The Importance of Critiques

The Importance of Critiques
Photo by Dikmie Kimie -

One of the things that people rarely talk about in photography is the value of a critique. When I first picked up a camera, I just snapped photos of whatever caught my eye. Some of those photos might have been decent. If I’m being honest, though, most probably weren’t. I simply didn’t have enough knowledge, skill, or practice under my belt to consistently create powerful images. And since I was just starting out, that was okay.

Somewhere between then and now, though, a stigma overshadowed my journey. The “newbie” grace period ended. Without me even realizing it, the expectations of what I “should” be able to accomplish shifted. I should know the rule of thirds. I should know how to use manual mode, selecting appropriate aperture and time values based on the conditions. I should understand what ISO was and how it would affect image quality. Basically, I should have gained expertise despite having no roadmap or mentors to guide me.

Now, for those of you who had the benefit of a structured curriculum, this scenario may not resonate with you. However, many photographers simply pick up a camera one day and—with the help of the internet, and copious amounts of trial and error—they teach themselves. I happened to lean toward the latter camp, and eventually, I hit a plateau. No amount of (often conflicting) youtube videos seemed to be helping. There was too much information, and no logical order in which to absorb it. Even worse, costly tutorials or workshops were not an option: I simply didn’t have the funds to pay for them.

So, what did I do to get over the proverbial hump? As you may have guessed from the article’s title, I discovered the power of critiques. I found qualified people willing to look at my work and listened to their suggestions.

My first real experience with photography feedback was an adult education class on black and white film at a local community college. I learned the basics of processing photos in a darkroom. More importantly, though, it was the first time someone ever looked at my images and said, “What do you think about dodging here, and burning here?” That simple question opened my eyes. The class only lasted a few weeks, but I scraped together enough money to enroll in the next session. I soaked up every bit of generous advice the instructor, Eric Dreeke, offered me. I still do, whenever he feels inspired to share it.

A few years later, I met another photographer, David Pasillas, whose feedback changed the trajectory of my career. His patient guidance, especially in the realm of editing software and creativity, helped me finally see the subtle things I was missing. He’d point out the magenta colorcasts that I struggled to see. He’d show me step by step how to shape light, and more importantly, explain why he made those choices. He’d encourage me to be creative and step beyond my comfort zone. And sometimes, he’d tell me to trash an image—but he’d always tell me why it didn’t work, and what he thought I could have done differently. Since our skill sets were different, I’d help him work through his own problem images in return. Thankfully, the partnership helped both of us grow as photographers. I doubt I’d have gotten this far as an artist without his thoughtful critiques and support.

Critiques can be scary, but I firmly believe they are a necessary part of any creative journey. As artists, we are often too close to our work. Sometimes what we want to convey or accomplish isn’t clear and we need a second set of eyes to see it. No one is perfect, and it’s rare to get anything right the first time. That is especially true in the photography industry with its constantly evolving technology, and by extension, techniques. Having honest, objective, qualified feedback can help us navigate those pitfalls with grace.

Last month, an acquaintance confided that she was terrified to show anyone the first draft of her novel. She asked if that was normal. When I’m not running around taking photos, I happen to run a writer’s group and I assured her that it was, in fact, completely normal. Art is a way of expressing ourselves, but in doing so, we put our thoughts and feelings out in the world for display. That invites judgment, which in turn, leads to feeling vulnerable. However, it helps to remember that critiques are not the same as criticism. Furthermore, while your photography may be a way of communicating your thoughts or feelings, you are not your art and that one piece of art does not define you as a photographer.

Just like anything else, giving and receiving critiques is a skill that both parties need to practice in order to become proficient. As the recipient, you learn to put some emotional distance between yourself and the photo, so that you can listen to feedback with an objective ear. It’s also important to realize—and this is something a lot of people new to the process struggle with—is that you don’t need to take every piece of advice given. The trick is to weigh whether or not the advice aligns with your vision for the image, and either incorporate or discard the advice based on that. In some cases, someone’s feedback may not work for that particular image, but you may be able to incorporate the shared experience in future works.

If you find yourself in the position of giving a critique, it is helpful to start with a framework. That will allow you to give honest, unbiased input based on a list of previously established criteria. Sometimes that criteria is questions or concerns from the artist themselves. Other times, the criteria is based on industry standards for your particular artistic medium. In the case of formal critique sessions, though, establishing guidelines ahead of time lets both parties know what to expect.

Critiques should be both specific and constructive—a list of vague compliments or problems isn’t beneficial. For example, you can point out an area of concern, but then follow it with a suggestion on how it can be resolved. Another common critique method is the “sandwich”: compliments at the beginning, constructive feedback in the middle, and compliments at the end. That way, the photographer is assured that their image as a whole isn’t inferior. The photo may just need some tweaking.

It is also important to note that, as a matter of course, you should not give a critique if it has not been asked for.

With a few exceptions, the habit of formal critiquing is not part of the culture of landscape photography. This is a direct contrast to other artistic mediums, such as writing or painting, where critique groups are not only common, but expected. In my opinion, though, every photographer can benefit from the practice. As an artist, you can receive thoughtful feedback and learn from another person’s experience. If someone has a better solution for a common problem, you can borrow the technique. As the person giving a critique, you learn to be analytical about what makes a photo shine. That, in turn, can be applied to your own art. In a nutshell, honest and objective critiques, help everyone grow. So the next time you’re stuck with an image, consider asking a peer for their advice. You might be surprised at how much you both learn.

By Shannon Kalahan