“Who can you count on to notice things in your work? Well, mainly yourself. If there’s something there, viewers may respond, but usually inwardly. And, if the vision is not fully realized, responses will be even muddier.” ~ Sean Kernan, Looking into the Light
There are all kinds of places online (and in photography workshops) where you can get critiques of your photos. I visited one such site and clicked on an abstract image that had eleven replies. Each reply was totally different and very subjective.
So, what does a photographer do with this information?
I have nothing against getting feedback as long as we put it in its proper place. In this post, I’d like to share some ideas on critique and suggest that you already know inside what feels good or not so good about your images.
Tara Mohr, in her book Playing Big, says:
“Feedback doesn’t tell you about you. It tells you about the person giving the feedback. It gives us facts (information) about the opinions and preferences of those giving the feedback. It is vital not because it tells us about our own value but because it tells us whether we are reaching the people we need to reach.” ~ Playing Big (Chapter 4, Unhooking from Praise and Criticism)
In other words, when it comes to a photograph, the feedback doesn’t tell us if it’s good (or if we’re good), it tells us whether or not it resonates with that particular person.
Sean Kernan, in his book, Looking into the Light, also has a chapter (10) on feedback. He says:
“The trouble with asking people what they think of your work is that they tell you. You need to listen to people very carefully, and to your own voice most of all.”
The most important response is your own. Take in external feedback but don’t make it the most important thing.
I believe that we intuitively know how to compose (especially with practice) and we know if we’ve been able to express what we saw. Some photographers will say that the photographs that they took “didn’t turn out,” meaning the images didn’t reflect what they saw. In some cases, it probably wasn’t possible. In most cases, they didn’t take the time to really explore how to do it or to clarify their intention.
Those who’ve taken my online workshops know that I’m not big on photo critique. My main goals in the workshops are:
1. That participants will photograph daily and broaden what and how they see. This requires practice and an openness to play and making mistakes.
Critique often shuts that down.
2. That they will learn to trust their instincts about what they see and why and gain greater self-awareness in the process.
They learn to critique their own images.
3. That they have a safe space to express and share their vision with others.
They’ll feel free to post without worrying about harsh criticism.
In the online world, interaction is fraught with misinterpretation and misunderstanding. When someone posts an image, they are sharing a little piece of themselves. Therefore, critique should be minimal and constructive.
I prefer to focus on the positive – whether their intention or vision comes across and to point out what does work.
I encourage participants to write about why they are posting an image and what decisions they made in the creation process. To me, this is by far the best way to learn – by analyzing our own images, writing out our intentions, and seeing how others do the same.
For example, in the photograph at the top of this post, I was drawn by the constant movement of the water towards the right. The sun was setting and lighting up the autumn trees on the far shore. By intentionally setting a longer shutter speed and panning my camera to the right, I was able to show the colour and feeling of movement – in other words, my experience of the moment. The longer shutter speed did overexpose the image, and I’m not thrilled with the white band at the top. Overall, I’m happy with the way it turned out. And, that’s what matters most.
It’s not easy to express what one saw and felt in a photograph. However, it’s a good practice to develop. In my next post, I’ll share an exercise I’ve been working on to do just that.
Sometimes, it’s not possible to say it in words and the image must speak for itself. I think that these are usually the best. (Read: Guy Tal on Visual Fluency.)
What are your thoughts on critique? Have you had an experience that shut you down?