Monday, April 15, 2013

Photography: Image Critiques and Toilet Paper?

Remember a time when you were in public but had food in your teeth,  toilet tissue on your shoe, or your zipper undone, but no one had the courage to tell you?  Embarrassing, right?  

Didn't you wonder why no one "told you?"  Didn't you hate knowing that you'd been walking about, oblivious to the faux paux?  
Photographer, Lisa Langell offers a video-based critique for a
photographer entering her first photography contest.

 Join Lisa's mailing list for announcements on critiques, workshops, and
other learning opportunities!
What if the same were true of your photography?  You go about, proudly sharing your work with friends, fans, and fellow photographers--not realizing that there are compositional, technical or other issues with the images.  Not wanting to offend you, others comment politely on the strongest points of the image, but avoid mentioning the hot-spots in the image, the blurry eyes, or the branches coming out of the top of the subject's head! 
To me, a good photo portfolio critique session with a quality reviewer should be a positive growth experience where you learn techniques to avoid (or try) so that you avoid embarrassment and both you and your audience have increasingly positive experiences through your work.   Simple as that.  When I submit my work for critique, I look at it as an opportunity to learn about things I never realized I was doing incorrectly, or things I could improve upon,  so as not to make that embarrassing mistake again! 

Quality image critiques are critical stepping stones on our journeys as photographers.
Critiques can be frightening to many photographers.  Understood!  Your work is your art, your expression, and mark milestones of growth along your journey as photographers.  You had a vision for your images when you photographed them, and it can be difficult to put yourself and your work in front of others and ask for critique.  Photography is personal, thus it's difficult for us as photographers, when submitting an image for critique, to separate "photo critique" from "photographer critique."
Adding to our reservations about photo critiques, are experiences where our work has been "compared to" the work of a renown photographer--and then judged accordingly.  Additionally, there can sometimes be a strong element of ego apparent in experts who critique others work (photography or otherwise), which can lead to a tendency to provide more negative commentary than supportive, helpful commentary.

My approach to photo critiques is different. I take a very supportive, respectful approach to your work.  I do not compare your body of work to that of others to pass judgment.  Rather, I look at your portfolio and give you helpful and supportive thoughts, based on your style and how your work comes across to me.  I love to also share ideas for things you could do in your future work that can enhance its quality.  I also readily point out the wonderful strengths in your work.

Photographer, Lisa Langell offers a video-based critique for a
fellow nature photographer 

Knowing what you're already doing well is just as important as knowing what the "next steps" could be for you in advancing your techniques and skills.

The more feedback you can get about an image, the more well-rounded your perspectives will be about it--and future images!  Here are a few tips:

  • Be able to identify the purpose of your work.  
    A reviewer will better be able to provide feedback if they know your intent.  (For example, do you wish to use the work for publication in a magazine or newsletter, versus images for artistic purposes, documentary-type photography, business cards, marketing collateral, etc.)
  • Avoid just getting one critique on your images.  Get 3-6 different perspectives from knowledgeable photographers and art-lovers alike.   Listen to trends in their responses, more than one single comment.   If you are doing a 1:1 private critique, time-permitting, have them review a body of 20-30 images, not just one or two.  This will help you understand your style, strengths, and areas for growth better than via an isolated image or two which can misrepresent your overall quality and style of work.
  • Take notes during your critique---often we are so worried about the critique and how to manage nervousness or emotional responses that we forget to truly listen to the critique itself.  Taking a few brief notes puts you in an active listening stage and puts that nervousness to work!
  • Consider bringing images from which you want to learn---not just your "best work."  Tell the reviewer that you know the image isn't "perfect," but that you want to learn how you can make it better.  Perhaps you wanted a blurred background but did not know how to accomplish that technique--a reviewer can assist!
  • Do not take it personally.  As difficult as it may be to hear the shortcomings (according to a reviewer) of an image you love, simply listen.  Most reviewers do not get pleasure out of finding "mistakes,"  rather, they simply want to help you grow and improve your body of work.  They are not judging you.  They are evaluating your work.  In fact, many reviewers  have more respect for photographers who have the courage to submit for a review than those who do not.  It shows that the artist has an openness to learning and a respect for the medium of photography.  The fact that you are open to a critique means you want to know if you have "toilet paper on your shoe" so that you don't have to walk around, oblivious to it!  This is a good thing!
  • Ask questions!  If you want to learn, ask questions!  Ask about your depth of field, focus, shutter speed, ISO, whether or not their are leading lines, composition strengths or areas for improvement, post processing suggestions, and more. 
  • If you truly don't agree with a critique, well--ok!  A critique is based on the prior experience, knowledge-base, and personal preferences of the reviewer.  It is OK to disagree with their feedback.  This is again why I suggest having critiques from more than one reviewer, and on a portfolio of your work, rather than on a single image (if possible.)  Trends in feedback are what you want to listen for--and what will be most valuable for you on your journey as photographers.  It's OK to disagree with certain feedback--but try not to discount everything or you will miss helpful nuggets.  
Photographer, Lisa Langell offers a video-based critique for a
photographer entering her first photography contest.    

 I hope this information helps you during your journey as photographers!
Stay tuned--Lisa Langell will be offering photography critique sessions via the web soon!  
Join my mailing list for announcements on critiques, workshops, and other learning opportunities!

--Lisa Langell