How I Failed A Shot (And Got Called On It): A Lesson In Taking Criticism


I’m going to really stick my neck out and I’m going to readily show off one of my biggest failures in recent weeks.  I’m not proud of the awful shot shown here.  I’m probably crazy for admitting it’s mine and I should probably take it off the web.  But then I would be misleading you, and you wouldn’t be able to learn from my mistakes.  I am an educator after all, and I truly believe that you will learn something from all this.  So I will try to remain humble…here we go…

The Background

As you know, I am part of the Get Pushed group on Flickr.  In a recent challenge, I was charged with creating a positive photo using the color red.  It’s a simple assignment, but so far outside my comfort zone that I don’t think I gave it all of my effort.  In fact, I possibly phoned it in with the awful response shown here at right.  Granted, I readily admitted my feelings of the phone – though much more subtly – when I originally posted it on Flickr.  But some of the early comments were actually in support of the photograph.  Photography is fairly subjective, and so I truly believe that some felt this self-portrait was appealing.  But let’s be truthful:  It does not meet with my abilities, and it is certainly not a quality portrait.

Then came along Jonathan Kos-Read who called me on it.  I will preface, he’s not unlike myself.  He is blunt and honest, but his goal is not to tear anyone down or belittle them.  His intentions are truly constructive.  Jonathan first asked permission to criticize.  Bracing myself for the truth I was expecting, I invited him to share his true thoughts, and I will quote them (verbatim) here:

1) It’s only positive if you know what Livestrong actually is.

2) Even if somebody knew what it was, there is no positive message, just a guy wearing a shirt that has a logo of some group that presumably does positive things.

3) the guy’s expression is ridiculous, like the photographer is saying “look more positive!” and this is the 20th shot

4) The thumbs up . . . final nail in the coffin

5) The red umbrella (even if your lighting idea did work) serves no compositional purpose. What is “positive message” about it?

The whole thing is a pastiche of awkward cliches, weird lighting and bad composition that completely (as you realize) fails to fulfill the push.

I will concede, every point – especially points #1 and #5 – is spot on.  I would personally add the following:

  • I went through the trouble of picking an outfit, but I missed a number of finishing touches:  My hair is a mess, my face is sweaty, etc.
  • My model positioning is weak.  Posing is a weakness, but I should know better.
  • The key light is poorly placed.  I wasn’t happy with it when I proofed the shots, but I didn’t redo it either.

One could say I’m being over-critical, but you have to be as a photographer.  If you aren’t struggling to improve with every single shot that you share with the public, you have failed.  That is my philosophy, and I ignored it in this case.

Getting Over It and Moving On

After making the comment, Jonathan did suggest deleting the comment.  I chose not to.  For starters, it’s against my beliefs – I don’t believe in censoring another person’s opinions, especially if they are so closely aligned with my own.  Yes, his comment sheds light on the flaws of this failed response to the Push Challenge.  But I also believe that someone will learn from that.

So there are two ways to move on from here:  I could let it get me down, or I could learn from it.  The better photographer would choose to learn from the experience.  The other option is a worse failure than the initial failure.  Do I deserve to be upset at Jonathan?  Maybe.  But is he the root of the problem?  No, absolutely not.  When you get knocked down a peg, you have to look inward and admit to yourself that the only person who really failed here was one’s-self.  I failed here.  And I didn’t get away with it.  And so instead, I will thank Jonathan Kos-Read for pointing out the fact that I wouldn’t admit to myself:  I failed the shot.

I have learned from this, and I will move on.

More about Jonathan Kos-Read

You may be interested to know that I am now following Jonathan Kos-Read on Flickr now.  In the digital era, that is proof enough of the fact that I have no hard feelings and I have the utmost respect for him and his work.  In fact, despite our awkward introduction, I”m glad to have been introduced to his body of work.  He has a lot of great candids and portraits, a body of work filled with beautiful imagery from the streets and more intimate settings.  So this lesson has a bonus:  I am certainly inspired and will continue to learn from his work as well.






About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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