Because it hinders the creative process, that's why.
Now a quick note, what I'm talking about here isn't just a "Hey, check out this neat photo I took!" kind of pride, I'm talking about the kind of pride that keeps photographers from asking for critique, or worse yet, looking to themselves for critique.
At the end of the day, no image is perfect. No photo is a complete mastery of that which the artist imagined beforehand (or in the moment), and no photo is so infallible that it communicates an identically meaningful message to 100% of it's audience. If that were the case, if one of these works did exist, I don't think you would see many photographers shooting at all. The game would have been won, the goal scored long ago.
But we do shoot, we share, and we look to inspire, to communicate. Which means that the creative process is alive and well. It means there are still artists banging their heads against walls, still photographers shooting so frequently and in such a frenzy that lens caps are left on, memory cards often left at home. To me, that is a wonderful thing.
So how then do we go about improving our shooting? Practice might make perfect, but if you never know whether or not you're hitting a mark with an audience, isn't it all for not? The answer, I think, lies in being connected with the audience. Not just through your images, but about them.
One of the commandments of photography is to never ask family members for critique. Why? Because you won't find it. Instead, you'll receive baseless praise and encouragement. Does it inspire you to go shoot? Perhaps, but it doesn't solve any problems, it doesn't enhance the purpose with which you shoot.
What you need, what all photographers need, is someone to rip our precious images to shreds. We need nit-picking of the sort only a fellow photographer can produce, and we need the purely conceptual critique that non-photographer viewers so often provide, even if they don't know it.
What do I mean by that? Take your favorite photo, the most powerful image you've produced, and present it to someone completely new. Don't even tell them that you took it. Now, look at their facial expressions as they inspect your work. Observe their tone of voice when you ask them to divulge their thoughts on the photograph. Does it make them sad? Happy? Were they impressed, or left dissatisfied?
If what you hoped would happen, and what you actually observed happening turn out to be the same, congratulations! You just connected with your audience.
For those of us who don't always hit their mark, and by that I mean everyone, here are a few things that can be done to improve the sheer volume of critique you receive:
- Join a photo-critique page on Facebook.
- Look up a local photo club, attend a meeting to build some connections.
- Join an online forum for photographers. In my opinion, www.photography-on-the.net and www.thephotoforum.com are two solid options. Make sure to follow posting rules carefully, especially when it comes to linking images.
- Set up a critique exchange with one or two local photographers. The idea being that you each regularly send each other images, and subsequently really take the time to dissect them. It is important that the exchange is 1:1, don't bury a new friend under a pile of images.
- Submit photos to a photo hosting page, such as Flickr, 500px, DeviantArt, etc. You must be comfortable with the risk that some images may be ripped off over time, but it is a small price to pay if it means quality critique. Using these methods requires you to actively "follow" others in order to gain a following from which you can accrue critique. Again, be fair. If you want to get critique, you need to give some.
Now, a few quick suggestions on improving the quality of the critique you get from the above options:
- Don't be an ass. It's pretty simple, just be humble. When people say they don't like an image, don't be offended, but nicely ask why. You would be amazed at how much you can learn about your impact on a viewer by doing this.
- Recognize that you are NOT a professional, and no one expects you to produce professional results, so don't act like one. The worst thing you could possibly do when submitting an image is to accompany it with a small novel on what inspires you, etc. Just let the image speak for itself.
- Provide the EXIF data! By supplying would-be reviewers with exposure information you are not only affirming that, to some degree, you know what you're doing, but it also helps them understand how the image might be improved. Include shutter speed, aperture setting, ISO, what camera it was shot on, and (if applicable) what lens was used.
- Lastly, while I know that so many new photographers love slapping watermarks on every image, do yourself a favor and DONT. Even the best of watermarks intimidate reviewers and more often than not result in lower critique yields. The only reason to have a watermark is if you are looking to get your name out there. Worried about images being stolen? Don't be. It will be discussed in a future blog post, but by my experience the presence of watermarks simply doesn't solve the problem.
So here we are. Abstinent from the all-too-easy compliments of family members, our photos have taken on a new light under the harsh inspection that only random people on the internet can produce. Or perhaps you've really gone outside the box and enlisted the help of a mentor from a local photo club? Kudos to those brave souls. In any case, being willing put images out there for all the world to see is the first step, and your photography is better off now that you've taken it.
To a photographer, a photo is often more than just ink on paper or pixels on a screen, it is a piece of their soul. They've invested not only time, but also emotions to create an image that represents something truly profound, whether we recognize it or not. Perhaps we should all keep that in mind next time we critique the photos of another.