Getting better at Photography #2: Critical evaluation of your work.

Warning: This post contains a frank discussion about getting better at photography.

You have been shooting for a while, watched all the YouTube videos and maybe you got that one shot that everyone likes, you took it to the fair and maybe you won a prize. Now with everyone telling you how talented you are, you decide to take the plunge and buy a better camera (because Pro Photographers don’t use point and shoots right?)  and now the shots you are taking and posting to social media aren’t getting quite the reaction that you got for that one shot. What gives? You dumped a ton of money into that expensive camera and your shots look uninspiring. So you take the next logical step, you invest in a suite of one-click filters that will fix all your photo problems, because over saturated images with a great big vignette are what people are looking for. Does this sound familiar?

Let me tell you that you aren’t alone. Every day people follow the same path you did and end up where you are right now, with an expensive camera and a lot of expensive software and really no idea what goes into making a great image. Welcome to part 2 of my series on getting better at photography. This isn’t a top ten list of get better quick tips like you see on the social media sites, but rather a discussion about where you are now and how you got there, and most importantly, suggestions on where to go next.

Critical assessment of your work.

Criticism hurts, especially when it comes to something that you worked hard on. You got out of bed, drove to the state park and spent the entire day wandering around shooting everything you saw. The last thing you want to hear is a bunch of critical nitpicking about your cool shots. Maybe you are one of those people who give up if they are criticized about their work.

Posting shots to Flickr or other ego-massaging sites isn’t helping you to get a critical evaluation from people who know photography or art. The two reactions you generally get from those sites are either from people who love everything that everyone does, or people who don’t really take photographs, but rather study all the YouTube videos they can and offer their armchair advice based on others critiques of similar photographs. I have personally found little use for either of these kinds of feedback.

So where can you get honest, critical feedback on your images, and end up with a solid idea of areas you can improve? A class. Depending on your time availability, you can either consider a Community College class with other photographers of your level or perhaps a one-day type seminar. Often you can arrange time with the instructor after the seminar to take a few minutes and review some images. As a side note here, I am working on a post with a few strategies about how to choose the images for a portfolio review, so keep checking back about that.

The benefits of having what I would consider a “professional” person review your images, is that generally, the feedback will not only focus on what is bad about your photos, but what is good. A constructive critique of your work can energize you to get back out and keep shooting, while giving you some solid ways you can improve your images. I cannot emphasize how good this can be for your future work, especially if it comes from a Photography teacher or someone who teaches seminars, as they likely have reviewed many students with work in the state yours is in, and can give good suggestions on how to take your work to the next level. You should get a lot more out of this sort of critique than you would from uncle Fred who always shoots the family reunions.

I can remember the second photography critique I ever had like it was yesterday. I remember the second critique because I went into the first critique thinking my images were amazing, because that is what my family and friends had told me. When the instructor pointed out all the flaws and inconsistencies in each image in front of the class, things started to glaze over. It almost felt like an out-of-body experience. Reality came crashing down on me, and the main point I took away from that first critique was that I had a long way to go in my photography. The feelings were all there, doubt, anger, frustration, you name it. Then I began to doubt the validity of the teacher’s comments and suggestions, thinking who is this person to point out flaws in my work? Denial set in, and the belief that my work was not all as bad as the instructor suggested it was. On reflection, thinking about those images I showed and the sad state they were in reinforces that the instructor was indeed correct on all points and I took the feedback to heart, and set out to make a new set of work for the second critique. The hours and days leading up to that second critique were anxiety-ridden. In the end I became a stronger photographer because I listened to the feedback I was given and integrated it with my present direction of image production. The end result was a significantly stronger set of images, and constructive feedback that sticks with me today as I shoot.

Since those early days, I have taken many photography classes and seen the reactions of students in their first image critique. How the students react to those critiques also varies. Some students are like me and integrate the feedback and comments about their work into the next set of images and become stronger photographers for it. Others are just looking for the grade or they are taking that photo class as part of their general education, I don’t fault them for taking the criticisms from the instructor and faithfully integrating them, but not really improving over the course of the class. The most disheartening responses to critiques are those that get visibly angry when their work is critiqued. I have seen several students take only one photography class, not do well in critique and then go on to sell their images at art and whine festivals. They spend their days wondering why others selling what they would consider the same images can do so much better in sales than they can for their work.

It should be noted that I am not saying that you should run to a photography teacher and incorporate every suggestion that is given to you, on the contrary you should work towards developing your own style with every image you take. Don’t be afraid to break the rules, I love the rule of thirds, but I don’t hesitate to ditch it if the image requires symmetry. Sometimes having someone look at your work can steer you in a direction that you might not be able to see because of your close proximity to the work. This is very true for me – my current favorite ongoing body of work came out of a grueling three hour long one-on-one critique.

Get out there and take some photographs!