We are insecure. We don’t want people to be brutally honest with us. We like feeling liked. We don’t want to hear the truth, or at least what people really think about us and our work. We like it when things are sugar coated (I know I do), and facing reality can be tough.
I remember when I started photography, I thought I was awesome. I thought my work was incredible, and I deserved fame, glory, and attention.
Then one day, I remember stumbling on the work of the masters and the greats of photography. I then realized my work sucked in comparison to theirs.
At first I was discouraged. I though to myself: I could never be as good as them, why bother even trying?
Humanizing the masters
What first humanized all of these great photographers in history was discovering their contact sheets (via Magnum Contact sheets). I realized they, too, also took bad photos. The difference was that they didn’t show their bad work, only their best work. And on top of that, they shot for a lot longer than I did.
I also learned about the “myth of the decisive moment”– that great photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson wasn’t some demigod in photography. He worked the scene when he saw an interesting potential photograph. He didn’t just take 1 photo of a scene. He would take 15–20 if the scene warranted it.
Don’t show bad photos
I have a rule of thumb (heuristic): If my mom likes my photo, it is a boring photo.
I only started to improve my photography once other photographers started to give me brutally honest critique. Early on I was part of a flickr street photography critique group, and people were brutally honest. They didn’t beat around the bush– they either said you should keep it or ditch it (but would give constructive criticism, and say why it wasn’t a good shot).
I would argue that to be a great photographer, you need to be a great editor of your own work. The secret of photography (to be seen as a great photographer) is to simply not show your bad work.
The great photographers I know and admire have hundreds (and even sometimes thousands of photography books). They constantly consume images, through photography, art, sculpture, film, and sometimes outside fields like literature, sociology, and music. They develop great taste in art and photography by only consuming great work.
Great photographers can identify a boring photograph from a memorable photograph. What is a great photograph exactly?
I can’t say exactly what makes a great photograph, but I can share what makes a boring photograph:
- Poor composition (cluttered background, awkward framing, lack of focus on primary subject)
- Boring subject matter
- Lack of emotion, gesture, or facial expression
- Cliche (Eiffel Tower and puddles)
- Easy to photograph (flowers, tourist attractions)
- Ugly or cheesy aesthetic (HDR, selective color)
So to simply make a great photograph, do the opposite of the list above.
There are only around 10 photographers whose opinion really matter to me, and whose critiques I truly trust. These photographers have a strong knowledge of what makes a great photograph (they look at a lot of the master photographers) and also make great photographs themselves. I rarely trust the feedback of another photographer if I don’t like their work.
Whenever I show my photographs to another photographer I trust, I tell them to be brutally honest with me. I tell them to help me kill my babies, and also articulate why certain shots work and why certain shots don’t work.
I’m often emotionally attached to my photographs, and have a difficult time emotionally disconnecting with them. Some of them have interesting back stories, which confuses me whether the shot is good or not. For example, I might have taken a photograph that almost got me punched (and I think it is a good photograph, because if was so difficult to shoot). But then that might not be apparent in the photograph (the viewer doesn’t care.
If you share your photographs with someone and just ask them: “What do you think?”, you’re not going to get honest feedback and critique. People will just try to be nice and encouraging and say, “Oh, that’s nice.” If people say your work is nice, it means your photos are boring.
When you tell people to be brutally honest with you, it gives them permission to really say what’s on their mind. The truth often is painful and sucks, but it is what we need to grow and develop as photographers. If we are just given pats on the back, we won’t work hard and hustle to get out work to the next level.
I think it is easy to photograph. Editing is insanely difficult.
I think you’re only as good as your weakest photograph. If you share bad (or subpar photos), people will get a bad taste in their mouth– and not give as much credence to your great shots.
I would liken a bad photograph in your portfolio like throwing in a red sweater in the wash (with a lot of white clothing). It will ruin all your white clothing (and turn it this ghastly pink).
Similarly, if you have a 1-ton wrecking ball connected by 100 chained links– you need all the links to be strong. If you have even one weak or loose link, the whole wrecking ball will come crashing down.
I often go back and re-edit my old work. Photos that I used to think were great 5 years ago, I think are boring and cliche. For example, I recently re-designed my portfolio website and only decided to upload my projects which really meant something personal to me– and which I thought were still strong over the years.
I also make it a point to go back to my flickr every few months and mark all my boring photos to private. It often takes a long time to marinate your shots to realize whether they are good or not.
Most famous photographers die with having only 1 memorable photograph. If they’re lucky, maybe 3–5. Even with Henri Cartier-Bresson, realistically– how many famous photographs of his can you think off the top of your head? Dude jumping over the puddle, kid with wine bottles, and the bicycle shot. Perhaps a few more.
So as a takeaway point, remember that less is more. I often struggle with this– I want to show all my work (because they are my babies, and I love them). But photographs have no feeling. And they’re not children. I always have to remind myself: “kill your babies”. It is often brutal, but asking for another person to be brutally honest can make the job easier.
Furthermore if you want honest feedback and critique online, my simple suggestion is this: in the caption or description of your photograph write something like: “Please be brutally honest and give me a harsh (but constructive) critique. I want to learn to make better images.”
I don’t think any photographer can truly edit his or her own work by themselves. We always need a second, unbiased, and honest opinion.
What are some ways you edit your work, and how do you take critique and criticism from other photographers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.