I hope you are doing well and having a great week. I recently got back from Morocco. I ran our first workshop there and it was pretty stunning. The group, the locations, the atmosphere and, of course, the photography.
My favourite place in Morocco so far is Chefchaouen, the little blue-wash town, high up in the Rif mountains.
It’s an intensely peaceful place – the air is fresh, the light is beautiful and the feeling of being cut off from the world in the stunning mountains is so creatively enriching.
This morning a huge storm swept into our bay – feeling a little as if it came out of nowhere. All of a sudden torrential rain was pouring from the skies, turning the usually calm blue sea fierce green.
The sky was filled with wild, thick grey and white clouds, layering and swirling and towering over the mountains that stretch up from the sea and our little town beneath it.
It was pretty special to watch. Nature displaying her strength and beauty.
So let’s kick off with today’s subject. I want to talk about how giving and receiving feedback on your images can radically improve your photography – and how to go about it.
This post has been inspired by the new photo-feedback site ARS launched by photographer Eric Kim and his team that I recently read about and tested out for myself.
Once you have registered you are invited to rate a series of anonymous, randomly selected images.
You can add a written critique, or not. But you have to decide to ‘Keep’ or ‘Ditch’ every image you see. By rating images, you then build up the credit to have your own rated. This is a feature which I like, as so many people are happy to hear about their work, but not necessarily to repay the favour.
I’ve been reading Eric Kim’s blog for a while now. I admire his generosity in sharing his knowledge about photography, living a creative life and building a photo-based business.
I feel ‘creatively fed’ when I read his articles, and they inspire Di and I to push ourselves more to talk about what we most believe in. Some good posts of Kim’s:
- 10 Reasons Why I Shoot With One Camera and One Lens
- The Kaizen Process of Gradual Self-Improvement in Photography
- Street Photography Composition Lessons
- 10 Lessons Marcus Aurelius Can Teach You
Photography is not just about your camera….
There are many skills that we need to have as photographers and creative people, that go beyond just taking that photo.
- Developing stories and projects
- Developing the mindset of a photographer by being present and ‘seeing’ more of the world around us
- Learning the technical aspects of our cameras – to the level we feel comfortable with
- Staying motivated so that we can get out of our warm beds on a beautiful winter’s morning – or helping us overcome our fears so we take a photo of that intriguing person walking past us
- Being inspired and finding subjects that deeply move us
- Learning about processing! Digital or film take your pick. So that your photos don’t languish on a memory card or film roll
- Learning to analyse your photos, which develops your ability to ‘see’ better shots
Analysing your photos, and other people’s, is one of the key ways to radically improve your photos, and all professional photographers do it.
Joel Meyerowitz talks about the intense analysis he would do every day of his images when he started taking photos.
“I was overwhelmed. The streets, the intense flow of people, the light changing, the camera that I couldn’t quite get to work quickly enough.
It just paralysed me. I had to learn to identify what it was exactly I was responding to, and if my response was any good.
The only way to do that is to take pictures, print them, look hard at them and discuss them with other people.”
It’s a simple formula, right? Take the photos, analyse them for what works and doesn’t, then repeat and gradually over time you refine your abilities to see and capture better and better images.
Why we all need feedback
“Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.” Frank A. Clark
We are too emotionally involved with our images
A tense moment in our household is often when we are going through my images from a trip. Di and I will go through my images and she will say – no, no, no, no, maybe, yes.
And even though I know intellectually she has to not like some of my images, and we aren’t always going to like the same ones, it can be a very unpleasant experience hearing what she really thinks of my photographs.
Our photographs are an expression of ourselves, of what we love, what we have noticed, what we find interesting, who we are. So we get attached to the photos we take. It’s natural.
But just because we love certain images – does that mean the world will too?
Usually, it is the job of people who love us to say they love everything we do.
In a way I am lucky that Di doesn’t just say – oh, these are lovely darling – and not be super critical – because otherwise I would be left with a huge pile of mediocre photos and not refine them down to my very best.
And that’s what we want – to get to our very best, and to become our very best. Getting better doesn’t mean being amazing all the way along. Getting better means failing a lot, taking terrible photos, and gradually over time learning to take better ones.
It’s hard to see how to improve our images
“A very subtle difference can make the picture or not.” Annie Leibovitz
When I am critiquing my students’ work I might say: I think if you had got closer the shot would have been better, or if you had waited for the light to change you would have created a more interesting atmosphere.
Sometimes it can be very simple things that, because you were too immersed in the situation, you hadn’t thought of.
By continuously reaching out and hearing feedback, you will start to notice patterns in what is not working in your images. For example, a frequent mistake in photographing strangers is not getting close enough – letting fear hold you back.
Or, for one of my students, it was not paying attention to the quality of light – so she was shooting a lot in hard, midday sunlight which created very hard shadows on the faces of her subjects. Not the best.
The more feedback you get, the more you can see patterns in what people say about your images. You can then choose to act on these – or not. Because, just because someone says something, doesn’t mean they’re right….
Filter the feedback
It doesn’t matter who is giving the feedback – the owner of an art gallery, your best friend, or an anonymous person online – you have to remember that people are 100% subjective in their opinions of photographs.
That’s not a reason to be belligerent and ignore what people say, but it’s just to be aware and not take everything super personally.
Contemplate the feedback, see if you can pick up patterns, then choose if the ideas that people are saying seem right to you.
When I put this photo on ARS, an image that has been featured in an exhibition and tonnes of press, the most common piece of feedback was that it was too dark.
That could be many people’s opinions, but I personally love it as is, so will leave it.
There were photos of mine that I posted on ARS that were low-rated (the cover of my London book for example. I shot I love) but there were my two favourite photos from last year that were high rated, which I was stoked about. These were images I thought would have an impact as stand-alone photos.
You have to accept all critiques gracefully and gratefully – and see what you can find that is helpful for you in your journey.
Filter what you hear through your experience, knowledge and desires for your work. But listen first with an open mind, and don’t cut people off because they disagree with you.
There will always be people who don’t like your photos. Nothing you can do about that. And that’s totally cool.
I’ve had photos that have made me thousands of pounds through print sales and image licencing that I have received bad feedback on from all kinds of sources (editors, gallerists, friends and Di!)
The important thing here, though, is that you are learning about how to receive feedback, how to hear and pick out the ideas that will help you improve and develop a personal vision of your photography.
Getting feedback (and choosing what to follow and what to discard) is a huge part of developing your own skills and style.
“To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” Elbert Hubbard
“There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” Ansel Adams
The next part of the feedback is giving feedback. And to me this is a skill that most people neglect. It’s so much more fun, right, to hear what people have to say about you?
Here I want to talk you through why it’s important, what you can learn and how to go about giving constructive feedback.
Giving feedback is an excellent way to improve your photos!
I have seriously developed my analytical skills over the past 7 years by working with hundreds of photographers on their images, on my workshops. That, in turn, has given me a whole new set of skills that has elevated my photography.
It has helped me become more aware of what I love to photograph, and it helps me make more of my time when I am taking photos. I always knew what I loved to photograph, but it was a more subconscious feeling that drove me.
Now I feel more aware of not just what I love, but where I want to go on my journey as a photographer.
It’s knowing, too, that sometimes the photos you love evoke nothing for other people, and that’s OK. It’s about developing your own understanding about what photography means to you.
Giving feedback exercises your imagination
When faced with a boring photo which you have to comment on – you really need to engage all of your knowledge and experience. To produce ideas about what could have been for that photo, you have to turn on your brain and create!
When faced with a photo that could have worked but doesn’t – your imagination and visualisation skills kick in, so try to imagine and articulate what the photographer could have done better.
I encourage you to use ARS to develop your analytical skills in this way. Don’t just do the ‘Keep’ or ‘Ditch’ button; really look at the photo and think in detail of how it could be improved or why you like the image.
You will learn a tremendous amount about what drives and inspires you as a photographer by looking at other people’s work. You will also see your prejudices and foibles too.
For example, I have no great love for macro photography, but when faced with it I need to see beyond my preconceived ideas and look at what the inherent qualities of the photo are.
It’s not just photos you don’t like you need to examine – but photos you do! Picking apart a photo you don’t like, and reimaging it better, is one skill. To examine photos you love brings in other skills – why did you love it, what is it about the photo that has made you think/feel/imagine/desire/awaken/shocked you?
Looking at other photographer’s work will feed your creative mind
When I look at photographers I love, I might see elements that I could be inspired to bring into my photography, however subtle.
Use of light or colour, ambience, mood, a particular subject. To surround yourself with creative things that pique your interest is intensely fruitful for your photography.
Giving feedback is just as important to the process – maybe even more so – that getting feedback
- You learn more about your own style by examining how other people’s approach and how they see the world, and consequently you yourself will learn to see more openly.
- Giving feedback solidifies your own learning about photography – one of the best ways to remember something is to teach it to someone else. Repetition leads to remembering.
- You are put in the position of identifying how you would have approached a subject, which could potentially open up new ideas about what you want to photograph.
- Challenge yourself to find something in every photo to comment on. When you are faced with a photo that you really don’t like, you have to dig deep into your knowledge and imagination in order to provide constructive criticism.
- Be aware that there is no wrong interpretation of a photograph – we are human beings. We have our experiences and interests and likes.
- Believing in our personal vision is important if we are to develop as photographers. There is no right or wrong when it comes to how you feel about a photograph.
Ideas for giving feedback
I like to start by taking in the photo as a whole
It’s not just about technical examination and it not just about feeling – it’s about how all of the elements in a photograph work together.
So what do you think and feel on the first look? That immediate first impression will make up most of your analysis.
Trust your instincts when you are looking at images. What does your gut tell you? What is the photo saying to you.
When giving feedback speak about the impact the photo makes on you, what thoughts or ideas it sparks. It’s amazing to hear what your work makes people think of.
It’s fascinating to see your photo from another person’s perspective.
2) Then break down the photo. Ask yourself:
- What is the subject? Is there more than one? Where is the subject placed?
- How is it composed? What is interesting/uninteresting about the composition?
- What is the photograph trying to express? What are the ideas it means to convey
3) How could this photo be improved?
- What are the technical skills that you would use to improve the photo?
- What are the compositional skills?
- What are the seeing / feeling skills?
- How would you have approached this subject?
- What about the photographer’s position or angle?
For example, if you see a photo that feels lifeless and boring, you might get the sense that the photographer is not excited by the subject. So the advice might be – get in front of a subject that excites you!
4) What do you like about this photo?
- Highlight the things that are successful in the shot if you can
All forms of creativity are subjective
I read some time ago that the famous writer Doris Lessing submitted a novel anonymously to her publisher with whom she had already had several books published. The book was rejected and caused a bit of a scandal about subjectivity in the book world.
It just shows that a famous name clearly carries a lot weight, but also that we are all subjective creatures. What floats my boat may not float yours.
It’s why writers are repeatedly rejected and then hit upon one publisher who turns their novels into best sellers.
I hope this has given you some ideas about giving and getting feedback. I like to think that when we build our skills in the thing we love to do – we enhance all aspects of our lives.
I found the process of giving and getting feedback on ARS exciting. I’d love to know if you use this site, or other sites to get feedback on your work.
How has giving and receiving feedback helped (or hindered?) your photography?
Let us know by commenting below.
Have a great week and happy photographing,
Anthony and Diana
Cats on my camera bag in Istanbul!