How Specializing Shows That Other Photographers' Critiques Can Be Wrong

How Specializing Shows That Other Photographers' Critiques Can Be Wrong

I owe a lot of the success I’ve had in my career to the critique I’ve had from other photographers. Since specializing though, I’ve had to unlearn many of those lessons. Specializing has proven to me that critiques from photographers are often wrong.

My first experience in critique from photographers came from the club circuit. Once a month, photographers would get together for competition night where their images would be rated and publicly critiqued. The process helped me in two ways: creating competition ready images every month was excellent practice and learning from photographers with decades of experience fast tracked my own growth.

At a similar time, I started posting my work online and asking for critiques. This proved to be a useful practice as when you asked for critique, the photographers did not hold back. I used sites like Flickr and 500px as an online substitute for the club circuit.

For the first 10 years of practicing photography, I didn't settle into any specific genre. I shot weddings, stylized portraits, landscapes, travel and even some products. The lessons came when a combination of passion and opportunity pushed me towards specializing in travel. All of a sudden, I was exposed to a different set of rules, some of them in total opposition to what I had been told by other photographers.

My first lesson was that the landscape section of my portfolio was completely inappropriate for potential clients. I was always told that cloudless skies make for boring photographs. Consequently, my portfolio was full of moody, dramatic landscapes. I would go out specifically during storms to create photographs. It should have been common sense; what tourists are going to be motivated to travel based on this sort of image? I recently had a commissioned shoot of London images where the brief dictated a gradient blue sky with no clouds. It’s more attractive to tourists.

Dramatic skies, Iceland
Kefalonia, Sunny Skies

Comparing these two images, there is no question of which is the stronger image, however, which would be most useful for selling holidays to the regular public?

Now that I’ve specialized in travel and architectural photography, I notice certain of my images receiving high acclaim from my clients while being criticized by other photographers. I’ve had to learn that at a certain point, you need to consider who the intended audience is for your work and how to make images that please them, even if it goes against general photography principles.

In addition to my cloud lesson, here are 9 further lessons, specific to architecture and travel that I’ve noticed are in contradiction to general photography rules:

1. Long Exposures:  These look amazing because they help create images that we can’t see with our eyes. For this reason, it is also a failure as a travel image. Travel images need to be believable to the non photographer.

2. The Golden Hour: Everything looks more appealing during the golden hour. Some photographers refuse to even shoot outside of the golden hour. Recently, I woke up at 4am to photograph a building during sunrise. My client didn't like the images because of the golden color. I gave him the images from later in the day with the exact same composition and he loved them. In architectural photography, showing the "designed" color can be more important than showing the "best’ color.

Golden Hour

The image on the right was shot during the golden hour. Most photographers would say that it is the superior image, but the golden light has introduced a colour that wasn't meant to be there by design.

3. Twilight: I’ve always been told (and believe) that buildings look best during twilight hours when it is possible to see detail in both the interior and exterior. Recently I was asked to present my portfolio at one of the world’s largest architectural practices. They invited me based on an image in my portfolio shot in the middle of a sunny day. I was told that they were tired of the moody, dramatic twilight images and wanted a friendly, daylight shoot.

4. Timing: Similarly, to point 3, travel clients like images taken during regular opening hours. They want this so that tourists aren't misled. For example, a museum exterior may look best under twilight conditions, but if it only opens from 10AM to 4PM, it is best represented with a daylight image.

5. Motion blur: Some of my travel clients can’t stand motion blur. This means that in low light, I’m best off shooting with a low aperture and high ISO. This is also true of "silky water".

6. Tight crops: Composition guidelines are secondary priorities to text/graphic placement considerations. Both travel and architectural clients often dictate compositions that photographers normally wouldn't use in order to accommodate text or graphics.

7. No People: For travel clients, when it’s possible, including people or a crowd is more desirable than an empty scene. This means that if I’m working in a city, it’s often not worth it to work during sunrise. I spent the first 10 years of my career specifically looking for empty scenes.

Crowds

In travel photography, crowds attract crowds. It has the same effect as a line outside of a restaurant.

8. Soft Light: I’ve always been told that soft light is desirable. While this may be true for most portraits and landscapes, I often work specifically with hard light when photographing architecture. Hard light brings out the graphic elements of design which often fade away with soft light.

Hard light

For most subjects, this time of day is not ideal for photography, but to bring out the unusual shapes of this building, the hard light is perfect.

9. Image Quality: As photographers, we obsess about image quality. Consider the debates about gear that have gone on for years, where we argue about barely imperceptible gains in image quality. I’ve had images shot down by other photographers due to excessive noise or blocked up shadows. I’ve found that travel clients care far more about the message conveyed by the photograph rather than the image quality. Of course, image quality is important, but it should always be secondary to the message. This is something that is often lost in critique sessions.

It will always be a useful exercise to open yourself up to critique from other photographers. The practice helps sharpen your craft and fast tracks your growth. I’ve heard it said that before you can successfully break the rules, you need to know the rules. Becoming a specialist sometimes means knowingly going against these generally accepted rules, which can draw a lot of criticism. Therefore, when exposing yourself to critique, be confident in the areas where you’ve knowingly broken the rules. Ultimately, you’re not making work for other photographers.

If you’ve specialized in a genre, have you encountered any lessons that contradict generally accepted photography guidelines?

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59 Comments

Jonathan Brady's picture

Great article!

Janne Suur-Näkki's picture

Nicely written article that makes a great point about viewing your work from another perspective. Thanks for sharing!

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks very much Janne

Sean Sauer's picture

Nice article!!! There is always a big difference between "art" and what actually sells in any creative field. I mainly work in TV and it's the same way. What may "look cool" or "artsy" isn't what the people (who are actually paying for the work) are looking for. It's more about the message they want to convey to the viewer.... usually to make money themselves. Nice to read about it in this circumstance.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks Sean. It’s a point I have to constantly remind myself of. It’s so easy to slip into doing what is “cool”

Thank you, thank you, thank you, for this article. Three things I have always said, and one you just reiterated; ① the first rule of photography is, “one can always break the rules, IF it helps the image,” ② one must master the rules so that one can know when, how, and why, to break them, and ③ the rules are not arbitrary; one must understand why the rules are there in the first place if one intends to master them.

In recent years, I have hardly made an image I like in which I did not deliberately break at least one rule. One of the biggest rules I break is the “proper exposure” rule, (which, as far as I am concerned, is not even a rule, per se). Proper exposure is not what one gets from metering the incident light/grey card, nor from metering the subject, but from metering the areas in which one wants details, (assuming that one even wants details).

I saw one photographer submit a photograph to a critique group, and I was the only voice who did not say that the image was overexposed. I thought that the objects within the image which gave it interest, were perfectly exposed, and positioned. Others had even said he should have either put them in shadow or crop them out, as they were a distraction from the farmhouse. I thought the only reason for the farmhouse being in the frame was to give context to the very objects he was capturing.

The thing about criticism is that one needs to take it in context of the critic, one's intended audience, and/or the prevailing conditions at the time. That is, the critic may not be the intended audience, and if he says that the farmhouse is overexposed, and those other objects detract from it, perhaps the critic is an architectural photographer, or travel photographer, and is giving critique relative to how he would have approached the scene.

Alternatively, someone may comment on perhaps putting more light here, and increasing DoF, as this or that part of the scene lacks details, but you deliberately removed details, (with a shallow DoF and throwing it into shadow), since something there may have been a distraction to the primary subject; something to which the critic may not have been aware.

I shoot events, (typically corporate events & Non-profit events), and sometimes these include sports of some sort. I often get from some photographer, “Your exposure time is too long. You need to shoot at a shorter Tv to freeze the action, or you will get blur. That is how you shoot sports!”

But blur is precisely what I am trying to get. When someone puts on an thrilling event, they want pictures which capture that thrill. They do not want the perfectly sharp image of the competitor with the look of determination; they want the smiling participant, excitedly active. (Still do not blur the faces, but blur the hands, the feet, etc.).

I try to avoid weddings these days, but Black brides in white dresses do not want to see all the details in their skin; they want to see the details in their dresses, which typically means that the bride's skin will be thrown into shadow. They are fine with that. What bothers them is an image where their perfect face is sitting atop an unrecognisable white blob. They want to be able to say, “Look at the lace here, and the sequins there, and the satin finish on this part. Isn't it lovely?”

One photographer in a critique group had a wonderful image of a watch, with the time set to 9:00. Many comments were, “Always have the time set to 10:10! That is how you take pictures of watches. That is what the clients always want. Look in any watch copy, and you will see.” What they failed to realise is that what the client really want is the hands of the watch to not hide the name/logo/details of the watch, and in this particular case, 9:00 did the job perfectly, while 10:10/1:50 would not have done so.

Yes, we need to know the rules, but also why the rules are there, and thus, when & how to break them. When we give criticism, it is important to say why we like/don't like this or that, and not just a comment of disgust, so that the photographer can know if the criticism was actually relevant. When we get criticism, we need to understand from where it is coming, and take it with a grain of salt.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks for the feedback. I love the watch story, I would have never thought of the position of the hands! That’s the sort of detail you’ll pick up when you specialise.

João Chainho's picture

The article is great, your comment the cherry on top of the cake. Thank you.

Jonathan,

This is an extremely well thought out article. Everything you wrote is spot-on accurate.

I, too, have found critiques to be less valuable to me than they were a decade ago. This is because I am shooting for specific reasons, in order to capture certain things a certain way, and the viewer giving the critique does not know what my objectives for the image are. It's like they have a certain idea in mind of what a "successful" or "appealing" image is, and they try to hold everyone else's images up to that same cookie-cutter standard.

I appreciate the way you wrote this piece ... there is really nothing that one can find fault with.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks for your thoughts. There is a tricky balance to keep in mind with critiques. The rules of photography are based on the law of averages - in other words, when shown two composition, most people will prefer the image composed to the rule of thirds. Therefore, by sticking to the rules, you will please the majority of people. The problem arises when the people who you are trying to please do not come from that majority. In that case, its best to focus on your audience.

imagecolorado's picture

The only critique that matters is your customers critique.

Jonathan Reid's picture

True. I would also add the critique of master photographers in your specific genre.

Claudiu Ion's picture

Indeed. Pity that is so hard to obtain useful critique from customers.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Thank you for a very nice article. The words of the late, great Dean Collins came to mind while reading it... "Beauty is in the eye of the check holder."
We photographers may fall in love with whatever we consider the most beautiful or meaningful pictures, but it's good to remember to give clients what they want.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Yeah, it come seem dirty, creating work to please the people paying for it, but ultimately, those people are the ones enabling you to live an artist life. They deserve what they're asking for.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

I think I know what you mean. Many photographers seem to prefer doing ANY job other than commercial photography so as not to taint their artistic vision. Although I understand why they feel that way, I'm not willing to avoid earning money with my camera if the only benefit is having more time to take photos that impress other photographers.

And besides, it IS possible, perhaps difficult, to do both.

Admittedly, some photographers will be hired specifically for their own vision, but I'll bet they're in the minority.

And by the way, I really did enjoy your thoughts and recounting of your experiences.

Julian Ray's picture

You nailed it Jonathan!

Wonderful article, thank you!

Cherokee Lair's picture

I loved and appreciated everything about this article!

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks so much Cherokee!

Mike Gillin's picture

Great article, and a lot of great points. I was reminded of a conversation I had with my father who got me started in photography. He sold photos at local craft fairs, and flea markets. I asked him what he thought about photo critque circles. He said he never needed them. He went with what sold. I think at times we do miss site of that.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Yeah - honour the people, who through payment, enable you to do your work

Steven Magner's picture

Most others have said it already but this may be the most useful article I have come to find on this website. That’s saying a lot because fstoppers is one of the first sites I visit daily.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks for the kind words Steven!

user-206807's picture

Good article!
Photography as an Art is one thing
Photography as a (commercial) communication medium is another thing

Jonathan Reid's picture

True. I'd also add that photography as art or as commerce both break rules that would annoy the majority of photographers.

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