Feedback – the missing ingredient in your photography.

Us photographers can be quite a solitary bunch, and we often don’t seek out critique of our work, or ask for feedback.  So, I’m going to expand on last week’s post, moving on from how to deal with criticism into the realms of getting good feedback whenever and wherever you can.

I should be clear what I mean by feedback. I’m not talking about someone saying “That’s nice”, nor am I talking about someone telling you how much your work resembles something your dog might leave behind. Neither of these is very useful – one gives you no reason to change or improve, the other will just ruin your confidence. What we’re looking for is something that allows you to peel back the layers protecting your work, and drill down to the real issues within. Whether these are technical, aesthetic, or creative, they’re all relevant, and they all stop you from becoming the photographer you’re capable of being.

Good feedback permits much faster development right across the board. On a really simple level, consider how much faster the feedback loop is when shooting digital than shooting film. Old soldiers like myself are slightly resentful of how much quicker and easier it is to learn technical things in the digital age – simply make adjustments to the camera, and then look at the screen on the back to see what effect they’ve had. Back in the film days, it was vital to make copious notes, then compare them to the finished article hours, or sometimes days later. That’s assuming you didn’t send your film off to a lab that simply averaged everything out when it printed it anyway, making much of the process redundant!

First roll of film - feedback
From my first ever roll of film. Had I been shooting on digital, I would have noticed that the shutter speed was too slow, assuming I knew what a shutter speed was, and what it actually did of course!

Technical issues are often pretty easy to spot, and correct, but matters of creativity, ideas, along with lots of the “soft” skills that go with being a photographer, are often much harder to pinpoint, certainly on your own. Here’s where insightful 3rd party feedback will really benefit you.  Logbooks are a good place to start, of course, and developing your own personal feedback habit is crucial, but there’s no real substitute for an outside voice.

Before anyone thinks I’m some kind of zen-like, ego-free being who can handle everything said about my work with a huge level of detachment, I ought to describe my very first day at college studying for a degree back in 1995. I’d scraped into the course by the skin of my teeth – I didn’t meet the basic requirements to get in, and got through by dint of a very strong recommendation on my application from my tutor at sixth form, and then bullshitting in my interview. I was also the youngest in my year, with many of my fellow students considerably older and more experienced than me.

After the first morning being shown the basics (here are the toilets, if the building catches fire, please don’t stand around near the chemicals in the dark room, that sort of thing) we had a “getting to know you” session in the afternoon. Being photographers, this consisted of every new first year laying their portfolios out in the 2 lecture rooms, and allowing every other student to wander round and look at them, offering insights and critiques as they went. My portfolio consisted of 10 images, shot on 35mm black and white film, and printed in the outside loo back home. Not actually in the toilet you understand – I had built a darkroom – but the enlarger was balanced on top of the cistern – you get the idea. At the time, this was the very best work I could produce, both technically and creatively. The gulf between what I could produce and what some of my contemporaries were capable of rapidly became apparent when James – who later became my housemate – opened his portfolio next to mine. A stunning set of portraits, shot on medium format film, exquisitely printed, that wouldn’t look out of place in a Sunday Supplement magazine appeared, and I felt my heart sink, and my insecurities come rushing to the fore.

1995 Portfolio - Feedback
The portfolio I took to college in 1995.

I promptly closed my portfolio up, and shoved it down the back of a radiator, hoping no-one would notice it, or me. This tactic worked in the short term – for about 30 minutes. It’s not a tactic that would have worked for the remainder of my 3 years on the degree, and it certainly wouldn’t have worked out in the commercial world. Imagine creating work, and then hiding it all – how could you hope to ever progress, let alone actually make a living? Just as crucially, how did I expect my work to ever improve without some feedback and constructive criticism?

Over time at college, I came to appreciate the incredibly valuable feedback that came from friends, student critiques, and above all from the lecturers. I realize now how lucky I was in my career arc to have access to good lecturers at college. You see, college may well be pretty much the only time in your career when someone will genuinely care about what you do, and can manage to be fairly objective about it, backed up (hopefully) by years of experience and insight. Regular access to this insight is still one of the things I think is most valuable about studying photography formally, and something often overlooked by the brigade of self-taught, “I don’t need no education” photographers.

The lesson is – “It’s OK to be sensitive, but eventually, if you want to actually get anywhere – in my case, make a living out of it – you’re going to have to let your work out there, and therefore be open to criticism.”  It stands to reason that as a photographer wishing to make a living, your work has to go out into the “real” world, with all the potential for criticism that entails.  As already mentioned, someone saying “I think your work is rubbish” isn’t really very valuable, but having someone tell you that your work could be better if you spent more time talking to your subjects, or studied lighting more, has much more value.

The best way to seek good feedback, if you’re not currently in full time education, is to seek out like-minded (but not too like minded) groups of people.  These can be online, although I’d suggest that in the flesh is better, as even the best intentioned post on a forum can be mis-read without body language and tone of voice to back it up.  There are also occasionally professional portfolio critiques run by organisations like the Association of Photographers.  You may need to pay for these, and it’s worth looking into who will be doing the critique, as their area of expertise may not be all that relevant to the direction you’re heading.

Above all, don’t be afraid of good feedback, seek it out wherever you can, and don’t hide your work behind the radiator.  Besides anything else, it’ll ruin your prints.

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