Recently I got some feedback from a 35 year old veteran portrait photographer that looked at my portfolio. It can be scary, but what he said to me was 100 percent true, and 100 percent things I already knew about my own work. I try very heard to always be honest about my shots. Some I fall in love with. Others have little mistakes that drive me bonkers. Getting feedback on my work helped me to feel confident that I am indeed, honest about my shots.
So, how do you look at your work critically without making yourself crazy? There is a fine line between looking with an eye for improvement and torpedoing your confidence by constantly nitpicking your work. Here are some keys to how I have learned to look at my work with a critical eye:
1. Look at other people's work, but don't compare yourself to them.
And right now, you may wonder: How on earth do you do that? Look at other people's work that you like and really ask yourself what it is that you like about it. Don't just stop at you like it. Ask why? Why do you like that picture? Why do you like their work? Is it the edits? Color? Angle? Crop? Pose? Light? Mood? Is it some technique? Whatever it is, identify it. If you don't know why you like a shot, you just haven't thought hard enough about it.
Once you know what "it" is, don't try to find it work that you've already produced. That is breeding ground for self doubt. Instead, ask yourself what you can take from that work and create yourself. Don't try to recreate the shot exactly, just try to recreate what you liked. Make that thing your own by adding your own unique artistic voice.
2. Learn about art
Learn about the "rules" of composition, color, and light. I am always reading about what makes a photo good, theories of why some compositions are more pleasing than others. Look for these things in other people's work. Train yourself to recognize them. When you start to see it, over and over, you become more comfortable with using it by default. You have to train your brain to see this way, to see artistically. You have to somewhat train your brain to recognize what is good and beautiful in shots.
3. Look at other people's mistakes
This is not to say you should judge other people. Please don't be mean. But identifying what doesn't work about other people's photos will teach you to avoid those pitfalls in your own work. You don't need to tell everyone what you think, but learn to see the mistakes. Become comfortable picking them out. The more automatic the process becomes, the easier it will be to see them and fix them while you are shooting. And, then to see them and toss those shots when you cull.
4. Recognize non-negotiables
There are some technical aspects to photography that are simply nonnegotiable (except for every once in a blue moon). Yes, rules are made to be broken. But for the vast majority of photography, the rules are the rules for a reason. It isn't being rigid to feel this way, and it isn't that I don't recognize the beauty in the flaws sometimes. What I am saying is that more often then not, the rules should be followed. If you find yourself constantly writing things off as "oh it is just my artistic eye..." you may want to get back to basics. For instance, I am of the school that if there are no catch-lights when I see eyes, I am throwing it out. And if the focus is soft at all I am tossing the shot. For the most part, you should too. The only thing that I will sometimes stop me is if the emotion or connection of the shot overcomes the flaw. The bigger the flaw, the great the special reason for keeping the shot must be. There is a balance you have to find, and you have to understand what it is you love about a shot to decide if it makes up for something technically incorrect.
5. Determine what you love about your own work
We all have photos that we've taken where we step back and say "I can't believe I took that photo." You know, the money shots! Gather up your money shots and look at them, I mean really look. And just like you did when looking at other people's work, ask yourself: "why do I love this shot?" If you are anything like me, you may find that the reasons are similar from shot to shot. These similar threads are part of your style, they are part of who you are as a photographer. Learning what works for you artistically is an important part of the creative process because it is difficult to make great photos when you don't know what is making them great. And that answer is different for each of us, which is why photography is so much fun.
6. Seek good feedback
The only way to really know whether you are being objective about your work is by seeking opinions from those with expertise. Notice I didn't just say feedback, I said good feedback. Not all feedback is equal. To really check yourself, you want feedback from folks who know what they are doing. If I want some good old fashioned cheerleading about my work, I can ask my family and friends. If I want real opinions about my work, I have to talk with good photographers. It can be really terrifying, but artistic growth doesn't come easily.
I think the second I stop being honest with myself about my photographic flaws (and my photographic strengths) is the second I stop getting better. Really thinking about what makes me see a photo as successful has helped me to grow. But I still have a ways to go. Becoming a photographer is, I think, a career-long process. You never stop discovering.