Constructive Photography Critique: How to Give and Receive with Grace

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I’ve been in a funk lately. Just a little……off. Like I often hear other people do, I blamed it on the weather and assumed it would pass. A month later and it still hadn’t budged. This wasn’t the snow or the cold, yet completely normal, temperatures—it wasn’t even my kids who have been relatively low maintenance lately (all things considered).

There was only one thing left to do before I took complete stock of my life and started looking into some serious therapy or, dare I even consider, enroll in a yoga class, and that was to bug my husband about it: “What’s wrooooong with me? Why am I sooooooooo cranky? Why don’t you tell me I’m pretty and feed me cookies anymore?” His reply was: a) “I do tell you you’re pretty and you know where we keep the cookies”, and b) “well, you’ve taken some pretty harsh blows lately.”

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He was right. I have had more than a lions share of un-constructive criticism tossed my way these last few months. I consider myself to be fairly good at rolling with the punches. I accepted a long time ago that not everyone is going to like me; no matter how badly I want to invite them over to my house and tell them they are pretty and feed them cookies and convince them to. And not everyone is going to like my photography. I can deal with those things—I really can.

Like many of you, I saw early on that photography strikes so many chords with people, it’s very easy to get an internet debate going between total strangers about whether a random image is good or not. Whether or not it’s strong, if it’s beautiful, and the one that people seem to get hung-up on the most – if it’s correct or not. I have never heard talk of someone using the wrong paint strokes on a canvas. I’ve never walked into a debate over a songwriter using the wrong chords on his original music. I’ve never watched the internet get excited about the exact one proper way to throw pottery. But photography…photography is different with its mathematical magic and scientific reasoning. Photography is the one art that seems to have that one perfect right way.

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We will never all agree on that one right way though. It wasn’t long ago I was reading about a photography trend of the “in-between-shots”, which it turns out, I had been doing for years, I just had been calling them “out of focus shots.” So if even focus is subjective, how can we possibly come together on all the other pieces of our craft? We can’t. What we can do however, is be better for our peers and ourselves by being open to other viewpoints, and being better critics and brave receivers. This comes by giving and receiving constructive feedback, emphasis on the constructive part.

Kind criticisms can be helpful—both offering them to other photographers and being willing to hear them ourselves. I know the internet is never going to be a place where I can post an image and expect nothing but rainbows and sugarcanes of encouragement and praise to come my way, but I have to believe it can be better than what I have personally seen lately.

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Here are three questions I ask myself each time I get feedback, whether requested or not:

1) Am I really wanting other people’s opinions of this image?

Am I really? Because the truth is that there are some images we don’t need feedback on. Either they are just very special to us, are personal, or our client loved them, and for whatever reason, we don’t feel the need to hear what a friend or stranger may have to say about them.

If you find yourself in this situation where unrequested feedback has fallen in your lap over a photo you don’t need or want feedback for, move on. It’s not your job to validate the comment or engage in debate if you didn’t request it. They said what they needed to say, and what a wonderful gift you gave them of allowing them the space to say it.

If however, you have found yourself receiving feedback you asked for and decided that you actually don’t want, be honest! There is nothing wrong with saying, “I guess I wasn’t as ready to hear feedback as I thought I was.” There is no shame in not being interested in criticism, or in thinking others would enjoy your work more.

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2) Is it helpful?

One of the most frustrating things about photography is that there are no redos. You can reshoot anything until kingdom come, but it won’t be the exact moment it was before. So, while nitpicking over a single image, all things considered, will not likely help that photograph, hearing feedback about things in general can possibly help you the next time. Can you take what they are saying and apply it? Can you rework the image in post-production to be stronger? Is there a lesson somewhere to be had in the feedback you are getting?

“You asked for it, you got it!” moments can sometimes be humbling. Remember—it’s not a reflection of you, your character, or your very soul. For as passionate as we can be about photography, for as much as we live and breathe it, criticism is just words on a page or in the air, about a piece of paper or part of a screen that somehow came from your camera. These words cannot eat you, or make you spontaneously combust, even though sometimes it can feel that way.

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3) Is it really about my image?

Some people just need to share their opinion. I get that—I have a tendency to be an over-sharer myself. In this time of social media, we over-sharers forget that not everyone cares what we had for breakfast. Not everyone is interested in knowing that when I’m stressed, I get whiny and want to be fed cookies.

Really look at the feedback you received. If it feels off, or truly doesn’t make sense or seem helpful in any way, consider that it’s not about you. The feedback you received is maybe related to a battle you know nothing about, that somehow got caught-up in the vortex of sequences and ended up under your image because it needed a place to land.

I’m not a big fan of people saying, “it’s not personal, it’s business.” This “business” has taken from my personal life every chance it got. Photography has made me friends and taken my sleep. It’s taught me about beauty and kept me away from my family. You bet it’s personal! But that’s exactly the thing—the image is personal. It gets to be as personal as you want. The feedback however? That’s just business.

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A photographic community only works if people participate. There was a time when I was desperate for feedback of my work—a time when I truly wanted to learn and needed people more experienced to be willing to share their knowledge and skills with me. What power we are giving people when we ask for this! If I could do anything, besides teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, I would create a kinder internet. An internet that remains the most helpful source in the world, something that brings us all together, but isn’t so darn mean. I believe with all my unicorn believing ways that this is possible, and that being kind is the first step to being a respected member of any community. Giving constructive criticism is almost as hard as receiving it.

Here are three questions I ask myself before I offer feedback to another photographer:

1) Is it helpful?

It does no good for me to simply tell someone “nice image”. While a pat on the back is always great, enough of them and you’ll just push the person right over. If someone has truly asked for thoughts or a response to their image, is what I am about to tell them helpful? Can they use it going forward? Could it be taken as condescending or hurtful, or am I showing the proper respect? Just because someone asked for my opinion (or the opinion of the internet at large), doesn’t mean I have to be rude about it. Remember that it does take a bit of courage to share your very personal work with the world and though unspoken, I think a photographic community works best when the rule is – to above all else be kind.

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2) Is it balanced?

Does my comment also offer encouragement along with any negative elements I’ve mentioned? Have I pointed out something that was done well, so it’s clear that I invested more than a brief second before I spoke my thoughts for the world to see? I can hear some of you now saying, “it’s not my job to tell them it’s good—they wanted honesty!” To you I say, honesty can still be kind. You don’t have to reassure anyone or lie about your feelings to be honest. One of my all-time favorite quotes:

“Be an encourager. The world has plenty of critics already.” – Dave Willis

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3) Am I okay with this being the only thing someone has ever heard me say?

When you comment on the internet, it is usually read by people you don’t even know. Possibly hundreds or thousands of them. The world does not know that I try my hardest to be a decent human being, but sometimes my mouth gets away from me. The world doesn’t know that my passion can sometimes come across as overbearing. The person requesting feedback doesn’t likely even know who I am. So if what I am about to offer is the only thing anyone could ever attach to my name, am I okay with that? Have I been fair? Have I been helpful? Have I been kind? I would rather be completely forgotten than permanently attached to a unnecessary comment that I wrote in haste or worse yet, an unhelpful comment that I wrote out of spite.

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Do you leave comments on images? Do you post your images and ask for feedback? What are your thoughts?

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Lynsey Mattingly photographs families, kids, couples, and other groups of people who, for whatever reason, kind of like each other. Her portrait work has been featured in People Magazine, Us Weekly, BBC Magazine, and on national TV including CNN, Oprah, and Ellen, but most importantly, in the personal galleries of clients across the country. Her photography can be viewed at www.lynseymattingly.com or on Facebook.

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  • Tracy_P

    This really resonates! I have not sought out an abundance of feedback on my photos for all the reasons mentioned here–but I really need the help of objective eyes. I am part of two online photography communities. In one, the members are mostly more skilled than I am, and the participants seek and offer feedback. The other I started with a handful of people who enjoyed my photography and seemed interested in learning themselves. We offer a theme per week, plus tutorials that are of interest to a broad range of photographers, and challenge people to get out there. This group has grown and had amazing momentum through people just inviting their friends. It’s been helpful to me to have both people who hold the bar high and people who look up to me–I am sharpened by both. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  • Ksharp

    Great, that leaves me cleared on point 1: most of the time I don’t care what others think about this or that image. If the client is happy, so am I. Photographers tend to be extreme in giving feedback. Most of the times just to to weed out the rivals. Let’s be honest.

  • David Thompson

    Thanks for this article. It provides me a bit of perspective to reflect on.

    I recently began attending the local photography club’s meetings and participating in the monthly “reviews” of shared images. There is a wide range of skills represented in our group and as part of our jury work, we are sometimes asked what we think of a particular image or asked to offer our critique.

    Although I do not consider myself an expert or master photographer, it’s something I started working on decades ago. I read a lot. I look at many images and ask myself what is it about the image that I like, that I don’t like, and what improvements might be made, particularly if I were to shoot the subject.

    In the context of offering my thoughts to others, your suggestion that we offer a balanced critique is very well said. I like to cast my thoughts as questions, “did you think of ‘this’ when you made the capture?” Or, “what were you trying to achieve from this perspective, or choice of angle, lens,” and so forth. I also try to offer positive feedback, including things I like about the image — my favorite for portraits is the catchlight in the eyes.

    However, for some images I just keep my mouth shut and keep my thoughts to myself. Sometimes I have no idea what to say. So, I say nothing.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts…

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  • Heidi Eberle

    I occasionally leave comments, but unless they specifically asked for feedback, I usually pick something specific I LIKE and comment on that. (EX: In the picture of the little girl with the yellow sweater, I love the expression of pure joy you captured, and how crisp the focus is on her face).

    In his article, I especially liked this part: “There was a time when I was desperate for feedback of my work—a time when I truly wanted to learn and needed people more experienced to be willing to share their knowledge and skills with me.” My question is, how do you go about getting the feedback you’re desperate to receive? Most of my friends and family are of the “Nice photo!” variety (when they type anything at all). I’ve submitted my photos to forums, but everyone seems to just submit their own photos and move on. Maybe they hit “like,” but there doesn’t seem to be much dialogue. Do you have any thoughts on soliciting true constructive feedback from other photographers?

  • blackripleydog

    More often than not, I will only provide feedback with a “like” if the image really grabs my attention. The act of taking the photograph alone does not need a comment.
    Technical issues that are quantified by a histogram can easily devolve into nit-picking. But the subject matter captured does matter.
    The Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination is a case in point. On the surface it is a jerky, grainy and marginally exposed effort but it records the moment of death of a President and subsequently it is one of the most evaluated and commented-on pieces of film in history.

    In today’s forum-driven photographic community, the need for feedback and positive strokes is almost pathological. And the need to make the comments; positive or negative, is equally as strong.
    Everyone has an opinion about everything and more often than not, negative comments tend to revolve around issues not related to the art itself but some perceived defect in technique or a political statement.
    Witness the recent dust-up about the baby cradled in the American flag by a parent who was in uniform. Criticism centered on flag etiquette and not the image itself which I thought was quite good and proper.
    Photography posters tend to fall into two categories: technocrats and artists.
    As it was in the age of Hi-Fi electronics and later computers, photography is no different with the most vociferous commentators tend to be the technocrats with the best gear and inflated attitudes but meager portfolios.

    For me, a softly diffused image is something I personally do not strive for but if another artist can make a statement with one, more power to them.
    It takes all types to make the effort worthwhile. And that is what should be encouraged.

  • Susan Kohkonen

    I agree with what you are saying. I sometimes comment on forums because I’m stuck somewhere which confines me to the computer and I can’t be home on PS or out shooting. I must say when I was new at photography I learned a lot from photography forums and would apply the feedback I got to my photography which has allowed me to become a better photographer. I have been on some forums where people are down right vicious and I don’t return. I don’t expect everything sugarcoated and nici-nice, but a constructive criticism is something we all can learn from, I believe. When I leave a comment that I think would help someone I always start out with a positive, then give my thoughts as how I might approach it differently or an idea on how to improve, then again a positive. There are so many different types and styles in photography, I don’t believe there is any one “right” way to do it, it’s an art and it’s subjective.

  • Michael

    As a paternal grandfather I take a lot of pictures to send to my granddaughters maternal grandmother who lives in another state. Most of them are not great in my opinion but I send them because I don’t want her to miss any of the expressions as she grows up. So what’s my point? A picture will look great to someone for whom it serves a purpose.

    When I am asked to comment on a picture I have to think what do they want to know. Do they want a technical analysis of focus, color balance, etc. or how it captures a moment or some other aspect.

    When someone displays a picture or directly shows it to you there is an implied request for comment, but what comment is requested takes sensitivity and sometimes you may get it wrong.

  • Aeros

    I enjoyed this article and agree wholeheartedly with the principle of kindness.

  • Aeros

    Most articulate, well said.

  • blackripleydog

    Thanks very much. (accidentally hit the up vote. didn’t mean to self-aggrandize myself.)

  • Peter

    Nice article, well balanced. You start by getting the reader’s attention – giving the subject a personal twist. Then you give your own take on a few issues that others have written about, holding the reader’s attention until a very strong finish.

  • Aeros

    I strongly believe that all image making is yet another form of story telling, in Inuit culture they tell stories through songs that are only performed by the original writer, no one would dare sing a song created by another artist. It maybe considered copyright infringement (hyperbole intended). This cultural rule is not to reduce competition but rather to respect the originators work.
    I feel there is no place for competition in art and is why I stopped entering competitions as I find them flawed with subjectivity and unreasonable bias. Who is to say one artist is better or lessor than another, it’s simply an opinion and there is an overabundance of that on the internet with too much of it being very unkind. I don’t write this because I have never won a juried show, I have in fact, I just lost interest as I find it as pointless as asking for critique on the internet but with one exception, I post to a photography forum that has a very high standard for ethics and the members produce a very high standard of work in my opinion for whatever that is worth.

  • Aeros
  • ColininOz

    I know that the intention of this excellent article was to discuss ‘amateur’ criticism – but the ‘qualified judges’ of photographic competitions can be very good or very bad too. The good ones will give useful suggestions as to how you might have captured your image a little better. Some only award ‘honours’ or ‘merits’ or ‘acceptances and ,unless that is all you are interested in, they are no help. And some are downright annoying. The judge who comments on your stance when taking the shot and says ” it would have been better shot from a few metres to the left ” does not realize that that would have you over a cliff or on a freeway. The judge who is obsessed with horizons being dead straight – but was not there to see that the land was in fact sloping, as in #3 above, or that perspective of a receding horizontal ‘horizon’ – in fact a river bank – caused the apparent slope.
    Or that – as with the author of the article – the tilt was entirely intentional to add to the image. As in images 7, and 8 above . Then there is the judge obsessed with the ‘set subject’ and does your image strictly adhere to his interpretation of it ?
    But being a judge must have it’s irritations too. And some judges are excellent, constructive, and kind and will talk informatively and instructively about each image at ‘live’ sessions of judging. My hat off to them.

  • pingpal

    When providing constructive criticism, it can be helpful to start with the words “Have you considered…” The suggestion becomes the object of the discussion.

  • JP

    Thank you for your insightful words. I often have to critique students work. And your comments hit right on the crux of the matter, that of remaining positive while balancing with the negative so that there is growth without resentment. It is difficult to do, a lot like walking a tightrope. You have put that tightrope into a better balance.

  • Geoff

    Criticism shouldn’t be destructive. If you’ve got nothing encouraging, or at least useful, to add to the debate then don’t take part.
    Having said that, Linsey, I think the comments should also be relevant to the material being analysed. If someone’s discussing a street image, then it’s unrealistic to suggest that the photographer should have been standing a meter to the left. Action happens in a split second: you capture it or not (jerky, grainy… see comment by blackripleydog). Likewise, a landscape doesn’t move (not quickly anyway) and incorrect – or should I say unfortunate? – positioning can be fairly put down to the choice of the photographer. S/he had an hour to get prepared and should have stood a meter to the left.

  • Adedotun Ajibade

    Educative stuff. Great writing!

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    There are some valuable messages here. When I give feedback on this site, I try to point out ideas that might help the photographer, and also be relevant to everyone else. But those who post here also need to note that simply uploading a photo with no attempt to describe the why and wherefore are not exactly helping the cause. DPS is a school – we are here to learn. We must expect that by posting here, we are actually inviting comment. It may be worth putting a note above the feedback section to that effect.
    We all have our own viewpoints, likes and dislikes. My pet dislike is the inclusion of discordant items in post-processing – like a moon illuminated from the right, when the rest of the image is illuminated by sunlight from the left; but then, I’m a stargazer too. There is a difference between an photograph as a depiction of a view, and it becoming an object of art. Some like doing that, others don’t, but that doesn’t make it ‘wrong’. I just don’t happen to like it.
    I am a long-toothed amateur, and in my younger days was a member of a camera club. Judges would invariably comment on technical details such as exposure and focus, but the best judges first commented on the image as a visual experience – with the technicalities as an adjunct. I found that my photography was veering towards pleasing the judges, rather than myself.
    With regard to the comments about street photography – I believe that it is valid to point out compositional items with a suppositional ‘step 1 metre to the left’ if it would result in a stronger image; we are looking at it as the posted image, not as an exercise in how hard would this be. There could well be valid reasons why that step would be impossible, but they do not make the image any stronger. We humorously thought up a fake camera bag, loaded with items such as hedge clippers and a step ladder!
    Above all, the feedback needs to be positive rather than destructive. I assist with running a photography school for the New Zealand Scout Association. The tutors show each Scout’s photos in the evenings, and comment on them. Often I rate one photo better than others do, and someone will say “But it’s not quite sharp!” I counter that be saying, “Yes, but it is a better picture.”

  • Helios 2

    I like what you say respect to you, I personally look for the story behind the shot what is it saying, not to bothered how it is being said, after all don’t they say a picture paints a thousand words?

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