A short while back, I wrote a pair of pieces (Part 1, Part 2) about giving and responding to critiques of photography with a certain level of decorum. As many of you already know, criticism is best given when actually asked for. While having the confidence and self-awareness to seek feedback in and of itself is commendable, not all requests for feedback are equal. Despite what one might think, it’s not quite as simple as posting your photo online and asking for general feedback. As with giving and responding to critiques, there are certain ways you can present your request for feedback to improve your odds of receiving meaningful advice. Below, I’ll go over the information you can offer to increase those chances.
Share your settings and additional information
We’re going to start with one of the most basic pieces of information every request for criticism should include. It’s a good idea to share as much information as you can about the settings. This will usually include the basics, such as focal length, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, just to name a few. These settings give the person providing the critique the information they need to understand any issues they may identify, such as camera shake, noise, depth of field, and so on. As a result, they will be better equipped to suggest solutions to these issues for future shoots. Furthermore, this information will give them the ability to provide additional suggestions, such as a slower/faster shutter speed for waterfalls or a longer focal length to help with scale. However, it goes beyond the settings on your camera. If you’re in the field, it can be helpful to provide additional information, such as the time of day and the direction you were facing. This additional insight can help the person giving the critique better understand the conditions, which can lead to recommendations for future shoots, especially if they are familiar with that particular location. Additionally, it’s helpful to mention the tools or gear you used, such as your camera, lenses, and filters. While it’s true that gear doesn’t make the photographer, having an understanding of what gear you have access to can give light to some of the restrictions you may be facing.
Share the key edits
Much like the technical information about the shot, sharing some of the specific edits made to the photo can help the person providing the feedback make a more informed critique. This isn’t to say you have to share every small tweak you’ve made, but sharing some of the specific edits you’ve made can help remove a lot of the guess work. However, as your editing improves, it can actually be a good idea to leave some of the editing details out. For example, if you’ve removed or added something to the photo, leaving that information out can act as a quality check, as mentioning it will only draw attention to it. This isn’t to say you should lie about any of the edits you’ve made, but if no one is able to notice an edit you made without specifically looking for it, it’s usually a good sign. I’ve removed distractions from countless images in my portfolio and the prints I sell and, to the best of my knowledge, they have gone unnoticed. The editing information you choose to include is most useful when you’re trying to achieve a particular style or effect, which leads perfectly into my next point.
Explain your intention
A couple of years ago, I did an entire write-up on the importance of shooting and editing with intent. When sharing your work with the goal of getting feedback, it’s a good idea to explain your intent. This could include a number of intentions, such as a particular style, mood, or effect you were going for. If it may not be immediately obvious, it can also be a good idea to explain what drew you to the scene, and why you decided to shoot it. It could even be as simple as explaining what the intention behind your framing, composition, and settings were. Much like sharing the technical and editing information, explaining what exactly you were going for takes away a lot of the guess work. Without this information, intentional decisions could come across as mistakes. Making sure both you and the person providing the critique are on the same page is the first step to getting effective feedback. It will also save you a lot of time responding to people asking you about your intent or feedback treating your decisions as oversights or amateur mistakes. Furthermore, as you continue growing as a photographer, actively asking yourself about the intent behind your decisions can help you make more meaningful choices, both in the field and in the editing software. It should also be noted that if you’re not able to articulate your intention behind an image or edit, that might be the first sign that your photograph has bigger issues. For me, the first step to taking a photograph starts with one question: ‘why?’ Explaining the why to the people providing feedback is one of the most helpful things you can do to ensure you receive the kind of feedback that will help you improve your photography.
Explain your level and abilities
As I mentioned in my write-up about critiquing photography, it’s important that the feedback is delivered in a way that the photographer can understand. This is why it’s a good idea to mention how much experience you have with photography. You don’t need to post your entire resume, but it’s helpful to point out if you’re just getting started or have picked up your camera for the first time in a while. As you gain more experience and learn more about photography, you will eventually pick up a boatload of new terms, including quite a bit of jargon. However, if you’re just getting started, it can be daunting to read a reply filled with so much new language that it makes your head spin. You will eventually learn the terms, but in the meantime, if you need the feedback to be delivered in a specific way, it’s best to mention that up front, lest you spend the next few hours Googling photography terms. Furthermore, it’s a good idea to explain your editing level and software limitations. Much like terms, you will eventually learn increasingly advanced editing techniques, and you may invest in more advanced editing software. However, I know from personal experience that receiving editing suggestions that neither you or your software are capable of can leave you feeling dejected. This is one of the reasons I no longer watch editing videos on YouTube by professional photographers. Most of them are using techniques and tools that my five year old copies of Lightroom and Photoshop don’t have access to. Nothing feels worse than getting 15 minutes into a video or write up about editing only to find out it’s something you can’t even do. The same is true for reading a critique of your photo. Letting people know what you do and don’t have access to is one of the best ways to ensure that neither you or the person providing the critique waste time.
Ask for specific help
When it comes to offering critiques, I can’t count the number of times I’ve looked at a photo from someone asking for feedback and genuinely thought “where do I start?”. It’s in moments like these that I’m most likely to take a pass on giving feedback. I understand that for newer photographers it can be temping to simply share your photo online and say something to the effect of ‘give me your harshest critique!’ in the title. After all, when you’re just getting started, it’s hard to know what you don’t know. However, once you have an idea of what you want to focus on, it’s best to let it be known. If you’re looking to improve composition, make that clear. If there’s a particular style you’re going for, explain what you’re trying to do. It doesn’t have to be overly explanatory, something as simple as “how do I bring more attention to my subject in this scene?” or “how did I do with the colors on this moody edit?’“ will suffice. This will not only help you get more precise feedback, but it will help the person giving the critique prioritize their comments. On top of that, it will help reduce the chances of them over-critiquing the photo, which may leave newer photographers feeling overwhelmed as they get feedback regarding composition, camera settings, light, and editing all at once. If there are follow-up critiques or additional pieces of advice, those can be discussed as a conversation unfolds. After all, one of the goals of art is to encourage discussion, and photography criticism is simply one of the ways you can engage in conversation about a shared interest.
Go in with an open mind
For many of us, we know exactly what we want our finished image to look like before we even press the shutter…or at least we think we do. I mentioned this in my write up about taking photography criticism, but I think it bears repeating here. When it comes to any form of art criticism, it’s important to keep an open mind. The vast majority of art criticism is subjective, and photography criticism is no different. While you might go in with a specific vision in mind, prepare yourself to hear opinions that differ from your own, and be open to imagining your image in a different way than you originally planned. Stubbornness is not a key to improvement, it will only serve to hold you back. As a photography hobbyist, flexibility and adaptability are incredibly important to staying active when you have limited time with your camera. As you improve as a photographer, you’ll come across situations where you discover a new photograph either in the field or during the editing process. Be open to the idea that someone can help you discover a photograph you didn’t even know you had, and you may be surprised with the results.
As with my write-ups regarding giving and responding to criticism, there is no one way to do things and this write-up is by no means meant to be taken as a holy text. These are simply some of the things that I look for before chiming in with an informed critique. Of course, some photos will require quite a bit of information about the intent, while others may be more obvious, so don’t feel the need to include everything I’ve mentioned if your photo falls into the latter. If you have any other pieces of advice you’d like to add, feel free to let me know. I hope this guide will help you receive the kind of critiques you’re looking for and generate meaningful discussions.
About the Author
Jordan McChesney is a Canada-born photographer living in Japan. He focuses mainly on landscape and cityscape photography, but you’ll also find architecture photos in his portfolio. You can find Jordan’s work on his website, Instagram, and Facebook. This article was also published here and shared with permission.