One of the most beneficial activities I have partaken in in my time as a photographer and something I encourage everyone to do is seek critique of your work. It’s a great way to learn about your own work from others and develop your craft with intention.
Critique can be wonderfully useful, but not all critiques are equal. So, today we’ll take a look at who you should ask and how you should take the advice given. It is important to remember that your mother may lavish you with praises, but she’s likely wearing a very dark shade of rose on her glasses. Conversely, the denizens of the Internet may be quick to throw a couple of words here and there from behind that defensive wall of the keyboard, but those words may not have any merit if they come from the wrong person.
One critique that I love to watch for the sake of learning is the weekly Fstoppers’ Critique the Community videos. These videos offer an insight into how different photographers view different work. Along with the experts critiquing work in their own genres, sometimes, you might find Lee or Patrick critiquing a genre they know little about, and this also has great value. In these videos, they are knowledgeable photographers, but perhaps not deeply knowledgeable about the specific genre. Critiques from a relative layman’s perspective can also glean insights that experts in a field may overlook. More on this soon.
In my recent workshop, we spent two half-day sessions critiquing the work of our participants from the perspective of what we had been discussing and practicing at the workshop. Part technical and part artistic, these critiques were aimed at giving us an idea of where we could be of most assistance and also at giving the participants direction to focus their energies as we went out for our next sessions. Finally, they were also educating us as the instructors. We were exercising our abilities to be critical and find positives and negatives within every image. This makes critique a beneficial activity for all involved.
When Should You Get a Critique?
To this, I would say as often as possible. When you feel like you’ve produced enough work or developed enough in your photography to warrant it, I would say go for it. Get as many different opinions and critiques as you can from different people. This will help you develop as a photographer.
Who to Ask
If you actively seek out a critique of your work, you have the distinct advantage of deciding who it comes from. So, carefully consider what you’re looking to get from the session. Are you trying to decide what pieces of work will go into a new portfolio? Maybe you want to have your lighting critiqued. Perhaps composition is something you struggle with. You can have photographers whose skills you respect look at these areas specifically for you, which can be a real boon.
So, the first thing you need to consider when setting up a critique is who will be giving it. This will determine what kind of advice or criticism you will take to heart. If a photographer who is technically brilliant yet lacks artistic vision is offering you advice on improving your concepts, it may be worth taking it with a grain of salt. You might also choose to get advice or critique from a non-photographer. With this, technical criticisms may not be at all valid, but advice on what the image feels like or means to them will tell you if you’ve successfully conveyed what you were trying to.
Sometimes, you just need someone to look at your work and tell you what they really think. This can be really beneficial as it might not translate to others as you intend it to. Leaving the critique open-ended and getting feedback based on what the person sees when they look at your images without direction from you can also give you useful insights. Getting together for a beer or two with some fellow photographers or artists can be a great way of doing this casually and getting very candid feedback.
How to Approach a Critique
Remember that these are your babies that you’re about to lay bare in front of someone and there is the potential that this process is going to hurt. Not everyone will love them as much as you do. You need to prepare yourself to hear out what is said, take what you need, and discard what you do not. You need to be openminded when you are listening to someone else talk about your work. Not everyone is going to feel the same about it, and by knowing that, you can accept that different people will see different things.
You need to have a thick skin when it comes to critique. Not so that you can ignore the advice given, but so that you can bear the pain of hearing that your children may not be as good-looking as you thought they were (at least in the eyes of another). You need to prepare yourself to take the advice for what it is and not let your emotional attachment cloud potentially useful criticisms. If it all gets to be too much, you can always ask your mother for her glowing praises to take away the sting.
Being honest with yourself may not be easy, but it can also serve the same role as a critique from another. I often use the process of blogging my work to take a deeper look at it. As I’m choosing the images for a particular post, I am able to look at them more objectively than when I first saw them. This has been a beneficial process for me, especially on the days when I’m honest with myself.
I like to bring up the 10 or so images I’m planning to post and see what I like and don’t like about them. I’ll often make notes at this stage about things I would like to improve next time I shoot something similar. I look at things like composition, light, and emotion and try to decide if I could have improved those on this shoot or if I did everything I could at the time. I’ll try to come up with things to practice or methods to improve next time I’m shooting.
So, whether you seek out industry leaders or simply friends to look at your work, it is important to be open to what they say and learn from it. It is also great to do this as often as possible to make sure you’re on the path you want to be on. Critique is beneficial for everyone. It can be an ego boost or an extremely humbling experience. Either way, it will tell you things about your work that you may not have noticed.