For a photographer there are few things more satisfying than the creative process, whether bringing to life an image that you have imagined and pre-visualized, or capturing a revealing moment of the human condition or the world we live in with split-second timing because you had the foresight and planning to put yourself in a position to get the shot. For some photographers, the act of creating photographs and getting the shot trumps everything that follows. World-renowned street photographer Gary Winogrand lived to shoot. At the time of his death, he left behind 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film, 6,500 rolls of developed but not proofed exposures, and about 3,000 rolls of film that had made it as far as being made into contact sheets. Chicago street photographer Vivian Maier left behind a body of work spanning forty years and consisting of some 150,000 negatives, and yet she received little recognition until her work was acquired by collectors several years after her death. Why? Possibly because for Vivian, getting the shot trumped all other considerations. Her intriguing photographic and life’s journey were revealed in a fascinating book and an award-winning documentary film, but all of her subsequent acclaim was posthumous.
Most of the rest of us, however, toiling to capture photons in interesting ways, consider sharing our work with our peers and the public to be an important part of the photographic process. After all, the essential goal of a photographer is to produce a photograph. Receiving recognition for our efforts can be a wonderful and rewarding thing, emotionally, psychologically and even, on occasion, financially. Few of us are immune to the thrill that comes from creating an image that receives some small measure of public admiration – a 100 Facebook Likes! – or the acclaim that can come from winning an award in a photography contest or gallery exhibition. And to be published and to see your images in print, nirvana! For professionals, an enormous amount of satisfaction is gained from knowing that your clients are paying you not only for your technical skills, but for your creativity, imagination, style and taste. Although most professionals don’t like to say it out loud, many are willing to accept less money for the opportunity to do work that allows them to utilize and give expression to their full artistic skill set.
When you share your work with the public for scrutiny, there should be an implicit understanding on your part that you are offering up your work for critique by your audience. When the time comes to post, print or publish a photograph, graduates of a photography program have a distinct advantage over the self-educated amateur. Image review and image critiquing are key elements in any photography class.
The typical educational format has an instructor teach some fundamental skills and/or knowledge to the class, often with an in-class demonstration, then gives the students an after class shooting assignment designed to demonstrate the student’s understanding and mastery of the those skills, and then has the students bring in their work for review. Over the course of a semester this will happen at least half a dozen times, and most courses require the submission of a final portfolio of work that receives a further critical review. And with every critique you are handed a grade and an evaluation of your efforts. If you take twenty courses on your way to graduation, you have easily been through a critique of your work more than a hundred times. And most of that critiquing is done in front of your peers, your fellow students. It doesn’t take long for you to acquire a thick skin, to separate your work from your ego, and the understanding that the critique is about the merits of your work and not a criticism of you as a person. That being said, a tough critique can sometimes be hard to sit through.
But if you were to ask most graduates what they miss most about photography school, almost all of them would say that they miss the structure and the constant feedback about their work. A great critique can help you see your work in a new light(pun intended), reveal your strengths and weaknesses and help you grow and evolve as a photographer.
Just as no responsible pilot would consider taking off without walking around their aircraft and doing a pre-flight check list, I have tried to make it a habit to run through a mental check list every time I am about to post, print or publish a photograph(and if I’m really on my game, every time I look through the viewfinder). As a photographer, you want your images to speak highly of you. Every photograph that you post reveals a lot about you as a photographer because of the choices you made to create that image. You can tell everything you need to know about a photographer from their photographs.
So before you hit the “Enter” or “Print” Keys, take a moment to pause and consider the following:
DOES THE PHOTOGRAPH PASS ALL THE MINIMUM STANDARDS OF TECHNICAL QUALITY?
– Is the focus correct? The photograph should be focused on the focal point of interest in the image. The focal point is the central point of interest in your photograph.
– Is there pixel or motion blur? Is this a technical issue or a clear artistic choice? In short, did you do it on purpose?
– Is the exposure correct? Is it too light or too dark? Are the highlights clipped or the shadows blocked? Underexposure is not the correct way to make your photos look “moody” or “dark”.
– Is there too little or too much contrast in the image? Are the tones even? Are the whites white and the blacks black?
– Does the depth of field used control the viewer’s eye? Has a busy background been thrown out of focus or is it too distracting? Does the depth of field accentuate the focal point of the image? There are very specific reasons why professional photographers pay extra money for prime lenses with apertures of f/1.8, f/1.4 and even f/1.2 and professional grade zoom lenses that start at f/2.8. Lens choice and aperture choice are artistic choices.
– Has the right focal length been used? Does the perspective suit the subject matter of the photograph? There is a reason most portraits are shot with what we consider flattering focal lengths. And why landscape and architectural images are often shot at much wider angles.
– The use of colour and a photograph’s palette are very much an artistic choice, but how do the colours look? Shifts towards blue remind us of Winter and twilight. Blue is Cool. Shifts towards yellow remind us of sunrises and sunsets, sunny afternoons and magic hour. Yellows, oranges and reds relay warmth. Too much green or magenta however, can throw off a photograph, especially if the skin tones in an image appear “off”. When was the last time you colour corrected your monitor?
– Has the the lighting been handled properly, whether the image was created in the studio or outdoors? Did the lighting in your image say what you wanted it to say?
DOES THE PHOTOGRAPH FOLLOW THE WIDELY ACCEPTED RULES OF COMPOSITION?
– Has the photograph been framed in such a way that your eye is directed towards the focal point?
– Is the focal point smack dead centre in the middle of your frame? Is that the strongest composition? One doesn’t need to be a slave to the “Rule of Thirds”, but it exists for a reason. You need to know and master the rules before you can break them or discard them.
– Is the focal point large enough in the frame? Would the image be made stronger if the frame was cropped?
– Anything that doesn’t make an image stronger by its presence, shouldn’t be in the frame.
– Is the focal point of the photograph positioned within the frame in such a way that the composition is enhanced? Is the composition balanced? Does the framing and composition direct and control the viewer’s eye? Are there lines in the image that lead the viewer’s eye off the edge of the frame instead of towards the focal point? Do other objects in the frame interfere with the focal point? Is there a tree or a lamppost sprouting from the top of someone’s head for example?
– Does the edge of the frame crop off any critical elements of the photograph? Cropping off fingers, or cropping on people’s joints are all considered technical errors. And just as in real life, lopping of someone’s head in a photograph is a criminal offence.
– In architectural and landscape photography, vertical lines should be vertical and horizontal lines should be horizontal. If not, changing perspective should be a deliberate and clear artistic choice and not an accident. Giving a horizon a “Dutch angle” works best when it is obvious, otherwise it will appear like you have made a mistake.
– Are there distractions on the edge of the frame that pull the viewer’s eye away from the focal point? Distracting lines, highlights or objects? As the photographer you are responsible for everything we see in a photograph. If an object appears in a photograph, the viewer can only assume it is there for a reason. As the image creator, you must ask yourself, what should and shouldn’t be in the frame?
DOES THE PHOTOGRAPH HAVE ARTISTIC MERIT AND EMOTIONAL APPEAL?
– Does the photograph appear finished? Or, does it appear to need further post-production. Today’s digital cameras can produce amazing images in camera, but nearly all photographs can benefit from some post-production. Most portraits require some minimal level of retouching for example.
– Does the post-production appear heavy-handed or overdone?
– Do you find yourself drawn to the photograph and lingering over its image? Does the photograph speak to you? Does the photograph arouse an emotional response within you? If it doesn’t effect you, it is unlikely to effect the viewer.
– Did the photograph connect with the subject or subjects in such a way that the image seems to reveal something about the subject? Do the subjects appear natural or vulnerable, or stilted, posed and unnatural? Do the poses of your subjects flatter them? Are they aesthetically pleasing?
– Does the the photograph tell a story? Reveal something about the human condition? The state of the world? Did the photograph have a point of departure? Was the photograph taken with intent?
– Does the photograph demonstrate originality and creativity? Or is the subject matter, or focal point a tired cliche? There are reasons many models will publicly post messages that they will not pose in any photograph featuring “Caution Tape”, railroad tracks, or “hand bras”. Look again at your photograph and ask yourself how many times have you seen an image just like it? How many times have you shot an image just like your latest one? Are you repeating yourself on an endless loop tape? Have you fallen into an image rut because you have found something that feels safe and you have grown comfortable? Maybe too comfortable? Has the image been done to death or have you found a way to say something new about it? The world has already seen enough selfies, dogs, kittens, plates of food, sunsets and flowers to last an eternity.
So, you’ve walked around your photograph and you’re happy to go flying with it. By all means hit “Enter” or “Print”!
But once you do, take a moment to realize that your photograph no longer really belongs to you. Sure, you retain all the copyright, but when you share your photograph with the big, wide world it also belongs to its audience. And your audience will have opinions about your work. Some of which they will not hesitate to share with you! And chances are, you may or may not agree with some of those opinions. In the words of Ansel Adams, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer”.
When people critique your photograph, don’t make excuses. Don’t say it’s not your strongest work, or you didn’t have time to retouch it the way you wanted to, or you have a new camera, or you couldn’t get the light just the way you wanted to, or… just don’t make excuses. Your photograph is your photograph. Own it.
The only exception to the “No Excuses” Rule, is if you are looking for technical and artistic advice. If you are having issues getting from Point A to Point B in your artistic development it’s perfectly reasonable and oftentimes very helpful to post a work in progress and ask for opinions and assistance in overcoming a hurdle. Just make sure you state up front that that is the purpose of your posting.
And finally, a critique of your photograph isn’t a criticism of you as a person. It’s not you hanging on the wall in that gallery, it’s your photograph. And while it may be difficult to separate ourselves from our artistic identities, they are different beasts.
Constructive criticism can be incredibly helpful. Do consider the source, but if you are getting criticism from industry professionals, they usually know what they are talking about. Especially when it comes to technical matters. Artistic merit is often a matter of opinion, as people come from many different backgrounds and can have very different tastes. Visual art is a very subjective thing. You may not agree with someone, and that is perfectly reasonable, but don’t tell them that they are wrong. And don’t get too discouraged. Especially if you are just starting out. To quote Henri Cartier-Bresson, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst”.