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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

How to Get Constructive Criticism for Your Photos

Introduction

Today's article was inspired by seeing an online post on a photography forum. Someone posted 2-3 photos and asked: "Are my photos good or bad?". In all areas of life, the quality of the answer also depends on the quality of the question. Asking whether a photo you posted online is good or bad is like asking "what kind of clothes should I buy?"

Criticism is thin ice. Some people don't want to receive it, others think they do (but become upset by it), and others are excessively self-deprecating and embrace all kinds of feedback, without any meta-criticism applied to it (=without critiquing the criticism).

Reading all this, you might think it doesn't concern you. You might think it sounds too complicated, too theoretical, too difficult in some abstract way. Or, conversely, you might think it sounds something concerning only beginners - if you are an experienced photographer, you might think all this is something you've been through in the past.

The truth is, criticism of your art is a never-ending process. And that's a good thing! You can always get better.

If I ask "Is this photo good or bad?" and you answer "It's nice" (or, "it sucks"), have I learned anything at all?


Basics of Criticism: A bit of Human Psychology

The scenario is something you have surely witnessed at some point - and perhaps even experienced personally: You post a photo on an online community or forum, and you receive critique. Before you know it, you feel extremely defensive. You just feel bad about yourself, and you don't like at all what you read. Sometimes things can even get out of hand, with people unable to properly communicate. All these symptoms stem from a very basic misunderstanding regarding criticism:
A critique of your art is not a comment on you as a person
You might be a very intelligent, kind, fun-loving individual, with a brilliant career in NASA, a chess rating of 2300, and the shape of a marathon runner. Oh, and maybe you can play guitar like Steve Vai. When you post a photo online asking for criticism, none of these matter (naturally), and any criticism you receive about the photo has nothing to do with anything else related to you. So, you must learn to disassociate yourself from your photo when receiving criticism. See your image not as something you made, but as a little quiz that a group of people discuss about.

Art is Subjective: Ask the Right Questions  

Compare these two questions:
- "Are my photos good or bad?"
- "What kind of clothes should I buy?"

With these two:
- "I've been trying to create some low-key portraits, and I placed one flash below the subject, but now I get a bit harsh shadows. Do you think it's a deal-breaker? Any ideas how to avoid the shadows?"
- "I'm going to an engagement party, it'll be outdoors and it might be bit chilly. Any suggestions about what a 29-yr-old bit round girl could wear to feel both comfortable and elegant? My budget is up to $200"

See what I mean? The quality of the answers you'll be receiving depends on the quality of your questions. Don't be lazy, don't expect other people to just do your own homework and give you either a pat on the back telling you "nice photos" (what have you learned? Nothing), or an exclusive list of things you need to do to create a masterpiece.

Learn to Filter: All about Meta-Criticism

I see this on online photography fora way too many times: Someone posts a photo, someone says something in the direction of "wow, there are a lot of mistakes here, this isn't very good" (without elaborating), and then the original poster says something like "Yeah, I know, I still have a lot to learn"

Well, but nobody has learned anything out of this, that's the problem!

This is something that comes with experience, but it is absolutely essential: Learn to filter the criticism you receive, and to recognize which one you should ignore, which one you should accept, and which one you should adapt. Here's an example:

Let's say I post this photo:


and I ask: "I was trying to create a sense of expectation - you know, as if someone is thinking about the upcoming big game or something - but I'm not sure I got this. Any ideas on what is missing?"

Let's assume I get three answers:

a) Nice photo, I like the way the light reflects on the board
b) There is no context here, there is no way of knowing whether you just shot a random shot at a playground or you were alone in the gym before the game. Consider a wider shot (you might need multiple flashes for the lighting) to show where you are.
c) I think what this photo lacks is a human figure.

So, how would I go about these three answers? a) is dismissed as not offering anything. b) offers an interesting idea, and so does c). Therefore, I choose to adapt b) and c) and combine them into a shot bit wider than the current one, perhaps with a player looking up to the basket.


Final Words: There Are No Wrong Photos, only Wrong Technique

Photography is art. And as art is subjective, it can't be 'wrong'. In other words, as a viewer/critic you are absolutely free to say that you don't like or understand a photo. You are also free (and subconsciously that's what we always do) to form assumptions about the photographer's intention and judge the result accordingly. But this doesn't make your judgment (any judgment) objectively true.

Let's use another example. Let's say I post this photo:


(And to prove my earlier point, let's assume I ask "Is it good or bad?")
Almost as an impulsive reaction - perhaps as a result of our getting used to seeing "correct" (=properly exposed) photos - many people might say something like "it's underexposed". Well, that would be the case if we made the assumption that I wanted to expose for the scene. But would the assumption be different if I asked, instead of the meaningless "is it good or bad?", something like "I tried to expose for the falling leaves, I liked the way their color stands out. But do you think they're covering too small a portion of the frame, are they visible enough?"

Now, when you start asking specific questions, you can start getting specific answers regarding your technique. Nobody can objectively say "this is a good/bad photo", but we can objectively say whether one's technique/procedure regarding a specific goal has been successful or not.

Appendix

I need to make a small addition, inspired by a reader's message. I was asked, what if you are a beginner photographer and don't know enough to pose the "right" questions? It is a valid concern, but it's no cause for alarm. To ask the proper questions, you don't (necessarily) need to know technical terms or have any deep knowledge of photography composition. What you do need to know is what you were trying to achieve with your photo. If you didn't have a thought, a feeling, a state of mind (affect, in other words) associated with your photo while you were taking it, there is no point in asking for critique, is there? It would be a bit like randomly throwing paint on a canvas then ask someone (other than Jackson Pollock!) if it's art worth anything. When you want to convey your feelings/thoughts as a photo, seeing the photo makes you already have a good idea whether that feeling/thought is conveyed successfully or not. If you don't know how to ask about exposure, saturation, black and white points, or rule of thirds, don't worry about it. But you can ask something like: "This sunset was so sublime when I was there, it made me feel so content. But I'm not sure if it translated into a picture successfully. I don't feel the 'take your breath away' factor. Any ideas what is missing?"

This is already much, much better than simply posting a photo and asking "Is this a good photo?"





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