Wednesday 23 February 2011

Harvesting the Crop

If you are looking to get better at something, you're not going to get very far without either practice or feedback.

Repetition is an essential part of practice, but simple repetition is not enough. Without reflection and deliberation it can be all too easy to plateau without realising it, reinforcing accidental habits, ingraining misunderstandings and baking in blind spots. But even with patience and heightened self-awareness, there are limits to self-improvement. You simply don't know enough about the thing you're trying to learn about. Learning by trial and error is too haphazard to offer meaningful structure and progress on its own. And self-knowledge is inevitably imperfect (consider, for example, the Dunning–Kruger effect).

The degree of detachment and kind of feedback needed can sometimes only come from someone else. My recent interest in amateur photography has borne this out. I have submitted photos to a number of sites and been pleasantly surprised by the useful and respectful comments when feedback is enabled and encouraged on a site. In particular, the Street Photography Now Project attracts a range of individuals interested in meeting a weekly challenge and offering feedback on others' contributions.

Positive comments help you to figure out where you've managed to capture and present something that others rate (see, for example, here). Although encouraging and good for self-esteem, simply knowing that someone else likes a picture is not necessarily enough to learn from what you have done. What really you really need to know is why. What was it about the image that worked? And specific is generally better than general (here and here, for example), although a mix of general positive and specific feedback is also a good sign (such as here).

But feedback is not just about "I like this" or "I like this because...". Learning doesn't arise solely from getting things right. But knowing only that a picture didn't quite hit the mark is of limited use as feedback. Knowing why it didn't work is far more useful. And knowing how to improve it is the most useful of all.

One picture that I posted at the end of last year attracted this kind of constructive feedback. It was of a protest in Victoria Park, Hong Kong:

This event was a great photo opportunity and I felt the picture was the best shot I took that day. It was invited for inclusion in another group, which is a hint that I got something right.

I had tried to focus on a number of interesting elements. I had wanted to get a sense of scale and space, while excluding the larger part of the scene around it. The following shot gives a better sense of the context:

I had moved in closer, and zoomed and cropped, to capture people and colour. The first image is certainly a more interesting composition than the second, but getting something right doesn't preclude the possibility of getting more right. When I selected, edited and posted, I was happy with the shot, but still felt there was something I could improve — I just didn't know what. The suggestions were spot on and quite specific:

  • Try isolating a little bit more of the scene in order to achieve something with greater interest.
  • The main interest to me are the two girls turned (the pink and purple is also really nice in the way it contrasts with the overall scene).
  • I get the feeling you focussed on the whole colourful look but missed the opportunity to get in close.

I have revisited and recropped the picture. The result is a significant and, with hindsight, obvious improvement, but not one I would have made without the feedback:

A picture tells a story. It frames a scene. By definition, a frame both includes and excludes. While some elements are emphasised, others are de-emphasised and even omitted. Behind every good story is a world of detail and implication left in the author's head and suggested and resupplied by the reader. So it should be for a picture.