Preface: I’d like to start by saying that I feel the word ‘criticism’ is interpreted by some as inherently negative, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Throughout this write-up, and in part 2, I’ve used the words ‘critique’, ‘criticism’, and ‘feedback’ interchangeably, because I consider them to be more or less the same in this particular context.
Photography, like every art form, is subjective. As such, anything we create is open to criticism, whether we like it or not. When criticism is given with the best of intentions, it can lead to growth. While we can’t control the criticism we receive, we can control how we respond to it. In this write up, I’ll be sharing the things I’ve learned over the years that have helped use the valid criticism I’ve received to improve as a photographer, and how I handle less than helpful negative feedback.
1) Take it with an open mind:
When seeking criticism, it’s important to remember that you’ll likely be receiving two different kinds. The first is objective criticism. By this, I mean the viewer will point out objective improvements that could be made to the image. These sorts of things could include the subject being out of focus, unintentional blur due to a slow shutter speed, or blown highlights. The other is subjective. This type of criticism is opinion based and thus requires us to understand where the comment is coming from. When reading a critique of your photography, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. How much experience does the person have in this type of photography? Is it just a difference in stylistic preferences? Is it possible that this type of photo just isn’t their cup of tea? These are the questions I usually ask myself before chiming in with my own critique, so I try to do the same when taking criticism of my own work into consideration. This isn’t to say these are the only questions you should ask, nor are they disqualifying factors, but they do change how much weight I put on the criticism.
2) Start a discussion:
The way I see it, the entire point of art is to give rise to conversation. Whether it’s my photography or my write-ups, I welcome all forms of feedback, both praise and criticism alike. When I receive what appears to be a critique made in good faith, I always try my best to engage in a discussion. This can be done for a few purposes: to find out more information, to explain your artistic choices, or to have a conversation. Whether it’s to clear up some information or to have a chat, there’s nothing wrong with clicking the ‘reply’ button, so long as you do so with the best of intentions.
3) Reflect and Apply:
Whenever I receive helpful criticism given in good faith, I always try my best to reflect on what was said and how I can use it in the future. One of the best ways to grow as a photographer is to try new things. When you’re learning the art of photography, it’s good to take the feedback you’ve received with you when you’re out taking photographs. This isn’t to say you should let it dominate your workflow, but if someone pointed out that a particular location may work better as a vertical image rather than a horizontal one, try taking one of each next time, and find out if they saw something you didn’t. Best case scenario, you start to see locations in a different way, worst case scenario, you have to delete one extra file. While this was a rather specific example, it can be applied to any advice you receive.
4) Notice patterns:
Criticism doesn’t happen in a vacuum. As we continue sharing our work online and actively seeking feedback, we may start to notice patterns emerging. This will happen if you take the time to reflect on the feedback you’ve been getting over longer periods of time. Perhaps multiple people point out that your images could benefit from a different focal length. Maybe you get a lot of feedback regarding your editing choices or distractions around the edges of your frame. It’s important to take all of these things into consideration as they apply to your body of work, rather than a single image. Again, this isn’t to say you need to change your photography to please others or create work you think others will like, but if a bunch of people at your restaurant mention that the food is overcooked, it might be worth considering the possibility that you need to adjust your cooking method.
1) Ignore critical feedback:
Apologies in advance for the bluntness of this next part, I’ve written and rewritten it multiple times, but I just can’t find a nice way to phrase it. When I see someone say something to the effect of ‘I don’t care what people think about my photography’, it usually shows in the quality of their work… Not that they care what I think. While I understand the sentiment behind these kinds of comments, ignoring constructive feedback is undoubtedly the best way to ensure you hinder your improvement as a photographer. For those who truly do shoot for themselves, this is fine, but for those who are looking to grow as a photographer, take on clients, run workshops, or sell prints, taking valid criticism into consideration is an absolute must. Trust me, I also used to be ‘Mr. Nobody-Understands-My-Genius’ while shooting in auto-mode — for EIGHT YEARS. When I look back at the pictures I took over those eight years, I do so with a feeling of regret. I was so caught up on how amazing I thought my work was, that I missed out on photographing some of the most incredible places I’ve ever visited with a more critical eye. I wasn’t equipped with the knowledge I’ve since gained from listening to others. Due to my blissful ignorance, I was incapable of taking a photograph that stood the test of time. Not a single image from those eight years is in my portfolio, not a single one is available for purchase, and not a single one has been printed. They all sit on an external hard-drive somewhere, collecting digital dust. That is the fate of every single photo I took while not caring what other people think. I don’t know about you, but my photographs deserve better. It’s OK to shoot for yourself, but it never hurts to get feedback if you’re looking to improve. There’s a difference between shooting to impress others and seeking self-improvement. Taking valid criticism into consideration, is the latter.
2) Take it personally:
I’d like to think that, these days, I can handle just about any critique that’s thrown my way, solicited or otherwise. However, that wasn’t always the case. When I look back at some of the interactions I had during the early days of receiving criticism, I feel embarrassed. My skin was so thin, I’m honestly surprised it didn’t blow off my body from the slightest gust of wind. In those days, there was no such thing as a critique of my photo, only an attack on me, the most brilliant photographer who had ever lived. While it can sometimes feel this way, it’s important to remember that someone giving a good faith critique of your work is trying to help you improve your photography, not make you give up. If someone points out a flaw with the image, such as it being out of focus, take it as something you should pay more attention to on your next shoot. If someone expresses an opinion you don’t agree with, just remember that it’s a reflection of how they feel about that particular image, not necessarily about you as a person. For any artist, it can be hard to separate themselves from their work, but it’s an ability one must to learn to take criticism as advice, rather than an attack.
3) Attack the critic:
Building off the previous point, back before my skin had hardened, I didn’t respond well to criticism of my work. I was quick to snap back at the person giving a critique, by either denigrating their work or telling them that they just didn’t understand my genius. I’ve since come to accept that there wasn’t much to understand about my work at the time, it was just bad. Now that I’m more aware of this, it’s something that stands out when I’m on the receiving end of an attack. A while back I gave feedback regarding some distractions within the frame of an image someone was seeking criticism on. Upon reading this critique, the photographer responded with something to the effect of ‘you’re looking at the wrong part of the image’, which completely dismissed the feedback about the image, and instead insisted I was just looking at the image incorrectly. This dismissive tone continued as I tried to explain my perspective, until it reached a point where I accepted that this person was unwilling to be helped. I went through their previous posts, and it was more of the same. Every comment was them telling the viewers that their critiques simply showed their lack of ability to comprehend the genius of their work. This particular person was doing something many self-conscious artists do: posting work under the guise of asking for criticism, while actually seeking affirmation and admiration. Don’t be like this. If you hear opinions you disagree with, it’s OK to ask questions about their criticism, explain your decisions, or respectfully agree to disagree, but that doesn’t mean telling the viewer that they are wrong, and it should never lead to personal insults. When it comes to handling criticism poorly it’s often a combination of ignoring criticism and attacking the critic, and it usually ends with the photographer looking the same way: Like a fool wrapped in the delusion of being a misunderstood genius.
4) Let it dictate your work:
Now, I know that at least a few people are itching to hop into the comments and tell me that it sure sounds like I care too much about what other people think and how I should shoot for myself. Before you do, allow me to explain that it’s not so black and white. How you respond to criticism isn’t limited to simply ignoring it altogether or taking it as gospel — it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Criticism, and how you respond to it, is more of a spectrum. When you’re looking for criticism, it’s important to take what has been said with an open mind, then apply what you feel best suits you and your work at the time. You can pick and choose what does and doesn’t help you improve as a photographer. It can feel like a bit of a balancing act between letting it consume your work or brushing it off, but once you find that balance it can help you grow much more quickly.
5) Feed the trolls:
It’s an unfortunate reality that some people out there are just seeking to get a rise out of you. As you grow more accustomed to feedback, get more attention, and make yourself more visible, you’re bound to notice a few people who just want to see if they can push your buttons. Whether they’re bored or looking to take out their personal inadequacies on someone else, it’s important for your mental health to not let the trolls get to you. I’ve found that my ability to deal with or ignore trolls has improved as my self-confidence has gone up. It’s important to learn how to identify which comments are disingenuous or blatantly trying to provoke a negative response from you, so you can deprive them of it. I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve bitten that worm more than a few times, only to end up mounted on someone’s trophy wall (metaphorically, obviously), but it’s something I no longer allow myself to do. Some indicators can include an almost desperate level of bluntness (ex: This looks like a 7 year old’s first Photoshop attempt), a lack of detailed feedback (ex: this is the worst photo I’ve ever seen), or exaggeration (ex: This looks like it was taken with a potato)… only imagine those examples with more typos and worse punctuation. Understanding how to identify the comments seeking to lift you up and the ones trying to knock you down is pivotal to seeing criticism of your work as a tool to help you improve, rather than a weapon to beat you down. Besides, once you know which comments are from trolls, you can have the last laugh by ensuring their attempts fall flat.
I don’t really know if I have to go that in-depth on this one, because I feel like it’s pretty straight-forward, on a general level. When presenting your work or responding to criticism, lying about information related to your work is one of the worst things you can do. After all, people can’t give you appropriate advice, if you’re giving false information. If you used cloning tools, applied a sky-swap, added additional elements, or changed the hue/color of something, that’s fine, despite what the purists say. Just be honest about it. When seeking criticism, we can often feel exposed or vulnerable, but those feelings will subside as you continue to grow. If you misrepresent your work, people won’t be able to give an honest and effective critique, which renders it meaningless. Furthermore, if you become known as a liar, it can tarnish your reputation, which can have a negative impact on how people see your work and hinder your ability to build meaningful relationships within the community.
While this is by no means a holy text by which you should live, they’re things I’ve noticed over the years as I’ve grown more accustomed to handling criticism. The easiest thing to do is to ignore criticism, but as is often the case, the easiest path doesn’t always lead to the most rewarding destination. If you’re happy with the path you’re on, by all means, carry on, but if you’re looking to grow, I hope these points will help you on the journey ahead.
For the sake of length, I’ve decided to split this write-up into two parts. Part two will be about giving criticism, and it will be posted in a few days… barring any unforeseen revisions. I’ve decided to lead with how to handle criticism, because I found that I personally felt more comfortable giving criticism after I’d grown enough as a photographer by receiving the advice of others.
As always, if you have any points you’d like to add, read something you disagree with, or just want to tell me that my father smelled of elderberries, let me know!
About the Author
Jordan McChesney is a Canada-born photographer living in Japan. He focuses mainly on landscape and cityscape photography, but you’ll also find architecture photos in his portfolio. You can find Jordan’s work on his website, Instagram, and Facebook. This article was also published here and shared with permission.