How to Give and Receive Constructive Criticism

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When I think of CC (constructive criticism) my mind goes back to my dancing, music and audition days. Putting that number on my chest and being compared to hundreds of other dancers all doing the same routine as me, hoping to stand out. That’s really tough! Same thing when auditioning for a solo or part in a major symphony. Although music auditions are sometimes blind (meaning behind a drape) the idea is the same. I wanted to stand out in order to capture the judge’s interest. 

Photography competitions are no different. You’re looking for the image that will make you stand out. The moment that no when else has captured quite like you can. The edit that both enhances and leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. How do we achieve these goals?

The best preparation I’d receive leading up to my auditions was feedback from my instructors or professors. Many times I’d play in masterclasses, in front of several peers, as well as a guest artist, who would lead a discussion following my performance. These were meant to be challenging classes.  A way to get as much help in one sitting as possible. They were nerve wracking, but something I chose to do because I wanted to grow. And sometimes that pressure, that being in the hot seat, was just the ticket to an a-ha moment.

The guest artist would give me their feedback first. I’d say 95% of the time it was constructive.  Not constructive meaning helpful. The feedback was ALWAYS helpful. But constructive meaning - not blowing smoke up my ass in order to make me feel good :)  The other 5% I’d feel purely validated and praised. One might wonder why I kept going back for more.

How often have you been in a facebook group and seen a technically poorly executed image rack up likes and comments quickly? Maybe it’s someone who everybody knows. Maybe it’s because they’re using the latest trend in editing. Maybe it’s because the environment that’s been cultivated is a lot more hand holding than leg upping. At Birthbound Photographer, I want to create an environment where CC is actually constructive criticism. I’ve tried to encourage this discussion before. Not many people tend to participate in these threads. I’ve thought a lot about why that may be and I’ve come to the conclusion that a) we don’t REALLY know how to give CC and b) we are too fragile to receive real CC. Birth photography is often more about the cool things we witness and less about the art of capturing those moments.

The fact is we will not grow or improve our craft until someone recommends or suggests something that hadn’t occurred to us before. Whether that’s due to inexperience or not, we’d be fools not to at least consider the advice of others. Particularly those who’ve been around a while. Did you know that the freedoms and opportunities you enjoy on social media didn’t just appear in the last 6 months? Facebook and Instagram have shown us some favor recently, and it is wonderful, but the efforts towards this began YEARS AGO. Back to a time when we had to think twice about showing too much thigh. Back to a time when birth photography was first shared on a mainstream website or photography platform and everyone gasped and awed that this art even existed. 

Pride aside, constructive criticism is important and necessary. Especially in a small part of the industry where we have yet to establish hard and fast rules like “never photograph a client on train tracks”. These are revelations that come after years and years of trends and experience. We aren’t quite there yet.  But we are getting close. 

Now, there is a right and wrong way to give CC. It’s not all about what could be improved, but feedback that will inspire growth and desire to create better images. So here are some suggestions for cc that are effective yet considerate.

It is fine to start with something you really like about an image. This might ease one in to giving honest feedback without feeling mean. One example of how this might go is:

“I really love this moment. I can really feel what (mom/dad/partner) is feeling here.” 

That is a safe place to begin because moments are not something you’d typically find anything wrong with.  We are documentarians and we can’t really help what happens in front of our camera. 

We can however talk about context. So maybe your CC has more to do with the storyline and significance of that moment in the storyline. In that case, you may continue your CC with:

“What happened right before/right after this?  I feel like you might have captured something stronger if you’d pressed the shutter a bit sooner/waited a bit longer.”

This gives the photographer an opening to share more about that image, and room for a conversation with everyone else. Conversation starters both breaks the ice and give the opening for others to chime in.

Make sense?

You DO want to be specific. Statements like “I don’t like it” are not helpful. But the segue is important to think about. Remember we are new to this.

Here are some other criteria you can consider when critiquing an image. 

Exposure 

Are there any blown-out or underexposed areas where important detail is lost?
Is there any unintended motion blur? 

Composition 

Where is your eye drawn?
Is anything inadvertently cropped out?
Are there distracting elements that could be removed with cropping?
Is the horizon straight? 

Perspective

Is the angle awkward or unflattering?
Is there a variety of focal lengths from moment to moment (if more than one image is included)?
Is there a variety of points of view included in the story overall (of more than one image is included)?

Color Balance/Editing 

How do the skin tones look?
How do the color look overall?
How is the contrast?
Would BW or color be a better choice?

Use of Light 

How was the lighting handled? 
Was flash used? Should it have been considered?
Does the position of the photographer enhance or take away from the moment?
Are the subjects' faces well lit? Are there unnecessary shadows?

Focus 

Is subject in focus? Is the depth of field helpful or distracting?
Is there anything ‘weird’ going on with subject? Perhaps something that might not be an issue a second before or after this capture?
Are there secondary elements that might have been considered?

Emotion 

Does this image evoke emotion?
Does the client look comfortable (Why this question? Because we must be in constant tune with our client, knowing if they’re ok with us documenting what is happening.)
Does the image skillfully capture a connection, or even disconnection as it may be pertinent to the story?

A few more things to note 

Remember that when you are the one asking for critique, to let people know if there is something specific you are looking for in terms of lighting, the composition, the edit, etc. 

The more specific you can be about what areas you are looking to get feedback on, the easier it is for the other person to know how to help you. 

More importantly, remember that the purpose of CC is not to make you feel less than. It is to help you grow. There is nothing more frustrating than when a peer takes the time to share their thoughts with you only to be dismissed or be argued with by other members of the group. Let's respect one another! 

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Leilani RogersComment