What Feedback is Most Helpful?

I hope all of you are safe and healthy and finding a way to stay focused on some of the positive aspects in life.  But I realize that ain’t always easy.  For the last few weeks most of us have probably been following a social distancing formula, depending on where you live.  And we may have found it difficult at time to be positive.

For those of us who don’t live in an urban area we can go just about anywhere outside, but we still may be missing our photo opportunities due to the closing of National and State Parks.  But all of us can always go into our photo library and do some LR or Photoshop exploration.  In the last Blog (“What is Intra-Personal Competition”) I suggested that you go to your photo library to compare new photos to some photos you took a few years ago.  What did you find?  Are your photos today better than they were a few years ago?  Can you be honest with yourself about the differences, or are you super critical or overly positive of your progress?

OK, so you decided to share old and new photos with your FB, Flickr, or Instagram friends and get some feedback, and what did they say?  Hmm, something like “Amazing” or “Awesome” or “Great Shot” or “Love It” … does that help you decide if you have improved?  I didn’t think so.  And when I started the Peer Mentor Program, we had a somewhat similar problem.

I started the Peer Mentor Program in April 2016 with about a dozen amateur photographers of varying photographic skills.  There were some very good photographers, many committed photographers, some brand-new photographers, and a community atmosphere of support and encouragement.  We were very committed to helping one another, and in retrospect I think we probably were careful to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.  But in a way that may have held back the growth of our photography, OR maybe it was a critical piece in building the community atmosphere for everyone?

In our first meeting in 2017, to start our second year, I asked the group to explore what we had learned together, what motivated us to improve as individuals and as a group, and what our goals were as individuals and a group for the coming year.  Most of the founding members were still actively involved in the Peer Mentor Program and we had welcomed a number of new members to the group.  After discussions about how to improve our photography we agreed on the importance of the feedback we were giving one another.

In the first year everyone was asked to bring 2-5 photos for the group and most members regularly brought at least two photos to critique.  In retrospect I’d have to say that the feedback that was given by many (most?) of the peer mentors tended to focus primarily on positive feedback.  As the year progressed, I gave this a lot of thought; How could I continue to create a supportive environment which encouraged every member to share constructive positive and constructive negative feedback for each member?

In June I introduced a monthly program I called Paired Critiques.  Every peer mentor was asked to send me a pair of photos that were similar (e.g., taken in a similar environment) but had a fairly significant difference.  The group would then give the photographer feedback on which photo they preferred and a fairly detailed description on why they liked one photo better than the other photo.  What I thought was a fairly minor change made a significant difference in the critiques and the growth of the members.  The feedback the peer mentors gave one another changed from a purely evaluative statement (e.g., “Beautiful”) to informational positive and negative feedback that helped the group explore potential changes in composition, exposure, etc.  In a short time, all the peer mentors learned not only from the feedback they received for their photos, but also from the discussion of each pair of photos.

Recently I gave the members of the Peer Mentor Program a survey on how the program had influenced their photography.  One of the questions in the survey focused on feedback they have received from social media: “When we first start to improve our photography, we may get feedback from other people like our partners, friends, or posts on Facebook or Instagram.  These comments are often very positive which can have an impact on us and give us confidence, or leave us “disappointed.”  How are these comments different from PMP feedback?”  Here are some of the responses from the peer mentors:

“Social media is a quick energy drink to our egos but does not feed our long-term learning goals.  The PMP lends a more in-depth and sustainable way to learn.”

“While comments from non-photographers may temporarily boost one’s ego, they are not very useful for improving one’s skills.”

“A simple positive or negative comment doesn’t accomplish much.  People on most photography forums will give feedback like the PMP where they will tell you not only what they like and don’t like but why and suggest ways to improve the image.”

“It is rare to get feedback that would improve the image on Facebook, Flickr, or Instagram.  If you do the initial post processing and you feel good about the image, that’s when you need to share it with a critique group you can trust to give you their opinion.  The PMP does that in the Paired Critique and sometimes one may not like the suggestion – it’s just another person’s opinion – but it does make you think about how else to arrange the composition.”

This blog is built on the idea that “Every artist was at first an amateur” and I totally agree with Samuel Rodenhizer’s explanation of the 4 principals from the quote of Emerson’s (see Welcome to First an Amateur).  I have tried to create an environment in which a group of amateur photographers with a very wide degree of photography experience (some very good, some very committed, and some brand new) can learn from one another without making success look very easy.  My experience teaching teachers has made me sensitive to the potential problems of sending a “This will be easy” message to learners.  Whether the task is learning about fractions in elementary school, or geometry in high school, or using Lightroom to a beginning photographer, it is important to remember “Successful people can make success look easy” and that can be very discouraging to any new learner.

Take a few minutes to think about how you began to learn photography.  How did you feel when you were successful, and when you were failing?  Did you have a mentor and if you did, what did that person do that helped you succeed in your attempt to improve?  How have you reacted to the photography feedback you have been given (both the FB positive feedback and maybe the destructive critical negative feedback) and what impact did it have on your motivation to improve your photography?  And finally, what challenges have you faced that helped you to move forward and learn new photography skills?  We will talk about Photography challenges in the next blog.