There is no magic bullet when it comes to learning photography. Practise, reading and studying are all ways you can improve your craft and become a better photographer.
However, if you ask me there is one, single sure-fire way you can dramatically and quickly improve your photography: Critique.
This applies to every photographer, no matter how raw or how advanced you are. As I've always said: "You can't learn everything through your own experiences".
Feedback from an Artisan
In early June I spent a day with Neil Buchan-Grant. A student of photography - a real craftsman with an eye for detail. After the interview Neil and I went out with the cameras and talked about all things photography and later, over dinner Neil was kind enough to cast his eye over my street photography portfolio. I urged Neil to be honest, harsh and not to hold back and tell me what he really thought of my work.
Whilst Neil was (I believe) very kind and diplomatic to me he did offer some honest feedback. It stung! Neil wasn't horrible about my work at all, but with apparent ease he pointed out many things that were wrong with a number of the photographs and offered ways in which the photographs could be easily improved with a little post-processing alone. Following Neil's feedback all that was wrong with my photographs became clear to me!
I just thought "Damn!", but more than anything it made me determined to go out and make better photographs next time based on the feedback I was given.
I feel like I've come a long way photographically so I was gutted to hear the flaws in my work being highlighted. I personally love my own street photography work, my portraits in particular. Whilst that may sound vein, it is of course because I was there. I remember the moments I made those photographs and the moments that were behind them. I am emotionally invested in my work. Neil is not. So, with a fresh and unbiased pair of eyes Neil was able to offer so much value to my photographs because he is skilled, practised and honest. All components needed to make successful photographs.
My Guide to Critique
Although I already knew and appreciated the value of harsh, honest and open-minded critique, I hadn't really had a session with a photographer whose work I adored like I do Neil's. So on that drive home from Winchester I thought a lot about the process of critique and the benefits it holds. This blog post is borne out of that experience and these are my views on critique...
Seek Critique from a Photographer you Respect and Whose Work You Admire
The first thing I would suggest, if you don't already, is to start making use of bookmarks in your browser, or at least use a notepad: make a list (or a folder of bookmarks) of all of those photographers you respect. By this, I mean photographers whose blogs you read and content you like. If you like their perspective on photography and that photographer resonates with you, great. But also, ensure you truly admire their work. Critique can sometimes be given excellently by people who aren't necessarily the greatest of photographers themselves, but knowing that the person who is critiquing your photographs can actually produce the level of work you aspire to goes a long way to giving their feedback some conviction.
So, like the person, enjoy their work, seek their feedback. Keep in mind though that you shouldn't expect a response from everyone you approach. Be prepared for that.
Positive Feedback is Half as Valuable as Constructive Criticism
Be selective about where you choose to seek critique. Places such as Flickr, in my opinion, are wonderful places to get eyes on your photographs and people are very willing to also drop kind comments on your photographs too. However, kind comments are not always what you want. "Well done!", "Great Shot!", "Love This!" don't offer any real value other than to let you know that the person in question likes the photograph you've posted. You don't know why they like it. It is nice to get a pat on the back for the work you produce, sure, but instead why not look for the feedback where people point out what is wrong with the photograph in a constructive and helpful manner. Only then will you learn what you need to improve upon.
I'm not suggesting you seek out negativity, but just look to gain something more than confirmation that someone likes the photograph you've uploaded.
Take it on Board
It's one thing to seek the feedback and then get it, but another to actually implement changes based on that feedback, or be conscious of what you're doing when you're next on a shoot. Rather than just seeking critique, actually take the critique on board. Consider what it is that person has pointed out or told you and then consider whether you want to implement a change, or research a method of how to improve that weakness in your photographic skill set.
Basically, listen to the critique and then apply it to improve. It sounds simple, but without this element the whole critique process falls down. What's the point in listening if you're not going to use what you've been told?
Have an Open Mind
Furthering the idea of taking the critique on board, you also have to have an open mind when seeking critique. Obviously, you're not always going to agree with what people have to say, even if it is valid. Stubbornness can sometimes be a good thing, but other times it's a good idea to listen to what others have to say with an open mind. If you're not prepared to listen to the feedback of others, you're not going to learn.
If you do decide that the way you've shot or processed an image is better or preferable to what someone says in a comment, that's fine, but still give some thought to what the other person is saying, at least. After all, they have taken the time to write their thoughts down for your benefit. It would be courtesy to consider what they're saying.
Taking one step back to the subject of stubbornness: sometimes, you may get critique, and it may well be very valid and fair, but you may still not agree with it. Your photographs are your work, you blood, sweat and tears. You have invested in making your photographs with your energy, early mornings and late nights - You do have the right to be single-minded about your work and continue pushing on with a style of your own, even if others don't agree. I'm not giving you the green light to ignore everyone's critique, but I am saying you can leave the door open to sometimes not agree with someone's feedback: perhaps that person's feedback is based on their own preferences and styles. Maybe I'm repeating my previous point, but again remember people are taking time to offer feedback. They're doing you the favour.
Don't Take It Personally
We all know that when sitting behind a keyboard people are more bold and will often say things they may not say if they were sitting across a table from you. People can be more ballsy and more blunt. Perhaps more than they would ever be in the real world when talking face to face.
But that can be a good thing...
Having that filter removed is a double-edged sword: it may invite trolls - those people who are just rude and offer criticism (not critique), These people you can choose to ignore. But, having no filter as such also allows certain people to come along and offer feedback in a harsh and honest way - which whilst it may sting a little will certainly offer lots of value.
Ignore The Negative Comments (Trolls)
Further to the above of not taking it personally - even from the trolls. It's in some people's nature to jump on board and slate your work. Let them do it. Just ignore the comments and don't get involved, otherwise you'll just end up arguing with someone who is well versed at over-the-internet debates. Remember that your aim was to seek helpful, constructive and honest feedback - not spend your time getting involved in debates with people on the other side of the planet whose work you've never seen and are unlikely to ever meet.
So be ready to take the rough with the smooth!
Your Style & Approach Will Evolve Over Time
Some people are at different stages in their relationship with photography. Others may have just started, whilst others may have been around the block a few times so to speak. So when someone suggests that a selective colour version of your photograph may look great, don't judge them. They may not know they're committing a faux pas. Remember, that in the same way your photography style has evolved and your knowledge has grown - everyone else is on the same path as well.
If you're not putting your work out there for critique because you think you're not good enough yet, or because you're not ready to do so, then when will you be ready? My answer to that would be never! The sooner you seek critique and start actioning it, the faster you'll develop. Don't wait until you're better. Go and get better!
Think about a band or a musician you're a fan of: over the years how have their albums changed? Their breakthrough album may have sounded 'fresh' and new at the time, but a few albums and a few years later I'm sure you'll agree that their later work is more polished and has a larger production, making their earlier work maybe sound a little more 'raw'. Well, it's the same with us photographers and creatives.
Fashions, Trends and Style
Over the decades trends have changed. At the moment we're apparently in the age of filters and effects. This point I'm making here is not a direct attack on filters and effects, but remember: just because it's fashionable and popular, doesn't mean you have to do it too. In fact, as I've said before being different is just as important as being the best (if not more important). So be wary if you decide to take part in fashions and trends. My advice would be to stick to what you enjoy doing and the way you like doing it, improving along the way.
Harsh and Honest Critique is the Best Critique
Don't always seek validation from those you admire, but instead seek to please yourself
This may sound contradictory to what I said earlier, but there is a difference between seeking validation and seeking critique: yes, you should approach those whose work you admire for critique, but be careful not to get into the habit of just producing work to please those people. These people should be the ones helping you to define a style, carve out an approach and polish your products so to speak, but they're not the people you need to make happy. If you shoot weddings, portraits, pets or any sort of photography where you have a client: it's those people you need to make happy. It's those people who need to love your work. Whilst they may appreciate the straight horizon and defined jaw lines, they may not necessarily care about a little bit of noise, or the bokeh or the extreme, fine details that the photographers you show your work to will point out.
Clients and photographers are very different audiences...which brings me to my next point:
Remember Who your Audience Is When It Comes To Your Photography.
I've written about this subject already in a previous blog post. I want to urge you to remember who you're shooting for. Are you shooting for clients, yourself or for other photographers? You need to know this and keep this in mind as it will impact the work you're producing.
If you're shooting for yourself it can be whatever you want. All that work has to do is please you.
If you're shooting for other photographers then the chances are you're going to be looking at producing the most technically perfect pictures you can.
If you're shooting for clients however, then it's a different game - Now you're looking to make photographs that they'll enjoy and as I mentioned before: they're going to appreciate different aspects of a photograph to both you and other photographers. To a client the photographs are almost always about the moments, the expressions and the people. Not the technical elements.
Giving Critique As Well As Receiving Critique
Ghandi said: "Be the change you want to see in the world". Well, i would say that you should also give the critique you wish to receive.
Giving critique is also valuable. Stop to look at photographs. Inspect them. Don't necessarily search for flaws, but instead look for what works in that photograph, look for the successful elements, the things that make the average photograph a great photograph. Then, tell the photographer who posted that picture what it is you love about it. Sure, mention the halo, or the aberration, or the wonky horizon, but be sure to be positive with your critique, be honest and be helpful. Don't just beat people down. Be courteous.
Want Your work Reviewed by Neil Buchan-Grant?
Neil is now offering single image reviews and portfolio reviews. If you want to have the British Travel Press Photographer of the year take a look at your work, just head on over to Neil's website and click Portfolio Reviews
What do you think?
No matter where you are with your photography I'm sure you've had someone criticise your work (not critique). When was the last time you received solid critique from a fellow photographer? Did you action or change anything as a result of that critique? Did that improve your photography.
I would love to hear your critique experiences - share them below.