John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche
Someone shows you a photo. They must like it, even be proud of having taken it, otherwise why would they show it to you…. So what do you say?
Nowadays, with people taking and sharing photographs in all sorts of sophisticated technological ways, it’s the kind of thing that happens a lot. In online photosharing communities, people deal with this situation all the time. In fact, it’s what those groups are all about. As a member of Flick and Google+, I’ve been fascinated by all the different ways people comment on a shot.
The concise generic compliment
People might offer very terse, usually complimentary comments, like “Nice capture,” “Great colors,” or “Beautiful shot.” These kinds of remarks are nice to hear, although they’re a bit generic and sometimes unsatisfying, especially if you put a lot of work into an image and are hoping someone will notice your efforts. People may give such comments because it’s hard for them to verbalize exactly why they like the shot.
In photosharing communities, people may be browsing lots of images and only have time to offer terse encouragement. Short and positive comments may be the norm of the community. It’s what most members do, so others follow suit. People’s status and sense of worth may revolve around how many comments appear under their images, so the terse, complimentary comment may be an efficient form of social barter: I give you one, you give me one. Lots of these kinds of comments tell you that the shot must be good, although you may not be exactly sure why it’s good.
In online photosharing communities, people who feel uncomfortable writing, lack skill in writing, or are trying to write in a language that is not their own, might resort to concise comments. That's perfectly understandable, as long as they don't act critical of people who write longer or more articulate comments due to their feeling one-down.
Comments about composition and technical issues
If you want to offer more than a brief compliment, what do you say? I find that if I take my time in looking at and thinking about an image, something always comes to me. I might comment on the composition or some technical aspect of the shot, because I’m interested in that sort of thing. The more you learn about these technical aspects of photography, the more things you'll be able to say. People, especially those who pay careful attention to technique, usually appreciate this kind of feedback. In some cases people might even see something in their shot that they didn’t realize before. One precaution, however, is to not go overboard with a heavy-duty technical analysis. It can feel burdensome. It can be like beating a dead horse.
Articulate what you like
It's not necessary to get into technical or “deep” analysis. Often I’ll just comment on what I like about the shot. It might be something in particular about the colors, shapes, or textures, the camera angle, the people or subjects in the shot, or the idea, feeling, or sensation that the image creates. It may sound overly simple, but I just comment on what I see and what it means to me.
The nice thing about just saying what you like is that there is no right or wrong in it. You simply describe your positive impression of the image. What does it remind you of? What does the image say to you? How might it relate to your life? People usually like that kind of feedback about their photography. They like to hear about the different ways people see their image, the various ways people interpret and find meaning in it. That’s what makes photography interesting. That’s what makes it art. Learning how to articulate what you like will also enhance your awareness of yourself and exactly what it is that you like about photography.
Ask a question
Rather than giving a comment that’s a statement, you can also ask a question. What did the photographer like about the shot? How did he shoot it? What does it mean to her? What was it like being at that scene? People are usually happy to reply to these kinds of questions. To them it shows that you’re interested in the shot and want to know more about it. It opens the door to their talking about what went into the creation of that image. Photographers often are as excited about the process and situation of the shot as they are about the shot itself.
Constructive criticism and things you don't like
What if there’s something you don’t like about a photo? Should you say so? It’s very possible people might feel offended, hurt, or react defensively, especially if you say you don't like it without explaining yourself. Their photo is like their child.
On the other hand, they might also appreciate your honesty, especially if it helps them improve their skills, or, at the very least, gain a better understanding of how people vary in their photography tastes. People appreciate constructive criticism, as long as it's offered in a truly genuine spirit of helpfulness, without being harsh.
It’s a good idea not to express your criticisms or suggestions for improving a shot as if they are objective truth. There are very few, if any, "facts" about what is good photography and good art. In most cases it's just your opinion and personal taste, which reflects your approach to photography that might simply be different than theirs, rather than "better." Other photographers could very well disagree with your criticism. Rather than presenting a critical statement, you might describe how you might have done the shot differently. You might suggest alternatives. That way you're opening a dialogue with the person about how your photography compares, rather than making some kind of blanket statement.
What if you don’t like the shot at all, if you really hate it? Exploring that strong reaction could lead to some interesting insights into yourself, as well into the personality of the image, which an open-minded artist might like to understand. Generally speaking, though, it’s probably best not to be too negative in your comments. I find that if I look at shot for a while, I always find something about it that I like. I also try to keep in mind the fact that the person decided to take this shot because something about this situation, person, animal, or scene was worthwhile, important, or interesting to that person. That’s what makes it interesting to me too.
Avoid the faux pas
Make sure you really take a good look at a photo, and read what the person said about it, before you offer a comment, especially a specific or critical one. If you say "beautiful sunset" when the person explained that it was a sunrise, you will come across as hasty and inattentive. If you remark "Woof!" when the person explained that it was a shot of a beloved dog who just died, you will sound insensitive. On the more technical side, if you say "Nice HDR" or "I love double exposure shots like this" - and it wasn't an HDR or a long exposure, as evident by the shot itself or by what the photographer said about it - you will look a little stupid.
"Deep" psychological feedback
If you really want to respond in a sophisticated psychological and artistic way to a photograph - what some might consider "deep" feedback - it's a skill that can be developed.
When you first look at a photo (or, for that matter, when you're reacting to anything in life), there will be a thought, feeling, memory, sensation, or image that very quickly flashes through your mind or body. It happens at an almost subconscious level. In fact, your unconscious is speaking to you. It's very easy to overlook that reaction, to let it slip away, or to dismiss it because it might not (at first) make sense to your conscious mind. But if you catch that fleeting spontaneous response, reflect on it, explore the associations that come up, and then share these thoughts with the photographer, you'll see that it's often your subconscious mind communicating with the photographer's subconscious mind. Because you might not fully understand your reaction, you might have to say to the other person, "I'm not sure what this means, but here's my immediate, gut-level impression of your photo." More often than not, once a dialogue gets going, light bulbs will start popping for you as well as the other person.
Keep in mind, however, that your comment based on this kind of empathic attunement might unlock something personal for the other photographer that he or she might not feel comfortable discussing.
It's also possible your subconscious reaction to the photo does not connect accurately or at all to the person's psyche. Your comment based on a spontaneous impression of the photo might say more about you than it does about the other person.
The visual design of a comment
Just because a comment consists of words, don't let that stop you from applying your knowledge of visual design to how it looks and therefore reads. Writers, as well as teachers back in our school days, have often given us this kind of advice, using their own terms. Here I'm translating those suggestions into the language of visual design. It's advice that's especially relevant for complex and/or long comments on a photo. For example, consider this feedback:
"Wow a carnival! This shot feels so delightful to me. The colors, lines, and shapes are wonderful. Despite the complexity of the photo, it all seems organized well into a complete composition, especially with those lines leading the eye to child on the left. And the distinction between foreground and background adds such an intriguing sense of depth, almost like two layers of reality one on top of the other. The man in the background adds extra interest. This shot reminds me of my childhood, when I used to go to the local carnival with my dad, who made sure to take me on all the rides. Those were some of the happiest moments in my life."
It's a very rich comment, one I'm sure the photographer would appreciate. However, in terms of visual design, would you ever create a photo that looked like this - one solid block of things that are difficult to distinguish from each other? Instead, let's turn the first sentence into a leading line, add some negative space to distinguish the different components of the comment, and also apply a version of the well-known of rule of thirds:
"Wow a carnival! This shot feels so delightful to me.
The colors, lines, and shapes are wonderful. Despite the complexity of the photo, it all seems organized well into a complete composition, especially with those lines leading the eye to child on the left. And the distinction between foreground and background adds such an intriguing sense of depth, almost like two layers of reality one on top of the other. The man in the background adds extra interest.
This shot reminds me of my childhood, when I used to go to the local carnival with my dad, who made sure to take me on all the rides. Those were some of the happiest moments in my life."
Doesn't that look much better? The comment is easier to read and better organized. The first sentence is the person's immediate, personal reaction - which is in fact the main subject of the comment. That first sentence serves as a leading line into the following paragraph, which is a more technical analysis of the photo, one that also helps explain the person's immediate reaction. The third paragraph returns more specifically to that subjective feeling about the photo, which has its roots in the person's feelings and memories about the past. Applying simple design rules like this can make a big difference between a good comment and an excellent one, if only because it's visually easier to read.
Once in a while in online photosharing groups, a person turns off the feature that allows visitors to comment. Why would they do that? Isn't discussion of some kind the purpose of social networks?
There might be a variety of reasons why photographers choose that option. Obviously, they're indicating they don't want comments, even though they're making the photo available. They want to say something with the photo but don't want to hear a verbal reaction. Perhaps they don't want to be influenced by comments that could alter their visual and artistic explorations. Perhaps, in a Zen-like fashion, they are suggesting that their image points to a feeling, idea, or experience that cannot be captured by words - a suggestion further reinforced if the photographer also doesn't provide a title or any kind of description for the image. They think the photo is better without words at all. They prefer silence to accompany the image. Words, in their opinion, could destroy the pure visual immersion into the photo. Or maybe the photographer wants to avoid hearing any comments that might be annoying or disappointing in some way. Maybe they don't want to face the possibility of being misunderstood, or the disappointment of receiving no comments even if they did enable that feature. Or perhaps the image reveals something vulnerable about themselves and their lives, so preventing comments helps them feel protected from hurtful responses.
Would you like to read or participate in a discussion about this article in flickr?
If you liked this article, I'd recommend these other ones in Photographic Psychology: