Being self-critical

One of the best things about studying photography at college was having so many of your peers around to help critique your work on a daily basis. It often hurt at the time and more than once I decided to ignore the advice of my friends and forge ahead with my own style. After college there was always the darkroom or the lab where you would talk to other photographers and get some feedback on what you were doing. Then there were a few years when we were hand processing film wherever we happened to be and scanning it, quickly followed by the early digital era. That brief period between the darkroom and the almost universal uptake of the internet and adoption of digital was a tough time for those of us who liked to talk about our work with other photographers.

Now we have choices. We can submit our work to picture sharing networks or publish them on our own sites and hope that others take the time to have a look. Excitingly, we have a growing number of photography discussion groups such as Photo Forum in London where like-minded folks can get together and see the work of others, talk about it, help each other and get inspiration.

There is, however, another option. Self-critcism. The concept is simple – you look at your own work very very closely and try to see how you could have done it better, more imaginatively or maybe just differently. As a freelancer, based a hundred miles from London, this is something that I am going to spend more and more time doing. It was easy to look at a friend’s work and pass a comment or two but it is a lot tougher de-constructing your own images. So much so that I have been giving some thought to having a structure for looking at my own pictures. My first thought was to have some headings under which to work: image quality, composition, light, first impression, suitability for the job were all there in my first list. It’s a decent way to analyse images but I can’t help thinking that there is a better and more enjoyable way to critique my own work.

I tried opening a small number of random images from the past months work and really studying them hard, trying to imagine that they weren’t mine. I found myself coming up against headings and categories again and so I marked six images with a numerical score out of ten under five separate headings and ended up with scores ranging from 20/50 to 44/50. An interesting exercise, but boring and outrageously bureaucratic! What would I have said if these pictures had been by someone else? The first thought that came into my head was that I wouldn’t have wanted to hear about how hard the job was or why certain compromises had been made – the very things that I know about my own work.

Taking a look at the pictures without giving myself a proverbial “pat on the back” for overcoming technical and physical difficulties brought me closer to the answer. Answering questions like “does it have instant appeal?”, “is it a good picture?” and “does it fulfil the brief?” without the excuses that I had been giving myself started to work. The next step was to try to put myself in the shoes of the client and factor in what they might have thought about them. It was getting complicated but I found myself looking at my own work in a far more detached way than I ever had done before.

Applying this process to an edit that I had done a week or so previously allowed me to go back and make that edit so much tighter. I have a very bad habit of editing far too loosely and giving myself a few rules to work with definitely helped me.

At the end of the process I made three decisions:

  • To be far tougher on myself when editing
  • To seek out help from other photographers to review what I’m doing
  • To have another look at my portfolio and see if I can re-shape it

It’s amazing where a few idle thoughts lead you

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