Learning to criticize your own work

It may be small, but it's a wonderfull small church with the most beautiful view possible. I find it hard to imagine a more beautiful view. The Church of the Good Shepard overlooks the odd blue lake of Lake Tekapo in New Zealand. Photo by: Jacob Surland, www.caughtinpixels.com

It may be small, but it’s a wonderfull small church with the most beautiful view possible. I find it hard to imagine a more beautiful view than this small church has. The Church of the Good Shepard overlooks the odd turquoise blue lake of Lake Tekapo in New Zealand.

The photos is a 3 shot HDR photo post-processed in Photomatix Pro and I then blended layers in Photoshop. To extract the details in the clouds, I used Tonal Contrast in NIK Efex Pro. You can learn to make photos like this too, if you read my HDR tutorial here.

Learn to give critique to your own work

One of the things that I found most important is skill to learn to criticize my own work. Not only for the bad things, also for the good things. What works and what doesn’t work. I have a lot more bad than good photos. Someone said that the first 10.000 photos are bad. I still have too many bad photos, but not as many as I used to. I just deleted 4000 photos that was no good at all and never would be. 6 months ago I probably wouldn’t have been able to decide that.

The process of making a great photo requires that

  • You know your camera and can use it right.
  • You can compose a photo
  • You know when to take a photo – the opportune moment.
  • You can process the photo later in the post-processing software.

Each of these disciplines requires skills and training. People are different and some find composing a photo easier than others do, and others find the technical details of the camera super easy, while others don’t. You always have some strengths and weaknesses and your weaknesses you have to work harder to get good at.

A fifth bullet is the

  • You have to learn to criticize your own work.

This is far more difficult than it sounds. Start by looking at photos you see posted around the web on Flickr, Google+ or even Facebook. You will find some you like, but a lot more you don’t like. Why is it that you don’t like them? What’s wrong with them? Is it taste or is just not great photos? Try to figure out what problem you have with the photos – and then avoid doing it yourself.

Personally I like colors a lot and for that reason I rarely make black and white photos and I don’t spend much time looking at them either, though I respect black and white photographers. I really love the richly saturated photos and therefore I make richly saturated photos. Some would probably say over saturated, but that’s really up to me to decide.

Learning to criticize your own work is about learning what you like and what you don’t like and learn to scrutinize your photos for the presence or absence of either one. Sometimes I can process a photo and publish it instantly because I like it so much. Later, perhaps even within the hour of publishing it, I start to see errors or problems in the photo and I regret that I published it. Big mistakes I will have to fix and replace in my Smugmug portfolio, but I can’t do that with the photos I posted in Google+ or Flickr. This will have the errors forever.

There are probably many ways of learning how to give critique to your own photos. I will tell how I do it.

I usually let my photos lie around for some time, before publishing them. Currently I have 35 unpublished and completely ready and meta tagged photos. I then have around 30 more which are some that I think has got the potential and I’m in progress with – either as post-processing or just evaluating. And then I have a back log of 15.000 photos or so that I have taken over the last 12-15 months. Some of those photos are crap, while others have potential. Some have great potential, but I still just haven’t got around to select them.

The 35 ready-to-publish photos I will look at in turn regularly and in some of them I find things I don’t like about them as time passes by. Sometimes I start to dislike a photo, because a photo has a major flaw. Sometimes I can’t pin point the flaw for a while, until I suddenly realize it. It’s about finding what the weakest point of your photo is. And remember:

A photo isn’t stronger that it’s weakest point.

Sometimes it can be very hard to spot what makes a photo weak. Is it something about the technical quality like lack of sharpness, or is it the composition, maybe something about the light or is it the post-processing? If it’s one the three first, it can be very difficult to fix and you will probably have to discard the photo and if at all possible re-shoot it at a later time (I have a Collection in my Lightroom called Re-shoot, for photos I know I will get a second chance to shoot). But sometimes I might find a way to solve the problem. Like I did in this photo:

The problem with this photo (from Sydney Australia) was that I had taken it very quickly and had not made sure to get everything sharp. The wooden pillars wasn’t sharp close to the edges. After a while I got the idea of making this radial blur on the photo and blending it with the sharp part of the photo and then get this moving effect. That works and it saved my photo. But many times I have given up. Like I did on this photo below (it’s one of the photos I have been spending most time on, without any result):

New Zealand - Arthurs Pass

I do like the composition on this one, but for some reason it keeps not ending up where I want it. First of all I have shot it with my 28-300mm Nikon lens, which really has some sharpness issues. So the quality of the photo is not as good as I would like it to be – it’s not sharp enough. Second – the light is not very great. I have tried all sorts of things to compensate for that. I have used a number of more advanced filters, but nothing really works. The conclusion I have made is that while the composition works fine, the light fails and there fore the whole photo fails. I would love to go back and re-shoot, but I’m not sure if that is ever going to happen.

If it’s “only” the post-processing that has problems I will try to process it again. Sometimes it’s because a photo is difficult to process and then I just have to wait (or re-process later) until I have the skills. These photos stay in a ‘work in progress’ collection in my Lightroom.

By letting the photos sit around I slowly but surely figure out what I like and don’t like about my photos. I learn how to criticize my own work and my loop hole for acceptable photos keeps shrinking everyday on different parameters. Sometimes I like a specific photo for one thing, while another part fails and I have a hard time discarding the photo. But I’m getting better at discarding.

A great side effect of this process is, that I get better I get at shooting the photos. One of the most important lessons I have learned is about the light. Light is everything. If the light is not present, forget about taking photos! At least the kind of photos that I like to take. I have learned that it is much better to take 500 photos around sunrise or sunset than at noon, because the light is much better. And the photo above from Arthurs Pass in New Zealand is a great example of this. This makes me relax during the middle of the day and not keenly look for a photo opportunities everywhere.

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