How do we improve our photography? How do we take better pictures? How do we get past the point we are at? I ask myself this all the time? As a teacher I know the best way for my students to improve is by getting high quality feedback and in today’s digital age that should be easier than ever. But is it?
How do amateur street photographers get feedback on their photographs? The answer is that probably most don’t. I read a statistic yesterday that 80% of people think they take excellent photographs. That is a shocking statistic. The stats come from Canon’s inaugural “2016 Photography Trends Study,”. What does this tell us? That people are getting high quality critique? Or that people are deluded? If you watch TV talent shows you will know that it isn’t uncommon for people with absolutely no talent to enter. Convinced that they are going to be famous.
Chris Farling of The Observe Collective saw a gap and set up Street Crit. A Flickr group with the sole purpose of like minded individuals sharing their street photography images and giving and receiving critique. The site flourished for a while but due to a variety of reasons has started to decline in recent years. This is a massive shame as it could be an amazing tool for improving our work. I have, this week, agreed to moderate the group and I hope that we can restore it to its former glory.
I previously posted about the fact that we aren’t born talented but need to work at it with 10,000 hours being the figure which was discussed. This caused a lot of chatter on the forums with lots of different opinions. One being that you could do 10,000 hours and never get any better. This is truth is we need to seek to improve. The problem with feedback, on the Street Crit group and other forums is that it is often not of very good quality. Good ‘togs have left due to unfair comments and criticism.
After looking around the web I found this formula for critiquing an image. This could be applied to one of our own images or someone else’s.
- What am I feeling when I view this image?
- Is there an idea being conveyed?
- Do I form a connection or relate to this image?
- Is there a story being told?
- Is this story conveyed well?
Now, you may notice that this doesn’t talk about focus, corner sharpness, layering, light, clipping or any of the technical side. Now, these can be important but not always. I’m a big lover of photo books and I’ve bought or received as gifts a number over the years. I was looking through, “Magnum: Revolution” last night and realised that a number of images were blurred due to camera shake or focusing error. Did this make them less powerful? Of course not. If we tell the story well it doesn’t matter at all. These were though pieces of journalism not pieces of fine art so the ‘rules’ are perhaps slightly different.
Let’s take this image of mine.
What do you feel when you view it? Is there a story? Can you relate to it? Did I tell the story well?
Technically, I have focused slightly to the rear and the stag is not pin sharp. I considered throwing this shot away at first but to me it tells a story. Someone commented that it was like something from a fairy tale. Let me know what you think.
Or this one:
I love this shot. The light gives it a film noir feel. The expression on his face tells a million stories. Technically? The case at the front is a bit intrusive I guess. I’ve been told that I don’t pay attention to edges of my frame and this is totally true, there’s something creeping in on the right of the frame which I hadn’t even noticed until I got some feedback from Adam Bonn. Other feedback I got was less helpful, “Black and White looks contrived”, “the photo is too simple”
The other problem is, we aren’t always good at taking criticism. It takes a thick skin to listen to people rip apart your pride and joy but it is important. It is how we grow. I would encourage as many people as possible to get involved with Street Crit. It was a thriving community at one point but has now dwindled meaning that the quality and quantity of critique has dropped. View the image pool. Leave some critique. Vote KEEP or DITCH (Only the strong must survive!) Upload an image and hopefully improve your photography. But, leave your pride at the door and bring your thick skin!
Click here to view the group.
P.S. All the images I have posted on this thread have appeared on Street Crit and all (apart from the deer shot) have been relegated to the Dark Room. The room 101 of street photography.
June 20, 2016 at 1:49 pm
This is a good post Robert!
The problem becomes apparent when crit is not valid in regards to the shot or not applicable to the photograph…
If you’ll allow me a HIGHLY contrived example?
So let’s say you want to be a fine art landscape painter. You want to paint pictures that look real.
You paint a picture, a landscape fine art picture!
You show it to John Constable and to Jackson Pollock
Pollock loves your painting, says it’s fantastic – that you have really shown the scene.
Constable, he hates it, he says that it captures everything, yet shows nothing.
I mean WOW, Jackson Pollock loves your work.
But is your goal to paint like Pollock, it wasn’t was it?
And as AMAZING as Pollock is (and he was) he’s not technically offering you peer driven critique from the genre you wish to inhabit.
But Constable, he has a look that you want your own paintings to have… his opinion is no less valid than Pollock’s, his credentials and cachet no less valid that Pollock’s. But for the path “you’ve” chosen, his critique is more valid, for in this (contrived) example – he is your peer.
But who are the peers for on line photography critique?
Why should you take seriously the views of someone with whom the only artistic connection you share, is that you don’t rate each other’s work!?!
Whenever photographic debate gets a ‘bit’ heated, people like to pull out the big guns…
“well Henri Cartier-Bresson said that blah blah” and “Ansel Adams didn’t do XYZ”
There are living photographers you can talk too, rather than dead ones to talk about! 🙂
I’d suggest anyone wanting to improve, asks a photographer they rate specific questions
Do have specific questions… You wouldn’t tweet a professional racing driver and say “how do I drive faster?” But if you tweeted them and said “I really struggle with T3 at Silverstone, I brake where everybody else does, but I don’t carry enough speed off the apex” then you might well get a response to your specific enquiry….
As you say Robert…
The first step is to define what YOU were trying for in your photograph. Ask YOURSELF the questions of ‘how did I perform against my self set brief’
Then anyone offering you critique that doesn’t match your own brief (either good and bad – because misplaced good feedback is just as worthless as bad crit) anyone who apparently missed your point, either discount them or ask them why they felt it didn’t achieve what you set out to achieve…
This is, In my opinion the way to grow.
TALK to people about your/their photography
It can be very tough to hear what you need to hear in amongst the puerile and baseless white noise of the on line community.
June 20, 2016 at 2:15 pm
Absolutely agree about the importance of critique, and fairly robust critique at that. That sort of critique is problematic within the extremely shallow relationships that the internet fosters. That kind of critique can really only exist within a relationship in which there is an implicit friendship and trust, and a respect for the opinion of the critic on the subject. These kinds of relationships are very difficult to build online, if they are really possible at all. I stopped paying attention to any feedback I get online some time ago, whether positive or negative as it is so difficult to get any sort of meaningful commentary.
I’m not at all surprised by the 80% believe their photography is “excellent”. In part I expect this will be due to meaningless, “thumbs up” type feedback on social media, but I also think there has been a huge objective improvement in photography in the last few decades. If you think about it, just making a photograph that was reasonably well composed, sharp enough etc etc was a difficult thing for both technological reasons and due to far less prevalent access to education in photography, art and visual literacy. In the 1940s the gap between a Cartier-Bresson and an amateur would have been huge. Nowadays the technical difficulties have largely been resolved technologically (not operationally, by the photographer, as in the past). It is much more difficult now to make a technically poor photo than it was fifty years ago. At the same time access to educational materials about visual has improved too. Books are more accessible, but there is a vast array of resources on the internet that can be used to better understand what makes a “good” photo, in a visual, compositional sense. Taken together I think these developments probably have generally increased the level of photography across the board, with the exception of that top level, which has probably remained more static, while the lower levels have been catching up. Of course, if the gap between a decent amateur and the Magnum elite has closed somewhat, it is important to recognise that it is still a gap, in the same way that a good county runner might be at 95% of the standard of an Olympian: that 5% difference is all that matters: it is all the difference in the world. Still, it is perhaps nice to know that so many people are so happy with the photography they do.