In last week’s article we explored ways in which you could critique other people’s photos, as well as your own. Today I’d like to look at it from the other side – how do you prepare your photos for self-critique?
The emphasis is on self-critiquing because it’s an essential part of the creative process. But these ideas also work if you’re preparing a portfolio for somebody else to critique or discuss.
Self-critique is a practical skill you should work on developing. Imagine, for example, that you’re putting together a photo book for publication (using Blurb or another print on demand company).
The better you are at selecting photos and deciding which order they should go in (this is called sequencing) the better the final product. You’ll have more pride in the result and other people will like it better.
Self-critique also helps you grow creatively. If you’re good at evaluating your own photos it helps you see what you need to do to become a better photographer.
That’s why self-critique is an important part of the creative process.
It’s always harder to evaluate your own work than somebody else’s. For that reason it’s a good idea to ask another photographer whose opinion you trust what they think of your work.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to do that, you still need to prepare your photos properly. You’ll get better feedback if you present them with a portfolio that’s already been carefully edited (as in selecting which photos go in it).
Organization and self-critique
The key to critiquing your own work is getting it organized. This happens in several steps.
1. Get used to the idea of organizing your work into themes and projects
Many photographers group their photos into broad subjects like landscape, portrait, street photography or black and white. The problem is that these categories are too broad. You simply end up with a set of random looking photos in each one.
Instead, divide them into themes and projects.
Thematically, for example, you could divide the subject landscape into theme based topics like seascapes, forests and mountains (depending on what landscapes you actually like to photograph).
Or you could divide the broad category of black and white into themes like black and white landscapes and black and white portraits. Then you could get more specific with themes like black and white seascapes or black and white forests.
Looking at the themes running through your work helps you organize it into groups of photos that look like they belong together.
A project is more specific than a theme. For example, if you’re a landscape photographer you might undertake projects with titles like “ruined buildings in the landscape” or “Oregon beaches”.
As well as being more specific a project usually has a beginning and an end. You can follow a theme for as long as it holds your interest, but a project usually has an end point. Then you wrap it up and start a new one.
Tip: If you’re a Lightroom Classic subscriber you can use Collections and Collection Sets to organize your photos. If not, an app like Photoshop Elements, Exposure X or ON1 Photo Raw that has a Catalog or Album will help a lot.
2. Narrow your selection down
For any given theme or project, it helps if you pick somewhere between ten and 20 photos. This is enough to show you’ve explored the subject in some depth, but not so many that the stronger images are diluted by the weaker ones.
It also helps if the photos look like they belong together. In other words, they need to be developed in a similar style. You may have to redevelop some of the photos to achieve this.
3. Decide how to present your photos
The way you present your photos matters a great deal when you’re critiquing your own work.
Let’s say you’re a Lightroom Classic user, and you’ve set up 20 photos in a Collection. This is a mini portfolio ready for a self-critique.
Looking at them in Lightroom Classic isn’t helpful. You already know what the photos look like in a Collection. It’s better to find a way to look at the photos with fresh eyes.
If you’re a Lightroom Classic user you’re in luck because it give you options that can help:
1. You can use Adobe Portfolio to set up a portfolio website.
2. You can use Lightroom for web to set up a one page portfolio that you can view online.
3. You can create a book in the Book module and either print it using Blurb or export it as a PDF to view on a tablet.
There are other options as well:
4. You could print out your photos to view them. Viewing printed photos can bring great clarity to your analysis. They don’t have to be big – if you have an inkjet printer you can print two photos on an A4 sheet and cut it in half. Or you could get a lab to print your photos for you.
5. You could create a PDF by dropping photos in Word (PC), Pages (Mac) or OpenOffice (free and multi-platform) and exporting as a PDF. You can put together a much nicer design if you have Adobe InDesign or Affinity Publisher.
Whatever option you choose, the idea is to give yourself a fresh way of looking at your own photos. If somebody else is doing the critique, then the aim is to make it as easy as possible for them to see your images.
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4. Sequence your photos
For any presentation it helps if your photos are presented in a logical order. It’s helpful if you have prints as it’s easy to move them around and experiment with layout and sequencing.
For the purpose of a self-critique good sequencing is helpful, but it’s not essential. It might be that the question of sequencing forms part of the critique itself. Think about which photos work together and what order they should go in as you analyze your portfolio.
If somebody else is doing the critique, they probably have some suggestions about sequencing. Sequencing is one of those things that’s always hard to do yourself, so don’t be afraid to ask for somebody else’s opinion.
5. Make an artist’s statement
An artist’s statement is a sentence or two that describes what you were trying to achieve with your portfolio. Keep it as simple as possible, especially for a self-critique.
For example, you might make a broad statement like “I wanted to capture the beauty and majesty of trees”. Or, if your portfolio is the result of a project, a more specific statement like “I wanted to make portraits of young people in our neighborhood”.
The idea of an artist’s statement is to give you clarity about the reasons you made the photos in your portfolio. It also helps you assess how well you achieved your aim.
Let me illustrate this with a personal example. The photos in this article are part of a set that I’ve made in various public and private gardens over the last few years. It’s a theme I’ve been following for a while. Now I’d like to turn it into a project.
The first step towards that is getting together the best garden photos that I’ve made so far. I’ve narrowed down over a hundred photos to just 14.
I have a specific goal that I want to achieve from this exercise – to see what themes and patterns emerge in my garden photos and to see what future projects this suggests. That goal provides the framework for evaluating the photos.
These articles will help you learn more about ideas like creating portfolios and working with projects.