We all love to get positive feedback – of course! – and all the Facebook and Instagram ‘likes’ boost our self-esteem. But do they boost our work?
Shitty photos get likes too. It’s just a fact. Just think of all the pics of cute kittens out there. Does the quality of the photo get the like or does the kitten? I’m sure you know the answer. Other times, work that’s actually good barely gets any attention, often due to the lack of the right hashtags, for example.
Whilst either situation may not always make sense, there is one thing that’s true, the positive attention always makes us feel better. Surprisingly though, it doesn’t necessarily make our work better or motivate us to develop our skills. We feel that that’s it. We’ve arrived. And now we can just do this very same thing for the rest of our lives. However, when we feel that our work is good or good enough, it will eventually begin to stagnate.
On the contrary, negative comments can completely destroy your self-esteem, but ONLY if you let them. Instead, try and stop them getting into your head too much and trust yourself. Use the feedback (positive and negative) to keep evolving your skills and your work. It’s not easy, I know. But who said art and mastery were supposed to be easy?
Here are two great ways to self-assess your work to see what parts can be improved are:
1. Compare your work to the works of others
The key here is that you need to compare your WORK to the WORK of others, not yourSELF to other people.
When you start looking at the work of celebrated photography masters of the past or the stars of today, your thoughts may be: “I want to be him, I want his life, I want to meet celebrities, work with big brands, travel, and sell my work for huge amounts of money” and so on. Or “Of course, it’s easy for her to do these kinds of images, she has a whole team and huge budgets, and I don’t have anything, and I won’t ever have, so why even try?” Or “I won’t ever be able to be as successful, I’m not good enough.”
Two important things to remember when you start thinking like that are:
a. Those people also started somewhere. It took them hours and hours and most likely years to get to where they are now and to the quality of work they are doing today.
b. The ‘not good enough’ part might be true, when you say it about your work, but not about you as a person.
Start by finding images that you admire and study them really well. Then look at your work and see if it’s as good as those you admire. Go deep into details: look at lighting, composition, color combinations, props, model faces, their poses, make-up, locations - every single detail! Make a list of the things that you like. Then go back to your photos and check all the same things: do they look the same quality-wise? What can be improved? Then begin to work on each of those aspects of your images, one thing at a time. Break the huge goal of improving the quality of your whole work into smaller tasks of getting better in composing your images, creating harmonious color palettes, etc. step by step.
Yes, it takes a lot of self-assessment and I’m happy to admit, it’s not always easy psychologically. But it’s necessary for your growth and no one else will do it for you as there’s no one else as interested in your work as you are.
It’s a great idea to create a folder on your computer or phone, or a board on Pinterest where you collect all the images works of art and photos that you admire the most. Start your study from there.
2. Get constructive criticism
From my experience, constructive criticism from an expert whose work I admire or whose opinion I trust can work much better than my own attempts to evaluate my photography. Just because it is ‘constructive’ doesn’t mean it won’t make you sad and angry, but it also can make you face the fact that things should be improved if you want your work to be published on book covers, in magazines, shown in galleries, etc.
Unfortunately, you rarely get the kind of constructive comments you need on social media. You need to search out the people who can actually give you a piece of valuable advice. And in most cases, it’s not free. Experts’ time usually costs money. So where can you reach them?
1. People you already know or who are in your network. Look for those who do what you want to become better at, but who are on a more advanced level. It’s important to pick someone whose work you really like and feel that you can learn from. Personal example: I would never have thought about taking photography seriously even after I took a course except I met a woman from the same group who told me that she was quitting her job to become a photographer. My initial reaction was: “Whaaaat? Can you really do that? Is that allowed?” This woman was someone I looked up to for quite some time and I asked her advice on many occasions.
2. Photography schools and other institutions (check your local ones first). Depending on the place, you could get face-to-face reviews or online ones (when you send in your work and get a written review).
3. Photo competitions or magazines. For example, Lens Culture Emerging Talent Awards promises to send you a short review of your award submission.
4. Photo festivals usually have dedicated portfolio review events. For some of them, you need to apply in advance by sending a selection of your work to the organizers. For some of them, you just need to show up and pick the experts you want to talk to. One of them is Voies Off Arles. Prices can vary from $15 to 60 per 15-20 minutes of an expert’s time.
5. Some individual photographers do individual in-person or online reviews. I recently showed my work to Paolo Roversi who had a portfolio review event as a part of the huge Rencontres Arles. Tip: if even you don't see that a photographer you admire does any reviews, try to contact him/her and get a chance of your work being evaluated. But don't ask for the review straight away, try to provide value (in whatever way you can) and then tell that you'd be happy and honored if your idol reviewed your work.
So, if you get a negative review it doesn’t mean that you are a failure. Nor does it mean that you’ll never be good enough. It just means that you should work more if you still feel that you are on the right path. You need to start loving that criticism, as it’s the best way for you to get better and grow in your art.
Have you ever done a portfolio review? What kind of feedback do you usually get to your works? Let me know in the comments below!