How to Get, Give, and Take Photographic Criticism
There are acceptable and unacceptable realities in online criticism.
Critics… there are a million of them. Seems like it anyway.
And when you are starting out in the world of professional photography, getting good, really good critiques of your work is very important. Getting poor, biased, or misguided critique can be damaging to the progress of your portfolio. Your momma will love it, and somebody named @rootytootyturd may tell you that it is not nearly as interesting as his big toe.
Neither of those are critiques, they are opinions… and opinions are not necessary for stimulating growth. Although mom is sweet in her praise.
What IS a critique?
We want to find out what others think about our work, right? And hopefully, by doing that we can learn what we are doing right — or wrong, correct it and become instantly wildly successful.
OK… maybe just a little more successful.
But that critique must be tailored to what we need to hear. It shouldn’t and cannot be sugar-coated sweetness designed to not hurt our feelings, nor should it be harsh and overly critical with tones of jealousy and envy. And it should come from a place of knowledge, real knowledge about the work being criticized.
“If you’re not also in the arena getting your ass kicked, I am not interested in your feedback” — Brene Brown
That is one great statement right there. Critique — good honest critique — comes from a place of knowledge, compassion, and context.
With the web, we have the ability to have our work criticized by experts all over the world. And also, of course, those with no clue at all, but simply live on forums where they suck up the ‘lingo’.
So the question we answer first is: Is all criticism, from anyone, important?
No. It isn’t. Not at all.
Criticism from people who are not knowledgeable about what you are doing, the genre of the work, the history and legacy of that genre, and what you are trying to achieve is simply not worth listening to. Or asking for. It can be frustrating for some photographers, and a source of irritation to others, to be critiqued by those with no understanding of the work. This is time wasted on the trivial, the silly, and those who are artistically a taco shy of a combo plate.
Posting your work to places like zoomr, Flickr, and other ‘photo sharing’ sites and looking for critique is just asking for people who have literally no clue to give you their ideas about what they “woulda done”, and how you shoulda gone and done that other thing different instead… Or be introduced to the highly critical, and highly sought, phrase, “nice shot”…
Good or bad, it isn’t going to help you.
And the work doesn’t have to be good to get a ton of wonderful comments and critiques. At the time of this writing, this is the most viewed photo on Flickr. It’s a nice, safe shot of a waterfall. The most viewed photo on Instagram is an egg. The most viewed image in the world is a patch of grass with a patch of sunlight.
And that’s fine.
But just think about that the next time you go looking for criticism on some internet forum. (I do not link to these images to make fun of them, and it is absolutely certain that the images are not put out there as art or serious photography. The point is that on photo-sharing sites, an image can be ‘popular’ and totally capable of getting hundreds if not thousands of ‘comments’. If you are thinking that popular means you are a great shooter… well, think again.)
“Dude, rockin’ color…” means what to an emerging photographer? That the color was, uh, ‘rockin’? Substantially more must be involved when doing a critique of your work.
If you are a fashion photographer looking for serious critique, I would make sure that the people who are critiquing your work know who Patrick, Arthur, Albert, Annie, Helmut, Richard, and Peter are. If you need the last names, you probably aren’t a fashion shooter. Sorry, not really. Even if the names are not the ‘new’ shooters, I can tell you that everyone in fashion knows who they are.
And if you are working toward a ‘snapshot’ style reminiscent of Shore and Eggleston, wouldn’t you want someone who knows what that means to critique your work. Someone who understands the aesthetic? Someone who won’t say… ‘dude, looks like a snapshot’.
Yes, we have been told that everybody has a right to their opinion. I get that. No problem. But not every opinion has the same weight or value. I do not look for the opinions of people who are not involved in what I do for guidance. If I was a consumer product looking for mass appeal, yeah… I would probably go for ‘mass appeal’ opinions. But I am not, and we are not. We are looking for criticism from the heart, passed through the brain for filtering. The filter is the most important part.
How to get Great Critiques.
Ask the right people.
Ask the right people for recommendations of more right people. If you don’t know the right people, find out who they are. You’re gonna have to do some research. There are photography consultants, portfolio consultants, gallery owners, editors, other photographers, and designers who can work with you to develop your work by critiquing what you are doing. You may have to dig to find them. Grab a shovel, dude.
And sometimes they will do it simply cause they love to, and sometimes they will do it because they love to — for a fee. Whether free or for payment, these consultations can be of great value. And both ways should be considered. IF you have done your due diligence to make sure they are the right consultants for you.
When looking for someone to critique your work, from consultant to buddy, make sure they have skills to offer to help that process go smoothly. Have they done it before? Do they do it often enough to be good at it? Are they offering constructive criticism or is it ‘this sucks, this sucks, this sucks…” sort of college art class crap? Will they offer guidance to help make your work stronger?
If I was seeking advice on how to get into a fine art gallery, I would make sure the critic had knowledge, real knowledge, about that tricky endeavor. If fashion is your thing, make damn sure the consultant has some real working knowledge of the fashion industry and what is hot/not to get your work ready. Same with industrial, corporate, architectural… whatever. Good photographic consultants can help you get your work ready faster than most any process I know of… but you have to be ready to listen.
(Personal story. Back in the early 80s, I had the pleasure of working for one of the most hardass ads in the region. He would cajole, yell, pout, and be so obnoxious as to make you want to put the dark slide down and leave. He also helped me make some outstanding, and award-winning, images. I realized one evening while driving home at 10:45 PM, that all of his bluster and noise was to get the people who he was working with to do it better and better and better. We spent two days on a bar of soap on a sink. The final shot was simply astounding… and that is what he was after. I am not sure I would have ended up with that ad if he hadn’t been there pushing and cajoling and vigorously pressing forward.
I asked him to critique my book one afternoon and he told me to bring all the images that I had even thought about putting in my book, my book, and images that I loved but may have thought had no place in my book.
I almost canceled it three times, but the day we did it he blended hardnosed critique with a pure love of the business and I left there with a new book, and some hard things to think about. The very next time my book was called in, I got the job immediately upon showing it. The book kept growing and I can still hear his voice, and his demanding determination for excellence when I am working on new stuff.)
Present the work in a cohesive form.
I get calls and emails to critique work many times a month. “See my website and can you give me some advice.” “Can you take a look at my gallery and crit my shots?”
Well, actually, no… I cannot do that. We have to narrow it down a bit. And set some ground rules.
I always have the following criteria for anyone wanting a critique from me:
- Tell me why you want ME to look at your images. Because of what I do, and how I do it — or because I simply have a website and a small level noteriety? (HINT: number two doesn’t cut it.)
- This is an OK way of doing it: Put 20 pictures into a Dropbox folder and share them with me, or point me to a gallery at whatever site you are using to share your work.
- A better: put 20 images into a folder, zip it up and send it to me. Whatever way you do it, minimize the friction.
- Number them in the order you are currently using (1.jpg, 2.jpg etc)
- Tell me what you are trying to accomplish with the images. This is vital.
- Share your photographic business mission statement with me.
- Briefly tell me where you are level-wise in your business — starting out, thinking about starting out, working pro, etc…
- Agree that you understand I am not going to give you anything but my opinion.
I can tell you that only 2 or so out of every 10 requests will honor what I have asked them to do. Other people who critique work will have different criteria. Consultants I have known have asked for all sorts of things. Remember that it is important to their process for you to bring and do what they ask of you.
How to Take Criticism:
Understand that if you have done the research, prepared your work for presentation, and opened your mind to receive what is being offered, it can be a wonderful experience. A good consultant will deliver the news you need to hear… and while it may not be what you want to hear, it will be delivered in a positive, and ultimately empowering way
Listen to the critic and make notes. If asked, offer insight about the image and how it relates to your total offering. If questioned about something, answer with your conviction, not what you think the consultant wants to hear.
Keep an open and accepting mind. The critic is going to challenge you, lift you up, dash you on the rocks like yesterday's Asparagus soup, sweep you to the edge, pull you back with acceptance… and so much more. Going in with a closed, or intellectually belligerent mindset will not help you. You must listen. You must take the information and synthesize it. If it ultimately cannot be worked into your world you either picked the wrong consultant or have your very own, intractable way of doing things. (I will never tell anyone to not be intractable… heh. The irony of that would be thick enough to cut with a knife.)
Take the knowledge of the critique back with you and think about it. Write about it. Look through the work and then make notes and ideas on what you WILL do to initiate the advice into your work. DO IT. And with all sorts of reasons I will state again… DO IT. Do what the consultant said. Even if it is hard to implement, and you find yourself floundering a bit… yeah… that is good in many cases. From comfort, mediocrity grows at an astounding rate.
How to Give Criticism.
Know what you are discussing. Know what the work you are looking at was supposed to do, what the goal of the image was, and how it fits into the overall strategy of the photographer. Otherwise, referring to the Instagram post above, you could simply say… “wow, great composition, nice color.”
Giving criticism when you are not ready to critique may be more difficult than you think. To do it with any meaning, that is. And, BTW, please don’t. Bad criticism or that which comes from a place of bias or ignorance is a waste of your and the photographer’s time.
I do not critique wedding and portrait photographers. I don’t critique fine are photographers. I work with commercial and fashion photographers only. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses make you a far better critic than trying to fly by the seat of your Dockers.
Without knowing what the photographer was trying to say, it is simply impossible to judge. Sharpness? Noise? Saturation? Composition? — All depend on what the artist was trying to communicate with the work. If you are working in a knowledge vacuum, critiquing the color can be done — uselessly — but no one needs criticism that lives in a vacuum or is based upon assumptions that are usually false.
Find out what the intention of the photographer was. Does that work for you? Do you feel that there are things that could be stronger in the work to help get it to where the artist intended?
Tell them that.
Do not tell them what you would have done. To say that is totally and incomprehensibly stupid. We don’t know what you would have done that day with that subject and the parameters that constrained the photographer. To imply that you do know better is total BS. (And most of the time, when clicking to see the work of the photographer who has so much to say on what he/she would have done, the work is most often of kitties and laundry… sorry, just is.)
Do not tell the photographer that the work is “awesome” as that is probably a bit of hyperbole, and is certainly welcome on the sharing sites, but is not a critique of the work. A photographer who is asking for a critique wants to know what is wrong and what is right about the work… not that you think it is awesome. Ego stroking is not critiquing.
If you have nothing good to say about the image, then don’t bother. If you can see that the photographer had a good idea and didn’t carry it far enough, that is fine. Tell them that. Ask how they could have made it better. Offer some suggestions of your own.
But image bashing is also not critiquing. If there is nothing of value in the work, pass on the critique. Telling someone that they suck totally is not as helpful as letting them know that while they are not ready, there are places to go to get their work up to a level that could be acceptable. I generally send them to several blogs and sites that can help them get their work to the next level. I want to be helpful, but sometimes pointing out what is needed is help in itself.
Learning to critique an image is one of the most important things you can do as a photographer. It will be necessary to do in your own work, and invaluable when working with others. Take your time and learn to do it well.
Bring compassion, opinion, and goodwill toward the image-maker.
Leave belligerence, anger, jealousy, and what you THINK a reviewer must do at home. Come prepared to help someone who is asking for help. If you think that tearing someone down will elevate you, well, you are sadly mistaken. No amount of belittling will ever bring you to a higher plane.
Know what you want to accomplish with the critique.
Find a critic/consultant that can help you with your goals.
Prepare your work for the critique.
Listen to the critic with an open mind.
Take what is learned and follow through on it.
Learn how to give good honest critique.
Remember that what we say and what we do is ultimately who we are.
Be kind, be tough, be human.
Over the years we seem to have embraced the harshness of Simon Cowell (although he has mellowed quite a bit) as our level of critical discourse. Too bad. I think you can tell someone that they need work, and didn’t rise to the occasion without humiliation and colorful, but mean anecdotes. In the end, the one doing the humiliation seems all the weaker.
PS: I forgot to add something I feel really strong about.
Don’t offer unsolicited critique.
It is rude, amateurish, and quite honestly rather stupid. If you have not been asked, then you probably don’t know what the photographer was trying to do, what the legacy of the image is, where the photographer is going, what the purpose of the image is, and more… way more.
Wait to be asked first, then do the best you can to answer. I have seen some people have terrible experiences because of some joker deciding to ‘skool them’ on photography.
BTW… if you really cannot think of anything ‘deep’ or ‘arty’ to say, please do not use this handy link. Heh.
I am a photographer, designer, and photo editor. You can find me at my self-named website or at Project 52 Pro System where I teach commercial photography online. This is our tenth year of teaching, and it is the most unique online class you will find anywhere.