Can Feedback Improve Your Photography ?

In my last Blog I shared ideas about photography that came to me from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.  Gladwell discloses some very interesting explanations for how exceptional musicians, athletes, millionaires, and others have attained success.  I wondered if I’ve been adopting Gladwell’s interpretations as I worked to improve my photography?

I began my retirement assuring myself that extending time behind my camera would improve my photography, and that was a good start to my development.  But 10,000 hours of click-click-click (OK, I probably haven’t spent 10K hours yet) didn’t lead me to arrive at my goal.  How did Gladwell’s Outliers make impressive leaps and bounds?  What might I have been missing that could really improve my photography?

Two ingredients seem to stand out: someone to give you honest positive and negative feedback, and involvement in challenging opportunities.  As I read and reflected on Gladwell’s assessment, I realized that I was, in a sense, taking part in an activity that was improving my photography.  Being an active member in an active photography club can give you effective feedback and raise important challenges to your photography and your growth as a photographer.  I suppose striving to improve your photography by yourself could work for some people, but not for me.

Gladwell shares a number of examples of successful experiences for outliers which were built on challenging opportunities and feedback.  Bill Gates first experience with computers was in an after-school high school club in the 1960s which happened to connect with the University of Washington which had cutting-edge computers.  Gates and his high school friend Paul Allen “played” with the computer system at Washington for thousands of hours experiencing challenges and immediate feedback.  My experience in the Teton Photography Club gave me many challenges and when I decided to develop a mentoring program it gave me and the group an opportunity to give and receive effective feedback.

I suppose working to improve your own photography can work for some people, but I need to experience challenges and receive feedback from other photographers.  You can receive feedback from family, friends, and Facebook but I suspect that feedback is along the lines of “Awesome”, “Gorgeous”, “Beautiful” … or maybe a grouchy old person who never has a positive word to say 🙂  But I am convinced that it is important to receive feedback from other photographers that includes specific information abut your photos; especially from amateur photographers that you work with on a regular basis and who will give you honest, thoughtful feedback.

On January 27, 2016 I posted one of my early blogs called How Feedback Helps or Kills our Motivation that discussed the importance of working with a photography colleague.  The content of that blog was tied to my experience as a university professor and it probable came across as a bit too academic: heck, it had only one comment and that was by my wife 😉  But it might help you understand what I am about to suggest: working with other amateur photographers may help you explore photo challenges and give you the feedback you need to improve.  Feedback is critical to your long-term motivation.  Where do you get “good feedback”?

In March 2016 I started a Peer Mentor Program for amateur photographers who were member of the Teton Photography Club.  We started with seven amateur photographers and met once a month.  Our PMP started out as a photography discussion group and soon evolved into a critique.  Members brought in a few photos for the group to critique, but I quickly recognized that the critique tended to sound like Facebook with lots of “Beautiful” or “Awesome” compliments, but the comments lacked detailed informative explanations. 

As our PMP grew to more than double in size, I realized I needed to modify our critiques to encourage (perhaps “require” is a better description) everyone to explain why/what they liked or didn’t like about a photo.  I added what we call a “Pair Critique” where each member would send me two quite similar photos (typically a pair of photos taken at approximately the same time/place) for our critique.  These critiques quickly evolved into informational feedback that helped us explore which photo we preferred with detailed information about why we favored that photo.  This eventually evolved into peer mentors sharing what they didn’t like about the less “popular” photo.  And we quickly learned that we typically did not totally agree.  Our Pair Critiques helped us to understand the importance of composition, exposure, lighting … and the diversity of opinions.

The Pair Critique helps us discuss photography variables such as composition, exposure, lighting AND it invites everyone to share what they like, and what they find as distracting or “not so good.”  I have come to believe that this feedback is essential to the growth of us as photographers.  It is not just about getting feedback on our own photography, it also helps us recognize the details that leads to an exceptional photo.  And it brought us together to understand the photography style of one another and respect others as we gave them specific detailed feedback about their photography.

Honest Feedback is Critical

How to Encourage our Peers to be more Constructive

Let’s use three examples to give YOU a chance to be involved in a Paired Critique:

Below are two pairs of photos that I took from Pine Creek Pass which is about 20 minutes from my house.  These photos were taken just as the smoke of CA started to enter eastern Idaho.  Which one of the next two do you like best and why?  The main difference is the composition and to some extent the sky.  Send me a response and indicate which of the “Pine Creek Pass Pair” do you prefer and why … and include why you don’t like the other photo.

 

 

 

 

Pine Creek Pass #1

What are your thoughts/feedback about this photo?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pine Creek Pass #2

What are your thoughts/feedback about this photo?

 

 

 

 

 

You may like, or dislike, both of them but what differences make you prefer one image over the other?

 

OK, let’s move on to a somewhat similar pair of photos, but this time let’s compare two Pine Creek Pass images that are both Pano shots.  There isn’t a huge composition difference but is there a difference that seems very important to you?  What do you like, or dislike, that draws you to one of these images?

 

 

 

Pine Creek Pass Pano #1

 

 

 

 

What are your thoughts/feedback about this photo?

 

 

Pine Creek Pass Pano #2

 

 

 

What are your thoughts/feedback about this photo?

You might find the Pano critique to be a bit more difficult or more straight-forward.  The two are similar but there is a clear distinction.  Which do you prefer and for what reason?  It is easy on Facebook to say “Oh wow, that photo is amazing” but much more difficult to explain that there is too much distraction, or one of the images is slightly out of focus, or I like the color of the sky … you get the point.  When feedback includes specific information about the “good, the bad, the ugly? AND when there are a significant number of colleagues who discuss their reaction to YOUR photo, it can be very educational.  On to one more Pair Critique …

 

And for the third Pair Critique let’s move ahead in time to see the impact of the CA smoke moving into Teton Valley ID.  These two photos were taken a few days after the Pine Creek Pass photos, but at dusk right before the sunset off our deck facing west.  The first one is a single shot and the second photo is a pano about 5 minutes later than the first shot.  Which do you prefer and why?  WHAT do you prefer about your choice and/or what is a negative?

 

 

 

 

Smokey Sunset #1

What are your thoughts/feedback about this photo?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Smokey Sunset #2 Pano

What are your thoughts/feedback about this photo?

 

 

Unlike a Facebook comment (“Cool” or “Gorgeous” or …), I am asking you for which one of each of these pairs you prefer and why.  What makes the 1st or 2nd photo better or worse than its pair?  The purpose of Pair Critique is to move beyond a critique where everyone likes a photo, to encourage the peer mentors to dig-in to their criteria of what makes a good photo, evaluate these two photos using the criteria, and apply that criteria to both photos.  I have found this approach to be very effective in increasing the thoughtful, honest, helpful feedback to their peer mentors.  And I have found that informational feedback that helps me understand the key elements in exceptional landscape photography has helped me to grow as a photographer.

 

Right now, our Peer Mentor Program has stopped having a monthly meeting with Pair Critiques to now having a Zoom meeting due to Covid-19.  Our Zoom meeting is attended by about half of the peer mentors, which I have learned is not as engaging as in-person meetings.  Our Peer Mentor Zoom meetings also do not have a Pair Critique but rather a Monthly Theme Challenge, which I will share in my next Blog.  Our Monthly Theme Challenge pushes us outside our comfort zone … another criteria for becoming our own Outlier.

 

I have found informational feedback to be essential to the improvement of my photography.  And I have found that being involved in the feedback of the photos of my colleagues is almost as informative.  Looking at outstanding photos on-line or in magazines and books has been helpful to me.  But being involved in discussions that reveal how other amateur photographers take photos and how they judge their own photos and other’s photos is much more powerful in educating me that simply viewing professional photos or reading about how to take outstanding landscape photographs.

In my next blog I’ll discuss a path the peer mentors and I have taken to create a challenge that helps us to move out of our comfort zone with a Monthly Theme Challenge.  I’m asking my friends the peer mentors to share their theme photos, and maybe I can get them to share how a monthly theme can challenge them to move outside their comfort zone.  This year our September Monthly Theme is WEATHER, and the snow we received this week (Snow in September? Yep!) gives us plenty of opportunity to take some interesting photos of our mountain weather in September.

How does feedback impact your photography?

Where do you receive the feedback that is most informative?