Ask For Critiques

By Roger (8 March 2015)

While you're learning about improving your photography, there is another good habit to practice. We blog about photography techniques, different pieces of equipment, and post-processing software, but how about a simple process that can improve your photography and doesn't cost any money? I'm talking about showing your work to people who can give you some advice on your photos.

Critiques are a good way to get some feedback on how you are progressing. It isn't easy to be objective with your own photographs since you are so involved with their creation. You'll be influenced by so many factors: the story behind the photo: new gear; an exciting place you got to visit; an important event you covered; etc. Your reviewer will not have all that baggage; their job is to judge the photo for content and technique.

One of the hardest parts of this challenge is finding a reviewer who is right for your photos. Your family is probably not the right source. They are going to be a little biased (depending on your family, it could be biased in either direction). You need some one who can give you a thorough critique, including, not only “good photo, bad photo,” but why. You want some one who can make suggestions to improve your photo. The best reviewers can do this without tearing your photo (and your feelings) to shreds.

Sometimes, this might be a group effort. We have critique sessions every three months at our photo group. Everyone gets involved, so they have a better idea how to conduct and receive a critique. You could also post to a critiquing web site and get some feedback there.

Your job is to listen to what is being said. Don't get defensive, and don't offer any background on the photo until (and if) asked. Again, your photo should stand on its own. Ask for detailed information and possible ways to improve. If they can't give you this type of information, you've chosen the wrong reviewer.

When all this is complete, assess what you have heard. Was there value in what you were told? Maybe you did catch an awkward smile on that portrait. Perhaps you should have done a more thorough job of looking for distractions in your background. Be prepared for your reviewer to claim your strongest photo is one you had lukewarm feelings about. Everyone's taste is different. I try to get several different people to comment on the same photo. The different answers I get can be unsettling, but I concentrate on repeat comments for the most reliable information on how to improve.

Often, they will see something in a photo that you missed entirely. The photo below has been on this blog before, and I got patted on the head several times for it. It is one of my favorites from Harper's Ferry. The back story is I wanted a photo with selective focus. I saw the re-enactor sitting by the window; pre-visualized the shot; grabbed my 85mm for its shallow depth of field; and, actually, made the shot I hoped for. Success, and people liked it. Sweet.

What is behind the captain's left ear?

What is behind the captain's left ear?

Until one reviewer asked me to identify the object behind his left ear. I had completely missed this distraction when I shot the photo (it's a ribbon on the banjo). Ugh! In my rush to make the photo, I didn't completely check my background. I should have moved the ribbon before I took the photo. Because I was so happy with my photo matching my pre-visualization, I completely missed it in my post-processing, too (or it would have disappeared). Four people praised this photo in a critique group, and also missed it or kept quiet about it, before the fifth reviewer pointed out the obvious error.

There will be times when you receive criticism that just doesn't seem right to you. Try to be open and objective, but, remember, you don't have to agree with your reviewer. Although I never ask someone whose opinion I don't value, reviewers come with their own set of values, and some of those may not align with yours. Unless they point to obvious technical flaws in your photo, they are stating their opinion. You are under no obligation to heed their advice, even if they are right.

Finally, make a sincere effort to learn from what you've heard and incorporate changes as you move forward. There is no point submitting photos for a critique if you're going to ignore everything you were told. You can't always reshoot a photo, but I have revisited a couple of landscape locations to try to do a better job.

Critiques can be very helpful to your development as a photographer. Don't take the criticism personally; learn from it. If you are serious about your pursuit, you don't shy away from valid critiques.

And, if you want to purchase the photo of the captain, I assure you, the ribbon is no longer there. Have fun.