A motivational speaker and a friend of mine once told me, “feedback is the breakfast of champions”. This is especially true when it comes to learning photography. It sounds obvious but very few of the photographers actually make use of it. If you are a photographer trying to improve your skills, do try to get some artists and photographers to critique your work.
(Kumaon Hills – Photographed at f/5.6 at 1/640 sec on aperture priority and 100 ISO. A graduated ND filter was used to darken the hills)
This is the most difficult thing to do. Detaching yourself from your own photograph and then observing it. One simple method is to think that your photograph is going to be showcased on a busy junction and everyone is going to critique your image. Now , would you like this particular image to be showcased? What flaws do you see?
Most of the photographers are able to critique their own work once they start detaching themselves from their own work. I learnt this when I had launched my earlier website (the one before this), about two decades back! The feel that my photograph was going to be seen by other photographers made me critically analyze each of my image. This was before facebook or even orkut. The internet was not flooded with below average images then.
In present era, if you want to critique yourself. Think of imagine your photograph as being showcased among the best photographs that you can find. How bad will your own work look? Why will it stand out like a sore thumb?
Asking the right questions
All photographers detest other photographers to begin with – Let this fact sink into your mind. It may not be true all the time but it does no harm if you understand this when it comes to critiquing. So, when one photographer does not know the other photographer but sees them the first time, there is a mutual discomfort. When they come to know each other and find a common ground, this discomfort goes away and a mutual respect or even friendship appears. Once again, remember, this is a generalization and may not be true all the time.
Keeping the above fact in mind, it is now important to realize what questions to ask, to get the right answers. Few years back, I took an honest opinion of my work from some of my colleagues. The answers left a very bad taste for many months to come. They were – ‘you splurge money on lenses’, ‘landscapes is simply being in the right place at the right time and pressing the button’, ‘your website is too basic’, ‘do you write because you don’t have any real friends?’, ‘real photographers are the wildlife photographers’, ‘you started photography in the film era, but I started twenty years earlier than you!’, ‘your should crop more’, ‘your colors look too washed out’… and so on…
If you notice the answers, they are all darts pointed at me to demotivate me. Some colleagues of mine wanted to belittle my photography, others wanted to show their own skills on top of mine, some others didn’t even critique my photography and went ahead to comment on this site. What I realized was that a general question about my photography was not what should have been asked. So, for the next time, I took a couple of my above average photographs and asked specific questions… I was showered with answers from which I could pick some helpful advice.
Let us analyze the photograph above and try framing some questions. Divide the photographic skills into different aspects and ask questions related to each one. Instead of asking, ‘Can you provide feedback on the above photograph, the questions asked should be more focused’. Here are my tips for framing questions (based on this photograph) –
- Are there any obvious technical flaws in the photograph, especially related to the time when I pressed the shutter release? Here, you can have the exif information.
- Should I have exposed more to get better view of the surreal hills in the foreground?
- I had clicked raw and post-processed. Do you see any signs of post-processing errors? Have I gone overboard anywhere? Should I work more on some parts of the image? Is white-balance, saturation level and sharpening fine?
- Is the framing right? Should I crop more to focus on the snow-peaks? Should I shift the frame down to include more of the dark hill in the bottom?
- If I had just one shot – Should I have waited some more time for the light to turn orangish (it was a setting sun lighting up the hills) and risk the clouds covering up the hills again?
These are just some example questions. What I have avoided asking were vague questions such as – how is the photograph?
Problem in getting constructive criticism on any photograph is that the person providing the feedback does not know about the situation. Maybe in the above photograph, moving the frame down would have worked but in the real scenario, maybe there were power-lines or a boundary wall which would have spoilt the image. Many photographers suggest narrating the scenario before asking for the feedback. I prefer to get the feedback without setting any scene and later ignore the things that I could not have done.
(Rock and swirls – also shared on my Instagram – maini.live. This was one of the images from a series of about 15 photographs. The reason why I like this particular image is the sparkling stones under the water on the lower right side of the frame. On seeking feedback, one of the photographers commented that these were distracting and should be cropped out… photography is all about individual expression!)
Reading between the lines
The feedback that you might receive may be at two extremes – some photographers may be kind to you and not give a very detailed description whereas some others may be brutal and will hit on your own confidence and not just your photograph. They will break all the boundaries of destructive criticism.
When a photograph is critiqued and the feedback is very subtle and hidden among kind words, try to dig that out. Sometime back, a friend of mine asked me to provide feedback about her photograph. The friend is very close to me and I want her to nurture her love for photography. The photograph itself was terrible. Overblown highlights, camera shake, the subject was hidden away in unnecessary elements (she had used a very wide lens) and even the colors were very harsh due to excessive boost of saturation. I just told her to stabilize her camera! One thing at a time since I knew she was going to ask for my feedback again and again.
When I ask for feedback, the same thing happens. I remember a particularly nice shot that I had taken of a beach in Southern India. On asking another photographer who was very close to me. He just said that the foreground was too dark. What I understood was – the foreground was dark and characterless. It was taking away the impact of the image. There were foreground elements which were neither visible nor making silhouettes. The sky was characterless too. Very few scattered clouds and a grey sunset… I tore the print and shredded the negative. After a week, I was able to photograph the same scene again with far better weather conditions and a graduated ND filter mounted!
I remember yet another feedback. This was a brutal one. I had captured a photograph of a deer in a dark forest, that had turned back to look at me. The person to whom I reached out, was a well established wildlife photographer with a huge ego. I’ll try to quote his words as correctly as I still recall them – ‘The deer’s eyes are in focus but his skin is not. This is not your usual studio portrait. Get used to handling long lenses. Now a days, these long teles are so cheap that everyone with a camera and lens thinks of himself as a wildlife photographer. Dr. Maini, wildlife is not for you. Stick to your street photography and villages. What good is a deer photograph that everyone with a camera can click? Maybe you should accompany me on a few assignments and photo-trips and learn the nuances of wildlife photography’… the feedback was long but these are some parts that I remember. What I read between the lines were two things – I should have used a smaller aperture and tried to capture a pose which is not too common.
It is this reading between the lines that one should try when any feedback is received.
(The feedback on this image was that I should have waited for it to fly off or do something interesting, instead of just perched on top of the apple tree)
When you have to critique someone else’s work
Don’t be brutal, don’t be subtle. There is no straight rule that works for all. I recommend first understanding the receptiveness of the person. Give an honest feedback but without hurting the person and stop a little short of the limit of receptiveness that you might have judged.
Interestingly, from what I have lately observed, in most cases, the reason for requesting feedback is self-glorification, especially on social media. In such cases, understand the reason for request and respect the person’s feelings.
Don’t showcase your own skills, instead focus on the photograph that you have been requested to critique.
(A low key image of a cyclist in the outskirts of an industrial town on a cold morning. A photograph which very few people have liked but I find it nice, mostly due to the colors depicting Indian flag.)
Photography is about expressing yourself and finding happiness in what you do. Don’t let anyone’s criticism sadden you. Use it to your advantage where possible. Similarly don’t trod on anyone’s dreams when asked to critique.
Enjoy your photography!!!