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Be a critique and become a better photographer

By being a critique I don’t mean being an arrogant knows it all 😉 It is actually the opposite: be able to share with the others your view on their photos and progress together (yes, together). And ultimately, make yourself a better photographer.

Strangers in the dark VII. Cluj-Napoca station, Romania.

Strangers in the Dark VII. Cluj-Napoca, Romania, 2016. Get a fine art, original print in limited edition.

This photo has gone through several critique processes, internal (by me) and external (by peers) before reaching its final form.

Critique the others’ work

I just love to give a constructive feedback on my peers’ photos. Try to understand the strengths and the weaknesses of the photo, share your findings and propose eventuality a different approach. It’s a very enriching experience for everyone: you help the photographer progress, and you develop your skills by analysing other people’s photo. By understanding how this shot was done, you educate yourself!

The harder, by far, is to find the correct context. The people has to accept the fact that you are giving a feedback that is not 100% praises, and you have to formulate this feedback correctly in order to avoid shaming him/her. And keep things objective, constructive, whatever the reaction is. It may lead to some very interesting discussions and debates. Another way to progress on your communication skills too 😉

My experience is that is works better in smaller groups, online or IRL, rather than in large group. Knowing the persons involved allows a much easier communication. I have been part of a group of this kind for years now, it has helped me a lot by being critiqued first, and then being the critique. Knowing ourselves quite well now has really made the process much easier and to the point.

Be your own critique

And here is the best thing: be your own critique. After years of analyzing other people’s photos I started to go through the same process with mine. It’s way tougher as you are never totally objective about your own work. But being able to detach as much as possible from your work and look at it with a real critique eye is really mind blowing.

The gain? I am now able to filter much better the work I display, online or IRL, in a way that I am much more able to identify the strengths of my photos against the emotional attachment I may have. How often did I think a photo was good because I had a particular connection with it… but it wasn’t that good in the end? Way too often. Therefore take your time and give a second, critique look to all the photos you’ll leave in the wild.

Take away

As a short take away from this article:

  • Don’t just look at the photos, also try to understand it
  • Share your findings with others and discuss it
  • Critique your own work!

Don’t be afraid of high ISO!

Pull & Bear. Bucharest, Romania, 2016.

Pull & Bear. Bucharest, Romania, 2016. Shot at ISO 6400.

Once again: don’t be afraid of high ISO!

Are you mad? My photos look like sh!t with high ISO!

Indeed, there will be noise, but noise in the digital world is not something fatal. It can be reduced, or even totally eliminated, in post. Plus, modern cameras offer higher ISO performance which are increasing at every single release. We’re reaching a point were ISO 800 is almost noiseless, and sensitivity values over 6400 are more than usable.

While our cameras capabilities are growing at a very fast pace, we’re still thinking as in the film era, or digital inception era, were anything over ISO 400 is a lot of grain, or a lot of noise. It’s not the case anymore. Softwares too have progressed quite a lot, with intelligent noise reduction algorithm that can reduce drastically the noise of a photo without impacting its content.

Because content is everything.

Way too many people judge a photo by its aesthetics, and unfortunately by its aesthetics only. How sharp, how much noise, etc. It’s often the same guys who are shooting brick walls and pixel peep. Aesthetics is of course a huge part of the photo, it’s even critical for studio/commercial photography, landscapes… but in the end, the content matters the most. For me, content is way above aesthetics.

I don’t care how much noise there will be, if I’m in a situation were the light is low, I’d rather shoot at high ISO and get some noise than do not get the shot. And with that, get a photo with a fantastic content. Because that is what will be the differentiator in the end: have something that strikes the viewer. No one will be amazed by how low is the noise on your photo… rather what striking figure it represents. Most of the most influential photographs taken are grainy (“film’s noise”), and no one cares. Content is everything.

That said, it doesn’t mean one should not care at all about getting the best image quality possible. Of course. When I can use tripods and longer exposures for my low light shots, I go for it. There is no point of introducing noise, except for… aesthetics motives, of course 🙂 But I don’t limit myself and it doesn’t bother me to crank the sensibility to ISO 6400 when I need to, and solve the noise problem with Lightroom.

I often see photos in low light situation were the photographers tried to use a very low speed to avoid getting over ISO 800 for example. The result? A blurry photo that can’t be saved in post. The can reduce noise, but we can’t (yet) reduce blur efficiently. I’d rather crank the sensibility by 1 or 2 stop and get a correct speed.

Run! Bucharest, Romania, 2016.

Run! Bucharest, Romania, 2016. Shot at ISO 6400. Get a print.

The noise problem doesn’t really exist.

One interesting thing is that the people who complain the most about noise are the same people who don’t actually need the highest quality possible. They shoot family photos, export them at lower resolution and share them on social networks. Of course, the photos are only looked at 100% in Lightroom (or the software of your choice). And guess what? Resizing a photo to a lower resolution actually reduces the visible noise on the photo! Unless you actually use your photos at 100% size, the noise that got introduced while shooting with a high ISO will at least partly disappear by itself. Last but not least, don’t forget one thing: the social networks you share your photos on will compress again your photos and destroy it anyhow. Facebook and Flickr are experts for that. So why restricting yourself?

Summing up: give it at least a try.

TL;DR? Let’s sum it up:

  • Modern cameras have high ISO performance that are incredible, and are getting even better.
  • Software noise reduction algorithms are getting better and better.
  • Content is the key, do anything to get it right.
  • Don’t pixel peep.
  • Noise may not even be a problem for you.

And that’s it. Don’t overthink it. Just go out and shoot, low light situations won’t bother you anymore. Don’t limit yourself.

Owning the scene

Street photography is not staged

Street photography is not staged, it’s all about the instant. It’s not landscape photography, where things are quite static (weather excepted). It’s not studio photography where you can direct you subject at your will. It’s not even this pseudo street photography we can see more and more on Instagram, which is actually studio style shoot in natural light, in the streets. No, nothing is staged in street photography, nothing is static, nothing waits for you or for your orders. Every seconds, sometimes even less, count, sometimes you shoot by reflex, not looking at your camera or even at your subject, because the moment, the instant is right now, not the second later. Which sometimes gives interesting shot, often they are only megabytes to free on your memory card…

Contrast: Bright present, dark future

A typical “reflex shot” taken while walking. It gave a nice photo with a contrast between the two subjects, and the shadow line separating them. If only I’ve had been more prepared, the framing would have been way better… and the shot more spectacular!

Things go fast, but keep a slow pace

Imagine yourself in a very busy street that you don’t really know, people passing by you in a rush, angry drivers use their horn more than they should, there is advertising everywhere. Everything go fast, there is a lot happening at 360 degrees around you, interesting things that may be a great shot, you rush too, you try to go fast, you may indeed take a few good shots… but I can bet you’ll be disappointed by your keeper ratio in the end. Good shots, but very few great shots, if any.

Now, go back a little bit in time, at the same spot you were, and look around you, just look, maybe try a few shots for framing tests, but go slow, observe.

Owning the scene!

That is owning the scene. Take the time to make this unfamiliar scene yours. It may take a few seconds, it may take a few minutes, but be sure to understand what’s going on. What could be a great background? Where are the shadows, how is the sun moving and affecting them? Is there a pattern in the people’s behavior, does someone break this pattern and could be a good subject? That often makes a great shot! Is there a moving subject that can be captured in motion by doing a longer exposure? Is there anything fitting my ongoing projects? That is owning the scene, that is knowing and understanding what is going on in front of you… and actually at 360 degrees! You are not staging your scene, you are planning it for the right moment, the right instant where the magic happens.

Commuting II. Cluj-Napoca.

The very first shot of the “Commuting” project. It required a bit of work to get the right shutter speed to capture the movement without being too abstract, and also to know when to release the shutter so that it doesn’t get messy while filling the frame. While experimenting I was on the other side of the street next to the red light and found the pattern I wanted: much more people were coming from the side I took the photo, and I knew the effect would be better being closer to the largest amount of people.

… And keep owning it

Now that you own the scene, that you’ve stayed in your spot for a few minutes (or sometimes much more 😀 ) in order to capture THE shot, keep looking. The light may be changing, the people’s behavior may be different, it’s an ongoing process. Maybe now, you can switch from shooting people passing in front of this nice reflection with a giant, funny ad in the background to shooting them under neon lights when the sky goes darker. Because you keep observing, you keep owning the scene, you feel confident in what you are doing, you know what is changing, or what is going to change. You’ll be able to anticipate and to take advantage of it, not have it ruin your moment. Last but not least, you may be even more observant to those “reflex instant shot” that are still happening anyhow!

I see you. Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

One of my favorite shots of 2015. It started at the corner of the street, then the steam started being released so I moved a bit closer to have a more foggy atmosphere. And the light on the right was turned on and this graffiti appeared, I rethought the whole thing and made the shot when people were passing by the graffiti, as if it was looking at them. Perfect example of evolving scene.

Less shots, but more keepers

Since I’ve been using this small technique I’ve observed that I actually shoot way less than when I was spraying here and there, with a much higher keeper ration as I plan my shoot, my settings, my framing, etc. It means less time in front of the computer, and much more time shooting!