Photography Critiques Suck! So let’s fix them!
Since we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic — I have had the opportunity to present to camera clubs all across the United States and in the UK and Australia. I always make it a point to ask club members how they feel about competitions and critiques. Almost universally members dislike the way they are done.
My goal in this episode is to help you with a better understanding of why traditional photography critiques suck and to enlighten you using some science and psychology about how to get useful feedback on your photography to help you grow and develop your skills.
I know that some of you will tell me that you appreciate having your work critiqued because it helps you improve and because you don’t always know what can be improved in your photograph. I am sorry to tell you that mentality is kinda lazy and just an excuse for not doing the work necessary to become a better photographer.
Now I know I have just laid down some fightin words. . . so let’s dig into this topic.
Why do critiques suck? Simple answer — Because most people are too lazy to do them well. Seriously. But let me be clear when I say most people — I mean the people asking for the critique and the people giving the critique.
It all comes down to context. People who ask for critiques rarely provide context and people giving critiques rarely ask for context before offering the critique. This also applies to the way photography competitions are judged. Let me phrase it another way. Feedback without context is an opinion. Opinions — regardless of whose opinion it may be — will NOT help you improve your photography. I assure you that these statements are NOT based on my opinion. They are in fact based on science. Researched, tested, proven and even used by corporations and institutions of higher learning around the world — kind of science.
For whatever reason, the photography community has been slow to acknowledge this science and slow to evolve to be more sensitive to the importance of context and the learned science behind feedback.
Unfortunately, traditional critiquing methods are more about the reviewer than the person receiving the critique. A quick Google search will show that there is much more information available about how to receive feedback than there is about how to ask for it or more importantly how to give it.
Research actually shows that traditional feedback contains much less useful information that we often perceive. In short — it is a waste of time and it can often be detrimental to your goal to improve as a photographer if poor feedback is followed. It has been shown that simply focusing on a person’s shortcomings doesn’t enable learning — it impairs it. Worse yet, the idea of a pending critique has been shown to activate the brain’s sympathetic nervous system — also known as the “fight or flight” response system. Our brains respond to critical feedback as a threat.
Now I really could go on about this science for quite a while — but that’s not going to help you either. You can take my word for it or of course, you can GOOGLE it. Let me give you some examples of how photography critiques tend to play out and then let’s solve the problem and talk about how they should be handled.
I’ll start with the all too common social media critique. These are my personal favorites because people frequently forget that they are actually typing to a human being. They are staring at a phone, tablet or computer and forget that the recipient of their message is a human with feelings — a human who is trying to be creative and who certainly didn’t share their photograph because they thought it sucked.
These critiques usually come in one of two forms,
Version 1: You post a photo on Facebook or Instagram because you are happy with it or because it represents an experience or moment that you had. Then some troll comes along with an unsolicited critique and tells you what’s wrong with the photo.
Version 2: You are foolish enough to post the image in a Facebook Group that focuses on critiques. Then of course you get loads of comments from people either telling you what you did wrong or telling you how they would have been able to do it better — all without giving you any information to actually help you improve and all from people who usually have no idea what they are talking about. They are just spewing crap that they heard in a YouTube video or at a camera club meeting. They are not speaking from real world experience and definitely not from a position of having mastered the topic at hand.
Regardless of which version… the comments come without proper context. They are uninformed opinions based on what the person sees on a social media website — instead of being feedback based on context.
You might be asking — what does he really mean when he keeps saying context — stay tuned.
We have established that social media critiques rarely provide value, how about image reviews or contest judging? Both of these tend to be just as bad. Most image reviews tend to be a so-called expert or experienced photographer looking over a series of images and offering feedback like — “I would have cropped this a bit more” or “I find the colors to be a bit flat, I think more saturation would have dramatically improved this photo” or my real favorites are the ones that mention rules…. “The composition is wrong, it should have used the rule of thirds.”
The problem of course with all of this feedback is that it has no context — without context — you can’t learn from it. It’s like going to school and learning that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, without learning why it was signed. BTW, the Declaration of Independence was actually signed on August 2nd.
So what do I mean by context? Well, the dictionary defines context as: the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.
In short — Context is the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY and HOW behind the shot. You may know that I began my career as a photojournalist. In journalism, we use the 5 W’s guideline and many times added HOW to the list. These five W’s are also known as the elements of circumstance. A concept that goes all the way back to Aristotle. This method of establishing understanding has stuck with me throughout my entire career and it has served me well at every turn.
To break them down… for WHO we need to consider the photographer is and where he or she is at in the learning curve. What is their skill level. Feedback should be tempered by consideration for their knowledge and experience level. WHO also includes the subject and similar considerations should be involved.
The WHAT includes what is being photographed — the subject as well as what gear, backgrounds, props, etc. are being used. WHEN is not just the time of day, but depending on the subject it can be the time of the year — the season. It could be a matter of the subjects age. Is it a particularly stressful or joyous moment that is being photographed? WHERE is pretty simply the location, but keep in mind that the location can influence the subjects’ mood, emotions and so-on. WHY is my favorite question and always the first one that I ask as a photographer. WHY did they take they shot? And lastly HOW. That is the question that ties it all together and allows us to troubleshoot the photographers methods.
To put this to practice, you may know that I operate a Facebook group that has over 10,000 member photographers from around the world. If you are not a member, here is the link (TOGCHAT Photographers Group on Facebook) What are you waiting for?
This is a learning group where both myself and members review images and solve problems — the right way.
Every image that is posted in the group has to include the following information in the post:
— Camera Type
— Lens. If it was a zoom lens — what focal length was the shot made at?
— Shutter Speed
I of course want to know the Lighting Details– including
— Type of light
— Powers of strobes
— Modifiers, etc.
Each photo post MUST also include the following:
— Why did you take the shot?
— What was the goal?
— Did you achieve your goal?
— If you could, what would you change?
If there is specific feedback the photographer is looking for or a specific problem they need help to solve— they should ask it as part of the post. With all of that information feedback becomes much more valuable and it becomes easier to identify what feedback should be given. Not based upon someone’s opinion but instead based on need.
If someone is lazy and forgets the group guidelines about feedback and just comments something like “I would have changed the pose or the photo is too dark”, their comments are deleted by admins. If someone says “I would have changed the pose because if you moved the model’s hand to her hip you would have made the hand look smaller and more elegant because it would appear thinner.” — Then you have feedback that offers solutions by telling you HOW to fix the issue and of course that feedback was made knowing why the photographer took the photo and what they were trying to accomplish. Meaning — it had context.
This brings us to an important point that you as a photographer need to understand. When you take a photo, you are experiencing that subject. It may be a beautiful sunset, a wild animal, a person — but it is your experience, your set of experiences as you determine how to shoot it, how to expose it, how to compose it, etc — it is these experiences that begin to form your emotional connection to that photo.
These connections could be because it is the first time you have seen something like your subject or the first time you have been to a specific location or it could be because of the interaction or even bond that you formed with your subject. All of these connections to the experience have an emotional impact on you as the photographer. But here is the great challenge… NO other human being will have the same experience with your photograph as you do. Even if they were there at the moment that you made the photograph — their experience at that moment was still different from yours and their viewpoint was different from yours.
So if another photographer doesn’t understand why we made the photograph… if they don’t understand what we were trying to accomplish with the photograph… if they don’t know us and what our level of experience is and if we were trying to accomplish something that we have never done before. If they don’t know these things — or worse yet care about these things…. How can they possibly give us feedback that will constructively help us to grow and improve as photographers.
It is for this same reason that younger photographers today don’t like photography competitions. I mean let’s face it… the only way to win a photo competition at this point is to follow the rules better than anyone else. In other words… create boring and predictable images. In my opinion… yes — this statement is an opinion… younger photographers today are the smart ones. They don’t want to be told how their photos are supposed to look. They want to have the freedom to be creative and not be held to a set of mandatory rules. And let me just point out to you that you see more and more major companies turning to young photographers who are creating rules free images — to shoot their ad campaigns.
Oh, And please… don’t be the photographer who says… but you have to learn the rules to break the rules. That is total oxymoron — that is a complete bunch of crap that old photographers have been saying for decades to make themselves sound smart and important. The simple science is — yes science — not opinion… once you know the rules… you are already stuck in the box and you are trying to fight your way out — in other words you have made it harder for yourself to be creative and make unique photographs.
Ok — enough of me trying to prove to you that critiques suck.
In the beginning of our presentation, I leveled the accusation that you are lazy if you like feedback because you don’t always know what needs to be improved in your photographs. So let’s break this one down and I will explain why I sincerely believe that and why science supports my outlook.
In my career, when I was a teenager learning photography, for the overwhelming majority of my work — I had an audience of one. Myself. I didn’t have the ability to post a photo on social media and have almost immediate feedback from people all over the world. And thank goodness I didn’t. Instead, I had to be honest with myself about my work and I had to take the time to look at my work and ask myself — what did I like and not like. I had to look at the work and ask myself what I could improve. I compared my work to the images that I saw in magazines — there was no internet — I am from the dark ages, so I couldn’t see thousands of images at my fingertips. I had access to fewer images which also made it easier to study them and learn from them.
Full disclosure, I did seek out critiques from mentors — several of them — especially as I got late into my teen years and I did essentially hit the mentoring jackpot. At first, when I would ask a question, they would ask me 10 questions before they would give me any feedback. The first question was usually along the lines of “tell me what you think of the photo.”
The more we did this, the more I was able to anticipate their feedback before asking and those lessons were in my head as I was creating the photos. This led me to ask even better questions which led to better feedback. I was lucky because my mentors understood that their task wasn’t to give me the answers and tell me how I should think or see. Their task was to teach me how to think and how to solve problems so that I could make excellent creative choices — not choices determined by some outdated set of rules or by some other photographers’ opinion. And all of their feedback and guidance it was based on what I wanted from the photo.
9 tips for self critiquing your own photos
1. Make it a habit.
Like anything else, if you don’t practice it you will forget it. If you don’t practice it, you will not become proficient at it. If you don’t practice it maybe you just aren’t that into it?
2. Start with WHY.
Why is my favorite word in the entire English language because it leads to enlightenment and understanding. There is no such thing as a perfect photograph. But perfection is a great value to embrace — as long as you are realistic about it. I am definitely a perfectionist — but I understand that I will never achieve it. Critiquing your own photography should be focused on improving your photography based on your goals — not the goal of others.
3. Is it easy to “read?”
Is there a clearly defined subject? Is there visual balance? Is there anything that distracts from the subject or flow of the photo? If there is — ask yourself What could you have done differently?
4. Does The Crop or Composition Enhance Or Detract From My Photo?
Does the composition highlight and draw attention to the subject? Does the way your photo is cropped complement the composition and framing? Certainly we want to avoid cropping in a manner that makes your subject look awkward. If you identify problems — ask yourself What could you have done differently? Check out TOGCHAT episode number 237 to learn some super simple tips for great composition without rules. The link is in the show notes.
5. Is My Photograph In Focus?
The most important part of your photo should be in focus. I say “should be” instead of “needs to be” because depending on your style of work, there are times when less-than-perfect focus is the intent.
6. Have I Thought About The Background Of My Image?
Does the background or a background element detract from the subject? This is a common problem with portraits — trees, light posts and other objects that appear to be growing out of a subject’s head, all of which you want to avoid.
7. Is My Exposure Right For My Intent?
To say that you should nail exposure is a bit vague, as “proper” exposure isn’t necessarily a universal concept. A high key shot or a silhouette are two examples that don’t fall into standard exposure principles, but no matter what the subject/scene is it usually looks better if you avoid blocked-up shadows and severely blown out highlights. If you identify problems — ask yourself What could you have done differently?
8. Processing and Technical Quality — Have I Improved My Image In Post?
Does your photo exhibit excessive noise, color fringing, dust spots or obvious distortion? These are things that can and should be corrected because they tend to be distracting in a way that lowers the perceived quality of the shot. Is your photo over processed? Heavy-handed post-processing can ruin even the best photos. If you identify problems — ask yourself What could you have done differently?
9. Is My Image Impactful?
Is your photo a clichéd yet technically competent shot, or does it possess a legitimate wow-factor even if it is slightly flawed? Know what purpose your work serves to help determine how it will be received by viewers. If you identify problems — ask yourself What could you have done differently?
There you have it. The bottom line is that it is up to you to make your work better. It is up to you to critique your own work and it is up to you to make the time to make it a habit.
If you are going to seek the advice of other more experienced photographers — don’t assume that a person is a great teacher or mentor just because they are good with a camera. But you can help to make them better by understanding how to shape your request for feedback with good context so that you can help them give you feedback based on their experience and how to solve problems — as opposed to simply just their opinion.
“Photography was a license to go whenever I wanted and to do what I wanted to do.”
— Diane Arbus
Arbus was also quoted as saying “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know,”
Born Diane Nemerov on March 24, 1923 in New York, NY, she was raised in a wealthy family, which enabled her to pursue artistic interests from an early age. She first saw the photographs of Mathew Brady and Paul Strand while visiting Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery with her husband Allan Arbus in 1941. During the mid-1940s, the married couple began a commercial photography venture that contributed to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Burned out on commercial work by the 1950s, Arbus began roaming the streets of New York with her camera, documenting the city through its citizens. These images were later shown alongside those of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, both prolific street portrait photographers.
Having struggled with depressive episodes throughout her life, Arbus committed suicide on July 26, 1971 at the age of 48. In 1972, a year after her death, the first major retrospective of Arbus’ work took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Today, her works are held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others.
I encourage you to study as much as you can about Diane Arbus and her work. She was a photographer ahead of her time in her appreciation for the things that make humans the same and yet uniquely different all at the same time.
Talent Under 30
This week’s Talent Under 30 photographer is Alex Schon.
Alex, is a 25 year old wedding photographer based just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He describes himself as a wedding photographer for couples seeking authenticity.
I first met Alex when he was 15 years old and he had convinced his Dad to help him build the DIY fluorescent lights that I had made for YouTube. It was clear then that Alex had a great future in photography and he has established himself as one of the premier wedding photographers in the ritzy Philadelphia suburbs.
Alex is a bit of a renaissance man born in the wrong period of history but he brilliantly uses that to his advantage in creating his style and his marketing.
Alex started shooting weddings primarily on film but more recently has transitioned to primarily digital due to the increasing costs and scarcity of film stocks. Alex has developed a light, airy romantic style that shows the beauty and emotions of a wedding day in a magical storied way.
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If you know of an incredibly talented photographer of any genre – under the age of 30 who is creating exceptional work – please share his or her Instagram handle with me so that I can check them out and possibly feature them here on TOGCHAT.
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