Photography : Handling criticism 101

The one thing that I sometimes hate about art is that it really is about beauty in the eye of the beholder. Often I come across images in which I see as a 10/10 somehow gets pulverized by another critic who sees it as trash. Not just beauty, it’s about the interpretation of a subject or may it be even an ideology or opinion on everyday things that defines each individual. Like it or not it is the difference in each of us that defines us as who we are. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a difference in opinion because we will simply be mindless zombies if we just follow in another person’s beliefs like a parrot learning how to talk. We are all wired differently from our upbringing to the people that we mingle around with. Things like education, society & more times than not, even our race & sex plays a role in our perception of our surroundings. These differences sometimes cause misunderstandings in which history has shown time & again to spark revolutions & wars just because we can’t quite get along with each other!

So one day you happily capture an image on your camera in which you are almost certain is a masterpiece. Eagerly you post & share the photo on your favourite forum & anxiously wait for “positive” feedback even though you ask the audience to provide feedback & criticism. Instead of good feedback, you’re hit with a barrage of unfavourable comments from the way you composed the photo to how you mishandled the lighting on your intended subject. Suddenly you lose focus and can’t stop thinking about what they said or wrote. You know you shouldn’t be bothered, but knowing doesn’t help you stop thinking about it over and over and over. You try to justify & explain but the sheer numbers of these critics push you into a corner. Then you lash out… utterly demonstrating the ugly side of your personality which you never knew existed. Familiar?

Happens to even the best of us. Probably will happen to me if I hadn’t played the scenario over & over again in my head, then think of a more sensible & level-headed approach to tackling the situation & stop it from escalating to something you absolutely know has no benefit whatsoever either to you or those who think your work is crap.

Understand the criticism

It is about a difference of opinion. When someone comments on your work, it’s about what they think looks good. It’s never about you! You can probably dismiss or ignore an opinion if it’s only 1 or 2. But generally, some people can be wrong some of the times but all people can’t be wrong all the time. Take a step back & think about it before you react.

When you ask for comments & feedback, expect the worst! When I was managing a team of people in my company a few years ago it dawned on me. For all the 9 good deeds that you do, people will criticize & remember you for the 1 lousy decision you made. It’s inevitable! So in other words, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t!

It could be true! Don’t let your ego drive you. As photographers we are here to better ourselves & the best way to improve is to find out what other photographers think of our work. The LIKE button & comments like “Nice”, “Good photo”… isn’t going to help you get better. If any it could just mean that the photographers in your community whether it is on Facebook or a forum simply think you are not worth their help so they will just continue to give you LIKE clicks & words of encouragement just to see you fail! Don’t get me wrong, positive feedback is good on moral. But too much of it doesn’t make you better. It’s like playing chess with someone who is obviously lesser skilled than you. Your rate of improvement will be slower than say the noob that you are pitting your skills against. One day, he will beat you!

Accepting criticism

It is never personal. It only gets personal when you take it personally. Some people can be less tactful than others when providing comments. Remember that over the internet, words are words without any inclination of expression. The lack of face to face interaction sometimes contorts the intended meaning of a phrase if uttered incorrectly. You need to learn to recognize that.

Learn from it & toughen up! Remember that you are the one who asked for comments & criticism. Take it sometimes with a grain of salt if it comes from sources that you know is unreliable. However like what I mentioned above, all people can’t be wrong all the time! If indeed this is the case, open your mind, perhaps even welcome it by expressing gratitude to your critic. It may not be nice to hear criticism, but such feedback is often a part of the learning process and can provide us with valuable insights into how we can improve and grow as a photographer.

Ask yourself, what was really your intention?

Was it really to obtain useful comments so that you can better improve? Was it that the comments weren’t clear to you in which perhaps you needed to ask for clarity on the subject? Or was the whole thing just to satisfy your insatiable sense of pride & ego, expecting only dying admiration for what you perceive as glorious & unadulterated excellence? Seriously?


The Kodak Professional BW400CN 135 film

I was skeptical when I first popped this film into my Canon A-1 SLR. I had been away from photography for the most part of December & my friends had to drag me out for a photowalk & some street shooting now & then. Even so it took a little more than a month to finish an entire roll of 36 frames on the Kodak film. I wasn’t expecting anything great because earlier I went through a roll of Ilford XP2 Super & was not impressed with the lack of contrast from the scans.

I do have to be honest as the scans were not apple to apple because even though both negatives were processed at the same photo store, the Ilford I used were scanned using my friend’s flatbed scanner & the Kodak was scanned at the store. I’ll need to scan some frames of the Kodak using the Epson flatbed to do a more thorough comparison later.  Despite that I was very impressed with the results from the Kodak BW400CN in terms of detail & contrast.

Here are some images from the roll of Kodak BW400CN…

Emerging from the Wall

The Fish Guy

More Fish

The Iconic Trishaw of Penang

Of a different era...

Waze… The fun way to navigate!

Waze is a free GPS application featuring turn-by-turn navigation, developed by the Israeli start-up Waze Mobile for mobile phones. It currently supports iOS, Android, Windows Mobile, Symbian, and BlackBerry. What really makes this app unique is that there is an entire community of users connected as it learns from user information about driving times & traffic information, then reporting it to all users who are connected to Waze. Basically users report accidents, traffic jams, speed traps, police and can update roads, landmarks, house numbers, etc. which is shared with an entire community of users who log on to all these reports real-time.


Draw the map as you go

By simply enabling the draw map feature on this application, you can contribute to the community by adding new roads to the map. The data gets saved & shared with the rest of the Waze users when they come into the area.

Reports & Events

This feature is great! I was driving along the expressway to town this evening & this nifty app said that there was traffic up ahead, including information like average speed & possible delays. I hooked my iPhone to my stereo & at one point, Waze alerted me that there was a road accident up ahead… and true enough there was, spot on where the app said it was! By simply turning on this app when you’re driving, you get accurate real-time traffic updates not even your local radio station can do. This of course works best when more & more users start installing this great app & using it!

Turn-by-turn navigation

What is a GPS software without voice turn-by-turn navigation? Just enter where you wish to go & the application will guide you there.

Connect to a community

What’s more? You can connect via Facebook & see where & what your friends are up to. Besides that, other unknown Wazers (if they allow it) can be seen on the map as they buzz along the streets where you are!

Candies, goodies & mini-games

Waze uses candies/goodies to further engage users, allowing users to drive over icons of candies and other road goodies located in certain locations to earn points. The mini-games encourage more user involvement and that means more valuable road information for the users and the database where those details are otherwise slim or lacking. It feels a little bit like Pac-Man!

All in all, I love this great little app & it has certainly spiced up my daily commute. Fun app & thumbs up to the creators!

Composition : Right in the middle

You may have seen many articles on rules of thirds or placing your subjects off-center to create a better looking image. However in some circumstances, placing the subject dead center may not be a bad idea… assuming the subject is a strong one & holds by itself. At times placing the subject dead center on one axis but having the other axis two-thirds of the way may work very well to make a more powerful image. A strong image isn’t always the one that follows rules but it’s how you are able to bend & break them to create something unique which no one has thought of. Fresh ideas often works best which will make the subject jump out at the audience & wow them.

This was taken inside the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain. The smack in the middle composition was quite obvious on this one. I stuck a tripod (which I later found out I was not supposed to do!) & took 3 exposures to create this HDR image.

Also an obvious choice for a center composition. Despite being dead center on the x-axis, did you notice that there is a 2/3 composition on the y-axis?

Here are more examples of compositions that work when placed in the middle of the frame.

“Converging in the middle”

“Circular Tracks”

“Spinning Top”

“Inside the train”

Film is still available!!!

I was at Moontree 47 the other day having coffee with a friend when this gentleman showed up, took a look at my Canon A-1 SLR & said, “Wow! You’re old school!” Don’t you feel like a dinosaur when photographers around you never used film cameras before? What’s even scarier is when someone who is around your age group asks you to help him or her load some 35mm film onto their camera! Has it really been that long ago or am I really going the way of the dodo?

For some folks, the act of shooting using a film SLR or medium format camera may seem a tad snobbish. Perhaps they think that we people who shoot with film are in an era long forgotten; where gentlemen wore top hats & spoke Queen’s English while sipping Earl Grey!

When I go about street shooting with a 35mm camera, I still get odd stares from people as if I’ve got fungus growing on my head! Flashing question marks on their foreheads when they ask, “They still sell film for those?” or “You can still get film developed?” This really cracks me up & if I had a penny for each time someone asks me that, I’d be filthy rich!

With state of the art modern DSLRs like the Canon EOS 7D with 8 frames per second continuous burst modes you can very much shoot movies even if the camera didn’t have a movie mode! Large compact flash memory cards & the auto modes make it possible that you don’t need to think nowadays to do photography.

With only 36 frames on a 35mm film camera or worse, 10-16 frames on a medium format camera without anyway to preview what you just snapped… you learn to be much more careful with what you shoot & whether the shot is even worth taking ! It forces you to think & compose each frame with care… Check your settings & rechecking them to make sure. Well for good reason, it costs money to buy each roll of film & get them developed, scanned or printed. Even if you developed your own film, the roll isn’t going to magically recycle itself so you pretty much have to stock film in your cabinet.

What’s really interesting since I started shooting film again is that my years shooting digital helped me “transition” to 35mm film much easier. Back when I shot 35mm, I had a lot of problems due to my inexperience in photography & my poor understanding of light. The good thing about digital cameras is that they make the learning curve for photography much quicker. My experience made it easier for me to shoot in full manual on my Canon A-1 & AE-1.

What is even more interesting is that since shooting film, my digital camera skills improved because nowadays I don’t just trash the shutter button on my Canon 7D just as much as before.  Shooting film actually made me appreciate what hardship photographers go through in the past & made me think before I take any photo now. So digital made me shoot well on film while shooting film made me better on a digital camera!

Well for whatever reason don’t just hear this from me. Go give it a try & see. While it’s still available try it because Ilfords are awesome. Try it because when you pop open the film canister or remove a roll of 120’s from its wrapper, it smells good! Try it so that you can tell your children’s grandchildren that you shot with film before…. Try so you can tell people who never used film before what it’s like & then get them to try it!

What makes a good camera?

Each time a friend comes up to me & asks, “I want to buy a new camera. What’s the best camera to buy?”. This is when I feel the sudden urge to bring the palm of my hand to my face! Two words keep spiralling through my mind… “Not again?”…
What is the “best camera”? Is there such a thing? Most camera makers will claim that their auto-focus is the quickest or theirs have “creative” filters which enhances your images. Every camera brand has their own signature gimmick to lure unsuspecting consumers to what they think they need but usually never tell you about what is more important & what really matters in a good camera. That’s usually because most of what matters don’t really sell to be honest.
I’m writing this article because I’m quite tired explaining this over & over again I sound like a broken record. So why not just put it into a neat little package & point my friends to this link so they won’t bother me lol!

Some considerations

Before you decide what camera you’re going to invest on, here is a very basic check list you’ll want consider…

  • What is your budget? – Important this one because there really isn’t a limit to this!
  • What do you want to shoot? – Family or holiday photos? Nature? Landscape photography or just a multipurpose camera?
  • Is this your first camera? How serious are you going to be? – This matters a lot!
  • Do you want a compact camera or an interchangeable lens camera?
  • Are you expecting relatively good results out of the camera or are you going to invest time into learning digital post processing?
Having a camera to start with!

This I think is the most important thing about a camera you should really be worried about if at all. To be honest any camera will work…. Technically the best camera is the one that is with you when a decisive moment happens! It doesn’t matter if you have a Leica M9 when it’s tucked away in your dry box at home & then Paul the alien jumps out in front of you! If you’re really on a budget, get any camera off the shelf at the local camera store. With the technology of digital imaging these days, any compact will do. Heck even your iPhone 4 will work under most situations.

The controls

Now for some features that you will want on your camera. Any camera can shoot automatically nowadays. But not all cameras will let you have manual controls. Even fewer cameras will put those manual controls where you can get to them & make changes quickly & efficiently. Prosumer cameras claim to let you have full manual control but when you really dive into the user manual, most of these settings are hidden deep within the camera’s UI. This is why folks upgrade to DSLRs for serious shooting.
But not all DSLRs have the proper manual controls in the right places. I used a Canon 60D before & I made a decision to change to a 7D because of this. I needed easy access to my flash compensation, picture style & white balance… all 3 which are accessible on the 60D from within the menu UI but they were much easier to get to on the 7D in the form of a push of a button. The 7D also had a useful one time RAW photo capture which I liked.
When looking for a good camera, consider the controls & where they are. Work around what you can live with & what you really need. When looking for a new camera, always look for the quirks & problems with making changes to what you always tweek as a photographer. A bad camera is one that gets in the way of you trying to get the shot. The speed in which you make changes to your camera could be a matter of whether you get the shot or not!

Do the auto functions work?

After getting the manual controls out of the way, you need to check if the auto functions work like the manufacturers says it does. Most of us even when using a DSLR capable of manual settings will use some form of auto exposure, auto focus or auto white balance of some sorts. Check to see if they don’t get in the way of you making the shot.
You know you have a good camera when…

  • The auto exposure is spot on & you rarely have to dial your exposure up/down in different lighting conditions
  • The auto white balance can handle various challenging lighting conditions
  • The auto focus spot on & is capable of giving you enough control to frame & compose your shots accurately

You may say that you can always fall back on manual controls. However I am a strong believer of if you can get the winning shot shooting in auto mode, who cares? Not saying that you should shoot full auto, just that when you need it, it’s there & it doesn’t fail!

The in-camera RAW to JPG conversion

This may be a surprise to some folks but each camera behaves different in this aspect. This is very evident to me when I was shooting between the Canon 60D, 7D & the 5DmkII. If you shoot in RAW & convert to JPG using Photoshop or Digital Photo Professional (DPP) you may not notice this. What separates a good camera from a mediocre camera is the in-camera RAW to JPG conversion.
Here are some examples…

  • Sharpness/JPG artifacts – The Canon 60D produces sharper images using the default picture style compared to the 5DmkII… which in turn also produces sharper images than the 7D. However on the flip side you will notice a tad more JPG artifacts on the 60D JPG output compared to the other two cameras. Not much of a problem here, just dial the 60D sharpness down & the other two cameras (7D/5DmkII) up a little.
  • Color balance – The 5DmkII auto white balance is slightly warmer than the 7D. The 60D outputs the “bluest” looking images of the three cameras. Again nothing your manual white balance settings can’t fix.

Of course all this doesn’t matter if you shoot RAW but this is just to illustrate there really is a difference in RAW to JPG conversions within each camera’s firmware. Not saying which is better than the other, just that you will have to see for yourself which suits you & which JPG output works for your workflow.
I chose the 7D because it had the least amount of sharpening of the three which allowed me flexibility when post processing my images. It also had a warm auto white balance which was not too warm (5DmkII) or cool (60D) but was just right for my tastes.

So these are the aspects which I think makes a good camera.

Composition… how I view things…

It’s quite fascinating that when you give two different persons a camera each & ask them to stand literally next to each other & shoot something, both end up producing very different results even right out from the camera. All things come into play… point-of-view, framing, your camera settings & even how you are envisioning the final print when you are post processing the image. Each person has his or her own way of seeing things & projecting how we see it in our own unique way. No one has the same vision, unless of course you are imitating someone else or just learning composition & are just following the rules of composition.

How I view composition

Many of us who started learning about photography have at one time or another done a google search on the term composition & photography. You will never find a shortage of articles about Rules of Thirds, shooting in threes & to not place the subject in the middle. Some folks have to work really hard to shoot something at is visually acceptable by the photography community, else others just have a knack for it!
Why is it that it’s so simple & easy for some people yet is absolutely crazy difficult for others?
I have a personal opinion on this…

How do I see things?

Let’s use an example of something I shot recently while I was out in the middle of the night trying out some night street photography.

Depending on how you look at the image above, you either see a window with the reflection of a lamp above it on the outside. You’ll see the glass & perhaps the grills on the inside of the window.
Sad to say to you, that’s not what I see. LOL!
I see squares, rectangles, circles, semi-circles & a lot of diagonal lines! To me everything is abstract & is never about the details that folks normally see. To me composition is about putting together what seems chaotic in the modern sense & arranging it so that it makes sense to me at least. It’s not about Rules of Thirds or anything of that sort. To me it is about the general arrangement of shapes which makes an image.
Let’s try another image…

When I took this shot in a church while I was in Barcelona, I had a problem. I only had an ultra-wide angle lens & a 50mm on my 5Dmk2. I was too lazy to swap lenses because I knew I was going to be shooting more ultra-wides that day once I left the building. So I zoomed all the way in to 40mm & shot what you see here with my exposure dropped all the way down by 2 stops.
Again what I saw was roughly the shape of Mary, straight lines behind accentuated by soft light behind. Remember that when you put an image onto a photo, everything reverts to 2D.
Technically everything about this photo was wrong! When composing usually you leave some space in front of the subject. You also don’t usually leave such a big gap in front of the statue & worse still behind it! The shot was also way underexposed…
But somehow through some unknown intervention, I decided to break all that & went with what I felt was right to me. Giving the subject space in the obvious place would have made many people happier… but I don’t shoot for other people’s pleasure but for mine alone. Call me selfish but that’s the way aha-aha, I like it! The empty space at the bottom is what we call negative space. My intention was to leave it there & not crop it out of the photo. The purpose of this image was also as a demonstration that you don’t need a superzoom lens for your travels. Think out of the box a little & you can shoot just about with any lens, anywhere.
What do you think?

What else?

If you haven’t yet noticed, the best composition is one with the fewest things for you to see! Less is better! A wise guru once said that composition is about Simplification & EXclusion… or SEX! So technically if you force yourself to think about SEX all the time, you’ll be a much better photographer lol!


Although framing adds to a composition, it isn’t composition per say. Framing is simple, you either use a zoom lens or crop using Photoshop during post processing. Sadly folks fail to understand that this rarely improves an image. The need to crop just screams that you weren’t careful when you clicked the shutter.
Switching to a telephoto lens only let’s you get closer to the subject. It doesn’t help you get a better looking photo.
What you need to be changing is the point-of-view… that means the position of your camera in relation to the subject you are trying to shoot. Move closer with a wide-angle lens to make an image seem larger than reality… or move closer to the ground to get a different perspective. Roll over & shoot upside down… climb over things… even move the object around you to get the best angle that you can. Simply pointing the camera in different directions with different lenses isn’t going to get you good pictures! It on the other hand is the best way to make bad photos!