Use critical thinking to positively reflect on - and improve - your photography

Beginner

It’s not necessarily an easy task, but examining, re-examining and being (positively) critical about your own photography work can help you to improve it in a number of ways.

Although you may think it’s beginners who stand to benefit from this kind of introspection, the truth is that we can all benefit from reflecting on our practices, no matter what stage of our career we’re at.

That said, knowing where to begin - or how to delve a little deeper than simply deciding whether or not you like something - can be a tricky task. With this guide, we’ll give you some straightforward tips that you can use to start the process.


1 Use a specific notebook or digital document

Before you start anything else, it can be handy to invest in a specific notebook where you will jot down your thoughts and self-feedback on your work.  Keeping it all together in one place makes for useful reference material, and can also focus your mind into being in the right space for making critical comments. Alternatively, if you prefer the digital approach, you could start a new workbook or document on your computer or smartphone that contains all your notes saved to one place.


Using a specific notebook for your critical reflections on your photography helps to keep everything together and organised. Photo by Irantzu Arbaizagoitia

2 Think about distance from the work 


It’s worthwhile having a good think about exactly when you reflect on an individual photograph or body of work. There’s no definitive right or wrong answer here, but there’s something to be said for giving yourself a good amount of time to distance yourself from anything you’ve just shot. It can be easy to be excited about a brand new image or project, which may blind you from any problems or improvements you could make. An alternative here is to have an “initial reaction” in your notebook or digital document, followed up by how you feel some time down the line (also, see tip 7). 

Your initial reaction to a photograph can be clouded by excitement about what you've just captured. Try to leave some space in between for some critical thinking. Photo by Amy Davies

3 Consider the technical elements of your photo(s)


Now it’s time to think about the technical elements of your photo, and how well they work. Leave aside all emotion and consider aspects such as exposure, focus, white balance, sharpness, lighting, aperture and so on. It can be helpful to create your own list for you to check your photos against. At this point, try and be as critical as you can - don’t punish yourself for mistakes, but, note down where you could definitely make an improvement in the future. It’s also important to note down what you did well, too. By doing this, you’ll start to see patterns in your notebook of things you’re already mastering, and things that could do with some work.

Critically evaluate the technical proficiency of your photograph, considering what you could do better, but also noting what you did well. Photo by Eduard Gutescu

4 Now think about the artistic elements of your work


This aspect is a little bit harder since it’s not as cut-and-dried as considering technical aspects of your work. This one involves a little bit more abstract and subjective thought, but again, it can be helpful to create your own list for reference, or questions that you ask yourself when looking at your photos. There’s no definitive list of things to consider - and it may vary from person to person, but to get you started, try thinking about the following aspects of your photographs: emotions conveyed, tone, composition, colour choices (including mono). Once you’ve done this for a few images, you’ll probably find it easier to get into the swing of critiquing your own work. 

Evaluating stylistic choices is more subjective, but try to think as objectively as you can when looking at your own work. Photo by Dominique Dubied

5 Does your photo match the style you’re trying to cultivate?


Perhaps the photo you’re looking at is technically proficient, and it also works well artistically or stylistically. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for your portfolio, project, or the public facing work that you post online.

Developing a unique photographic style is something that is particularly important for professional photographers, as it helps your work to stand out to commercial clients. If you're developing a certain look or aesthetic, you need to ask yourself whether your photo matches that.

Judging whether your photographs sit well within your portfolio or match your photographic style is something you should consider too.
Screenshot: Juliana Nan's Picfair Store

6 Set yourself some goals or targets


Once you've begun to establish common patterns or themes emerging in your work, you can start to set yourself some tangible goals to help improve your pictures. Whether that’s working on something technical such as better focusing or sharpness, or something a little more subjective, such as composition, conveying tone or trying different artistic techniques.

You could also set yourself challenges and projects, such as taking a photo every day, using a specific lens for a week, or something else entirely as a way to shake up your creativity. Ideally, your goal will be something that can easily be quantified and measured, so try to make them relatively precise. Make a note of your goals in your notebook/document so that you can concentrate on them and record when you think you’ve met them.

After you’ve identified some themes running through your work, set yourself some tangible goals for improvement - such as trying a new technique. Photo by Dominique Dubied

7 Revisit and reflect


Photography by its nature is generally very subjective. Your opinions, tastes and techniques will change throughout the course of your life and your career, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There are also trends within photography that fall in and out of favour too. An image which you thought was great ten years ago may not stand up if you were to look at it today, which generally shows growth in terms of skills and experience. It can be very useful to be continually looking through your back-catalogue of work and projects to see how you have evolved and changed through the years. Don’t be afraid to revisit old shots to see what you do and don’t like about them, and how you might do things differently today. This is also a fantastic way to remind yourself of just how far you’ve come in the intervening time.

Artistic decisions we make don’t always stand the test of time. Revisiting your archive is a good way to see how far you’ve come. Photo by Graham Madill