As I walked into the hall and saw the 20 or so images beautifully matted and presented on the front wall, I thought “are you sure you can do this?”. The different colors, shapes, and subjects, as well as the feelings of the photographer who made each photograph became the obstacle course I’d have to navigate before the evening was over! So began the photo critique I was asked to do at the Ulster County Camera Club last night.
I must admit I had never done a critique of this scale before, only working with students in my workshops. When you talk to people individually, there is a certain intimacy that makes a critique more comfortable. But when you have to critique a photograph in front of 50 people, well that’s a whole different story! To begin, I made it perfectly clear that a critique is totally subjective, and should never become discouraged by failure, but instead rejoice in seeing how they can potentially improve their work – this is how we get better!
Ultimately, I just did what I always do on my workshops, and that is to try to make every word count, and focus on providing the greatest benefit to the photographer whose image I am critiqueing. In other words, how can I best help someone with complete generosity and kindness? Only this way can I gain the trust and confidence of someone else, and the whole situation becomes a win-win for the student, always the best deal in my opinion.
Once I adopted that frame of mind, the critique actually became enjoyable as I noticed that often a photographer would nod in agreement with my particular comment, especially when it was about how they could improve their work. I felt more comfortable to speak with openness, everyone’s guard was down, and I genuinely wanted each person to walk out of the event a better photographer.
A Simple Way to Improve Your Photography
Now I want to briefly share my overall impression of what I saw and offer some suggestions that may be of benefit to your work. While there were many different styles and levels of aesthetic quality, there was one overarching issue with most if not all of the images to some degree or another. It can be summed up in a statement I try and drill into every workshop student: “what doesn’t add detracts from an image”. Over and over again I noticed images that were trying to say too much, which is another way of saying the photographer was trying too hard.
This is normal and a necessary stage along any photographers path to improvement. But it is important to be aware of it. Simplicity is the key to story telling, and this is what we all want to accomplish with our images. Sometimes it was a question of framing, or perspective, or depth of field. All of these play an important role in how clearly you express your vision – or not.
Every single part of an image is as important as every other part.
This means that the center is no less important that the edges, and the bottom as important as the top. This is something that I think almost every photograph I saw could improve upon. Perhaps there is a fear of not including enough, or wanting to capture everything we see in front of us.
But the most important thing to remember is that we use many of our senses to experience the world, and these all add to our perception, which is surprisingly pretty narrow when you think about it. We stand in front of the Grand Canyon in complete awe, but our gaze is on a specific point in the distance, while our other senses bombard our brain with sounds, smells, memories, and emotions. Unfortunately, the camera does not “see” this way, and captures everything with perfect clarity – not what we need in order to convey our emotions to the viewer.
This is where simplicity is our strongest tool, and making a clear statement will help a viewer see, understand, and feel what you felt and saw.
Evolution of an image in Acadia National Park
I will be writing more about the role of simplicity in photography in the future, and I’d love your feedback on any other photographic topics you’d like me to discuss on the blog. Thanks as always for reading!
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