How to give and receive constructive feedback in photography
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The ability to give constructive feedback in photography is a sign that you know your craft well.
That is, if your feedback is actually good.
A reply like “yeah, that’s great!” or “that looks sick!” or “dope tones bro” (kill me) doesn’t do anything but stroke the ego of the person who’s asking for the feedback.
When someone asks you for feedback, they’re doing so because they value your opinion. If you give a generic reply back, it’s kind of like they’ve misplaced their trust in you.
Of course, if they’re asking in a group setting, you kind of have to read the room, but that’s a whole other issue altogether.
Feedback is important. It improves us and the work we make. It drives us forward in ways we might not see. Feedback gently nudges us back on course in the right direction, because sometimes, we have blinders put on us and can’t see the big picture.
Where I used to work, we took feedback very seriously.
In fact, we created and followed a system for regular feedback sessions, once a week for a few hours, where teams would get together and provide group feedback on work.
This process was called “Sparring”, and it’s meant to be as hard as it sounds.
Of course, in product design, when you’re solving real problems for real people, the consequences of getting it wrong is significantly greater than it is for us photographers showing off our work, but there’s lessons to be learnt here – more on this in a moment.
The process of sparring in a nutshell was this:
- Outlines the specific feedback they’re looking for in relation to what they’re working on.
- Provides context over the problem space and outlines the problem they’re trying to solve.
- Steps through their process of how they solved that problem.
- Receives feedback without rebuttal.
The feedback group
- One by one, provides feedback specific to the realm of feedback the presenter is looking for.
- Is brutally honest, holds nothing back (this doesn’t mean you have to be mean or nasty).
- Is detailed in their response, providing a clear rationale behind the feedback and why it is that way.
- Provides suggestions on how it could be fixed or improved.
- The presenter takes the feedback and processes it. It’s their decision whether or not they want to take that feedback on or not. This part is important.
This entire system is based on one idea – Trust. The trust that the feedback is genuine, thoughtful and considered.
It’s a hard pill to swallow for both sides. On the presenters side, you have to bite your tongue if someone says something you don’t like or agree with. Sometimes you might look like an idiot for missing a crucial part, or overlooking something. Sometimes it might sound like they’re verbally attacking you.
On the feedback participants side, sometimes you might sound like a dick. Your messages might come across a bit too hard, or maybe your feedback is a little too obvious. Sometimes you might come up empty with suggestions on how things could be better, thereby making you look silly.
Regardless of what side you’re on and how you feel at the time, it doesn’t help to become heated, because ultimately, all of this conversation is for one thing – to make the work better. That’s what matters.
The truth hurts sometimes, and learning to be okay with that is a skill in and of itself.
What lessons can we learn here?
So, back to the topic of how to give constructive feedback in photography that’s actually great feedback.
There’s a couple of principles here that layout the mindset you should have whenever you’re conversing in a feedback conversation.
- Be honest – You’re there to improve the work.
- Emotions are secondary – Although you don’t have to be a jerk.
- Be articulate and thoughtful – Reply with your initial response, then dig into why it is the way it is.
When asking for constructive feedback in photography
Be clear with what feedback you’re actually looking for
Are you asking about your composition? About the strength of your subject? Whether the photo tells a story, feeling or a vibe? Are you asking about technical details like whether or not it’s sharp enough? Or are you asking about the edit and the colour? Or the contrast? Or the sick fade you spent so much time working on?
Be specific – The better questions you ask, the better feedback you get.
Hey, when I was shooting this, I wasn’t too sure about what to do with the composition. Do you think that tree is placed correctly? What would you have done?
Hey I just finished editing this shot. I really focused on the colours in the sky. Does it look like it pops in relation to the rest of the image? Do you think it’s strong enough? What would you have done?
Dance with the feedback you’re given
Remember, you’re the one asking for the feedback. There’s no person in the world who has the same perspective as you, so you’re not going to get a response that’s word-for-word what you’re expecting (if they give you an honest one, that is).
Be okay with that. Play with it.
Feedback giver: …and that’s how I would have done it. It looks great though.
Feedback asker: I see, so you would have put the tree on the left third using the rule of thirds. I might try that next time. What about the right third?
Feedback giver: …and if you use the radial filter here, you’re able to control the strength of the colours a little more naturally with the feathering option.
Feedback receiver: Ah, right! I didn’t even think to do that. What about the graduated filter? Would that work here too?
In these examples, we’re playing with the assumption that the feedback is true and extending the feedback into something even more useful (if it needs it). This is important because…
Don’t take the feedback as gospel
Just because you asked for it, doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with it.
Although chances are, if you’ve asked that person, you value their opinion, so you’ll probably take at least part of what they said to heart.
If you find you don’t take that persons feedback onboard more than a few occurrences in a row, then they’re obviously not the right person to ask anymore, right?
Remember, it’s your art, made in your way. You get the final say.
When giving constructive feedback in photography
Be articulate and thoughtful
A one-liner is shit. You know this. It does nothing but waste both of your time.
Learn to be able to talk about photography, not just bumble your way through your emotions. Articulate and be useful.
An easy way to do this is to:
- Describe what you see
- Describe how it makes you feel
- Describe why it makes you feel that way
I love the way you’ve used the light in the top right corner there. I feel it really adds to the whimsical aesthetic of the rest of image. It reminds me of soft light shining through a window. Nicely done.
I see that you’ve used quite a bit of clarity on that skyline and now I can see a halo. Whenever I see these I can’t help but point them out. Halo’s are light/dark/light lines that outline hard contrast points between light and dark. There’s a bunch of halo’s there in the right of the image. I bet once you see them you can’t un-see them. At least, I can’t anyway. My eye is fairly distracted by them.
Be honest and forward
Because when it comes to giving constructive feedback in photography, the main thing the person asking for feedback is actually asking you is for your honesty.
You don’t need to be mean. You just need to state your facts. After all, you’re doing this to make the work better.
If your feedback was always sunshine and rainbows, no one’s work would get better.
Yeah, it’s a well executed shot, I like the colours, and the composition is solid. But for me, I’m not a fan of those “I’m taking a photo of a phone taking a photo” shots. I think they’re a bit tacky and overused. I also think they’re a bit “Instagram for Instagram’s sake”. I get it though. I can see why many people like them. The normies don’t usually see that kind of stuff so it looks like it’s creative and original.
Note: this technique is called a “shit sandwich”. Start with something good, move to something bad, end on something good. It kinda sounds less shit that way. Someone still has to eat it though.
Give a suggestion to end it
After all, it’s supposed to be constructive, right? Build on your feedback.
If your feedback is negative, provide a suggestion or a solution on how you would approach the situation to better it.
Doing this has the added effect of letting the person know that you’ve thoughtfully considered your response and you’re not just paying lip service. This is extremely rare when I’ve seen people give constructive feedback in photography, so stand out. Be of service.
…takes away from the overall composition I feel. How I would approach it is to shift your composition slightly to the left, moving the sun into the upper third while the subject moves to the lower third. This would provide a much more balanced composition to my eyes as the relationship between primary and secondary subjects is centred and opposing, rather than askew.
Remember, it’s all about the work
Okay, that was a lot! But I really do hope it helps you become better at giving constructive feedback in photography.
Remember, don’t take it personally! It’s all about the work. We’re all friends here, and we can count on each other.
It’s not like photography is life or death, right? Have fun with it, and learn to dance with the feedback.