Why You Should Write About Your Own Photographs

Why You Should Write About Your Own Photographs

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.

Formalized Critique

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?

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

Abby Ferguson is a portrait and conceptual photographer and educator based on Hawaii Island. She earned her Master of Fine Arts from Kansas State University and founded the photography program at a vacation rental company while in Denver. She is passionate about helping others learn both the technical and creative aspects of photography.

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I frequently write content that accompanies my photos. A photo doesn't tell anyone anything - all it can do is to show things. Some things are better told, and some better shown. Hence, I think that the most information can be conveyed when photos and written text are used in conjunction. Also, writing forces me to do some research on my subject, to ensure that what I am about to write is correct. This means that I learn more about the subjects I am photographing, which eventually makes me a better photographer.

Here's an example of writing about my subjects:

American Pika

Many people assume that Pikas are rodents, but they are not! They are actually members of the Lagomorph family, along with rabbits and hares.

There are currently 3 species of Lagomorphs living in Okanogan County: Cottontail Rabbits, Showshoe Hares, and American Pikas. In the past, we also had Pygmy Rabbits, White-tailed Jackrabbits, and Black-tailed Jackrabbits living here, but they pretty much disappeared a few decades ago as more land was taken over by humans for farming, ranching, roads, and buildings.

Pikas live at high elevation in rockslides comprised of large talus. They are vegetarians, and do not hibernate. What??? They are vegetarians, living way up in the mountains, but do not hibernate? How is that possible? Nothing grows up there in the winter!

In the late summer and fall, Pikas gather vegetation and set it on the rocks, out in the sun, to dry. This is akin to curing hay. Once the vegetation has dried to the correct moisture content, the Pikas go back and gather it up and take it to pockets and "cubby holes" underneath the rocks in which they live. Then when winter comes and deep snow covers their habitat, they survive under the rocks by living off of the hay that they have stored up for themselves. Where Pikas live, heavy snow usually covers their habitat from early November until June, so these stores of self-made hay are crucial to their survival.

Here in Okanogan County, Pikas can be found at elevations of 5,000 feet and higher, wherever there are expansive rockslides with large chunks of talus. Areas where people can most readily observe Pikas for themselves are the mountain passes, where roads extend up into their alpine habitats. This would include Harts Pass, Washington Pass along State Route 20, Baldy Pass in the Okanogan National Forest, and Lone Frank Pass, also in the Okanogan National Forest.

By far, the easiest of these to access is Washington Pass, as State Highway 20 is paved and well maintained. For visitors interested in seeing Pika here, just look for the big rockslide about a half mile east of the summit. There is adequate room to pull over and park on the shoulder of the highway. Look for small brown critters sunning themselves on the rocks, or listen for an unmistakeable "Eeeeeepp"!

Pikas are territorial and do not like other Pikas to encroach on their turf! Hence, it is unusual to see two Pikas together. Breeding, birth, and rearing of the young takes place mainly in the spring under the snow, and therefore is rarely, if ever, able to be seen by humans.

American Pikas are considered by scientists and biologists to be an "indicator species" for climate change, due to their need for cold temperatures.

Pika are considered by many everyday people worldwide to be the "cutest animal ever" ..... so it's pretty cool that we have an abundance of them living right here in Okanogan Country!

Cute little critters. Quokka give them a run for their money, and have you ever seen a pygmy possum? (not my image)

Pygmy Possums are awesome! I have seen photos of them, but never seen one in the flesh. Would love to go to wherever they're native to and find them in the wild in their natural habit someday. Thanks for sharing.

There's the Western, Eastern, and Mountain Pygmy. The Eastern and Western are both least concern; but the Mountain was already in trouble, and its main food source (Bogong Moth, which was also already in trouble) collapsed, after the bushfires.

After reading your comment, of course the one I would want to photograph most is the Mountain Pygmy. Why do I always want the things that are so difficult?

I hear you.

They're adorable!

I absolutely hate writing about my images. Hate it. Just can't stand it at all because of how bad I am at it. But I still do it anyway. It is absolutely the best way to improve as a photographer, I think.
Great article!

I think that's one of the nice things about writing about your photographs, at least in most situations. It doesn't matter if it's good or bad, because it's just about the process. The writing itself doesn't need to be used for anything more than reflection! And thank you!

It is not easy to gain enough distance from one's own images to write about them. The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer said in an interview: "It is not thought until it is spoken". (written, expressed). You are right, Abby. So I should take more time. Thanks for the advice.

I'm glad it was helpful!

Perfect timing to start planning those short lived New Years resolutions... But investing in a photography coach for a couple years now, and a few mastermind groups to help me identify issues in my work, procrastination has held me back from the final micro adjustments for fine tuning my work. Maybe this is that push I needed to make...

Ha! Maybe if you get into the habit it won't be so short-lived! I hope it helps!

I used to have to write about my work as a photography student, but now I almost never do as a working event photographer. Nonetheless, this article reminds me of how valuable it was to me in the past. In particular, writing artist statements about landscape and travel work I exhibited really helped me become consciously aware of why I made those images. I had viewpoints, and was creating commentaries, that I hadn't actually thought about - they simply sprang from my unconscious and semi-conscious impulses formed by past experiences and changes going on in my life and the larger world. Interrogating my own images made me aware of viewpoints I didn't realize I had. And, writing about them enabled me to make conscious decisions about what my images meant and what I wanted them to say. This informed my editing and enabled me to group and display my images in ways that made them more cohesive and pointed in their messaging. I found editing for exhibition tremendously creative, expressive and thought-provoking, and I encourage aspiring photographers to exhibit their work wherever they can - even if it's just hanging prints in your living room for a holiday party - because the experience of editing, writing about, and receiving feedback about them from audiences is possibly the single best practice for improving one's work.

As an aside, photography that perpetuates stereotypes, even (or especially) high-level commercial photography by expert pros, might avoid this pitfall if only the creators would explicitly state, to themselves or publicly, the narrative that they're creating. When you consciously confront an unformed thought from your own unconscious mind that does not express what your conscious mind values, it's an opportunity to produce work that effectively communicates those values rather than mindlessly regurgitating unconscious biases.

When I was 10 I wanted to be a writer. At 21 I got into photography as a "reason" to write, but found that if the image is powerful enough it tells its own story. When I tried to retire from photograph I started writing again. Now the two are often intertwined and I'm enjoying myself immensely.


Impressive, I like the site. Congratulations, Michael.