Writing can be a powerful tool, even in regards to your photography. Self-critique in the form of written content is a great way to reflect and grow, helping to improve your images.
It is easy to slip into the routine of creating as photographers and forget to take a step back and reflect. Taking the time to formally critique your photographs and shoots using writing is a great way to take steps to improve your work for future sessions.
Before diving into the how and why, let's clarify what a formalized critique even entails. In this context, I simply mean dedicated time to purposefully reflect on your work. I do not intend for everyone to be writing expansive essays on their photographs. But, like with most things, having some structure for approaching self-critique can only help.
How do you even go about a more formalized approach to critique? This is where writing comes in, which I will discuss more below. But beyond that, a formal critique simply involves setting aside specific time to look at your images and think critically about them. Consider the composition and movement of the image. Look at the lighting, colors, and other formal elements that are happening. Are they adding to or taking away from the success of the image? If you are trying to communicate something specific, try viewing it from an outsider's perspective and assess if that is actually coming across.
Why Is Critique Important?
Why should we even bother formally critiquing our images? I'm sure many of us make casual mental notes about things that worked or didn't work while culling or editing, so isn't that enough? As cheesy of an analogy as it is, just like relationships, our photography skills will likely stagnate without purposeful, dedicated time devoted to them. A bit of formal critique is one way to dedicate time for improvement.
On the flip side, there are also many of us who are overly critical. It is easy to get stuck in a cycle of thoughts analyzing your work with no real beneficial outcome. A more formalized method for critique may help with that, as it puts boundaries around the process. Plus, if you have an outlet for that self-critique in a structured way, you are more likely to get something constructive out of it as well.
Beyond the things listed above, self-critique is beneficial for several reasons. First, if you set up a routine of self-critique, you may start to identify trends in your work. Finding those trends can help you have a more focused approach to learning and improving. Second, by getting into the habit of identifying problem areas after the fact, it will likely worm its way into your process while actually shooting, making your shoots more successful to begin with.
Why Writing Matters
Numerous studies have been done that show the importance of writing things down. Most look at how writing helps with recalling information regarding students taking notes, but they are still applicable to this article's context. For example, one study examined differences in individuals filling out a complex school schedule on paper versus digital input. They found "more robust brain activation in multiple areas and better memory recall" in those who wrote their schedule on paper than those who filled out a digital calendar.
So, how does that translate to a written critique of your photographs? If you take the time to write down thoughts on your work, that information is more likely to stick around and therefore be more helpful when you next pick up your camera. You will be more likely to recall that self-critique while shooting and actually put it into practice instead of just having a passing thought about a way to improve.
Beyond the practical side of simply remembering things better, having a written account of your self-critique can also be motivating during times of perceived stagnation. Looking back at past critiques and seeing how you have improved since then can help you remember that you are, in fact, improving and learning.
Big Picture Reflections
Another form of reflection that I have found very beneficial is looking at the bigger picture of my work and taking time to journal after a session. I have made a habit of doing this specifically with a personal project of photographing artists working in their studio spaces. Generally speaking, I make time for journaling after I get the images on the computer and glance through them, as long as I can do so quickly after the shoot. In this reflection, I am occasionally analyzing individual photographs, but more so am looking from a higher level of how the shoot went. I consider images that I missed that I wish I would have taken, how I could have better directed the subject, or perhaps how I could have made the process more efficient.
Reflecting on how the series as a whole is going and if the focus of the project needs to shift is also part of this journaling process. It helps me gather my thoughts about a series or body of work and have a clearer picture of what is needed moving forward.
Have you tried writing or journaling about your photography work? What have you found to be most helpful about the process, if so?