Photography for Beginners Part 16: Learn From Your Photos

Each post in this series builds on information discussed in previous posts. See the Photography for Beginners page on the menu for links to all the posts.

Part 15:  Types of Night Photography

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You should read articles and watch videos from a variety of sources to learn photography concepts and to get practical tips for improving your images. But the two things that will teach you the most about photography are: using your camera often and in a variety of situations, and carefully studying photos.

In my experience, unless you are naturally gifted it’s much easier to critique a photo than it is to take a really good one yourself. You’ll hit a stage of learning where you can often identify what’s wrong in a bad photo, or how a mediocre photo could have been improved, even if you have difficulty making those same improvements to your own photos.

The point isn’t to critique other people’s photos so you can feel superior. Do the critiquing in your head, not “out loud,” because the point is to learn something, not rain all over someone’s parade after they proudly post a photo with missed focus and a crooked horizon.

Critique poor photos so you can recognize common mistakes to avoid, and critique good photos to learn what contributes to them being good.

You especially need to critique your own photos. The big advantages of taking a critical look at your own are that you know what your intention was when you took it, and you can look at the metadata.

Every time your camera captures an image it records a bunch of information that gets attached to the file. That information is called the metadata (or sometimes referred to as the exif) and includes things like shooting mode, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, focus mode, etc., etc.

When you load your photos into a viewing program on your computer there should be a menu item that says something like “Info” or “Details.” Click on that and the metadata for the photo you are viewing should be displayed.

This is important because the info helps you diagnose what is right and wrong with an image for things not related to composition.

Did you capture unwanted motion blur? What shutter speed was used? Is part of your subject out of focus when you didn’t mean it to be? What aperture was used? How far away from the subject were you? Did you get really nice bokeh? What combination of focal length and aperture was used?

Metadata isn’t the only thing to look at though. Look at colors, exposure, composition.

Is the horizon level? Is the subject obvious? Is the subject properly exposed? Should you have gotten closer to the subject so that it filled more of the frame or did you cut off something important? Did you forget to look for background or foreground clutter that could have been avoided by taking the photo from a different angle or removing a piece of trash or stray leaf? (I’m guilty of this all the time!) Is the composition balanced?

It can be surprising just how much you learn from going through your photos this way. Both the ones that turn out great and the ones that are a disappointment.

Sometimes I put two (or more) photos in a temporary folder so I can quickly flip back and forth between them repeatedly to see why one turned out nicely and the other didn’t.

The more you study your own photos the more you will learn about how your camera performs and the more you’ll absorb how photography concepts that you’ve read about apply in real world situations.

You don’t need to carefully study every single picture you take. That would be tedius. But when you have some time look through recent photos and see what catches your eye because something isn’t right or because you love how it turned out. Then investigate further.

I often keep bad photos for a while instead of deleting them right away because I want to study them later on or save them as a reminder of what not to do.

Two things to be aware of when critiquing your own photos are: separating emotion from reality, and the Dunning-Kruger effect.

It can be difficult when looking at your own images to separate out what you experienced in that moment, or how you feel about the subject, from what actually appears in the photo.

Something that I’ve noticed is that photos can’t capture all of what makes a moment special. Sometimes I get caught up in the beauty around me, and then am frustrated when I get home and realize that what I experienced didn’t translate at all into the photo.

When we are in the moment all our senses are in play. We can hear leaves rustling and waves lapping at the shore. We can smell the scent of green growing things or flowers. We can feel the kiss of warm sun and the caress of a soft breeze on our skin. But it’s likely that little or none of that will be conveyed to someone viewing a still image.

Maybe you took a photo from a National Park viewpoint and looking at it reminds you of how you felt in complete awe of nature’s splendor when you were there. But, is there anything compelling about the composition you chose? Did you make use of your own unique way of seeing things? Or did you only come back with a mundane wide-angle snapshot like everyone else?

Maybe you captured a snapshot of your grandchild playing at the park with the cutest expression on their face, and it warms your heart when looking at it because all you see is that expression. But, are the eyes in focus? Is a swingset sticking out of the top of the child’s head? Is another child off to the side creating a distraction? Those are things others are likely notice, not necessarily how cute your grandbaby is.

In order to critique your own photos you have to set aside your emotions about the subject in order to see what is actually captured in the photo.

Sidenote:  There is absolutely nothing wrong with snapshots! They preserve our memories and are fine for scrap books and sharing in online photo albums. But they are usually only mediocre in terms of the art of photography. So yes, take snapshots. But once you’ve got them, take some time to go a step further and see what you can come up with that has more visual impact.

Without getting deep into the technical weeds of definition, the Dunning-Kruger effect is the tendency of people with a low level of skill to mistakenly assess their skill as being greater than it actually is. It happens because the individual doesn’t know enough yet to fully understand the standards of competence or excellence in that skill.

It can happen to anyone, and isn’t a comment on intelligence. It shows up in photography in a number of ways, and frequently results in people posting bad photos online that they think prove they’re a hotshot photographer. (Which is different from people who know they aren’t hotshots and post photos asking for tips on how to improve, or from people sharing snapshots of the family or from a trip.) The problem stems from beginners not yet understanding things like what a good exposure looks like, or how critical sharp focus is, or the basic principles of composition.

Since the Dunning-Kruger effect is common and can happen to anyone, being aware of the possibility can help when it comes to critiquing your own photos. It’s so easy to look at an image you like, think “nailed it!”, and move on. When critiquing your own photos you have to step into the shoes of a stranger and view the photo with their eyes, not your own. Your eyes are biased. What would a stranger see?

Sidenote: The Dunning-Kruger effect also describes what can happen with highly skilled people. Highly skilled people often underestimate their abilities or think that if something is easy for them it must be easy for most people.

Studying your own photos is well worth the small investment of time it takes, and it’s something you can continue to learn from at every stage of skill development.

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Part 17:  Glossary of Photography Jargon

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