Here’s What I Learned From Not Judging My Work

Here’s What I Learned From Not Judging My Work

A problem that many photographers face is being unhappy with their photos. This ends up running shoots and makes matters even worse. Some never fully experience the joy of creating that photography can bring. 

Whenever we shoot, we inevitably check the photo on the back of the screen and assess. Every little detail, we obsess over, every small thing, we try to correct. Striving for perfectionism is within many of us. With fashion and portrait photography, there are often some things you can’t control. Sometimes, there isn’t a way of making the subject look exactly how you need them to. You did all you can, but the photos are not coming out right. You’re not confident, and if it’s a paid client, they feel that. They get even more worried, and it’s a spiral down from there.

Judgment Is Something I Struggled With

I had this problem over and over again. It came from my anxiety about having paid clients, which is probably what most photographers also deal with. Let’s face it, no one wants to screw up on a paid job. I remember being very worried that my photography career was ruined because I didn’t photograph the client how they wanted (in hindsight, those images were pretty awesome for what they were).

Without realizing it, I was doing what was natural yet destructive to my work — judging. But what’s the difference between self-critique and judging? Well, the line is very fine indeed. Knowing where this line is, came as a steep learning curve for me. Judgment is destructive, while self-criticism is constructive. A much-loved book of mine, Big Magic, claims that we are either creative or destructive. I chose to be creatively critical, not destructively judgmental.

First Steps Towards Being Constructively Critical

The first step that I took when trying to even begin to understand what judgment and what criticism is, was just observing my feelings during a photoshoot. I asked myself what do I feel about the photos? 

What I found out is that I often look for mistakes and analyze the images more than just observing them for what they really are. Of course, this didn’t take me one two three photoshoots, it took me several months of consciously asking myself this question. I caught my negative judgment of the photo. I consciously told myself that I was spending time on judgment when I could really have been just having fun and creating at the moment. After some time, I saw my photos as simply interesting. That said, I was interested in exploring the photo by changing things up. Let the universe guide me to the right outcome, so to speak. Let’s be frank, not everything we change in the photo actually improves the photo. 

Creating in the moment is a huge part of this. While I am keeping this photography-related, I will point out that by not judging myself all the time, I generally became more positive. When shooting, however, I almost never look at the tethering station. I am there, and I am shooting. If I’m missing the focus of a flash is not firing, someone will inevitably point it out. That’s why I like to have a digital tech on set. If you can’t have a digital tech, set everything up, pre-light, and shoot away. Don’t check your camera after every photo. It shows the insecurities you may have about your work. Approach a photoshoot with excitement, and when shooting, try not to think too much about what the final photo will look like. It will look interesting, I promise.

There Are No Good or Bad Photos, Only Interesting Photos You Should Be Grateful For

I strongly believe that dividing between good and bad photos makes the matters worse. It’s easy to say that a photo is good, even easier that it’s bad. Ironically, photos I personally love tend to do quite badly online. The point is, the moment you stop looking at your photos as good or bad, but instead, consider them interesting you will progress a lot faster. Say something like this: "wow, this is interesting! Where can I take this next?"

Even if now, you’re judging a photo as bad, I’d propose looking at it as if it’s a lesson. Be grateful to the universe for offering you this. Say you set your camera wrong, and a backlit portrait turned out dark. “Wow, this is interesting, what can I learn from this? Let’s see what opening up the aperture will do.” After adjusting the settings, you may get a much nicer photo and be happy that you learned this new technique. If it weren’t for the lesson from the universe, you wouldn’t have known. Be grateful. 

Love Your Work, or Else No One Will

When creating you will inevitably make errors, or at least what you consider errors. An overexposed image isn’t inherently wrong, nor is an underexposed one. There are images I love that happened by accident and are technically wrong. I’ve been told that they’re rubbish, and they’ve not rated five stars on here, but so what? I loved shooting the photo, and that’s what matters to me personally. While that sounds egotistical, art is so subjective that if you don’t give your work some love, you will probably be incredibly susceptible to the negative critique that you inevitably will get online (we all do, there isn’t a single artist who is universally loved). 

Closing Thoughts 

I think that the key to being happy with your work is constructive criticism, not destructive judgment. This is the strategy I employed to be much happier with my photography, and so far, it has worked wonders. I strongly encourage you to read the book Big Magic if you’re interested more in the topic. A review of Big Magic has been done recently on here too, perhaps read that first. 

Do you also struggle with judgment? Perhaps are you unhappy with some of the work? Maybe you have anything to add to the article? Let me know in the comments, I always read them! 

Feel free to share the article with anyone who will find it useful, that way you're helping them discover something new. 

Lead image: Model: Niki Toth, Agency: Weareone Management, Hair and Makeup: Csilla Gődeny, Jewelery: Ginte Studio, Mood and Drection: Hadisha Sovetova

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10 Comments

Jan Holler's picture

"Love Your Work, or Else No One Will", how true. And you write very well about how to achieve that. It's fascinating, in the end sometimes it's the imperfection that makes the difference.

If you like reading, I have a similar experience: a couple of weeks ago I was taking photos of children at a piano rehearsal. Nothing could be planned, so I set up the equipment (two light modifiers) and tuned them in. A child was sitting at the piano. I checked the AF, focused on her hands and took the shot. As it turned out, the focus was on point, but of course on the hands and not the face, which was slightly out of focus. After that the rehearsal started and I did my work. The child reappeared. I was told she had no eyesight, was almost blind. I photographed her like the others. There was very little time. - Back in the office, I edited the photos. I liked my work, but this one test shot was perfect. The light was great, the frame perfect - but her face blurred, out of focus - but her hands were. A blind child looking with her eyes almost closed, playing the piano with her hands, which are so important, especially for her. As it allows her to see much of the world.I admit, I wouldn't have thought of taking the photo like that. And, oh yes, I am so glad that I almost never delete bad or test shots immediately after reviewing them. I am sorry, I cannot publish it.

Bruce Grant's picture

Great story. Sometimes "mistakes" make the best photos.

El Dooderino's picture

Some of my best photos have been unplanned "mistakes"

Illya Ovchar's picture

I'm glad you liked it, Jan. Some of the best photos are lucky accidents after all? ;-)

Jan Holler's picture

Since you ask, it might be. But just luck is never going to work out. As you mention it (in my words): what you learn is a wider perspective, a different approach. The next time one hopefully integrates the experience into the work. I fear this is not an easy task. Many are somehow stuck and look for a way to get further. You're right, dig in your own work. Get to know it. That is possibly way to go. Nevertheless, a serious examination of everything that goes with it is the basis: education. How else could one really recognize and put in context what was previously considered to be a "mistake"? Experience alone would a very hard and long way to go. What do you think?
I much appreciate such articles. Your's made me think much more about it. Thank you very much. Cheers!

El Dooderino's picture

Great article!

I like your perspective, Illya!

Illya Ovchar's picture

Thank you, glad you liked it!

Dan Howell's picture

Sorry, but recognizing mistakes and weaknesses in your photography is a inextricable part of improving. It speaks more about your personality than your photography to link the process of improving to self-doubt and negative emotion. Being discerning which at its core is being judgmental is the key to a life-long process of improving. I can't agree with any aspect of this post.

Illya Ovchar's picture

I think there's a difference between judging your work and being constructively critical. If someone says it's rubbish, that's judgemental. However, if someone offers a new perspective on an image, fashion look, etc. that could be constructively critical. There's a difference between work that's rubbish, and work that can be done differently(not necessarily better).

Cat Milton's picture

I find myself agreeing with much of what Dan offers, above - but perhaps not with the same end result…

Yes, recognising mistakes and weaknesses in one’s photography is instrumental in improving it - but as you’ve wonderfully clarified there is little to be gained from a “good” or “bad” judgment, whereas changing one's approach to “this is interesting - why?” allows for nuances to emerge in your understanding of your judgment.

I think it is a great complement that Dan highlights that he feels you attach emotional reactions to your work. 

A robot can take a photograph but a photographer makes an image
- and I oft find the best ones are ones that convey a story
- and the best stories come from emotions, directly or otherwise.

Being discerning, as Dan raises, is indeed about being judgemental - but again there is a nuance that perhaps he thought was a given - being discerning to to “judge well” - which brings me full circle.

I do not think judging “good” or “bad’ is judging well, …unless … one has paused and using whatever phraseology suits, from “that’s interesting - why?” or any other prompt to inspire reflection - that reflection should take place, and the more tools at your disposal - from technical experience to gut or emotional reaction to discern, consider, define and ultimately grow from, is to be celebrated.

Thanks for your article.

I’ve taken a couple of quotes from it for a new photographer who is living in a World of “My photos are bad” … and they’re far from it.
Your re-framing, I hope, will help him.