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how-to-critique-photographs Tips & Tricks

How to Give & Accept Critique — Be Your Own Art Director Part 4

By Tanya Goodall Smith on February 16th 2016

This is part four in my Be Your Own Art Director Series. If you haven’t already, first, read part one, 6 Steps to Planning a Photo Shoot, part two, 6 Tips to Executing Your Planned Photo Shoot and part three, Powerful Post Production for Greatest Impact.

The thought that prompted this entire series for me was that many artists today don’t know how to critique their own work. Learning to see what’s working and what’s not working in your images comes with experience, and for me at least, it also came after years of receiving critique from someone qualified to give it. A teacher, an art director, a client communicating their needs, a prospective employer reviewing my portfolio, etc.

These experiences through the years have helped me know what to look for, how to see my work objectively, what questions to ask myself about it and how to accept it in a way that leads to improvement, not disillusionment or defensiveness. I’m hoping the tips I share with you today will help you develop your ability to critique your own work and that of others if you ever find yourself in a position to do so.

Think Before You Ask

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I often see photographers post an image in our Facebook community and in other groups asking for critique, and then they get very defensive when any negative criticism or suggestions for change are given. Have you stopped to ask yourself why you are posting and asking for constructive criticism when you are not, in fact, willing to accept it? Consider carefully before you ask for critique. If you’re just posting images hoping for an ego boost and all positive praise, then don’t ask for CC!

Consider the Source

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With thinking before you ask in mind, next I advise you to consider the source of your critique. Asking in online groups is perhaps not the best place to find truly helpful critique. Yes, there are many talented photographers in these groups, but what truly makes them qualified to tear apart or praise your image? You’ll see all kinds of varying and conflicting opinions in these comment threads, which can lead to confusion and misleading information or education for you. Consider very carefully the source of the critique. If you do ask for critique in online groups, keep in mind you may likely end up taking most of what is said with a grain of salt.

So what does qualify someone to critique your images? Only you can decide who you trust enough to advise you, but here are a few criteria I use myself.

What are their credentials?

What literally makes this person qualified to evaluate your images? Do they have a lot of experience or education? Do you know and trust them? Have you seen and do you admire their work and their success?

Do they have your best interest at heart?

Is the person you’re asking really invested in helping you improve, or do they have some other motive for offering you the feedback they’re giving?

Are you paying them?

How much do you value the critique being given? This ties in with the previous point, because if you’ve paid for a workshop, course, college program or private critique, the person offering the critique is most definitely invested in giving you the most helpful feedback possible. Their job depends on your success.

Where To Find Effective Critique

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So, if you find yourself truly wanting a valuable critique by a qualified person who has your best interest at heart, where can you turn to find such a thing? Here are a few ideas.

ART SCHOOL

Many people today swear you don’t need to get a formal education to be a successful artist, and with all the other resources available, this may be true. Though online workshops, free YouTube videos and a plethora of in-person workshops were not available when I went to college, I will never regret my three years of intense “art school” education.

The critique process was probably one of the most valuable things I took away from that training. Learning to see my work objectively, good or bad, through the critique of qualified experts was invaluable. Learning from the critique of all my classmates’ successes and failures multiplied my knowledge exponentially. If you have the time and money, consider a college course or degree program.

WORKSHOPS

If you can afford it, going to a workshop where image creation and critique are included can be a much smaller investment in time and money than pursuing a degree program at a school. In my opinion, in-person interaction is best, but some online courses include critique via video streaming. While our video workshops, like Photography 101 and our Lighting Workshop Bundle do not include critique of student work, they do include commentary on images created during the workshops, and these are similar to the critiquing process. You can always ask for constructive criticism (CC) in our Facebook community or in the critique section of this website, just keep in mind the points I made above for accepting that criticism.

one-on-one portfolio review

Many photographers offer one-on-one portfolio reviews or mentorships, either in person or via phone or Skype, etc. I have opened up a few slots in my monthly schedule for one-on-one critique for a reasonable fee. For more details, email tanya(at)workstoryphotography.com.

PHOTOGRAPHY COMPETITIONS

I’ve always wanted to enter a photography competition, simply for the experience of having my work be judged. The only way we can truly improve is through continued practice, evaluation, and improvement over time. Entering a photography competition can help you see which areas you need to work on and where you are doing well, since there are certain criteria by which the images are judged. Photography competitions at conventions like WPPI, or even in your local camera club or county fair, are a good place to start.

HOW TO ACCEPT CRITIQUE

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Once you find a source of critique you respect and trust, there are a few things to keep in mind to benefit fully from the critique experience. Trust me on these, guys. Try them on for size and see how much your work improves when you accept critique as a means for growth.

It’s Not Personal

My very first art school critique experience went something like this. After pacing the “crit wall” in complete silence, the professor started in on a yelling tirade, “What is this crap? Do you call this drawing? This is horrible work!” and then proceeded to rip the drawing of one student off the wall, crumple it into a ball and throw it out the 4th story window. That student then began to cry, ran from the room and never returned. She dropped the class, as did a few others that day.

They figured out basic drawing wasn’t going to be an easy “A” class after all. I learned from that experience that if you’re serious about being an incredible, legitimate artist, you can’t take critique about your work personally. The critique is about your work, not about YOU. Keep that in mind and critique will be easier to take objectively.

It’s About Improvement

Accepting critique is all about learning, improving, changing, growing. It really is a gift, if you get brutally honest critique from someone who knows what they’re talking about and if you’re able to put your ego aside for a moment and use it as a learning tool.

You Have the Final Say

No matter what anyone says about your work, you have the final say in whether or not you want to change it. Traditional rules can be broken for a specific purpose or message you as an artist might want to convey. Personal tastes may influence the opinion of some judges,  teachers or peers. If you are secure in your work and your vision, you can take anyone’s critique, consider it and then choose not to implement it. It’s all up to you.

QUESTIONS FOR SELF-CRITIQUE

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Once you have enough experience, and even as you start out and gain experience from the beginning, you can begin to critique your own work. Take a look at your image and note what you see that is working, what’s not working, what could you have done better next time or what would you have done differently if you could go back and do it over again? If you see something that’s not working but you’re not sure how to make it better, you’ll have a specific area of help to ask for when you go to the Facebook groups or approach someone you trust for critique. Here are a few areas you can evaluate.

  1.  Technical aspects (exposure, depth of field, focus, post-processing, etc.)
  2.  Composition
  3.  Emotion/Expression/Story
  4.  Distracting elements
  5.  Style

LEARNING RESOURCES

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Here are a few resources I recommend you turn to for critique and improvement of your work.

SLR Lounge Workshops

Learn the basics of what makes a “good” image in our Photography 101 workshop or any of our top rated video workshops. Also, submit your image for critique in the critique section of our website, enter our monthly image contest and join our positive, education based Facebook community.

PICTURE PERFECT PRACTICE BY ROBERTO VALENZUELA

I love this book. It reads like a textbook with assignments at the end of each chapter. If you want to learn how to truly see as a top notch photographer, this book will be a useful tool for you. You’ll learn a formulaic approach to creating incredible imagery, which in turn will allow you to see what’s making your work sub par and how to change it.

Local Camera Club or workshop

If you haven’t already, find a local camera or photography club and present your work for critique there. Not sure if there’s one in your area? Google it!

Ok, now that I’ve practically written a novel, I’ll let you get to critiquing your work! Stay tuned for the last part of this series about publishing your work and curating your portfolio. Selecting just the right image is one of the most important parts of being your own art director.

Tanya Goodall Smith is the owner, brand strategist and commercial photographer at WorkStory Corporate Photography in Spokane, Washington. WorkStory creates visual communications that make your brand irresistible to your target market. Join the stock photo rebellion at workstoryphotography.com.

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