Feedback through instant editing

Last week I blogged about what I now call “instant editing.” The idea was to share the top forty or sixty images from one day’s shoot with about ten peers right at the end of the day’s photographing in order to get some input on how to improve when photographing the next day. Last week, I talked about how I started this process (and why I hope to use it more in the future.) This week I want to share some of the comments that I received from my “reviewers.” What I found so interesting was not just what they said about the work, but how they said it. Their thinking is so compelling that I wanted to share it in order to possibly help others edit sets of images in the future.

Like in so much of life, what my reviewers wrote told me as much about them as it did about my images. One friend wrote;

In my short lived career as “photo editor” a shooter would come back from an assignment and plop down their roll of film and look to me to select an image from the shoot. I always found that part of photography amazing, that a shooter would become incapable of knowing which image was right, but in the street they knew which shots to take. I considered this inability to choose an image a sign of insecurity so, without looking at a single image I would tell them I was selecting number 27a or 14a or whatever number the dice rolled. The shooter would then look at me with bewilderment and ask what if that image was not good. I would explain that they inherently knew which was the good image and by letting someone else select the shot, they allowed some moron like me the opportunity to pick the wrong one. As you can probably tell, I was not “photo editor” material and returned to the street without missing the job one minute.

I always regretted my harsh tone working with these shooters. They were afraid to make a choice because they might be wrong and I threw them into the deep end of the pool. After you sent me your picks, I realized I was right and maybe it was good to challenge them to select a few then look to me for advice. I was so surprised you reached out to ask me to help you select the foreclosure shots. If you had prior knowledge about my mean history of photo editing you would have avoided me like the plague.

Another friend wrote:

… choosing my favorite images is the perfect 10 minute study break.

Other “editors” broke the work down into different categories and possible end-uses:

I actually saw the photo of the FBI glasses fitting with a story about what the foreclosure rate is for professionals with degrees….

And

Therefore I see the following categories:
1. Great shot on it’s own (with or without story)
2. Great shot and tells the story
3. Good shot and very important to the story
4. OK to Good shot that does not augment the story
5. Just OK shot, does not do justice to your photography (like something occurred to you at the time, but it is not coming across to me).
6. What were you thinking…..or, yes there is such a thing as wasting film at your age!

Other snippets of comments that stayed with me included:

…interesting take on the need for super-heroes

… show off the great concept of the toy empty house in the emptied house.

…unique to your sets as it shows office supplies as in a serious white collar worker type

… image makes me think about how when a volcano erupts it freezes a moment. Not sure that comparison is helpful.

… is really strong, both graphically and with implications. Makes me think the house owner committed suicide, for what that is worth.

….raises the question of what was the thing that once sat between the rabbit and the picture and was worthy to be taken away

… you might want to darken the top 1/3 which looks a bit over exposed (not much since you want the viewer looking at the hula hoop, but just a bit)

… want to see the image before or after with the house sharp and the vines blurry, because right now it looks a bit too beautiful and picturesque with the house blurry and the vines sharp.

….is jarring and although I get what you are going for, it makes me less interested in the people who lived in the house.

…house needs to be more out of focus

….after a second take I get that it’s toys, but I’m not totally sure about the clarity of the image.

… with the close up shots of clutter I’m not sure what I’m supposed to know

Other reviewers took a somewhat higher level perspective, talking about the whole set of work they were considering:

I like the simplistic detail shots over the ones filled with chaos. The first two detail images and the writing on the wall are my favorites because they show the torn fabric and the anger in the words which is good representation of what happened and the simplicity really allows for strong design and use of light.

And

I think I’d like to see more of the room in the “room” shots. I know there are always limitations with how wide you can shoot and the space given, but for this topic I feel there is a grand story waiting that can be seen in the entire room and I also think we’d get more of a sense of space and life style.

And

The photos are getting stronger as I am beginning to see the whole take. Some photo’s work as a stand-alone and others work when the context is known.

And

I love the contrast/antithesis of the super messy/dirty rooms vs. the tidiness/cleanliness of others. It tells so much about the people who lived in the houses and/or the way they were forced to leave… And also the details say a lot: like for example the FBI glasses…

What all of these comments have in common is they go far beyond the simplistic “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” We all know that feedback of that nature is of no value. The comments that I have noted here (and other comments that did not make it into this blog entry) were specific enough that I understood what the reviewer was experiencing when they saw my work. They also were helpful in telling me what was not working for the reviewers quite the way I wanted.

Because I did not want to depend too much on any one person’s input, I also kept a running tally of which images made it into each reviewer’s top twenty. By the time I was done, a set of about fifteen images, out of roughly sixty, had received six or more “votes” each from the ten voting reviewers. Occasionally I was surprised that images I thought were border-line actually were very well received. Similarly, a few of my favorites did not get anywhere near the top fifteen.

The tallies and the comments (both good and bad) affected how I photographed in subsequent shoots. It was not like I heard any one reviewer giving me orders. Rather themes that I heard over and over in the comments from multiple reviewers resonated with me as I was photographing. A few times, when I was sure I was “done” with a given situation, I took a step back, thought about the feedback I had been given and took another run at that situation. I found that my second try was the most successful if I waited some time between the first and second pass at a given situation. How that played out was I might be photographing a pantry in one foreclosure, for example. When that situation had run its course, I would move on to another room. Later I would circle back to the pantry, reconsider the feedback I was given and often time find new images to make.

What I took away from all of this is that although there is no one way to critique images or give feedback, there are a couple rules I would suggest, starting with the idea that the more detailed the feedback the better. The other “rule” I would suggest is that the best feedback addresses both the craft issues in a given image as well as the conceptual/aesthetic issues in the same image. The best feedback I received explored how I was using light, angle or lenses but it also talked about the idea I was working with as I created the same image. I try to get my workshop students to understand this idea, that the best feedback explores dualities such as form vs. content or craft vs. concept. As a photographer working in the field, it was great fun to be on the receiving end of this same kind of feedback.

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