Self criticism, and how it can improve your work.

Photographers are not known for their ability to criticise themselves.

Photographers are probably not the best people to criticise their our own work, being to closely involved they will often overlook the inherent fundamental basic faults in their own output.
The question then is how do you find constructive criticism for your own photography? Ask a trusted friend perhaps, or maybe someone who you admire that would give an honest overview of your work. From my own experience I have found that many of the critique forums online are a waste of time, too often they dissolve into heated exchanges and recriminations between the members.

In this short article I have tried to describe how I was able to re connect with my love of photography by adopting a process of continual assessment and by constantly looking for ways to improve my work.

In 2000 I achieved a Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society (FRPS). The years immediately after I achieved this award completely changed my approach to photography and how I produce my work nowadays. I will attempt to clarify that statement and how it relates back to the original question of self criticism.

There where a number of people within the RPS who at the time urged a degree of caution when attempting a Fellowship. It was said to me that if you succeeded, one of two things would happen, either you gained in confidence and your work took off to the next level, or it nosedived and you lost direction completely. This effect was called the Fellowship millstone. When I did succeed in achieving my Fellowship, as predicted my work became directionless and spiralled out of control.

Throughout much of the 80’s & 90’s I had entered numerous National and International Salons on a regular basis, gaining a decent number of acceptances and medals. However after achieving my Fellowship I failed to get a single salon acceptance for nearly three years. During that time I probably entered 10-12 Salons where all of my new work was completely rejected out of hand. I couldn’t understand what had happened to my photography, and the experience left me wondering what had gone wrong.

The painful truth was that I had become complacent, falling for the myth of “The Fellowship”. I thought that as I was now a Fellow, everything I took must be of Fellowship standard, without any real effort or input on my part. It slowly became obvious that I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing anymore or putting enough effort or application in to my pictures, I was just cruising on autopilot.

I wrongly assumed that my photography had progressed as far as it could ever go, believing that it would not improve beyond that point I eventually gave up photography for nearly three years. When I finally picked up a camera again I made the decision to start again as a beginner, and completely overhaul the way I produced my work. I started by dismantling every aspect of my entire workflow, re evaluating, and reassembling it all again from scratch. From camera work right through to the finished print I looked for ways of improving not just the technical side of my photography but I tried to gain a greater understanding of my reasons for taking pictures. The end result was a complete systematic reconstruction of my whole approach to photography, and how I think about image making today. My work is still evolving and is constantly being refined through a continuous process of evaluation and assessment.

I now have a mental checklist of questions that is also written on a small sheet of card kept in my camera bag reminding me to stop and think a little more about what I am doing before I expose a single frame of film.

Checkpoints: Both technical and artistically.

How am I responding to the scene before my camera?
What do I want to show the viewer?
What am I trying to do with this scene?
Can I see a print in my mind, ie; previsulisation.
Could it be part of a developing series?
Have I recognised a recurring motif?
Where is the light?
How do I want to show the light?
Where do I want to show the focus?
Where is the point of focus?
What depth of field do I want?
What aperture do I need to achieve that?
Is there movement within the scene?
Do I need to retain that movement, or freeze it?
What shutter speed do I need for either?
If I want to retain movement using a slow shutter speed can I still use a large aperture?
Will that aperture require ND filters to adjust the light?
When all those questions are answered, the actual exposure becomes a technical exercise.

One of the first and easiest decisions was a technical one, and that was to use a tripod. In an effort to slow myself down, this one thing alone made me stop and think more about what I was doing.

I have also evolved a pre-editing procedure before I go into the darkroom to print, where I use a small light box to pre-select the negatives I want to work on. This means that when I go into the darkroom I have a short list of the selected negatives and a more focused idea on what I’ll be doing during that session. Viewing the negatives beforehand outside the darkroom on the light box I can get more of idea of how I want the final print to look as well.

I feel sure that I am not the first photographer to have been through the experience I have described, if you are working at photography seriously there has to be a continual process of re evaluation to achieve improvement in your work.