Having been known in my circle of friends and acquaintances as “that photography guy” I often get asked a number of questions. I'm sure most of you have heard a number of them before as well, especially if most of your friends aren't into photography thus making you even more of the de facto photography expert. I've grown accustomed to employing patience while answering the same questions and hearing the same stereotyping comments from the curious, over and over, during the past 20 years. But there is still one question that bugs me every time:
“Do you like it?”
This post is by no means a slam on anyone who asks this question often. We all want to know what other people like from time to time. The reason the question bugs me so much is not the person asking it, but the loss of focus that is behind it, at least from what I've experienced. And that is why my answer is always:
“It doesn't matter if I like it. Do you like it?”
To be clear, this question is subtly different than, “Is this a well shot photo?” And maybe sometimes they are really the same question. The confusion that is inherit with human communication, I suppose.
Looking for acceptance of your artwork from others is a natural tendency. More so when you revere someone as knowledgeable in the art-form you are pursuing. To this point I wanted to give some pointed advice: Shoot photos for yourself.
While some photographers have commercial reasons for shooting what they do, and others have high aspirations while seeking critical acclaim, most of us are shooting because we love it. (Sometimes shooting is a mix of all three.) That is why I say shoot for yourself. Don't worry what ‘important' photographers, or anyone else, think of your photos if you truly enjoy both shooting and viewing your shots. I know our egos like to hear praise and will often seek it at high costs. I'm telling you if you can turn down the microphone on your ego for just a while, you will get more enjoyment out of the art.
Alongside the enjoyment of the art there is the natural human tendency to want to improve. The trick is to make sure you are asking the right question, or, more precisely, the question for the right reason.
For those just starting out, and even for those who have been at it longer, I want to offer some alternatives to the, “Do you like it?” question that will hopefully turn it around and help you improve your art form (if that is indeed what you are asking).
“What do you think I could do different to make this shot more aesthetically pleasing?”
This question leaves no room for ambiguity. It also helps remove some of the personal attack our egos might feel when others are critical of our work. It shows you are looking for feedback and feedback, honest and critical feedback, is a key to improving. Don't confuse someone who is critical with someone who is mean (this often requires knowing a bit about the person being asked and how they communicate). A critical person can tell you, “It looks like the sky is over blown by about two stops and the focus isn't tight on the flowers.” That feedback is a world different than, “No, I don't like it.”
“How can I make this shot technically better?”
Again, you are asking for something specific. If the person is knowledgeable they can tell you, “Your focus needs to be further back because the depth of field is not allowing for sharp mountains. Or you might try increasing your aperture if it was only f/2.8.” If they aren't knowledgeable they will likely fall back on, “I don't like it,” and that gets you both nowhere.
“I'm having trouble making [specific photo element] really come to life. What would you suggest?”
Perhaps you are seeing the pattern now. Be specific about what feedback you are looking for. People often give more lucid answers when the topic is narrow rather than broad. “Do you like my photo?” is too wide open for most people. They may like a number of aspects of your photo, but overall the subject isn't their cup of tea, so they give you a negative answer when there was valuable feedback they could have given on bringing out shadow detail or increasing saturation in the sky.
All of these questions, and more, are pointed at your desire to improve according to your standards of what is good. Photography is an art. If people are telling you they don't like your work and are unwilling to help you improve, ignore them. They aren't worth your time talking to. The most important person to ask the question, “Do you like it?” is yourself.