Oh no! My Photo Sucks!!! Now What?!
Accepting and learning from criticism.
“Publish or perish”, the mantra of the research world is no less true for photographers. Fueled by our innate need for recognition and restrained only by our fear of rejection. At some point in time you’re going to share your work with your friends and family, or on social media. You may even decide to enter your photos in a contest at a fair or online. If you’re lucky everyone will love it. You may end up winning awards, or you may even end up being published. On the flip side will have that one person, or even a group of people that say, “your photo sucks!”, “You have no business calling yourself a photographer!”, or “What did you take that with an iPhone 1?!”
When I purchased my first DSLR I went through the phase of just knowing I was going to be hot shit, the next Ansel Adams. I was going to go to events and people would ask me for the pictures I took! I would take it on vacation and get published in magazines.
Looking back over 10 years later, not only do the photos that I took back then make me cringe, but I cannot believe some of the comments I made to some of my friends and family members who are seasoned photographers, I obviously had no business talking like I knew anything.
My first day shooting I sent an email with a photo of a helicopter taken at 4000/th of a second with its rotors stopped. Proudly proclaiming, “Look how great my camera is!!! The rotor blades are perfectly stopped, and how clear they are!” Not realizing the awkwardness that the scene creates because unless that is a aircraft about to crash, there should be some motion blur.
Also early in career as a grouchy photo critic, my favorite feature on my 20 and 30D was Auto Depth Of Focus, which would match shutter speed, and aperture to get everything in the viewfinder in focus. Oh what magic I proclaimed!!! Not realizing that you want to use a sharply focused subject, while blurring everything else to isolate the subject, a technique called Bokeh (BOKE-AY).
Time moved on, and my 20D got stolen, my 30D fell in the water, and I purchased the 7D, Canons most advanced cropped sensor DSLR at the time, but it did not have A-DEP!! Oh, how I agonized about this, but I did not want to buy a plastic body camera just to have an automatic feature. I am much too clumsy for plastic!
One of the turning points in my photography was finding DigitalRev TV on YouTube. Which at the time presented by Kai Man Wong. His sarcastic and fun presentation style really made me start to understand that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and understand what different focal length does to your composition and feel of a photograph. How to compose my shots to make them look interesting. To take the time to try multiple focal lengths, apertures, and exposures. Don’t just push the shutter button and walk off thinking my job is done.
Take the time to think about key compositional elements that make a great photo. Is the horizon straight? Do you have a foreground element, or are you just taking a picture of a bunch of clouds on the water?
I find the biggest mistake people make, is they make the effort to capture the sunrise, or sunset. Then just take a picture of a sunrise of sunset. Fine and dandy! While it might make a good desktop background. ANYONE can do that!
Frame the shot in something, a window, a tent, some trees. Add someone enjoying the sunset, a group of photographers trying to capture the sunset That tells a story! That is unique It isn’t another snapshot that says “The sun goes up, the sun goes down, it does the same thing every day…” Think about something that will make your photo special!
For example, on this predawn light painting trip to a closed amusement park in Gunsan, South Korea I had wanted to see what a picture of this skull would look like being lit from the ground by the light of a candle. The picture actually came out relatively flat.
For some reason I decided not to extinguish the candle and try it in other shots, which lead to this picture, which actually worked pretty well. So this goes to prove two points I made up above just because one idea does not pan out, keep trying! Something may stick. Just because someone may comment negatively one of your photos, doesn’t mean the idea can not work in a different setting, framing, or time. Keep working to make your idea a masterpiece.
After actually taking the photo and post processing it, take the time to filter your work. If you have a photo that it is special to you, that makes you feel a certain way but you feel that it might not be a great representation of your work maybe make it a desktop photo, or a background for your phone, but I highly recommended that you refrain from putting it on your website, in your photo gallery, or even online period, unless it is specifically to ask for tips on how to improve.
You may take great photos most of the time! You may be the areas hottest wedding photographer, but go out one weekend to try landscape photography and the work may be okay, but not stellar. Would you want that photograph to represent your business or you as a photographer?
If you find public criticism too biting, there are plenty of anonymous contest websites available that can be a great tool to gauge your work, Pixoto and Gurushots are the two that I use. On Pixoto you can either upload your content to be “dueled” between other photo’s or enter public contests. Gurushots is more of a directed game, where you earn experience points, and gain levels the higher your photo’s rank. I have been trying to move from Advanced to Veteran for over a year now.
You will still experience let downs and frustration, for instance this picture I took at a closed amusement park in Gunsan. I though it is a great picture, and I really thought it would do better, I am not sure if it is because I decided to change the crop at the last minute or if the photo really is not that interesting
To wrap up, as you take more and more photos and have more and more of an online presence, at some point in time you are going to encounter negative feedback about your work, it is inevitable. There are 3 ways you can go from there, to make it a driving force to improve your game, to ignore it, or to let it get your down and wonder if you should hang up your gear.
The choice is obviously up to you, I do not encourage the 2nd or third option, and hopefully have provided a few tools to make you more comfortable presenting your work. There are plenty of free resources on the internet from blogs to vlogs that will help you improve. Nobody gets better by always being told their work is flawless, it is only through trial and error that we move forward.
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Get out there and keep shooting!
Earlier last week, I finally made the Veteran level on Guru Shots!This photo ranked top %30 in the Cowboys and Cowgirls contest!