Photography Part 6: Criticism should be constructive, whether of your own work, or that of others

  1. I have suffered hugely from destructive criticism in the past, which led me to withdraw from photography completely for years.  It is very easy to point out the flaws in an image, but much harder to genuinely help somebody to improve through constructive criticism.

What do I mean by constructive and destructive criticism?  By destructive, I mean simply telling somebody they think a photo is not good (very frequently expressed less politely on photography web sites).  Or voting “Dislike”.  Or rejecting an image from a group of which you are a moderator without giving a reason.  This is destructive because it is wholly negative feedback without any hint to the photographer as to what the viewer doesn’t like, or how they can improve.

What is much harder is to work out why you think a photograph is poor, or you don’t like it.  Even harder still is to help the photographer work through what they were trying to achieve, work out why in your mind they haven’t achieved it, and then help them to work through whether they could have done anything different to make the image better, and thus achieve what they wanted to.

You may think you are doing the latter.  However, it can come over very differently to the recipient, particularly if they are not familiar with technical terms, or are just looking for some general pointers and receive an essay on all the shortcomings of their picture.  Blinding somebody with science is a form of destructive criticism because it doesn’t actually help them achieve their aims.

There is a point to all this:  if you can learn to constructively criticise the work of another photographer, you automatically become able to develop a technique of self-criticism which will help you to improve your success in helping others to share your experience.  There is no right or wrong, good or bad, but there are always things you could have done differently.

Here’s an example:  You may not like an image that has a pink cast.  You could say “I don’t like the pink cast to this image”.  That is destructive criticism, and offers no insight to the photographer, or method by which he or she could improve.  Or you could ask the photographer “why did you give the image a pink cast?”  That is a constructive comment, because it makes the photographer think through why they did it, and perhaps will help you to see things through the photographer’s eyes.  It may also help the photographer to convey what they really wanted to better next time.  Or you may just agree to disagree.  Or it may turn out not to be a colour cast, but a natural coloration.  The point is, it will generate a positive discussion, and not make the photographer go home, sell their camera and give up.  And believe me, criticism can do that to a photographer.

So please keep your criticism of yourself, and others, positive.  Don’t tell yourself or somebody else that you, or they, are a bad photographer.  Instead, look at the image and ask yourself why it doesn’t meet your, or their, criteria of success.  That way, you, and they, will improve, and we will all be able to share our visual world.  And isn’t that what photography is all about?

Photography Part 5: Having an idea what you want in advance, and making the most of opportunities are not mutually exclusive

Most photographers are opportunists.  We walk around with our cameras or mobile phones and take picture when we see something.  Almost everybody takes snap-shots.  Some of my best pictures have been snap-shots (by which I mean I saw something, grabbed the camera, and got a picture).However, a lot of photographers also spend a lot of time visualising what they would like to see as their final image, and then go about achieving that.  A lot of fashion and product photography is done this way, and often takes hours of setting up for one or two final images.

There is, however, a spectrum between these two extremes, whereby there is an element of pre-visualisation, and an element of opportunism, and the relative contribution of these to the final image can vary.

What matters is that you get the image you wanted.  Sometimes, that is a result of very rapid decisions, and sometimes of prolonged work.  Sometimes you have to make up your mind very rapidly about what image you want, and what you want the final result to look like, and this process may be almost simultaneous with taking the photo.  So, for example, I may spot a butterfly resting in our meadow.  I think quickly about the background and lighting, how I can approach the insect, what depth of field I want, whilst at the same time, approaching, setting up my camera, and hopefully capturing the shot (most of the time the butterfly has moved, or gone, but that is the charm of wildlife photography).  Other times you may need to set things up in advance:  we set up seed feeders for our birds so that we can get images with the light that I want, and the background that I want, for example.  I will also wait for the right weather or lighting conditions to get an image of a particular local landscape.  This can take months, or even years, if you want snow coverage and it doesn’t snow that winter.

Most of the time, there is some time after you’ve spotted the opportunity, to think about what you want the image to be like.  Is it the colour that attracts you?  Or the pattern of light and shade (in which case, you may see the final image in monochrome and adapt what you shoot accordingly)?  Do you want to convey an emotion?  In which case, what post processing would you like to use?  Is the lighting right? If not, can you improve it by using flash or reflectors?  Do you want the water to look blurred, in which case you may want to use a tripod?  Do you want good contrast in both sky and foreground (maybe you might use a filter?)?  Finally, what equipment have you got with you, and what can you get, given the things you have available (I often have the “wrong” lens on my camera, but manage to get something acceptable despite that)?  The permutations are endless, but the point is that photography is almost always a combination between pre-visualisation and opportunism.  Making the most of both is one of the great skills a photographer can have.

Photography Part 1: There is no right or wrong

One thing I have learned, in studying photography over the past couple of years, is that there are a lot of strong opinions.  Things are right or wrong, and many opinions are polarised:  digital vs film is best, it is cheating to use Photoshop vs use it all you like, HDR is good vs HDR is bad, you have to have a good camera or the latest equipment vs you can take a great photo on a simple camera, you must shoot RAW vs it doesn’t matter, natural light is best vs flash is best etc.
I used to read all this stuff and get so confused.  Suffering as I do from low confidence in my work, I got very upset by all the debate, and felt I must be doing it wrong, somehow, because I didn’t agree with a lot of the strong opinions out there.  From what I’ve heard from clients while running photo workshops at our woods, I suspect that a lot of other people are put off, upset, or confused too.
Having got my head together, and thought things through, here is my philosophy on photography, the Universe and everything.
  1. There is no right or wrong
    What matters is whether the image you took is the one you wanted to take – the one that records your feelings, thoughts, creativity, visualisation or emotions.  Obviously, there are things you can do to improve the way in which you are able to achieve this end, but essentially, if it looks right to you, then it is OK, and it doesn’t really matter what anybody else thinks (unless you are working for a client who is paying, in which case, they need to like it too).

We all see things differently because the images we see are not those that appear on the retina of our eye, but rather those images that our brain processes and turns into information for our brain.  If a hundred people listen to a radio programme, they will all recall different bits differently, and probably disagree quite vehemently about the details.  Likewise, with an image, the brain of one person will process it differently to another.  A very crude example of this is that somebody with red-green colour-blindness will see an image in a different way to non -colour-blind people and probably other colour-blind people too.  But colour-blindness is not absolute.  We all perceive light, patterns, shade, colour, tone and depth differently.  That is why, when we take a picture with our camera, we are often disappointed because it wasn’t what we saw – the camera doesn’t process images in the same way our brain does.

Given that, what right does anybody have to say your image is “wrong”?  Thankfully we all see things differently, and are capable of producing a multitude of different interpretations of the same scene.  One photographer may see a particular detail, and focus in on that.  Another may love the wider angle.  One may be intrigued by the colour, another by the patterns of light and shade.  One may like the darkness and shadow, and another will see the brightness and light.

So, what matters is whether we can commit our own visualisation of the scene to our medium, film or digital, not whether what we have done is right or wrong, and the purpose of learning photography is to enable us to do that, not to produce an image that meets a tick-box or a particular convention.  The “rule of thirds” may help us compose our image, learning about exposure compensation may help us get the light and dark bits looking the way we want, learning how to render a monochrome image may help us concentrate on light and shade, using artificial lighting may help us get the lighting we want, post-processing (film or digital) may help us convey the feeling we got, or help put the viewer in our shoes, into our creative eye.  It is not right or wrong to use any of these, or not use them.  What matters is that you got the image that you wanted.  Some people will never “get” your images because they don’t see things the way you do – does that really matter?  I think it is great that we all see things differently, or our world and its wonderful photographic diversity would be poorer because of it.