A bit of a departure for this post, nothing about Fujis, or other cameras or even photographs!
So hands up! Who would like to be a better photographer?!
You all should have your hands up – unless of course anyone reading has reached the absolute zenith of their ability….
But how, how to achieve this improvement?
Let’s assume your improvement won’t come from technique and that you know how your camera works, and you understand exposure, the effect of aperture on DOF etc. Let’s also assume that you’ve read the books and attended the workshops you want, along with being comfortable with post processing your shots.
So now “all” that’s left is for you to be able to take pictures that work, work aesthetically, stylistically and deliver what your clients/audience want to see.
And that, that right there is the hard bit. What’s the different between a competent shot and a popular one? What’s the difference between a shot that’s technically superb and a shot that works emotively in the eyes of the viewer? [NOT THAT THESE THINGS HAVE TO BE MUTUALLY EXCULSIVE OF COURSE!]
The answer is of course, opinion – the opinion of the viewer.
So when you want to grow as a photographer, grow in terms of audience reaction, you are to a certain extent wishing to solicit a positive reaction from the viewer, you want their opinion to be favourable.
So how to go about learning how to do this?
Well one valid and perfectly acceptable method is to seek feedback and critique on your work.
Constructive and accurate peer driven feedback is an important mechanism for growth.
However, we’re not all surrounded by fellow photographers; we don’t all have access to peer driven feedback.
Many of the forums and photography based social media sites offer the chance of feedback, groups and sub forums where you can solicit feedback from people from around the world.
Curious to try this for myself… I submitted a shot into a crit group and waited to see what would come out… Waited to see if the advice and crit I was to be given would be beneficial or spurious; would it help me grow a little taller, or would it be baseless and puerile and likely to stunt growth…
So let’s take a look!
Things started off well – I quickly gathered these following comments about the strength of my composition!!
“I really like this image. I like the composition, the symmetry”
“I like it a lot”
“I like how you constructed the concept of a frame inside of frame held by two people.”
But of course you can’t appeal to all of the people all of the time, and sure enough…
“I think you framed it wrong though, a wider angle could have been better”
“Framing could be more balanced – slightly further to the right”
So far so good – we all have a different eye. But then of course it’s not just the look and composition of our work that we’re interested in hearing about, it’s also the meaning – does the audience get the shot, namely – was I successfully able to convey what I intended?
And that folks, that’s when things get a little convoluted.
“On the whole the content of the picture is too unremarkable. You could probably go back today and take a more or less identical shot”
“I like the idea but it lacks execution big way, a banal and sub-optimally composed photograph”
“it is obviously a composition comes first shot and otherwise it offers little. Having said that, this is a perfect composition”
I sort of dig what you tried to do with the photo – (but I have to) try to guess what the narrative is
“But the intention behind this particular shot – the people avoiding each other idea – just isn’t clear.”
“Overall, there’s a great back story here with underpins lots of potential narratives. The frame is bang on. It sums up the strain of 21st century existence.”
[NB: The above are 100% quotes]
Hmmmm so what’s a poor ‘tog to do?!!!!
In the eyes of some reviewers it’s banal, unremarkable, under par and means nothing at all.
Yet for other reviewers, it’s a perfect composition, has a great back story and captures human existence.
I assure you – they were all looking at the same shot!
It’s a little like cooking!!!
Let’s say you cook a meal for 10 people.
2 people say, that’s lovely thank you.
4 people say, it’s not seasoned enough
The other 4 people say, it’s over seasoned.
A week later, you’re planning to cook the same meal, for the same 10 people.
What would YOU do differently?
Keep the recipe the same? Add more seasoning or take some seasoning away?
How can you begin to cook for such an eclectic group of pallets?
It’s pretty obvious that you can’t.
And what’s worse, is that you had a “dish” that you were relatively happy with, and 20% of your diners liked as is. But 80% didn’t like the meal, so obviously there’s room for improvement, but the feedback on your food is contradictory.
So, what would YOU change?
What you need to change is the mechanism for feedback.
To me, photography is an artistic endeavor, in my opinion, the more of yourself you put into a piece of work, the better the chance that it will be successful. If you dilute your ideals, if you change your ‘recipes’ to pander to pallets that are not yours, then you lose a little bit of what makes you want create images in the first place.
You need to become better versed in self-criticism, you need to be able to self-curate your own work. After all, if you truly don’t know if you like the taste of your own food, how are you even in a position to accept the opinions of others? If you don’t know if it’s good or not, then why are you expecting a stranger to spoon feed you the correct answer – you have no baseline with which to judge the answer.
Online crit is actually quite fun. Seeing the differences in what people are looking for and their interpretation of what they’re looking at, is eye opening – but when it comes down to incorporating their suggestions into your own work, you probably won’t find it very educational.
This is why it’s SO important to keep your own counsel. The opinions of others are merely suggestions. Cherry pick them. You’re likely to get hints, but unlikely to get full answers.
Be your own critic, learn to pleasure yourself with your work. Be hard and be tough and be honest. But don’t subcontract that job out to strangers. It’s an important skill to learn to do for yourself.
If you get competent at pleasing yourself, then this pleasure, conviction and sense of purpose will be apparent within your work.
And you’ll grow as a photographer, you’ll get better and improve, and you’ll accept that you’ll never please everyone and wonder why you even bothered soliciting the critique of others.
Of course feedback from peers, people that take shots that you like and respect and wish to learn from is NOT what this article is about. If you have access to true peer driven feedback, please jump at it, but not all crit is equal, and you owe it to your craft and to yourself to become self-sufficient in terms of feedback.
Now stop reading this, get out there and shoot something, then take a long hard look at what you got and decide for yourself if you nailed your shot or not.
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4 Replies to “Learning to Pleasure Yourself: You won’t go blind; in fact it might help you see!”
Hello Adam, totally enjoyed this post! And recognized it fully! I am an illustrator and a graphic designer, as well as a photographer myself, and i am so used to 1000+ different critical opinions on one image / piece of work…
I have long ago learned to trust my education, my gut, and most of all my own emotions and demands for quality when judging the work I put out for anyone to see.
But thank you for this post, i might rub some people’s noses in it from time to time 😉 (hope you won’t mind!)
Keep writing, but most of all making those wonderful photographs!
Thank you very much Paulien,
Good critique delivered from peers can really help people grow, but online critique is (often) little more than white noise!
In my life, I’ve been lucky enough to meet some extremely talented people from a few different disciplines (artistic, engineering and even sports) and without fail they have always had time, patience and respect for anyone trying to learn ‘their’ craft.
When I see some of the “crit” dished out online in the various photography outlets, I cannot imagine anything further from the concept of peer driven growth.
If you encounter anyone that may be amused or even benefit from anything on my blog, then please do send them here 🙂