The art of constructive criticism

By | July 5, 2011

This is about subjectiveness, personal opinion and taste…..and photography.

I’ve just completed a 2 year home study course for a Diploma in Digital Photography from the School of Photographic Imaging. The course is about mastering digital techniques for photography, with regard to image capture (getting the best out of your camera) and post processing (getting the best out of image editing software). The way the course runs is that the student is assigned to a tutor who advises, assesses and marks each of the 10 modules in the course. A good number of the modules are essentially structured to develop technical prowess, but lurking in the background is the more demanding element of composition and artistic design; scary stuff.

Well, the good news, as far as I’m concerned. Is that I came through the course with an average mark of 88%, which included scoring 85% on the final module – a portfolio of 12 photographs, both in electronic and printed form, based on an agree theme. My theme was Harrow on the Hill, close to where I live, and a veritable oasis in the desert of suburban London. The set of photos is here – the first 12 in the sequence were the ones submitted, and the remainder I classified as ‘also runs’.

My tutor was Marcus McAdam, a professional travel photographer and writer who won a UK Photographer of the Year award in 2003, and who now runs photography workshops on the Isle of Skye. When I submitted my idea of Harrow in the Hill as a theme for the portfolio, Marcus informed me that he used to live there. OMG. So no pressure then! Needless to say, I made several photographic sorties to the Hill, and spent hours pondering over hundreds of shots in order to make the final selection, tinkering with various features, crops and other adjustments, in the hope of submitting a set of photos that wouldn’t reduce Marcus to hysterics, or outrage.

When the feedback came, I was delighted with the mark, but what I found particularly interesting was that Marcus made a number of comments on each photo, that taken on their own, could imply a certain amount of criticism of my composition. But by reading through these comments very carefully, and taking a close look at the photos to which they referred, it became clear that basically I did OK, but had he taken the photos, he might have chosen slightly different angles, cropped the pictures differently, or made some other technical adjustment. In other words he has offered some constructive criticism, and from that, I’ve learned a lot of things that were not included in the course, things that perhaps just can’t be taught.

From a very simple example, there is the potential to kick off a whole sequence of meaningful thoughts on subjectivity, objectivity and the meaning of life….another day, perhaps.

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