With Fresh Eyes: Techniques for Examining Your Images Objectively
One of the most challenging (but important) practices in creating art is learning to analyze your creations objectively. This is certainly true for such a nuanced and interpretive art like landscape photography. You may have noticed how easy it is to thoroughly critique other photographers' images: to notice compositional imbalance, color discrepancy, uneven tonal distribution, and every other horrible problem under the sun! But applying this same analytical mindset to your own work seems to be a difficult task.
I think the reason for this discrepancy is obvious. Our images are our babies. We give birth to them when we take the shot, and we watch them mature as we nurture and feed them behind our computers. We have poured out ourselves into our images until they have become a reflection of our own creative minds. A mother does not see her child grow the same way Uncle Larry, who makes visits every few years, sees the child grow. Because we have spent so much time on our images from creation to consummation we lose the ability to see the image the way others do. We never get to have that coveted first look.
In this article I will outline some techniques that can help landscape photographers to recapture that first look and see their images with a greater sense of objectivity.
1. First and Foremost
Perhaps the most objective judgment you make in your workflow from start to finish is when you are looking through your viewfinder as you stand before the beautiful scene in front of you. This is the closest you will get to a first look, so use it wisely. This is the time to get the compositional details right, before your eyes become too accustomed to the scene and numbed to any distracting elements in the frame.
It can be tempting to rush home after a shoot, pull out your SD card, and get to work behind the computer. But I have found that I am able to interpret and process an image better once I've waited a while—anywhere from a few days to a few weeks or months. This allows me to—at least somewhat—forget the shot I was after and approach the image with a fresh perspective. After waiting a period of time before selecting files to work on, I have often selected what I thought were trash shots when I took them and trashed what I thought were the "money shots".
3. Reverse the Image
One trick I've found to be incredibly useful when making compositional judgments is to horizontally reverse the image. Your eyes are accustomed to seeing the scene in a specific way, but reversing the image allows you to temporarily look upon the scene as though you had never seen it before. Let me tell you, there will be surprises! I've been horrified with some of my work. What I thought was a carefully thought out composition turned out to be a confusing and lopsided mess. This technique may not be useful for symmetrically centered images, but for more delicately balanced compositions where different sides of the frame contain different types of elements, I find it to be a very valuable tool.
4. Step Away
After working on an image for hours with no break, I find that I can no longer make objective judgments. I've become so immersed in the image that I no longer know what looks good and what doesn't. I'm like a fish determining what it's like to be wet. I find that turning off the monitor and stepping away from the computer for a while allows me to recharge my objective batteries and once again make proper determinations in my processing. I've come back to an image only to find that I was over saturating a particular color.
5. Look at Other Images
In a similar vein to the last point, I've found it helpful to take a break from processing and look at work by other photographers. It doesn't need to be a critical analysis of their work, but just a casual perusal of various images of all types by multiple photographers. It's not that your image should mimic other photographers' work, but I find that this practice neutralizes the eyes and therefore helps me to spot problems in my own work.