Photograph For Yourself Then Ask For Specific Advice

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Having been known in my circle of friends and acquaintances as “that photography guy” I often get asked a number of questions. I’m sure most of you have heard a number of them before as well, especially if most of your friends aren’t into photography thus making you even more of the de facto photography expert. I’ve grown accustomed to employing patience while answering the same questions and hearing the same stereotyping comments from the curious, over and over, during the past 20 years. But there is still one question that bugs me every time:

“Do you like it?”

This post is by no means a slam on anyone who asks this question often. We all want to know what other people like from time to time. The reason the question bugs me so much is not the person asking it, but the loss of focus that is behind it, at least from what I’ve experienced. And that is why my answer is always:

“It doesn’t matter if I like it. Do you like it?”

To be clear, this question is subtly different than, “Is this a well shot photo?” And maybe sometimes they are really the same question. The confusion that is inherit with human communication, I suppose.

Looking for acceptance of your artwork from others is a natural tendency. More so when you revere someone as knowledgeable in the art-form you are pursuing. To this point I wanted to give some pointed advice: Shoot photos for yourself.

While some photographers have commercial reasons for shooting what they do, and others have high aspirations while seeking critical acclaim, most of us are shooting because we love it. (Sometimes shooting is a mix of all three.) That is why I say shoot for yourself. Don’t worry what ‘important’ photographers, or anyone else, think of your photos if you truly enjoy both shooting and viewing your shots. I know our egos like to hear praise and will often seek it at high costs. I’m telling you if you can turn down the microphone on your ego for just a while, you will get more enjoyment out of the art.

Alongside the enjoyment of the art there is the natural human tendency to want to improve. The trick is to make sure you are asking the right question, or, more precisely, the question for the right reason.

For those just starting out, and even for those who have been at it longer, I want to offer some alternatives to the, “Do you like it?” question that will hopefully turn it around and help you improve your art form (if that is indeed what you are asking).

“What do you think I could do different to make this shot more aesthetically pleasing?”

This question leaves no room for ambiguity. It also helps remove some of the personal attack our egos might feel when others are critical of our work. It shows you are looking for feedback and feedback, honest and critical feedback, is a key to improving. Don’t confuse someone who is critical with someone who is mean (this often requires knowing a bit about the person being asked and how they communicate). A critical person can tell you, “It looks like the sky is over blown by about two stops and the focus isn’t tight on the flowers.” That feedback is a world different than, “No, I don’t like it.”

“How can I make this shot technically better?”

Again, you are asking for something specific. If the person is knowledgeable they can tell you, “Your focus needs to be further back because the depth of field is not allowing for sharp mountains. Or you might try increasing your aperture if it was only f/2.8.” If they aren’t knowledgeable they will likely fall back on, “I don’t like it,” and that gets you both nowhere.

“I’m having trouble making [specific photo element] really come to life. What would you suggest?”

Perhaps you are seeing the pattern now. Be specific about what feedback you are looking for. People often give more lucid answers when the topic is narrow rather than broad. “Do you like my photo?” is too wide open for most people. They may like a number of aspects of your photo, but overall the subject isn’t their cup of tea, so they give you a negative answer when there was valuable feedback they could have given on bringing out shadow detail or increasing saturation in the sky.

All of these questions, and more, are pointed at your desire to improve according to your standards of what is good. Photography is an art. If people are telling you they don’t like your work and are unwilling to help you improve, ignore them. They aren’t worth your time talking to. The most important person to ask the question, “Do you like it?” is yourself.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Panama, Alaska, Seattle and Los Angeles. He is also the creator of 31 Days to Better Photography & 31 Days of Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

  • This is brilliant. Great post.

  • Gallopingphotog

    Well-done. Not only does “do you like it” put the person on the spot, but might not get much information. Asking how could I make this better/do it differently will get (we hope!) useful information, which is what we all need if we want to improve!

  • monstermum

    Now this is what I call A Very Useful Post. I have been wondering how to ask specific questions when I don’t know what to ask. Thank-you, Peter, for writing this!

  • JJ

    Nice post. I really like to read the Expert Critique section of Digital SLR Photography magazine. In it, readers submit photos and two professionals will critique each photo. They usually do 3 to 5 per issue. The experts are really good at providing both technical and aesthetic advice. I like trying to guess what they will say before reading the articles.

  • Isoterica

    This is good, solid advice. Firstly because it is teaching those seeking input how to get the kind of tips or suggestions that will be constructive by being more direct and this is beneficial to their improvement. ‘Do you like it?’ is soliciting a ‘yeah great image’ response which is the knee-jerk reaction of a friend that feels like they are being pumped for compliments and are suddenly afraid to hurt your feelings or even bring up a small suggestion that could upset you. Secondly but maybe more importantly we are attention seeking or praise seeking individuals and one can get very caught up in forums that promote that ‘feel good-great photo’ feeling to the point where we might alter what we normally shoot in order to keep feeling that reward. One has to be true to themselves.. because if you alter your technique because other people say you should and not because you feel it.. it’s reflected in your work.. and your overall attitude towards your photography. It’s better to be praised for who you are and what results from your own personal style than for who you are not and work you are dispassionate about.

  • ScottC

    These are great starter questions for someone looking for a critique. Once photographers start asking these questions, I think most move on quickly to more specific questions and then soon are able to critique their own photo. That’s the point where personal style kicks in, when someone likes something even knowing it’s technically wrong.

    A one-on-one crtique from a trusted professional is very useful. Critique forms can be hit or miss if you don’t know the qualifications of the responders, criticism can creep in as well. It’s easy to be forthright and direct without being mean, always “fly the courtesy flag”.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5797548150/

  • Hi

    Really great article! I have been astounded by other people’s tastes. We have a Facebook Fan Page and everytime we reach a certain number of Fans, we draw a Fan Wiinner – they are can chose any image from our Portfolio and we ship the print. The Fan choices are always surprising! Bottom line…The Customer is Always Right!

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/06/05/under-the-pier-down-under/

  • A great article, I love getting feedback on my images but it always seems a bit cringeworthy finding the right words to ask.
    Thanks DPS – Tom

  • If you’re the person being asked for criticism, I have a few suggestions:

    For somebody who is really not very good, “If I were you, the next thing I’d work on would be …..” New artists are unlikely to be able to grasp multi-point, detailed criticism, so there isn’t much point in going on at length. Hit the one or two most important things and save your other comments for the next talk. The other advantage of this is that you’re implying to the person that you have been (or are) in the same situation as the person asking for criticism, so it softens the blow a bit.

    For somebody better, you can add more details, since that person is likely to have the contextual framework to understand and remember more. But for these people, I’d recommend starting and ending with a positive comment and sandwiching the negative (“constructive”) comments in between. Again, this softens the blow while communicating the criticism. (This technique has an indecorous name that I’ll leave for a less family-oriented website. 😎 )

    ps. I don’t get asked much about photography, but I judge miniature figurine painting contests, so I have a fair amount of time on that side of the table in a similar situation.

  • I’m definitely going to do this more often. Thanks.

  • GradyPhilpott

    Good advice, but sometimes, I do want to know of a person, “Do you like this?”

    “Yes” or “No” are good enough answers, but it is interesting to hear why.

    I’ve stopped asking pros what they think, actually.

    I’d really rather hear from an honest, fellow amateur.

    But, don’t get me wrong. When the pros speak, I’m all ears!

  • I think you have to shoot first and foremost for yourself. Make photographs you like to look at and if someone digs them too, then that’s cool, but not necessary at all.

    I wrote about this regarding why I photograph motorcycles:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2010/7/2/i-photograph-motorcycles-for-fun.html

    Got to shoot for yourself.

  • Great post! Certainly very helpful to beginners like myself. This post certainly encourages me to pursue the love for photography. Thanks!

  • This is a great article and such an important subject. And I think it’s something that’s becoming more rare these days, people are so scared of even constructive criticism.

    I’ve been going through portfolio review and critique these past few months, and I feel like I’ve learned more recently than in two decades of shooting!

  • Richard Noonan

    Thanks Peter, some really useful advice. I’m still not quite confident in seeking feedback, but I’m working on the ego.

  • ShooterMum

    What a brilliant article.

    I have someone who I consider a mentor (is multi-award winning and highly acclaimed) and everytime I show her my recent shots she says “Do you like these” as I open the files?

    It makes me feel like crud as soon as she utters those words as I then know she thinks they are sub-par before she even starts her critique. Then her critique falls heavy as I’m already aware I’ve underwhelmed her.

    Next time I’ll say “I like these shots …. can you tell me how I could have done this differently” BEFORE she even opens her mouth!

    Thanks so much! REALLY helpful!
    S.

  • Rick V

    Along the lines of Doug Sundseth’s remarks …
    It seems that it would also be helpful before asking for the critique to offer your thoughts on what you were working on or paying particular attention to when you took the shot(s). That gives the critic a clue as to what advice will be most useful to you.

  • Tim

    Shootermum: try saying `Yes, I do!’. 😉

  • Great post Peter, I see people ask the question “Do you like it” “What do you think” and some pictures I wonder, do you like it? Why are you showing me this picture? It is just a picture. Was there something more? I like your comments. Please tell me what you are looking for and I can help more by gearing my answers in the correct way. Thank you for your advice it is a very good one and I hope lots of people read it.

Some Older Comments

  • David Johns June 22, 2011 01:45 am

    Great post Peter, I see people ask the question "Do you like it" "What do you think" and some pictures I wonder, do you like it? Why are you showing me this picture? It is just a picture. Was there something more? I like your comments. Please tell me what you are looking for and I can help more by gearing my answers in the correct way. Thank you for your advice it is a very good one and I hope lots of people read it.

  • Tim June 21, 2011 08:59 am

    Shootermum: try saying `Yes, I do!'. ;)

  • Rick V June 11, 2011 04:45 pm

    Along the lines of Doug Sundseth's remarks ...
    It seems that it would also be helpful before asking for the critique to offer your thoughts on what you were working on or paying particular attention to when you took the shot(s). That gives the critic a clue as to what advice will be most useful to you.

  • ShooterMum June 10, 2011 10:13 am

    What a brilliant article.

    I have someone who I consider a mentor (is multi-award winning and highly acclaimed) and everytime I show her my recent shots she says "Do you like these" as I open the files?

    It makes me feel like crud as soon as she utters those words as I then know she thinks they are sub-par before she even starts her critique. Then her critique falls heavy as I'm already aware I've underwhelmed her.

    Next time I'll say "I like these shots .... can you tell me how I could have done this differently" BEFORE she even opens her mouth!

    Thanks so much! REALLY helpful!
    S.

  • Richard Noonan June 10, 2011 03:56 am

    Thanks Peter, some really useful advice. I'm still not quite confident in seeking feedback, but I'm working on the ego.

  • Sweet Ronit June 10, 2011 01:44 am

    This is a great article and such an important subject. And I think it's something that's becoming more rare these days, people are so scared of even constructive criticism.

    I've been going through portfolio review and critique these past few months, and I feel like I've learned more recently than in two decades of shooting!

  • Aaron June 9, 2011 05:56 pm

    Great post! Certainly very helpful to beginners like myself. This post certainly encourages me to pursue the love for photography. Thanks!

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer June 8, 2011 11:54 am

    I think you have to shoot first and foremost for yourself. Make photographs you like to look at and if someone digs them too, then that's cool, but not necessary at all.

    I wrote about this regarding why I photograph motorcycles:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2010/7/2/i-photograph-motorcycles-for-fun.html

    Got to shoot for yourself.

  • GradyPhilpott June 7, 2011 01:15 pm

    Good advice, but sometimes, I do want to know of a person, "Do you like this?"

    "Yes" or "No" are good enough answers, but it is interesting to hear why.

    I've stopped asking pros what they think, actually.

    I'd really rather hear from an honest, fellow amateur.

    But, don't get me wrong. When the pros speak, I'm all ears!

  • Niki Jones June 7, 2011 03:40 am

    I'm definitely going to do this more often. Thanks.

  • Doug Sundseth June 7, 2011 01:46 am

    If you're the person being asked for criticism, I have a few suggestions:

    For somebody who is really not very good, "If I were you, the next thing I'd work on would be ....." New artists are unlikely to be able to grasp multi-point, detailed criticism, so there isn't much point in going on at length. Hit the one or two most important things and save your other comments for the next talk. The other advantage of this is that you're implying to the person that you have been (or are) in the same situation as the person asking for criticism, so it softens the blow a bit.

    For somebody better, you can add more details, since that person is likely to have the contextual framework to understand and remember more. But for these people, I'd recommend starting and ending with a positive comment and sandwiching the negative ("constructive") comments in between. Again, this softens the blow while communicating the criticism. (This technique has an indecorous name that I'll leave for a less family-oriented website. 8-) )

    ps. I don't get asked much about photography, but I judge miniature figurine painting contests, so I have a fair amount of time on that side of the table in a similar situation.

  • Thomas Jupe June 6, 2011 07:59 pm

    A great article, I love getting feedback on my images but it always seems a bit cringeworthy finding the right words to ask.
    Thanks DPS - Tom

  • Erik Kerstenbeck June 6, 2011 05:20 pm

    Hi

    Really great article! I have been astounded by other people's tastes. We have a Facebook Fan Page and everytime we reach a certain number of Fans, we draw a Fan Wiinner - they are can chose any image from our Portfolio and we ship the print. The Fan choices are always surprising! Bottom line...The Customer is Always Right!

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/06/05/under-the-pier-down-under/

  • ScottC June 6, 2011 02:44 pm

    These are great starter questions for someone looking for a critique. Once photographers start asking these questions, I think most move on quickly to more specific questions and then soon are able to critique their own photo. That's the point where personal style kicks in, when someone likes something even knowing it's technically wrong.

    A one-on-one crtique from a trusted professional is very useful. Critique forms can be hit or miss if you don't know the qualifications of the responders, criticism can creep in as well. It's easy to be forthright and direct without being mean, always "fly the courtesy flag".

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5797548150/

  • Isoterica June 6, 2011 11:19 am

    This is good, solid advice. Firstly because it is teaching those seeking input how to get the kind of tips or suggestions that will be constructive by being more direct and this is beneficial to their improvement. 'Do you like it?' is soliciting a 'yeah great image' response which is the knee-jerk reaction of a friend that feels like they are being pumped for compliments and are suddenly afraid to hurt your feelings or even bring up a small suggestion that could upset you. Secondly but maybe more importantly we are attention seeking or praise seeking individuals and one can get very caught up in forums that promote that 'feel good-great photo' feeling to the point where we might alter what we normally shoot in order to keep feeling that reward. One has to be true to themselves.. because if you alter your technique because other people say you should and not because you feel it.. it's reflected in your work.. and your overall attitude towards your photography. It's better to be praised for who you are and what results from your own personal style than for who you are not and work you are dispassionate about.

  • JJ June 6, 2011 10:44 am

    Nice post. I really like to read the Expert Critique section of Digital SLR Photography magazine. In it, readers submit photos and two professionals will critique each photo. They usually do 3 to 5 per issue. The experts are really good at providing both technical and aesthetic advice. I like trying to guess what they will say before reading the articles.

  • monstermum June 6, 2011 09:46 am

    Now this is what I call A Very Useful Post. I have been wondering how to ask specific questions when I don't know what to ask. Thank-you, Peter, for writing this!

  • Gallopingphotog June 6, 2011 07:46 am

    Well-done. Not only does "do you like it" put the person on the spot, but might not get much information. Asking how could I make this better/do it differently will get (we hope!) useful information, which is what we all need if we want to improve!

  • Trudy June 6, 2011 06:53 am

    This is brilliant. Great post.

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