The first time I had my work critiqued was unsolicited but very much appreciated. I don’t remember the year or the time of year for that matter, but I remember meeting my friend for coffee at a Barnes & Noble in Livingston, NJ. Moo, as we call him, met with me to talk about new headshots that he needed. I can’t remember if he was an art major or took a class on art, but he took the liberty to critique my work as I was showing him my portfolio. I remember him using words like continuity and composition. Words I’ve never heard being used in that context. This shows you how new I was to photography then. But I remember how he looked at my work in a way I never had, or at any image like that ever for that matter. It was all new to me and I was enlightened. I learned a lot without even realizing it. From that day on, I always heard Moo’s voice in the back of my head as I took pictures. As the years went on, I did a lot of self-teaching and discovered that what Moo told me that day really made a lot of sense.
The second time I had my work critiqued was by an Insta famous photographer that I followed and admired. I can’t remember who he was for the death of me, but I paid $200 to meet with him for an hour in the City (NY) to discuss my portfolio. Honestly, I don’t even remember our conversation. It was also the moment when I experienced in real life what it meant to never meet your idols. Not that I idolized him in that manner, but I did respect him, until that moment. He was a nice guy, but he seemed too preoccupied with other things and that this whole thing he orchestrated was a semi-scam. Semi in the sense that after the first meeting, he was never going to interact with me again; part of his selling point was access to him for opinions.
I’ve had my work reviewed by many others along the way and still have my work looked at to this day, and there’s not a time where I don’t come away with a new insight or perspective. Those two stories show that critique can vary greatly, and it’s not always the ones you think will give you the best advice.
Here are the 2 reasons why every photographer should have their work critiqued.
Just as in taking photographs, perspective is everything and when you’re caught up in the moment of shooting and feeling the thrill of being on a roll, then your perspective becomes one-sided. Having your work reviewed brings on an outside, unbiased perspective on your image. It helps you see something that was right in front of your face but wasn’t able to because you were too caught up on another aspect of what you shot.
For example, let’s say you have been working so hard on nailing down lighting, whether that’s natural or artificial. You shot a portrait where the lighting is perfect, it’s right where you wanted it to be. You’re excited and jumping for joy. Your confidence level as a photographer just shot through the roof. You show off that image to the world, post it on Instagram, and everything in between. You show it off to one of your photography buddies and they say, lighting is great, but why did you crop the model off at their ankles? It looks like she has no feet. BAM! Your world is shattered. The best photo you thought you ever took is now utter garbage because you didn’t frame your subject well. That is what having your work reviewed can do to help you be a better photographer.
From that moment on, you’ll never cut off a limb again in your photographs unless it was done on purpose with real intention.
For most of us, we are our worst or harshest critics. I know for myself, when I look at an image for the third or fifth time, I look at it in distaste because I see something I could have done better. However, there are some of us, people whom I know, who have the confidence of gods. That confidence is a gift and a curse. There’s also the reality that the majority of your clients are too nice to tell you that they don’t actually like what you shot, and you only really find out how much they don’t like it after you realized they never posted one of your images on their social media. There will also come a time where you work with other professionals who will not shy away from giving you straight feedback because it’s their job. And to be honest, that’s the kind of feedback you want, but it’s not always the easiest to receive especially if you feel like you just nailed a shoot, only to be shot down by the person who hired you for the job.
Having your work critiqued prepares you for those people, and as you continue to have your work to critique, you should seek out the people who won’t sugar coat their feedback in any way. You want someone who will look at your image and say, “Dude, that’s terrible. Comp and lighting are really off.” It’s feedback like that, that will make you a better photographer.
There is the opposite effect of receiving negative feedback and that’s positive feedback. If you are that person, who is too harsh on your work and don’t think you’re any good, then there’s a benefit to having people who are raw and honest in your circle. Their positive feedback of your work should speak volumes and you should be able to trust that feedback because you know they would not tell you otherwise.
Admittedly, seeking out people to critique your work is terrifying, but that fear will subside to non-existent in due time. Before you know it, you will take constructive feedback and put it right into work. You will see the benefits unfold right before your eyes. But as I’ve mentioned in my past articles, do not ever become complacent. Even when you reach what you believe is the highest status, you are never too good to have your work critiqued. Because, if you believe that you are too good, that is when you get stale and become irrelevant, and as artists, that is the last thing you want to become, is irrelevant.