Scott's Laws of Photo Critique... or You Are the Beginning and the End of Your Art
After shooting Windansea Beach with a few other San Diego photographers, we started talking shop. The discussion meandered to the topic of photo critiques. I've been on both the giving and receiving end of critiques, some good, some bad, some more helpful than others.
Long after we'd left the beach, my mind kept returning to the discussion. Photo critiques are subjective. I have my own views of critiques – just as everyone else does – and decided to share my laws of photo critique, mostly from the perspective of the recipient. Ok, "laws" is a strong word... they're more guidelines. Captain Barbosa would be proud.
Law 1 – Solicit Critique If You Want To Improve As A Photographer
You will not improve as a photographer unless you seek out meaningful critique. It's always daunting – at least to me. I'm a naturally shy person and sharing my work always gives me butterflies. Especially when it's a photo I'm personally proud of and am asking for honest, constructive feedback. However, it's necessary to grow as a photographer.
If you want a digital hug, collect Likes, +1s, and Favorites. Simple upticks don't help you grow. Nor do "Nice capture!" and "Great shot!" comments. They make us feel warm and fuzzy inside – and I'm human, I like getting them too – but they don't help me grow.
You need to solicit critique. Ideally, you engage a photographer whose work you admire. Many photographers offer fee-based portfolio reviews. There's a slew of online classes, probably local classes in your town, too, where you can get feedback on your work. One of the newer kids on the block is The Arcanum that gets you direct access to a high calibre photographer in your favorite genre (the monthly price is steep!).
There are free places to do get critique, too. Moderators of weekly and monthly photo challenges often provide critique. Generally the reason behind a photo challenge is to improve your skills (and the number one way to do that is keep shooting).
Forums dedicated to critique are another option. I've seen them on Flickr and G+ for sure. One forum I haven't personally tried, although has a promising name is the Brutally Honest Photo Critique forum hosted on photoforum.com. And while brutally honest, the few posts and comments I read were honest yet polite and encouraging.
Law 2 – Consider The Source
This law largely applies when you are getting free critique. When receiving and interpreting feedback, you need to consider the source. Do you like the work of the person providing the critique? Do you aspire to produce photos like theirs?
Corollary 1 - Opinions are like asses. Everybody has one and they generally stink.
If you get critique, check out that person's work. If you like what you see, listen to what they have to say. On the other hand, their style and tastes may be totally different than yours. And that's OK. You are not obliged to unilaterally accept all suggestions you receive (see Law 3).
Ever get unsolicited critique? I have. Sometimes you post a picture just to share it. You might know it's not the best shot, or even the shot you envisioned taking. Or maybe you are not interested in critique at all. Yet you get comments telling you what's wrong with your photo, what you should do differently.
At this stage of my photographic journey, I ignore such feedback (unless it's from Joe McNally... still waiting for that to happen). Or you can check out the person's work and decide how much merit it holds for you. Which leads me to:
Corollary 2 - Don't provide critique unless asked by the photographer.
I abide by this one.
Law 3 – You Are the Beginning and the End of Your Art
The essence of a photo critique is listening to the opinion of another photographer – an opinion that you hopefully value and trust. However, it is just that – an opinion. When receiving critique, keep an open mind, listen, learn how others view your work. And change your work if and only if it suits your vision.
Your photo is all about what you want to convey, the story you want to tell. Yes, there are basic elements that make stronger photos – good composition, a clear subject, sharp focus, minimal distractions – but that's all secondary. Above all the technical bits and bobs, the core of a photo is to convey an emotion. A feeling. A story.
I'm a big Beatles fan and there's a story I think sums this up perfectly. For most of the Beatles' time together, George Harrison sat in the shadow of the songwriting powerhouse of Lennon & McCartney – until the recordings of "Abbey Road" in 1969. George penned two incredible songs for that album, "Here Comes The Sun" and "Something." The latter is arguably one of the bes love songs ever written.
During studio recording, Paul began offering suggestions to George for changes to "Something." Obviously, Paul was a very accomplished and respected songwriter. George listened to Paul's ideas and then simply said, "I think it's fine the way it is." The song was George's. He owned it. It fit his vision, expressed his emotion.
Ultimately, your photography is yours. Photography is a subjective art. Different people have different tastes. The world would be boring otherwise. A direction I may take a photo will probably be different than you.
Accepting photo critique is fine and as artists we need to be open to hearing it. You're bound to learn something, if only how others perceive your work. Yet, also be comfortable disagreeing with it when it doesn't fit your vision for your art.
Seek out photographers you admire. Study their work. Ask politely for their critique. Listen. Internalize. Improve. Take what speaks to you, adapt it to suit your art, discard the rest.
Own your art.